Why Study Church History?

This week’s Theology on the Go interview is with Bruce Gordon.  Dr. Gordon holds a chair in Ecclesiastical History at Yale.  He is an eminent historian with many interesting insights and experiences.  The topic of our conversation was simple: “Why Study Church History?”

Dr. Gordon provides his own answers to this important question, but allow me to give a few of my own.  (Haven’t listened yet?  Then stop reading and listen to the podcast – or better yet, subscribe and listen.)  

My reasons have emerged mainly through two experiences: first, they have arisen as I’ve regularly taught a church history survey to undergraduates, who sometimes need to be convinced of the value of church history.  But also, many of these reflections come from my early years in pastoral ministry.

There are several points I make to undergraduates.  First, I let them know that all of their churches are part of a tradition.  Even if the congregation claims to have rejected everything from the past, starting with a clean slate and an open Bible, this stance is part of a long tradition.  It is a position influenced by great streams of philosophical thinking, largely modern.  It is a position with a long (and troubled) history, and anyone who holds it ought to do so with some reflection.

I also tell my students that many of the exact struggles they and their churches have today are ones that have been addressed at some point in the past.  Theirs is not the first generation to reflect upon public worship, qualifications for leadership, or how church decisions should be made.  This is not the first time that Christianity has existed in a very hostile cultural context; nor is the rise of Islam something that just emerged as a threat to the church after September 11th.  In other words, church history often repeats itself.  Again and again, this surprises and delights Christian students of the past.

Closely related to this, a study of church history not only shows us similarities between earlier ages and our own, it also reveals significant differences.  Why do so many of my student’s churches seem unconcerned about the meaning of communion?  Why is church polity considered a peripheral question today?  Why do so few Christian students know basic creeds from our past?  And why do they often consider creeds and confessions so inimical to genuine piety?  Why is singing now considered the essential part of Christian worship?  To look at the past is to see not just similarities, but vast differences – a great gulf fixed which only careful study can bridge.

Personally, I’ve always been interested in history in general and church history in particular.  But the vitality of the subject never really gripped me until early in my first pastorate.  I was thrust into a congregational setting as a solo pastor, with very few able ministers in the area.  I was desperate for pastoral wisdom from men who shared my theological priorities and basic biblical framework.  There were a few contemporary authors who were a help (I’m sure there were many I didn’t find), but the vast majority who came to my rescue were voices from the distant past.  Here were men who shared my overall understanding of pastoral ministry, who knew the implications, who had thought through the big issues.  They were clear-eyed about the struggles of the pastorate, and their writings were the furthest thing from the modern quick-fix, glory-days volumes to which I’d been exposed.  Reading church history wasn’t an academic exercise for me; it was a lifeline.  These men from the past, though dead, still spoke.  Their voices helped sharpen my understanding, shape my expectations, and comfort me in the midst of many disappointments.  Reading church history for me went well beyond an avocational interest; the Lord used it to save my life and ministry.

The truth is that Christians should study church history, and pastors have even more reason to do so.  There are many good places to start, and I’d hesitate to just name a few at the risk of omitting ones equally deserving.  Try a good biography of a figure from the past.  Or dip into some great theological works, many of which are actually quite approachable and easy to read.   (I do this every Friday with my students.)  Read one of the good overviews of church history (Dr. Gordon mentions a few). 

We worship and serve amidst a great cloud of witnesses, men and women whose lives were used by God for the service of Christ’s church.  They were flawed sinners, all of them, but their lessons and legacy remain worthy of our time and attention today.

Jonathan Master