Before I dive into the subject of why theological study is crucial for the Christian, I would really like to address something important. When you read the title of this post, you may have had certain doubts. You might have had one of these reactions: Theology? I don’t want to lose the simplicity of faith! Won’t I substitute thought for action? I mean, theology has caused divisions – theology uses big words, and it just complicates communication. Isn’t theology all based on speculation, and doesn’t theology major on minor truths?
If you had a reaction similar to this, you’re not alone. You see, a large number of people in the church, unfortunately try to avoid theology and all that goes along with it like avoiding some plague. Most people have strong doubts about theology – but let me encourage you by saying that theology is not a bad thing. In fact, if theology is done with the right motive, it is a most glorious thing. With that said, let’s dive in deeper into why we should study theology and why it is definitely a good thing.
First of all, what is theology? Theology, in its literal translation is the study of God. The meaning of the word comes from two separate words: Theo (meaning God) and ology (meaning study). Essentially, theology is the study of God. Henry Clarence Thiessen gives us an even better way to understand the definition of theology, saying that “we may define theology as the science of God and His relations to the universe.”¹ Why is this? Why is theology the science of God and how He relates to the universe? Because in Christian theology, you have to include many different doctrines. Throughout years of study, we now include every Christian doctrine to this idea of theology. Doctrines such as:
- the doctrine of revelation (the study of how God reveals Himself to us, etc.)
- the doctrine of God (this includes His nature, His attributes, His decrees, His works, etc.)
- the doctrine of humanity (this includes our nature, and our relationship to both sin and a holy God)
- the doctrine of Christ (includes both the person and the work of Christ)
- the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (includes both the person and the work of the Holy Spirit)
- the doctrine of salvation (how it is that we are saved, what does that entail, etc.)
- the doctrine of the church (how is the church to be led, what is the purpose of the church, etc.)
- the doctrine of last things (consummation and what will happen when we die)
This was far from a complete list, but it definitely gives a good overview of what we consider to be theology today. It’s not just one idea, or a few scattered ideas – it is a science – the science of God. Theology is important because it deals with every day Christian life, as you can see clearly from the list above.
Why should we study theology? There are four main reasons why it should be important for Christians to study theology. So why should we sit down and enjoy studying theology?
1. Study Theology Because the Bible Teaches That Theology is Important
The first reason is because the Bible teaches us that theology is important. Look at Hosea 4:1-6:
“Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and everyone who lives in it languishes along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky, and also the fish of the sea disappear. Yet let no one find fault, and let none offer reproof; for you people are like those who contend with the priest. So you will stumble by day, and the prophet also will stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest, since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (NASB).
In the beginning verse, God tells the people of Israel that there is a case against them – because on top of many other things, there was no knowledge of God in the land. And this is an essential part of theology. We as theological students try to learn more and more about our God. We need the right knowledge of God as Christians. This passage from Hosea calls us to pursue that knowledge, and it does so through one of its many warnings found in verse 6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge, because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest, since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” If God is unchangeable (which is one of His many attributes), then He can do the same thing to us. We can be spiritually destroyed and reap the consequences without knowledge of God. We as Christians, as God’s people, need to have knowledge about God. Also, similar instruction is found in Malachi 2:7, “for the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” In the local church, your pastor(s), deacons, elders, Sunday school teachers, or any other persons in leadership roles should help you in your personal study of the knowledge of God. This study is what we call theology. So first we see that the Bible teaches that study of theology is important.
2. Study Theology Because Jesus Demonstrated That Theology is Important
Secondly, we should study theology because Jesus demonstrated that theology is important. Let us look at Matthew 16:13-16:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (NASB)
What is pictured in this passage is that they are walking in a line and Jesus goes to each disciple individually and asks these questions. When it says that Jesus was asking the disciples, it has the action of beginning to ask and kept asking. Finally, after he got through all of the disciples, he got to Peter. And Peter said that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. The point: Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about Him. By doing this, He was demonstrating that theology is important to Him. If we cannot answer this fundamental question right, then we cannot dive further into theology, for if we have an answer any different than Peter’s, anything else we say is as flawed as the “wisdom” of this world.
3. Study Theology Because it is Important for Discipleship
Thirdly, to be a disciple we need to study theology. Remember, if we cannot answer who Jesus is correctly, we cannot begin to go anywhere else in Scripture. To be a true disciple of Christ, we have to know what Christ says, does, and thinks. The only way we can figure this out is by reading our Bibles and by studying theology. We need theology to help us in our walk with God. We need theology to be better ambassadors for Him. The Christian life may start out with a “blind” and simple faith, but God does not want us to stay there. God wants you and I to grow in our faith. God wants us to learn more about Him, and as we do we will be growing disciples.
4. Study Theology Because the Early Church Demonstrated That Theology is Important
Last, the early church demonstrated that theology is important. The early church had to rely on sound theology to safeguard against the all-too-frequent heresies that came about. Many of the major heresies really started after the apostle John died. Soon after his death was when Gnosticism was on its rise. This heresy affected people’s understanding of the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of humanity. If you ever decide to research Gnosticism, you will see that its impact was so sever that we are still trying to recover from this heresy. On a similar note, you even have to be careful when studying the heresies! Make sure you have a very solid foundation on the Bible before you work through those. There were many other heresies that came about that compelled the early Church to rely completely on sound theology. And that demonstrates the need for studying it.
Conclusion: Study Theology for the Glory of God
As I said in the introduction, if you study theology with the right motive, then it is a most glorious thing. Since we know why we should study theology, then we need to find out what the right motive is for studying theology. So what is this right motive? The answer to that is really the answer to why we do anything. We as Christians do everything to bring praise, honor, and glory to our sovereign King. That is always the end goal in everything that we do. Our motive for studying theology is no different. We study theology for God’s glory. If our motive is anything other than to learn more about our Creator, and to grow in our relationship with Him, then we are wrong and need to desperately repent. There are many who study theology so that they can answer all the questions, and be the smartest person in the room – quite plainly, that is wrong. They need to repent because it is clear that God is displeased with that. Truthfully, they would be better off not studying theology in the first place. So before starting to study theology, ask yourself why you are doing this. If the answer is not so that you can grow in order to glorify God, then wait until you can answer that way.
Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 1-2.
Michael Chadwick is the pastor of Jensen Baptist Church in Pineville, Kentucky. He and his wife Kari live in Pineville, where they both study at the acclaimed Clear Creek Baptist Bible College.
This is what we refer to as a “non-dogmatic” issue. Dogmatic, on the other hand, refers to something that is incontrovertibly true – something that cannot be negotiated, but must be accepted. So when we say that a teaching of the Bible is dogmatic, then it must be accepted and taught, no negotiations or beating around the bush, as they say. A few examples of something biblically dogmatic would be: the gospel, the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, and things like this that would radically change the message and validity of Christianity if they were altered even in the least.
But there are also plenty of non-dogmatic issues today. Some of these are: proper church attire, contemporary vs. traditional music in the church, eldership/deaconship, and others like these. Issues that fall into this category can alter and change depending on your local congregation – and they are no more or less biblical than the church that handles those issues differently. For example, it is just fine if a church allows blue jeans and t-shirts in the worship service. There is no biblical command that says you must wear a suit and tie to worship. But there may be a more traditional church that says you should wear your “Sunday best.” That is also fine. Falling under this category of non-dogmatic is how frequently and individual or church should partake of the Lord’s Supper (or Communion).
The Bible doesn’t specify how often you should partake of the Lord’s Supper, it only specifies that you should partake of it, in a proper manner, and that you understand and apply its meaning. It doesn’t matter if you partake of it once a year, once a month, or once a week. What matters most is that you do it in remembrance of Jesus, understand its significance, and partake of it in the correct manner.
The instructions we have about the Lord’s Supper are found in 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul states: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (vv. 23-26, emphasis mine).
