A little less than a month from now, I will make my way to a classroom full of (mostly) first-year seminary students. I can imagine it already.
When I open the door, there will be the inevitable and slightly uncomfortable pause in the hubbub of pre-class conversation. It is the awkward moment every teacher experiences at the start of a new semester — when you enter a room full of unfamiliar faces and everyone stops talking to turn and watch you.
As a relatively new professor, I probably feel the awkwardness more acutely than my seasoned colleagues. But there is no turning back.
Under the watchful gaze of my students, with first impressions already forming, I will walk to the front of the room and set down my bag on the lecture table. Without looking up, I’ll get out my laptop, turn it on, and make sure it’s connected to the projector. Then I’ll arrange whatever books or notes I’ve brought with me.
Soon, everything will be ready to go. I’ll give a nonchalant glance to the clock on the back wall which will remind me that it’s time to start. Without further delay, I’ll take a deep breath, smile, and hear the following words come out of my mouth.
“Good morning, class. Welcome to Historical Theology.”
There. The ice has been broken. Now we can get to work.
In the hour-and-a-half that follows, I will muster all of my professorial enthusiasm to persuade these students that church history is important. But this is more than a just a blatant attempt to sell them on the class. (I really am trying to do more than just get them excited about homework assignments.) This expansive subject is important to me. Vitally so. And it should be important to them (and you) too.
Despite the misconceptions they arrived with, church history is not trivial; or boring; or irrelevant. It is so much more than just names, dates, timelines, and charts. Some of them came in thinking, “I hate history.” Maybe so, but this class is not about history. It’s about the church, the bride of Christ, the most precious institution on earth. It’s about what God has been doing in the world for the last two thousand years. And that means it should matter—especially to men who are training to serve in ministry.
Others will probably wonder why they have to take a history class when they are supposed to be studying the Bible. What they don’t realize is that the study of church history, properly framed, actually increases one’s love for the Scriptures. I have experienced that reality firsthand. The deeper I have investigated the history of the church the more I have grown to appreciate the power and authority of the Word of God — because I have seen that power vividly illustrated in the testimonies of generations of believers. Scripture alone is the authority for all we believe and do; but history provides wonderful affirmation of the truthfulness of those foundational biblical truths.
Over the course of our lecture, I will give my students ten reasons why the study of church history matters. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share those reasons with you here on the Cripplegate.
Today, I’ll give you just one.
1. Studying church history is important because most contemporary Christians are clueless about it. And they shouldn’t be.
The sad reality is that most American evangelicals know very little about the history of Christianity. Even in Reformed circles, an understanding of church history often goes back only to the Reformation. But the history of the gospel spans all the way back to the New Testament.
If your knowledge of church history jumps from the apostle John (on Patmos) to Martin Luther (at Wittenberg), with little to nothing in between, you ought to seriously consider filling in the gaps. The 1,500 years between Pentecost and the Reformation include many significant people — fellow believers and faithful leaders — whom God used in strategic ways to advance His kingdom purposes.
One of the great blindspots in contemporary American evangelicalism is its lack of historical awareness. With his characteristic wit, Carl Trueman explained the problem like this:
I was asked last week why some evangelicals convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Reasons vary, I am sure, but I commented that one theme I have noticed over the years is the fact that evangelicalism lacks historical roots. That is not to say that it has no history; rather it is to say that a consciousness of history is not part of the package. Rock band worship, Beautiful People everywhere (miserable middle aged plain people need not apply), and history nowhere in sight unless it is a reference in the sermon to an early Coldplay album. On that level, I can understand why people looking for something serious, something with a sense of theological and historical gravitas, simply give up on evangelicalism and start looking elsewhere. Some adults want a faith that is similarly adult, after all. (Source)
Evangelical church history — all 2,000 years of it — is a rich goldmine of theological treasure. In their attempts to juvenlize the church, many evangelical congregations spurn history as if it were outdated and unimportant. But, as Trueman points out, we do ourselves a great disservice if we choose to remain ignorant.
Does God consider history to be important? Certainly He does. Though it is not church history, God used Israel’s history to teach them spiritual truths throughout the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 6:21–25). And in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire a book of church history, starting from the Day of Pentecost and running through Paul’s first Roman imprisonment.
While any inspired account of church history ends with the book of Acts, Christians are blessed to have wonderful resources that detail the history of the church from the first century to the present. Those who ignore the profound riches of their own spiritual heritage don’t know what they are missing — namely, the lifechanging opportunity to be challenged, instructed, and encouraged in the faith by those who’ve gone before us.