Isn’t history boring? Isn’t it filled with old dead men of whom no one cares about? And church history in particular? What difference can looking at the past possibly make in my faith in Christ? Why bother?
Here are four good reasons why studying church history is important for us:
1. Today’s church does not exist in a vacuum
We are not the first generation to read the Bible. For the past two-thousand years of our history, Christians have wrestled with Scripture. They have preached sermons, written commentaries, defended orthodoxy (right belief) against heresy (false teaching), and articulated biblically faithful statements of doctrine in form of the historic confessions of the faith.
If we disregard all this, choosing instead to remain ignorant of this treasure-trove of spiritual wisdom, is that not arrogant of us? Surely we should desire to stand on the shoulders of these men and women of the faith who have gone before us and learn as much as we possibly can from them?
2. Church history guards us from heresy.
There is really nothing new underneath the sun! Every heresy and strange teaching that we see surfacing today in the church has already manifested in some form or another during the past two-thousand years. Studying church history helps us to stop false teaching in its tracks.
For instance, if your pastor begins to teach that Jesus is inferior to the Father, of a different substance to him – and if you’re familiar with church history – you won’t believe him for one second. You will know that this the heresy of Arianism, a teaching which was rejected by the church from its earliest days.
For most of our history, the church has maintained the “rule of faith.” This means that we have already settled on the major doctrines of the faith, whether it be the Trinity, the divine inspiration of Scripture, original sin, the Incarnation of Christ, or the atoning death of Christ and his resurrection. The confessions of the church (e.g. the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, and the Westminster and Belgic Confessions) helpfully summarise the church’s rule of faith for us.
3. We can learn from the heroes of the faith.
Studying church history can greatly encourage us. We need to be more familiar with the lives of those who have made a significant impact on the church throughout the ages. This is because we will begin to understand the extreme opposition and hardships many of them faced, the battles they had to fight and the mighty ways in which God was able to use them.
The stories of Polycarp, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (just to name a few) help us to persevere in our faith during tough times, and inspire us to live our lives in full for God’s glory.
4. We see the unbroken chain of the gospel.
The remarkable thing about studying church history is that in every generation, God preserves a remnant in his church that faithfully proclaims his true gospel. The gospel was received by the church through divine authority from the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:1, Galatians 1:9). This apostolic gospel declares that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose again on the third day. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16). God, in his sovereignty, ensures against all odds, against all kinds of opposition, rejection, ridicule and persecution, that this “foolish message” is proclaimed faithfully in every generation.