“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”—Michael Crichton.
Studying the history of any field or subject is important. For Christians, there is perhaps no historical study more important than the study of our Christian heritage and history. For several reasons, studying church history is important, and I would argue necessary to truly appreciating and understanding the Christian faith. What then, are the reasons for studying church history?
1. Christianity is a historical religion. As I said above, knowing the history of any field is important – especially the history of Christianity. It can be confidently said that Christianity has made many positive contributions to the world we now live in. More in fact, than any other movement, religion, or individual in the history of the world. Further, the waves made by the towering individuals of church history have rippled into our own theologies and practices, and they deserve a hearing. That’s where church history comes in. In this field of study, we can sit with individuals such as Irenaeus who combated early heresies, Tertullian who contributed to the doctrine of the Trinity, and Basil of Casearea who strengthened peoples understanding of the Spirit. We can be discipled by the greatest theologians who ever lived like St. Patrick, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others. Christianity didn’t begin yesterday. It has a history, like everything else, and it deserves to be studied, or what it is today will not be appreciated to the full extent that it could be.
2. To correct mistaken views about what has happened in history. This is, perhaps, one of the most vital reasons for studying church history. There are many concepts in theology and many practices in churches of different denominations that have not always existed. Many seem to have the understanding that our denominations, beliefs and practices have always been what they are today. However, Baptist churches have not always existed. Neither have Pentecostals been around for centuries, along with Methodists, Presbyterians, and other mainline denominations. Also, Roman Catholicism was not the first form of Christianity; it has not always been what it is today. It was, by no means, the dominant form of Christianity since the time of the apostles. These are only a few examples, and if church history is actually studied, these mistaken views can be corrected.
3. Spiritual Nourishment. This is a very practical reason for studying church history. God spoke throughout church history, just as He does today. God has never been silent. God revealed many things to individuals of church history, and it would be foolish to think that we are more intelligent than they were. For the most part, they read the same Bible that we have today. Charles Spurgeon remarks about the ignorance of not studying what God has revealed to them: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.“¹ The theologians of church history will serve spiritual nourishment to us today through their defenses of Christian doctrine against the earliest heresies, their rich interpretation of Scripture, and their brilliant philosophies.
Church history deserves our careful consideration and study. There are several other important reasons for studying church history, but these three cast the net widely, and I think rightfully so. Would you agree? What would you add to the list? What would you change or take away?