Paul quotes Jesus in this passage, and as far as how often we should partake of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus only requires “as often as you drink it.” That is the only time frame we have. This assumes that we are partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and it implies that it should be done time and time again. The tone used in this part of the passage doesn’t indicate that it should only be done once, but it the tone in this passage also doesn’t indicate that it should be done constantly. Only “as often” as you do it.
The important thing to remember is that the Lord’s Supper is a sacred time to remember the Lord Jesus and the significance of His substitutionary death on the cross, and that we have received it. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Lord’s Supper, referred by them as the Eucharist, actually becomes the body and blood of Christ. That might be a good example of when a non-dogmatic issue becomes a dogmatic issue. When something that is considered non-dogmatic is altered to the point where it conflicts with other Bible teachings, then it needs to be reexamined and reinterpreted in light of the other teachings of Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture does the Bible teach or even imply that the Lord’s Supper transfuses into the actual blood and body of Christ that we must receive for salvation. When something non-dogmatic conflicts with what is dogmatic, it is no longer a non-dogmatic issue.
The Lord’s Supper is a beautiful symbol, and a time of remembrance and thanksgiving. We eat the bread symbolizing that we have partaken of Jesus Himself, the Bread of Life (John 6:35), and we drink the juice (or wine) symbolizing that we have received His blood as atonement for our sins. Nothing in Scripture about the frequency of doing so, only “as often” as we do it.
The following message was delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church, on the 25th day of January 2015:
There is perhaps nothing more important to the human body than its health. This is due mainly to the fact that good health is necessary to the human body. In fact, this is especially true in our own age. We find that there are more organic and wholesome foods sold today than ever before. Cigarette smoking is at its lowest percentage now among high school students.¹ Fast food restaurants are being questioned about their practices, the way they prepare their food, and what they put into it. This focus on health is evident even in my own life. I went on a search the other day to a few general stores because I was looking for coffee creamer. Sounds strange right? Not quite, if you’re a coffee drinker like myself. The reason I went on this search is because I was looking for coffee creamer that was actually made with real sugar. I never noticed this before, but more and more stores are carrying products that are sugar-free. Every store I went to, the label read, “Sugar-Free” on all the creamers. I was seriously making sure I hadn’t missed the Rapture, because it sure seemed like the start of the Great Tribulation.
So we have this emphasis on health today more than ever before, and there are certain principles we put into practice in order to maintain our own health (at least we’re supposed to). We eat right, we exercise, and I might add—we avoid sickness. Nobody enjoys being sick and unhealthy, expect maybe the guy whose job is to drain out Porta-Potties in the Summer and calls into work sick. Praise the Lord for his days off, right?
But in the area where health should be regarded as infinitely important is where it is nearly totally neglected, in fact I would say, nearly entirely lost—and that is in the church. The church, more than a human body, needs health to have a beating heart. It needs to have health in order for its hands and feet to actually be the hands and feet of Jesus. Simply put, there are certain things that must be done in order to maintain the health and life of the local church.
That’s what Paul’s letter to Titus is all about. It’s all about what we should do in order to have a healthy church, what we should do in order to have healthy, biblical families, and what we should do to have a bold witness before a watching world. All of that is influenced by a healthy church. Those are the three themes in this letter: the church, the family, and our witness before the world. In this epistle, Paul talks about:
1.) Doctrine and duty in the local church (1:5-16)
2.) Doctrine and duty in the Christian home (2:1-15)
3.) Doctrine and duty in the world (3:1-11)
This epistle to Titus is really a bargain book—you get more for less. It is theologically jam-packed, and it goes to show the magnificence of God in inspiring Scripture because He can say so much in just a few words. Paul begins this letter by talking about how we can maintain the health of our ministry here: ministry to one another, and ministry to our community and the world. We will see how Paul put certain principles into practice in order to maintain effectiveness in his own ministry. He begins this letter by talking about his own character, the purpose for his ministry, his message, his proclamation, and then his power.
The Text: Titus 1:1-4, ESV
“Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;
4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith:
Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.”
I. Principles for Ministry
Notice first how formal and drawn-out Paul’s introduction is here. It is the longest of Paul’s introductions in the pastoral letters, and the second longest in all of his letters (Romans being the longest). This passage itself is one long, elegant sentence in the original Greek—in fact, it is just one sentence in the English translation, too. The question we should be asking is this: Why such a long introduction for a letter to a friend in ministry? Was it because Paul had a distant relationship with Titus and had to remind him of who he was as an apostle? Not likely.
Paul had a unique relationship with Titus. Paul traveled with him to do missionary work: “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me” (Gal. 2:1). Also, Titus worked with Paul to relieve the problems of the church at Corinth. He is mentioned nine times in 2 Corinthians (2:13; 7:6, 13, 14; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18, 18). Paul calls him in those places his “brother,” and “partner and fellow worker.”
Paul didn’t write out such a formal introduction because his relationship with Titus was distant. But did he perhaps, write such a long introduction to introduce themes he would talk about in the letter? Not necessarily. Now, the themes of the introduction, like salvation, and knowledge leading to godliness are clearly picked up in later sections of this letter (2:11-14; 3:3-7); and Paul does this often times, mentioning a few things in the introduction(s) that he will talk about later (Paul’s introduction in Romans and Galatians are excellent examples).
It seems that Paul has written such a lengthy introduction here to give unchanging, objective, external principles to guide his own ministry. Paul used these principles in his own ministry, and he was expecting Titus to do the same. Because Titus had an important task: to strengthen the churches in a pagan region of the world. He needed biblical principles for his own ministry that would stand the test of time. Paul was aging and he would soon die, and these principles he lays down for Titus’ ministry could be, and should be used even after Titus passes on. Why? Because these are eternal principles—unchanging, and biblical. These churches still needed a lot of work ( v. 5), they had to work through the bugs—these churches weren’t established Southern Baptist churches with orders of service and Lottie Moon mission offerings. In fact, they were likely the opposite—in need of sound doctrine, elders who would lead biblically, and the proper perspective for Christian families, and a proper perspective of the world. And it begins with the principles he would use for the ministry of the local church. Ministry can’t be done effectively, biblically or even purposefully without scriptural principles guiding, leading, and directing Paul, Titus, and us today on our journey of faith. As we see them, we need to ask ourselves if we have these individual principles in our own lives, and in the life of our local church.
II. Our Character (1:1a)
Paul begins with his own name—characteristic of all of his letters. That is one main reason why Paul is rejected as the author of Hebrews, because his name is absent. In all of Paul’s letters, his name is present at the beginning—it is the first word penned before anything else. When we write letters today, we usually sign our names at the bottom of the page, but in Paul’s day it was the exact opposite. You began letters by identifying who you were. Sometimes the letters were still signed for authenticity reasons (2 Thess. 3:17). And we see that Paul begins this letter by identifying himself in two significant ways: 1) “a servant of God,” 2) “an apostle of Jesus Christ.”
1. A Servant (δοῦλος) of God
Notice first that Paul says he is a “servant of God.” Now, Paul does not casually call himself a “servant of God” here. First of all, this phrase occurs only here in Paul’s introduction to this letter. Never does Paul refer to himself this way except here. Paul sometimes calls himself a “servant of Jesus Christ” (as in Romans 1:1, and with Timothy in Philippians 1:1). Usually, in his introductions he refers to himself as simply, “An apostle of Christ Jesus . . .” On every occasion (with the exceptions of 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Philemon), Paul always calls himself “an apostle of Christ Jesus.” If we are going to be good interpreters, this should cause us to ask why he deviates here, when his normal self-identification is “an apostle.” Every word in the Bible counts, so there’s a significant reason why he does this.
