Why Study Church History?
Ok, I’ll admit it: I love history. I probably love it to an annoying degree. I spent four years and *way too much money* on my history degree, and I’m one of those weirdos who reads history books for fun. If you spend any time around me, it won’t be long before I launch into a rant about some random dead-for-centuries person you’ve never heard of and probably don’t care about.
I’m just letting you know that up front, so you know I have a significant bias. But I hope that doesn’t lead you to dismiss what I’m about to say:
Everyone, and especially Christians, should learn more about church history.
Now, it’s no secret that most Christians are pretty ignorant of their own history. Sure, they might know a list of their beliefs, and they might know a few key facts about the early church and maybe the Protestant Reformation. But I would wager that most of them would be hard-pressed to tell you about the origins of their beliefs, the key events in their denomination’s history, or some of the more tragic events the church has been part of throughout history.
I’m certainly not here to tell you that you should get a history degree (though I’m not gonna stop you!), but I do think it’s a problem if we, as Christians, don’t know our own history.
Of course, there are lots of motivations people might have for studying church history, and it may surprise you when I say that not all of them are good. Last September, on the first day of my Intro to Church History class at Wycliffe College, my professor listed a few reasons why people study church history. Many of the reasons he gave are very good, and others are…well, not so good.
Here’s a bit of what he shared. Here are two reasons why people think they should study church history – but they aren’t great reasons:
Some people study church history because it justifies their own personal beliefs. This is what some people call the “pipeline” model of church history. In this model, the student only traces the history of their own denomination, ignoring the richness that the history of the wider church has to offer. They might even say that anyone who disagreed with their beliefs throughout history wasn’t a “true believer.”
Others study church history because they want an accurate, unbiased account of how the modern church came to be. Though this is a noble endeavor it won’t get you very far. See, there’s no such thing as an unbiased account of history. Sure, you can learn a lot of information by historical study, but it’s always important to be mindful of who’s sharing that information, and what they might be leaving out.
So, those are a couple not-so-great reasons to study church history.
So, why should we study it?
One reason to study church history is to help us diversify our understanding of Christianity. Christianity is the world’s largest religion. It’s spread across many continents, and it’s been around for 2000 years. As a result, there are many different traditions and expressions of Christianity. But often, individual Christians get trapped in their own small cultural bubble and can discount other expressions of the faith (even if they’re aligned with the Bible) as wrong. Learning about the history of many different Christian denominations and traditions can help foster an appreciation for the diversity within the Christian church, and can maybe even open you up to learn about forms of prayer and worship that enrich your own relationship with God.
Another reason to study church history is to acknowledge past mistakes Christians have made. From colonialism, to witch hunts, to persecution of fellow Christian groups like Anabaptists, Christians have failed to live up to the teachings of Jesus in many ways throughout history. It’s important for Christians to acknowledge the darker parts of our history in order to learn from these mistakes and move forward in a better way.
Finally, one of the most important reasons to study church history is to add some context to Christian beliefs. While everything that Christians believe is revealed, in one way or another, through the Bible, sometimes understanding the history behind certain doctrines, or ways of explaining Christian beliefs, helps contextualize and clarify Christian faith.
Let me provide an example for this last one. Most people know that Christians believe in something called the Trinity. Basically, Christians believe that God reveals himself in three “persons”–the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – while still remaining one God. Yet if you read the Bible you’ll notice that the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear – not even once. And more than that, if you read the Nicene Creed, you’ll see words like “consubstantial” that sound a lot more like philosophy than Christianity. And unfortunately, those facts have led some Christians today to reject, or at least ignore, the doctrine of the Trinity.
But if you look at the history, it becomes very clear that while the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, it’s nevertheless Biblical – and in fact, it’s the only reasonable way of interpreting what the Bible claims about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The development of the specific wording of the doctrine of the Trinity took place over a few centuries, as pastors and theologians wrestled with the Bible and worked hard to interpret its teachings faithfully. The bishops who came together at the Council of Nicaea crafted a statement (the Nicene Creed) that is a faithful interpretation of what the Bible has to say about God.
Even more than that, this doctrine was developed in order to reject false teachings about God that cropped up over the first few centuries of the church. Ideas like: Jesus didn’t really have a human body (Gnosticism); the God of the Old Testament is a completely different God than the one in the New Testament (Marcionism); Jesus wasn’t divine, but was just a creation of God (Arianism); just to name a few. Understanding the history behind these teachings, and learning about how they clearly go against what the Bible says about God, also helps us understand why the doctrine of the Trinity makes much more sense.
So anyways, after that whirlwind tour of the 4th century… those are a few reasons I would encourage you to study church history.
Now, you might be thinking: that’s great, but I don’t really want to memorize a bunch of random dates, names and facts. Well, contrary to popular belief, history isn’t a boring list of dates, names and facts from the past, a list that has no relevance to today. All history is a story,and church history is a key part of the story that shapes Christian identity today.
It’s far more important to understand the overall “plot points” in the story of the church – the pattern of growth and spread of the church, the major issues and conflicts, the development of doctrines over time – than it is to memorize all the details.
I’d also encourage you to start with something you’re interested in. Don’t feel like you have to start right after the apostles, with Ignatius of Antioch, if your passion (like mine) lies with awesome women of the Reformation like Katharina Zell.
Or, if you’re a keen learner and want a comprehensive overview, I’d recommend you check out The Story of Christianity by Justo González.
Regardless of where you start, I hope you enjoy the adventure of learning about church history!