Why Study Church History?
by Jon Payne
If church history does not get your blood pumping, you had better check your spiritual pulse. The sixteenth century alone provides a treasure of soul-stirring narratives. Think of Martin Luther’s bold and daring stand for the gospel against the destructive errors of Rome. Consider the faithful witness of the English martyrs who died singing psalms as they were consumed by flames. Or, how about the courageous life of John Knox, who while enslaved in the bowels of a French galley ship cried out, “Give me Scotland, or I die”?
The study of church history, however, is meant to provide more than just inspiration. Serious reflection on the past protects us from error, reminds us of God’s faithfulness, and motivates us to persevere.
Protection From Error
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wisely remarked that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Indeed, without a basic knowledge of church history, individual Christians and churches are prone to repeat the same doctrinal errors and foolish mistakes of former days.
Familiarity with the history and theology of the early ecumenical councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), for example, helps to protect individuals and churches from unwittingly believing ancient Trinitarian and christological heresies. Furthermore, careful reflection upon revivalistic movements such as the Second Great Awakening warns us not to abandon biblical ministry for manipulative methods and quick numerical growth. The study of church history, therefore, preserves both orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice).
In addition to safeguarding us from doctrinal error, the study of church history helps protect us from repeating the foolish mistakes of others. One example comes from the life and ministry of John Knox.
The fiery Scot wrote a polemical tract in 1558 titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women.” The work unapologetically condemns the rule of female monarchs. Against the better judgment of John Calvin and others, who were strategically working toward reform in Britain and on the Continent, Knox submitted his “First Blast” for publication. Though aimed chiefly at other lady monarchs, the tract inadvertently fell into the hands of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth I. Unsurprisingly, the queen was highly displeased. Thereafter, Knox and everyone associated with the Genevan Reformation lost favor with Elizabeth, all because of an unnecessary tract on female sovereigns.
The Scottish Reformer’s unwise decision to publish “First Blast” teaches an important lesson. It instructs ministers and others to be more careful about the content and timing of their writings, especially in a day when self-publishing and instantaneous (and often unedited) posting on social media are so prevalent. Not every deep conviction or strong opinion is worthy of publication. Knowledge of events from the past, therefore, constructively informs our decisions in the present. It protects us from heresy and imprudence.
Reminder Of God’s Faithfulness
To study church history is to study God’s unbending faithfulness. Christians must regularly reflect upon this truth in a world where there is increasing persecution of the church and the future seems uncertain. Like the psalmist, we must “recount all of [God’s] wonderful deeds” to remind ourselves that He will never leave us or forsake us (Ps. 9:1; Heb. 13:5).
Scripture provides a wealth of history to remind us of God’s steadfast faithfulness. From the days of creation to the ministry of Christ to the establishment of the church, the Bible tells the story of the sovereign God who is faithful to His people. But it’s not only in redemptive history that God’s faithfulness is on display; it is also seen in the annals of church history.
Consider how God’s faithfulness is manifest in the preservation and expansion of the early church during the grisly persecutions of Roman Emperor Diocletian. Think of God’s fidelity in the recovery and rise of gospel proclamation during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation or the astonishing multiplication of believers in China since 1850. And there are thousands of individual stories within the larger ones that remind us that our heavenly Father can and should be trusted no matter what our circumstances.
Motivation To Persevere
Every believer knows that he desperately needs divine grace, motivation, and encouragement to carry on. Of course, Christ and His ordained means of Word, sacrament, and prayer are the essential means and motivation for perseverance (Heb. 12:2). Even so, we can find motivation to persevere in the study of church history.
Considering that “great cloud of witnesses,” the godly lives of believers from the past, can motivate and inspire us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely . . . [and to] run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Are you feeling spiritually weary? Are you ready to give up? Throw yourself into the arms of Christ and also into the pages of church history. Spend time reflecting upon the faithful lives and godly voices of the past, on those whose faith motivates you to keep running. Take up and read a biography of Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, or Elisabeth Elliott. Explore an overview of the Reformation or a survey of the modern missionary movement. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once asserted that every “Christian should learn from history . . . it is his duty to do so.” He was right. Therefore, dear believer, let us study, learn, and enjoy the history of the church.