Why Should Christians Care about Church History?
Written by Michael A.G. Haykin |
Tuesday, February 7, 2023
We study the history of God’s people to see what God has been doing in the world, and so praise him for his mighty acts in the past, and trust that he will display his power and glory afresh in our day.
How We View History
In Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, one of the characters, Catherine Morland, states that history “tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”1In many respects, this statement is a good reflection of the contemporary Western attitude towards history. Generally speaking, men and women in the West rarely think of going to history for wisdom or direction or encouragement. History, at best, contains interesting and entertaining bits of trivia. But wisdom? No, that’s found by looking to the present and to the future. Yet, a popular Russian proverb warns: “He who dwells on the past loses an eye; but he who forgets the past loses both eyes.”2
It should also be borne in mind that the area of the West in which we are living, namely, North America, is even more allergic to the study of history than places like Europe, because there is less stimulus in the surroundings of North American culture and society to arouse historical curiosity. Of course, there are places like the old quarter of Quebec City that are rich in history, but certainly they are not as many as in other parts of the world.
Tragically, this attitude towards history is also characteristic of far too many Christians. Like their culture, they are in the grip of a euphoria that places ultimate value on that which is new and innovative. This mentalité inevitably involves a dislike of the past. Whatever value the inheritance from the past may have had for its own day, much current church wisdom would have us believe that that value is now so diminished that it can easily be discounted in any reckoning about how to do church. Not only is this mentalité folly—we have no idea of where we are going if we do not know where we have come from—but it is at heart a clear manifestation of worldliness! As what follows will show, however, it is vital for Christians to care about church history.
History Has Meaning
Men and women are historical beings immersed in the flow of time. One cannot escape the effects of history. Even to think ahistorically for any length of time is a considerable task.
Not only is it important for the individual to realize his or her historical nature, but it is also essential for the community, especially the Christian community. For the Christian community, history is the stage on which the drama of redemption is being displayed—at the beginning is the Fall, at the end is the Last Judgment. In between, the most crucial event of all, the entry of the eternal God into time as a man, Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. From the perspective of the New Testament, the incarnation is the culmination of the history of salvation sketched in the Old Testament.3 The incarnation proves beyond a shadow of a doubt God’s interest in history, for it initiated a history of salvation that embraces not only Israel, but the entire world.4
From the Christian perspective, God is undoubtedly active in history. And it is right and proper to study history for that reason alone. Though it is impossible to trace in detail his footsteps across the sands of time after the eras covered by the Scriptures, it is blasphemous to deny that he is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess heartily that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his name and the good of his people.
Learning from the Past
But there are other good reasons for studying what we call church history, the history of God’s new covenant people. It has been said, “A wise man learns from his mistakes; a wiser man learns from the mistakes of others; a fool learns from neither of them.” Here, then, is one of the more obvious reasons for studying church history: to learn from the mistakes of the past. Again, to cite the words of a famous proverb: “He who does not remember the past is doomed to repeat it.” Thus, for example, we can study the configurations of fourth-century Arianism that denied the full deity of the Lord Jesus to help us win those who have bought into the heretical views of Christ maintained by modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses.