August 1, 2013

Dates, Doctrines, & Dead People

by Nathan Busenitz

church-history-peanutsIntroducing a series about church history … and why you should care about it.

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.

Click here to read Part 2.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Larry

    Looking forward to you helping us, become more sound through a knowledge of church history.

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Thanks Larry. I love studying the history of the church, so I’m excited to encourage others toward that same end.

  • Anthony King

    What little I have read inspires me to know a lot more. Looking forward eagerly to removing my ignorance. God bless this work.

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  • Francisco Martinez

    You’re right Nathan, the more I have studied and read on church history, the more it has affirmed and brought great joy from foundational truths. Not only that, it has given me a deeper love for the church and encouraged me to follow the church fathers “as they follow Christ”.
    I do have a question, however. Where does historical theology come to play in the role of preaching and church planting outside affirmation and encouragement? If any?

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Francisco,

      Great question. I think church history ought to play a significant role in preaching/pastoral ministry. Here are five practical ways that pastors can incorporate church history every week:

      1. Include illustrations from church history in your sermons — introduce your congregation to some of the faithful people who lived in generations past. A story about Athanasius or a quote from Spurgeon is always a welcome addition to any sermon.

      2. Incorporate hymns as part of the congregational singing — and explain a little bit about the history behind those hymns.

      3. Preach on topics that involve church history as part of the discussion (like canonicity, the Trinity, the cults, etc.).

      4. Make Christian biographies a part of your own pastoral reading, and recommend them to people in your church. (I always laugh when people tell me that they don’t like ‘history,’ but they do like ‘biographies.’ Christian biographies ARE church history.)

      5. If feasible, offer a multi-week class (for lay people in your church) that overviews the history of the church. Doing so not only educates your people, it also helps you (as the teacher) grow in your understanding of this important topic. After all, the best way to learn something is to teach it.

      Well, I have more ideas than that. But those are a few practical suggestions for getting started.

      • elainebitt

        This is not a criticism by any means, but I thought it was funny that you replied with 5 points. Not sure it has to do more with the teacher in you or the preacher and their sermon points. hehe

        Looking forward to your series as well. I’ve been going through the videos of your Historical Theology I class.

  • Mamaof6

    We have been studying Church history for the last year and a half in our homeschool and we are loving it and learning so much.

    • Nate_Busenitz

      That’s great! What curriculum are you using?

  • Becky

    Looking forward to this!

  • John Chester

    I was one of those guys in that class not so long ago, and am incredibly thankful for it. It is am awesome thing to understand when you are in the pulpit that you are part of the unbroken 2 Timothy 2:2 line. And pastorally I field a surprising number of questions about church history (Especially about the history of the charismatic movement, I am thankful they are including Nathan and the historical perspective in the Strange Fire conference).

    Everyone can benefit from a healthy dose of church history!

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Thanks John! Great to hear from you. Thanks for your encouragement.

  • ryangeer

    I look forward to reading more—will you be sharing book recommendations at some point?

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Ryan,

      Great question about book recommendations. There are many wonderful resources that I have benefitted from reading. Here are three helpful overviews of church history:

      Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious (by Christopher Catherwood)

      2000 Years of Christ’s Power – 3 Volumes (by N. R. Needham)

      Historical Theology – Topical Overview (by Gregg Allison)

      Obviously, there are many more books that could be recommended. However, in terms of developing an initial framework/overview for the history of the church, these books are a good place to start.

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  • Chris Madlena

    Thanks Nathan for the informative post. I teach Church History to HS sophomores and I am always looking to help them understand the importance of learning the history behind the Church and how it pertains to Christians today.

  • Jason McMurray

    I have been reading The Cripplegate for a few months by following posted links. This series just made me a subscriber. Looking forward to learning more.

  • Sherrie

    Wonderful! Looking forward to the rest of this series. I do need to have a deeper knowledge of church history. Thank you, Pastor Busenitz!

  • Karl Heitman

    I was very encouraged to learn that the RCC can’t claim the church fathers for themselves. BUT, as a good Reformed Evangelical, I am still more interested in Calvin and Luther than Cyril and Origen. 🙂

    • Have you read the Church Fathers? They’re pretty Catholic… There’s a reason why Evangelical history skips out over 1000 years of Church history. Check this out:

      • Karl Heitman

        You provided a RCC website. So, there’s no doubt that the site would leave out key writings that are antithetical to RCC doctrine. I wasn’t saying that they didn’t believe in strange doctrines, such as the unbiblical doctrine of purgatory, but, thanks to Prof. Busenitz’s faithful instruction, I know that MANY of the church fathers did not believe in a system of works righteousness as the RCC has taught since its conception centuries after the apostolic era. At the heart of what is known as “Evangelicalism” is the gospel of grace. Many of the church fathers affirmed this as well. For instance:

        “I know that through grace you are saved, not of works, but by the will of God, through Jesus Christ.” Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69–c. 155), The Epistle of Philippians

        “His cross, and his death, and his resurrection, and the faith which is through him, are my unpolluted muniments; and in these, through your prayers, I am willing to be justified.” Ignatius of Antioch (d. between 98–117), Epistle to Philadelphians

        “No longer by the blood of goats and of sheep, or by the ashes of a heifer . . . are sins purged, but by faith, through the blood of Christ and his death, who died on this very account.” Justin Martyr (d. 165) in his Dialogue with Trypho

        “For naturally, since the Logos of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled by death all that was required.” Athanasius [c. 296–373], On the Incarnation of the Logos, 6-7, 9

        • Thanks for your response. On what basis do you claim that the Catholic Church was founded centuries after the Apostolic era? If you had looked at that (admittedly Catholic) site, you’d have seen that most beliefs unique to Catholicism can be traced back to the first three centuries after Christ.