I believe we find our answer in the Old Testament, for the expression “servant of the Lord” is an explicit OT expression. In defining his relationship with God in this way, he draws on the Old Testament pattern established by Moses, David, and other prophets who stood in the special position of those who had received revelations from God. Typically, God’s chosen prophets were described as “servants.” Let’s see a few examples:
“Moses the servant of the LORD” (Deut. 34:5).
“. . . my servant David” (God to Nathan in 2 Sam. 7:5).
“For the LORD GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).
And in Jeremiah 7, God says that he gave the Israelites His commandments, but they did not obey. And in an attempt to get them to obey, here’s what God did:
“From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers” (Jer. 7:25-26).
It seems that Paul is aligning himself with obedient servants of God who preceded him as recipients of divine revelation. Just as the towering figures of the Old Testament were obedient servants of God and received God’s revelations, so was the same of Paul. By describing himself this way, Paul anchor’s his ministry in the story of the covenant God of the Old Testament. Those great characters of the Old Testament served God’s people, His elect (and notice later in this verse that he says that his purpose as an apostle was the exact same purpose for all of the Old Testament prophets).
If this is true of Paul, his authority and obedience to God are not to be questioned. This was important for the Cretan culture that Titus ministered in. They had discounted the teaching of the gospel of Jesus and had devoted themselves to “Jewish myths,” (1:14) and they were an untrustworthy, lying culture that was proud to admit it, too (1:12). So while they would have been taught that Judaism in its various forms was superior to Christianity, Paul was saying that he received revelations from God just as the prophets of old.
But there’s another important reason why he says this. The Greek word for “servant” here is doulos, meaning one who gives himself up wholly to another’s will. This is literally translated “bondservant,” which in this case is someone who has no rights of his own, no will of his own—but his sole desire is to do the will of his master. If anyone in the Bible could say this of himself, it was Paul. In the passage where Paul lists all of his credentials and spiritual accomplishments, what does he say concerning them all? “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). Also recall in Acts 22 where he recounts his conversion and he notes that he inquired of the Lord, “What shall I do, Lord?” (22:10). Paul was a doulos of God—he had no will of his own, no agenda of his own. Paul’s will was to do God’s will and God’s agenda.
And he is laying this down as a principle for Titus, too. If Titus is going to be a successful pastor of his church, a leader of his own home, and a witness in his pagan culture—he must be a servant of God. How would he expect his church to be servants if he wasn’t a servant? How would he expect his family and the families of his church to be servants if he didn’t model it for them by being a servant? And how would he expect for a lost world to be a servant and follow Christ if he wasn’t being a servant?
The same applies to us. If we’re going to be effective in the ministry of our own local church—it begins with this: we must be servants of God—submitting our wills completely and entirely to God. If we want health in our church, we must be servants of God. If we want health in our homes, we must be servants of God. If we want a healthy, bold witness to our world, we must be servants of God. The Bible already says we are slaves of God, we just need to act like it. For instance, Paul in Romans 6 says, “But now [you] have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God . . .” (v. 22). We just need to become what we are already—slaves of God. What about you? Are you a slave of God? If you want a healthy church, here’s where it starts. This is where it started for Titus, and this is where it must start for us.
Most of the time, our plans are rarely God’s plans, but Paul was someone whose whole life was changed because of submission to God’s will. Living in submission to God’s will is perhaps the greatest thing on this present earth for a ChristianGod wants us to be His servants, and He will give us strength and grace daily if we will only surrender. This is so important because not only was being a servant characteristic of Paul, but of our own Savior—in Philippians 2 Paul says that Jesus “emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men . . .and [became] obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (vv. 7-8). And Peter, speaking in Solomon’s portico, defending the messianic Jesus before the peoples, says this: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him” (Acts 3:13). Jesus is our supreme example—He was a servant of God. Paul was a servant of God, and this must characterize us as individuals and us as a local church. If we can’t honestly say that we are servants of God, maybe we need to get our hands dirty and out into the action, pull up our bootstraps and get to work—empowered and motivated by a passion to serve God because of who He is and what He’s done for us in the gospel. Motivated not because we want God to love us—but motivated because He already does love us. We need Paul’s attitude: “What do you want me to do?”
2. Messenger/Apostle of Jesus Christ
We’ve seen the first way that Paul identifies himself, as a doulos of God, and as we expect from Paul, he defines himself secondly as his usual designation, “an apostle of Jesus Christ.” To further confirm his authority as an apostle, not only is he in the spiritual line of prophets who received revelation from God, but he was a special messenger of Jesus Christ Himself. That’s what it means to be an apostle. The word apostle literally means a messenger, a representative, or envoy. This is the usual way he describes himself, because that’s what he was.
During Paul’s conversion, the Lord Jesus says of him, “[He] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). He was Christ’s instrument. In Romans, Paul says in introducing himself, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). And Paul defends his apostleship in Galatians:
“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles . . .” (Gal. 1:15-16a)
But I just want to make you aware of something at this point. We have really elevated the term apostle in our language. Yes, Paul being an apostle meant that he was given revelation from the Lord and of course, penned 13 letters of our New Testaments. But the word apostle is really nothing lofty—it just means to be a messenger. Someone is an apostle simply because they carry a message. If I have a message I need to send to someone, say across the street, and I get someone to take it for me, then they would be my apostle—my messenger.
The same is true of us. We are ambassadors for Christ, we are His messengers—and having a healthy church starts here too. We must realize that we are His messengers in this world. I love Paul’s description of this in 2 Corinthians 5:20, where he says, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” We may not have the gifts Paul had, and we certainly will not be agents of divine revelation—but we have a responsibility to be messengers.
True ministry begins with our character—we must understand who we are; slaves of God and messengers of God. It is our birthright; when we become believers, we have the responsibility to live every day in these ways.
Let me add something in closing. Being servants of God and being His messengers are not simply things we need to be, but they are things we can be. This is not legalism; God has all the empowering, motivating grace we need to be servants and messengers. To reinforce this point, what does Paul crave for Titus in v. 4? He says, “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.” Paul couldn’t be a servant or messenger without the grace of God, Titus couldn’t either, and neither can we. Without the grace of God, we are powerless, lifeless, and useless. But because He has “lavished upon us” the “riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7, 8).
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cigarette Smoking Among U.S. High School Students at Lowest Level in 22 Years, June 2014.
“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?
1. Cited in Rediscovering the Church Fathers, by Michael A. G. Haykin (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 14.
As a Bible-believing Christian, it is my conviction that there should be doctrinal unity among Christians in the local church (Eph. 4:1-6). There are, of course, things we can differ on. There are minor issues that we can hold differing views on, that should not divide us. If we can’t accomplish the mission of the church together because of our differing views on minor issues, something had better change; either our character or conviction(s).
I have been reading Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine, by scholar John D. Hannah. It has been a great read thus far. It is an exhaustive read on the history of the development of doctrine. But what makes this book different from any other book on Christian history, is that it contains practical applications about what we can learn from church history and it’s developments. I am finishing up this 395 page book, and read something about doctrinal unity that caught my eye, and I felt it was worth sharing with you. Here is a lengthy portion from John D. Hannah’s brilliant book:
“Doctrines are not all created equal; some are more important than others. Consequently, the Christian theologian finds it useful to talk of gradations of convictions. Think of three concentric circles.
First, in the center ring, there are the essential beliefs of Christianity. These are the core doctrines of Christianity—those beliefs without which there can be no Christianity; those beliefs so central that one should have willingness to die for them. Among these, in my view, are the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and salvation by grace without any human merit.
Second, moving outward by ring one, there are beliefs that are reckoned to be important but about which there is legitimate debate among Christians. Examples of these convictions might be particular views of baptism or the Eucharist, church polity, or the chronology of last things. While Christians may hold such convictions with a significant degree of fervency, they are nonetheless subject to a variance of opinion and are not issues that should divide the fellowship of the saints in the broadest sense. Nor should such doctrines hold center stage in our discussions of the Bible. The central things, the topics that should be our most frequent, fervent topics are those in the center circle.
