Why Church History Always Matters
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” But how does one know such a danger exists unless one already possesses an interest in, and respect for, people who lived and thought and wrote in the past? And in order to avoid this historical pitfall, the assumption must exist that people in the past actually have things to say to us that we need to know, an assumption that may not be as accepted as it once was. C.S. Lewis talked about the threat of “presentism,” the idea that our current time is the most developed and that therefore those who preceded us were somehow deficient. To the extent that still exists today—and I suspect there is quite a bit of it—the resulting attitude is probably more along the lines of Henry Ford: “History is bunk.”
But is that an appropriate or even legitimate attitude toward those who have gone on before? To demonstrate that kind of indifference, or even disrespect, for past people and events seems less like a developing sophistication and progress, and more like myopia and a lack of humility. Have we become so narcissistic that we forget we are still standing on the shoulders of giants?
In Scripture, the people of God are commanded to remember his redemptive acts in history, particularly their deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 13:3; Deut. 5:15; 7:17-19). And the psalmist writes in Psalm 77: “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old” (v. 11). The Bible itself considers the past to be important, even vital, for godly thinking and living. It is not enough to recount God’s present blessings; his faithfulness and power shown in earlier generations are to be reflected on as well, since it is God’s activities in history that are the reason for our present status as redeemed and reconciled people.
Redemptive history is important for a number of reasons. One is to remember the difference between God and ourselves. He is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sovereign. We exist for him, not he for us. We are accountable to him. We are dependent upon him for everything we need, enjoy, and far too often take for granted. We are to remember God’s great acts in history because it is the context in which our praise to him is offered.
Another reason is that because we are sinful, there exists the temptation to lose our dependence upon him and exchange it for a supposed independence and self-sufficiency. When we fail to remember who God is and what he has done on our behalf, our tendency is to rest in our own wisdom and achievement for the preservation of the good things and advantages we possess.
Obviously the record of the church down through the ages is not the inspired account of redemptive history culminating in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. But it is nevertheless a record of God’s past acts. God is still at work in his world. He is still sovereignly guiding his people toward the holy ends for which we were created and redeemed. Church history reveals the faithfulness of God, and how his eternal counsels are carried out as the church travels as elect exiles in this life, as it looks ahead toward Christ’s return and consummation.
Another reason why church history is important is that it teaches us that we do not exist or function on our own as Christians. Our own church or even denomination is not the only expression of God’s people. We fit into a long line of those from other ages and places who have tried to live to the glory of God. The sets of beliefs and practices we possess are not the product of our own hands. Rather, how we think and function as the church today is a result of ideas we have inherited from faithful Christians in the past.
One more reason why the study of church history is vital is that it provides lessons for dealing with present situations and challenges. The vast majority of problems in the church are not unique. Church history shows us that how we regard Christian doctrine affects our practice. For example, battles over the doctrine of Scripture and the atonement were not only fought in the past; debates about the same are with us still. And a study of how the church dealt with such matters in the past can shed light on how we might tackle present problems, and even what we might expect to happen if we fail to do this.
Michael D. Roberts (DTh, University of South Africa) is assistant pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship Church in Quakertown, PA, where he also sits on the committee for the Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology. He also serves on the Christian Education committee of the Bible Fellowship Church.