          I’m also a bit confused as to why you posted those quotes. Catholics agree that we cannot be saved apart from Christ and His atoning sacrifice. Catholics can confidently affirm each one of those quotes. Where Catholics differ from Reformed Evangelicals is on how we appropriate the grace Christ won for us: for Evangelicals it is through faith alone, for Catholics it is initially through faith, but also through our good works of love and charity. This is the testimony of Scripture: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” ~ James 2:24. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith *working* through love” ~ Galatians 5:6. “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life” ~ Romans 2:6-7. “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:2.

          Not only that, but the very Church Fathers you have quoted agree:

          Ignatius of Antioch: “Be pleasing to him whose soldiers you are, and whose pay you receive. May none of you be found to be a deserter. Let your baptism be your armament, your faith your helmet, your love your spear, your endurance your full suit of armour. Let your works be as your deposited withholdings, so that you may receive the back-pay which has accrued to you” (Letter to Polycarp 6:2, A.D. 110).

          Justin Martyr: “Each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions” (First Apology, Chapter XII) and: “For not those who make profession, but those who do the works, shall be saved, according to His word” (First Apology, Chapter XVI)

          Athanasius: “Each one will be called to judgement in these points–whether he have kept the faith and truly observed the commandments” (Life of Anthony).

          Like the Church Fathers who you have quoted, the Catholic Church affirms the Gospel of grace. But with the Church Fathers (and Scripture), the Catholic Church also affirms the necessity of good works for salvation.

          • Karl Heitman

            Jonathan, I don’t have the time to respond in depth. However, my friends (the writers of this blog) have already written extensively on the subject of the RCC and what it teaches and how it contradicts the true meaning of Scripture. I used to be Catholic. I know what they teach. I was saved out of a religion that told me that somehow my “good works” would contribute something to my salvation. Now, by God’s amazing grace, my eyes have been opened to the true Gospel (Eph 2:8-9). I can’t convince you. Therefore, I am not going to debate you. However, I do beg you to read passages like Eph 2:8-9 and Gal 2:18 in their context. We know that James 2:24 is the proof-text that many Catholics pull out of context to defend a gospel of grace+works. The simple and straightforward meaning of that verse is that faith is the result of saving faith, NOT the cause of it. Also, please read these blog posts:

          • Thanks for those links, Karl. The one that deals extensively with Catholic teaching on salvation really misrepresents what Catholicism really teaches by quoting very selectively. For example, the article quotes the Council of Trent, but it fails to include this important section:

            “[W]e are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification–whether faith or works–merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.”

            Quoting another Church Father, Augustine, the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it like this:

            “2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, ‘since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it’:

            “‘Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.'”

            The same could be demonstrated for all the other quotes.

            The Catholic Church agrees that our good works and acts of love are useless apart from the grace of God that comes through faith. And she agrees that our works are a response to God’s grace, not the cause of God’s grace. But, along with Scripture and the unbroken testimony of the Church Fathers, she simply asserts that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). You can try do some mental gymnastics to reinterpret that verse (or just attempt to throw the whole of James out, as Martin Luther did), but even Jesus asserts that our works will count towards whether we are saved or not in Matthew 25:31-46. Or to make it even clearer:

            “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement” (John 5:28-29).

          • Karl Heitman

            Jonathan, I don’t think it’s fair to say that I, and many Evangelicals, are playing “mental gymnastics” with James 2:24. As I said, If you study the verse in its context and study the historical background, you’ll see that James was not teaching works based salvation. Again, in the context, James is saying that works demonstrate genuine faith. This isn’t “mental gymnastics,” it’s application of basic, consistent hermeneutics.

            Please read/listen to these lectures by Pastor John MacArthur. I would really like to see your response to these after you have listened to them:


  • Oma6

    Can I recommend Drive by Church History by Todd Friel? It is a DVD series with Todd & friends traveling to Europe and visiting historical locations, Geneva, Wittenberg etc, and teaching about important people and places from church history.
    Looking forward to following this series .

  • Thank you Nate Busentiz! Good reminder!

  • Angel

    Nathan, thank you very much for this post. I have been reading your posts and the posts by Dr. Clint Archer pretty regularly but this is the first time I am actually commenting. I am so pleased and thankful to God that He has raised people like you in our generation. People who uphold the Scripture!

  • Jason Gardner

    Prof. Nathan
    I’ve taught many of the history lessons in the Perspectives course and can say that I am really excited to read your blog series. When I study church history, specifically the expansion of the church into new places, reaching new cultures, I can’t help but walk away with a great sense of hope for tomorrow. Church history is filled with stories of flawed people doing impossible and great things because the serve a great God. Entire cultures have been transformed by the grace of God, even as the they sought to destroy the church. As a Christian committed to helping the church become more involved in taking the Gospel to the unreached, I find church history to be a tremendous source encouragement.

    Wish I could be in your class!

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