Third, in the outermost of the concentric circles, there are distinctly personal beliefs. They are neither core doctrines of Christianity nor those embraced in a creedal statement by any particular Christian group. They are simply private, personal views that arise from the study of the Bible and the experience of life. Traditionally these have been defined as adiaphora, “things of difference.” They might have to do with certain moral issues that are neither prohibited nor propounded by the Scriptures.
While it is useful to think of concentric circles of beliefs, these three categories are often blended in practice. Sometimes, for example, mere personal beliefs are treated as core truths. My plea is that these distinctions be recognized and that our Christian pastors, teachers, missionaries, and laity make sure that the central truths be foremost in our proclamation of Christianity.
The most important person in all of history is Jesus Christ; he must always be the passionate message of the church. Without Christ, there can be no gospel that is really good news. While there are teachings that are important, greatly adding to the maturity of the church, Christ is the keystone of all.”
Very powerful and practical.
What do you think about doctrinal unity, and the centrality of Christ in our beliefs?
1. John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), pp. 342-343.
Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) was born in Essex, England. He became a Christian in 1850 and a year later he was the pastor of a small Baptist church. In 1854 he was called to the pastorate of New Park Street Baptist Chapel in Southwark, London. His preaching attracted great crowds, so much so that a new building, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, was erected. During his ministry, he built up a congregation which numbered about 6,000. As well as being a popular preacher, Spurgeon was involved in several charitable organizations, including an orphanage at Stockwell. ¹
Spurgeon’s influence is still affecting millions of lives even today, and one of the ways his influence has been spreading is through his classic devotional, Morning and Evening. This is one of the best devotionals you can buy even today (and it’s offered in a variety of formats: leather-bound, paperback, hardback, Kindle and eBook, etc.). In this devotional, you can read Spurgeon’s writings, sermons, and deep reflections on various Scriptures. One for morning, and one for evening. Now there are some excellent classic devotionals out there, like My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, but none compare to Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon.
I was reading today’s devotion, and I was struck by Spurgeon’s description of “walking in the truth,” and wanted to share it with you. Enjoy:
Scripture: ‘For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth’ (3 John 3)
Spurgeon: “The truth was in Gaius, and Gaius walked in the truth. If the first had not been the case, the second could never have occurred; and if the second could not be said of him the first would have been a mere pretence. Truth must enter into the soul, penetrate and saturate it, or else it is of no value. Doctrines held as a matter of creed are like bread in the hand, which ministers no nourishment to the frame; but doctrine accepted by the heart, is as food digested, which, by assimilation, sustains and builds up the body. In us truth must be a living force, an active energy, and indwelling reality, a part of the woof and warp of our being. If it be in us, we cannot henceforth part with it. A man may lose his garments or his limbs, but his inward parts are vital, and cannot be torn away without absolute loss of life. A Christian can die, but he cannot deny the truth.
Now it is a rule of nature that the inward affects the outward, as light shines from the centre of a lantern through the glass: when, therefore, the truth is kindled within, its brightness soon beams forth in the outward life and conversation. It is said that the food of certain worms colours the cocoons of silk which they spin: and just so the nutriment upon which a man’s inward nature lives gives a tinge to every word and deed proceeding from him. To walk in the truth, imports a life of integrity, holiness, faithfulness, and simplicity – the natural product of those principles of truth which the gospel teaches, and which the Spirit of God enables us to receive. We may judge of the secrets of the soul by their manifestation in the man’s conversations.
Be it ours today, O gracious Spirit, to be ruled and governed by Thy divine authority, so that nothing false or sinful may reign in our hearts, lest it extend its malignant influence to our daily walk among men.” ²
Wow. As a student of the Bible, and a Bible college student, I think I have easily recognized the importance of doctrine and truth in the life of a Christian. But up until today, I have never heard such a picturesque description of how it truly affects the Christian life. Get a copy of Morning and Evening, and start growing in your faith.