History: Why Read it? A Pastoral Perspective

I am an avid history reader. I have been since about the age of five. That’s 48 years of history reading. I became an avid church history reader when I came to faith in Christ in 1983. Since then church history, among all sorts of historical works, has been a staple part of my reading diet. As a Christian, but especially as a pastor, reading church history and reading theology done in the past is essential.

I read church history because the Holy Spirit didn’t begin working in the church with me. On the contrary, he has been working in the church since the fall and more especially since our Lord poured forth the Holy Spirit on the church at Pentecost. In other words, church history is a gift of God to the church in the present age. Unlike Scripture, of course, church history is not inerrant nor is it infallible. But as C. S. Lewis once noted, the blind spots of other eras are different than ours so that fact makes spotting blind spots all the easier.  All of this is to say that church history is a fallible record of the Holy Spirit working with his church and we can learn much from it.

More importantly, reading church history is about participating in the reading of Scripture in community with others from the past. Just as it is wise to learn from our brothers and sisters in the church now as we wrestle with the meaning and significance of Scripture and attempt to daily live out the Scriptures, so also it is prudent to learn from brothers and sisters in ages gone by. In other words, those who have gone before us have read the Bible and in many instances have discovered the true meaning of the biblical text through the Holy Spirit directed use of ordinary means (i.e., attending public worship, having private and family worship and using things like Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and atlases and other helpful literature). To put the matter simply, why reinvent the wheel? We in Reformed and evangelical circles sometimes have an overly individualistic mentality. Reading the great theologians and biblical commentators from the past is of great benefit.

So too is reading about pastors and laypeople who have been used by the Lord in the past to build the kingdom of God or the church. Reading about the ancient church and

 battles with the powers that be is inspiring and encouraging. Discovering the depth of biblical devotion among the saints in the Middle Ages is humbling. Even when the church went astray as it did in Medieval Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, there were saints who have much to teach us. The same is even more so as we come into the era of the Reformation, the discovery of the Americas, and church history events which have occurred closer to our time. Of course, because church history and historical theology are not infallible nor inerrant, we must read both primary sources and the secondary literature with critical care. Personally, I find great encouragement from reading church history. I often think to myself, if the Lord could do great things back then, perhaps he will do it again in my lifetime. This exponentially assists me in my prayer life.

Because church history, like all history, is a mixture of the good and the bad, we learn both habits to inculcate and habits to avoid. We discover the truth about the saints, warts and all. Church history has its protagonists and its villains. The presence of sin in the lives of all saints makes the picture much more complex. We find this to be the case in the Bible itself, do we not? Think of David in 1st and 2nd Samuel. David is God’s chosen and anointed king and is a man after God’s own heart. But he is a sinner saved by grace too. He sins by committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranges for the death of her husband, which leads to spillover in his own personal life, the life of his extended family, and ultimately in the life of the Israelite kingdom. The Apostle Paul reminded us that biblical history was written down for our benefit so that we could learn what to embrace and what to shun.

If I can encourage my people, as a pastor, to read their Bibles and church history their growth in Christian grace and truth will be greatly enhanced. One way I do this is through using illustrations from church history in my teaching and preaching. My goal is not to overload my congregation with historical factoids to fill their heads, but to provide illustrations from biblical and church history which will illuminate a point being made from the text of Scripture. At the end of the day, the benefit of reading church history, a benefit which assists me in my pastoral labors, is greater understanding and hopefully meditation upon and obedience to the Scriptures and the Lord of the Scriptures.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington