FIRST-PERSON: The value of church history
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Who was Athanasius? In what century did the Protestant Reformation occur? Why was Jonathan Edwards important? What was the Second Great Awakening? In most churches, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could answer these questions. Indeed, the study of church history has fallen on hard times. But here are 10 reasons why the average believer's walk with Christ would be enriched by learning a bit of church history.
1. Church history confirms the promises of Scripture. For example, George Muller of England demonstrated time and again the truth of James 5:16 ("The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect") as God answered his prayers and provided miraculously for the needs of the 2,000 orphans in his care. And the church's growth from a marginalized, persecuted Jewish sect in AD 40, to the Roman Empire's official religion in AD 325, to the world's largest religion in 2014 powerfully confirms the truth of Matthew 16:18 -- the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ's church.
2. Church history comforts believers in their struggles. Jonathan Edwards was fired from his pastorate after many years of fruitful ministry. Martin Luther was plagued by fear. Elisabeth Elliot endured the death of two husbands—one at the hands of violent natives on the mission field, the other by cancer. Yet none of their lives were ruined by these hardships. They all went on to fruitfulness in Kingdom service. Knowing this encourages perseverance amid our own afflictions.
3. Church history broadens our choice of devotional literature. There's nothing wrong with reading devotional guides by popular radio preachers. But knowing a bit of history helps believers realize that there are also enriching choices from ages past, including the early church fathers, the Puritans, Charles Spurgeon, F.B. Meyer, E.M. Bounds and C. S. Lewis.
4. Church history helps Christians counter heresies and cults. Most theological errors are recapitulations from previous generations and have already been refuted by faithful Bible students. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims, who deny the deity of Christ, and the so-called "Jesus only" movement, which denies the coequality of the Godhead's three persons, can all be answered with arguments from the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the third and fourth centuries.
5. Church history helps believers interpret the Bible. Knowing how Christians in ages past viewed various passages can shed tremendous light on Scripture. The commentaries of J.B. Lightfoot, John Eadie, John Calvin, Matthew Henry, Alvah Hovey, G. Campbell Morgan and others are all helpful resources in addition to today's Bible aids.
6. Church history bolsters faith. Think about the vast number of people who have followed Christ over the ages and their staggering contributions to human flourishing. Christians helped spawn hospitals, orphanages, democracy, human rights, art, widespread literacy, and much more. Indeed, "we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us" (Hebrews 12:1).
7. Church history provides terms to use in describing difficult doctrines. The Trinity is "one essence and three persons." Jesus has "two natures in one person." The Bible is "inerrant and infallible." Believers who don't know a bit of church history probably won't have these phrases in their theological tool belts.
8. Church history frees us from the illusion that modern, secular psychology is the only solution for emotional and behavioral problems. Though psychology brings helpful insights, Thomas à Kempis, Martin Luther, J. Wilbur Chapman and others developed keen pastoral insights long before anyone heard of Ritalin or behavioral therapy. The student of church history enjoys a wealth of counseling resources.
9. Church history contains cautionary tales to remind us that Christians can dishonor their Lord. The crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition and even some of the Reformers' squelching of religious freedom all engender humility and caution for believers. Zeal is not enough to justify our words or deeds. We must take care that actions we label "Christian" truly reflect Jesus.
10. Church history provides believers with a spiritual genealogy. We know who our physical ancestors are. Why not learn about our spiritual forebears too?
So get to know church history. You will probably find it more edifying than you ever considered.
David Roach is Baptist Press' chief national correspondent. This column first appeared at the blog of BibleMesh, a website that teaches the Bible as a unified story pointing to Christ (online at www.biblemesh.com/blog). Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp)