Why Study Church History?
I recently completed my Master of Arts in Theological Studies at the University of Dayton. My emphasis was not in the traditional systematic theological studies, where I contemplated the Trinity, the Incarnation, and grace; nor did I focus on Biblical Studies, delving into the ancient languages, the context, and the literatures that produced what we understand as the Word of God (although I did dabble in Hebrew for three semester and can discuss the influence of Jewish mysticism on the New Testament until your eyes glaze over). Instead, with an English major’s love of original texts and a history geek’s fascination with people and events, I studied Church history, particularly of the medieval and Reformation periods.
You could argue what I studied is not properly theology. I am not qualified to offer spiritual advice to anyone, I am not prepared to deliver sermons (nor of the appropriate gender, but that’s because of my Catholic practice and LCMS roots), and to be honest, deep theological conversations about grace, ethics, and the nature of the Trinity often boggle my mind.
I can, however, tell you how lay literacy led to both the greatest works of medieval mysticism and to the Reformation, how referring to the counter-Reformation as the Catholic Reformation reflects a better historiography, and why Saint Augustine wrote City of God. I can analyze a multitude of different texts to specifically describe to you the author’s Christology.
You can argue that I did not study God, I studied history and literature; but I firmly will argue here that the study of history, specifically Church history, is the study of God’s interaction with humanity and humanity’s search for God.
The study of Church history perhaps is the most concrete study of God and humanity. True, the Bible offers divine revelation from God, but Church history will help you understand how that revelation came to be and why some books are considered canonical and others are not. The study of Church history examines historical facts, actual events, and texts that have survived centuries in order to teach us how the Church has thought about God throughout the centuries. What systematic theologians have to say about the Incarnation does not spontaneously arise from their minds (or at least, hopefully does not); it comes from a long history of what Saint Paul the Apostle, Saint Athanasius, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and many others through the years discerned from Scripture, reason, and tradition.
Church history brings us into a fuller communion with our brothers and sisters who are now saints alongside God in Heaven. Though I live in the 21st century, I encounter and learn from my fellow members of the Body of Christ who lived in the 1st, 3rd, 14th, and 20th centuries when I read the great texts of Church history. Who among us has not received spiritual guidance from Saint Augustine, Saint Teresa of Avila, or C.S. Lewis?
Church history teaches us hope and perseverance, even when darkness and evil seem to swirl about us. Learning about the Crusades provides us with context to the events happening even now in the Middle East. The history of the Church in the later Middle Ages teaches us that corruptions such as clerical abuse are not literally the end of the world, and the great reformers including Saint Catherine of Siena, Martin Luther, Saint Ignatius Loyola, and John Wesley teach us to defend our faith against corruptions and misleadings. From the 1st century persecutions to the banning of Christianity in Revolutionary France to the Jesuit martyrs in Asia, we learn that persecutions will never go away, but we also learn courage and perseverance in the faith.
In the era of so many televised, mega-church denomination, Church history guides us in how to practice the faith. We learn what the Church Fathers and the great councils believed about the sacraments, the liturgy, and prayer. We understand why certain denominations (Catholic, Orthodox, conservative Lutheran, Anglican) cling to the Eucharist, confession, and baptism, and still worship in churches where the altar is front and center to worship.
Most significantly, the study of Church history offers a counter-argument to the secular claim that there is no God, or if there is He doesn’t care about humanity. Christianity has persevered through persecutions throughout all centuries and continents, heresies, wars, famines, and the prevailing atheistic philosophies. The continued presence of the Church for two thousand years indicates that God has not left us to fend for ourselves, but rather continually guides us through even the most mundane human events. Church history shows also that humans have never stopped seeking God, for they have not yet ceased putting their pens to paper to write theology, attending church to worship, or convening councils to discern God’s will.
The great thing about Church history is that you do not need to go to school to study it! There are many wonderful secondary resources to guide you in understanding the primary texts and help you know where to start. Above anything else, I recommend Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume series, The Christian Tradition, which focuses on doctrine, councils, and theology, and Bernard McGinn’s five-volume The Presence of God, which discusses Christian spirituality, mystical writings, and worship.
(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)