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3 Reasons to Study Church History

For many Christians, especially, I think, within Protestantism, Church history is a foggy and mysterious realm somewhere beyond the borders of normal thought, beyond the more familiar lands of biblical interpretation and spiritual discipline. Occasionally, one of its more conspicuous citizens (St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, and a few others) makes an appearance in familiar territory, but in general the land and its inhabitants seem far away and shrouded in darkness. Many evidently prefer it this way; the heart of Christianity lies in biblical interpretation and spiritual discipline, it is thought, and forays into Church history are optional adventures for restless wanderers.

This way of thinking is, I believe, mistaken and detrimental to the health of the Church. However it may seem, Church history is never far away. With eyes to see, we will find that it is part of the land in which we dwell, always shaping the way we think and live. Recognizing this and learning to appreciate and understand Church history has tremendous benefits for us as we seek to make sense of our world and represent Christ within it. An article published in the Conciliar Post in 2014 delineates some of the benefits of studying Church history, and I commend it to you. In this post I will develop a few ideas in this earlier article and will provide some additional thoughts of my own. I offer to you three of the many reasons why we should study Church history.

Church History Teaches Us How to Live Well

We all value experience. Whether looking for life advice, searching for a new employee, or hunting for a contractor to renovate our homes, a primary consideration is almost always the type and level of experience somebody has. This is, of course, because experience offers knowledge and, to those who pursue it, wisdom, both of which help their possessors navigate through life and make good choices. When we consult someone who has an abundance of experience, we benefit from their knowledge and wisdom and are aided in our attempt to live well. (By “live well” I have in mind not prosperous living but sound, proper living.)

When we study Church history, as with nearly all types of history, we also have the opportunity to benefit from the experience of others. We learn lessons from times of persecution in the patristic period, from missionary efforts into Western Europe in the early Middle Ages, from attempts at purifying the Church from immorality and bad theology in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Reformation eras. In learning from these experiences, we become better equipped to deal with the problems of our own day, which, we might find, are often not very different from problems faced by Christians of previous eras.

The practice of learning from history has strong biblical support. Much of the historical information in Scripture appears to have a didactic element, showing us examples of good and bad behaviour. Consider, for example, the story of Solomon’s request for wisdom in 1 Kgs 3:1–15. In this passage God tells Solomon, who is described as one who loves God, to ask for what God should give him, and Solomon eloquently asks for wisdom to rule the people well (vv. 1–9).  God is pleased that Solomon chose this rather than wealth or victory over his enemies, so God grants him his wish (vv. 10–15). To be sure, this story has historical significance that alone would justify its inclusion in this book in some form, but the manner in which it is told—highlighting the fact that Solomon’s desire for wisdom was righteous and good—suggests that the author(s) and/or editor(s) intended it to have a didactic function as well. In reading this story we are presented with a major idea in Proverbs, stated in, among other places, 16:16: “How much better to get wisdom than gold!” Interestingly, a later passage describes Solomon’s poor decision to marry many foreign women and his subsequent descent into polytheism, which results in God deciding to take the kingdom from him (11:1–9). This passage gives us an example of how not to behave, and it appears to illustrate a different theme of Proverbs, namely, the importance of resisting sexual temptation and pursuing a proper and healthy marital relationship (see, e.g., 7:4–27; 31:10–12).

Church History Inspires Us to Live Well

When, in the fourth century, the illustrious St. Athanasius penned his Life of St. Anthony, among the most important Christian biographies ever written, he informed his audience that they, upon reading the book, would desire to have the determination of this beloved spiritual leader (preface). In so writing he touched on a theme that would reappear over and over in historical Christian literature, especially in the genre of hagiography (writings about saints): the inspiration to live well. Of course, not everything we find in Church history is exemplary; much of it clearly is not, even in lives of saints. Even so, when we learn of the ways in which other people have served God and have worked for his kingdom, we often cannot help but burn with passion to follow their example. This passion gives us motivation to put into practice the knowledge and wisdom we gain from studying the past.

Gaining inspiration from history is also an idea well grounded in Scripture. To continue with the Solomon example, I expect that many who read this article will remember a time when they read the story of Solomon asking for wisdom and resolved, in a moment of holy passion, that they too would desire wisdom over riches. I believe that the way the narrative is told encourages this kind of response; the humble plea of the righteous and admirable Solomon encourages us to echo his words, saying to God, “Give your servant … an understanding mind” (3:9).

Studying Church History Is an Act of Christian Love[1]

One of the most important aspects of being a Christian is showing love. Followers of Jesus are to be characterized by unfailing, selfless love, which reflects, though imperfectly, the love of God. Of course, Christians should direct love to those outside the religion, but in many places Scripture  emphasizes that love is also to dominate the ways in which God’s redeemed people interact with each other. As Jesus says to his disciples in the Gospel of John, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34–35).

One of the most exciting and important ideas of the Christian religion is that physical death does not remove Christians from the Church. Although the physical barrier of death separates them in one sense from living Christians, they still live in union with Christ and therefore continue to be part of the communion of saints. One implication of this truth is that Jesus’s command about Christians loving one another applies to dead people; they should be, to the extent that is possible, the givers and receivers of intra-ecclesial love. Now, we run into a problem here: how do we love people who are separated from us by the barrier of physical death? This is a difficult question, but I think we can say one thing for sure: we need at least to acknowledge their existence. And one way of doing this is through Church history—by learning about them, their lives, and their world. In many cases we will also express this love and care by passing on the findings of our studies and inviting others to join us in our acts of remembrance.

Of course, there are limits here. We cannot hope to learn personal details about every single Christian who has ever lived and died. However, we can discover and pass on information about groups of people, which is an entirely legitimate expression of Christian love, and we can learn about many people individually.

How Do I Get Started?

I believe that the best way to begin studying Church history is to go through a survey of the subject, whether it be a book, series of audio lectures, academic course, or something similar. I do not wish to recommend anything in particular, because there is an abundance of good information and courses available. The survey, if it is at least decent, will help orient the student and provide a foundation for understanding more detailed information. From there, I would advise the student to begin exploring specific areas of interest. This more detailed study should usually involve reading both primary and secondary sources, that is, literature produced within the time being studied (primary) and literature written afterward (secondary).[2] It might take a considerable amount of time and effort, but eventually the student will start to achieve proficiency in studying the past and by this time will hopefully enjoy the process. More importantly, the student should begin to find guidance and inspiration from Church history and should begin to understand experientially the Christian love that flows into and from the study of Church history.

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David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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