August 22, 2013

Dates, Doctrines, & Dead People (Conclusion)

by Nathan Busenitz

2000_YearsThis post wraps up our list of 10 reasons why church history is important … and why you should care about it. To access the previous three articles (for the complete list) click here (Part 1), here (Part 2), and here (Part 3).

8. Because just as we can learn from the good examples of faithful Christians (see Reason #7), we likewise have much to learn from those who failed at various points.

It is an old cliché, but often true: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

In church history, we see examples of all kinds of spiritual failure. There are those who fell into heresy, those who gave way to corruption, those who denied the faith, and those who fell morally. The lives of such individuals serve as a warning for us.

In 2 Corinthians 6:10–12, the apostle Paul uses the negative illustration of the Israelites in the wilderness to teach his readers an important spiritual lesson. Paul’s example sets a precedent for the way we think about both biblical history and church history.

We can learn powerful lessons about what to avoid from things like the influx of paganism into Roman Christianity, the corruption of the papacy, the Crusades, the development of liberalism, and so on. Learning from past failures helps guard us from repeating those same errors.

Church History is proof that spiritual failure can come rapidly with devastating results, a point illustrated in the New Testament by the Galatians—who were quickly tempted to abandon the true gospel (Galatians 1:6–9). It reminds us of the need to be viligant—to watch our lives and our doctrine closely, so as not to fall into similar snares and pitfalls.

On a practical note, not all of the historical biographies you read have to be positive. Sometimes it is helpful to read a book that critically engages with some form of error or failure. Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism, George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism, and Eric Chamberlain’s The Bad Popes are excellent examples of these types of resources.

* * * * *

9. Because studying the past helps us understand the resources, opportunities, and freedoms that we enjoy in the present.

Often we take for granted the blessings that we enjoy living in the modern age.The study of church history reminds us of the great sacrifices made and challenges faced by previous generations of believers. It increases our thankfulness for what we have, and it motivates us to be good stewards of the incredible opportunities that God has afforded us.

The history of the English Bible, for example, reminds us to be thankful that we have a personal copy of God’s Word in our own language. The history of persecution emboldens us in our evangelism, as we witness the faithfulness of the martyrs and recognize how unique the freedoms we enjoy really are. The history of missions makes us grateful for advancements in travel and technology, while simultaneously inspiring us to do more in our effort to reach the world for Christ.

It is also interesting, on a tangential note, to realize that our generation represents the first to really wrestle with the implications of the information age for the church. In many ways, modern technology affords us with opportunities that those of previous generations could never have imagined. But such advancements also put the onus on us to think carefully and biblically about the way we use them. We are setting the precedent for the way future generations will think about the church’s interaction with technology and media.

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10. Because history helps twenty-first century pastors have a right perspective about their own place in the church age.

It is important to realize that we are part of church history. We are part of the current generation of believers, and we have a responsibility to faithfully guard the truth and pass it on to those who come after us.

Studying church history helps us recognize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, our local congregation, or even the evangelical movement as it exists today. The history of Christianity spans two millennia, of which we are but a momentary blip.

Studying church history also opens our eyes to the fact that every generation of believers is greatly affected by the time and culture in which they live, such that they themselves do not even realize the effects. We can then, in turn, ask ourselves what impact our culture has on our own application of biblical truth.

Finally, and most importantly, studying church history helps us remember that Christ is the Lord of the church in every age; and to remind ourselves of what a great privilege it is to minister in His service. It also motivates us to look forward to the day when He returns, and church history officially comes to its end.

Those interested in a brief survey of church history may be interested in Christopher Catherwood’s short book, Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious. Longer church history textbooks (like the multi-volume set by Nicholas R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power) can also be excellent places to start. Steven Lawson’s Pillars of Grace and Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology are also great resources that approach church history topically.

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.
  • Albert

    Thanks for these ten helpful points! Beyond the books listed in today’s article, what other books and resources would you recommend?

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Albert,

      I was recently asked this question (in email form) by a pastor friend. Here is the list I gave him. Obviously, there are many other good books that are not on this list. But it’s a place to start.

      * * * *

      1. 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)

      * * * *

      2. Early Church:

      Getting to Know the Church Fathers (by Bryan Litfin)

      Rediscovering the Church Fathers (by Michael Haykin)

      For Us and for Our Salvation (by Stephen Nichols)

      The Apostolic Fathers (Greek translated by Michael Holmes)

      * * * *

      3. Medieval Church/Roman Catholic Period

      2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 2 (by N. R. Needham)

      The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (by William Webster)

      The Bad Popes (by E. R. Chamberlain)

      Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men – vol. 2 (by Steve Lawson)

      * * * *

      4. Reformation & Puritan Period

      The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Stephen

      The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther (by Steve Lawson)

      (Any of a number of biographies on Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, William Tyndale, etc.)

      Worldly Saints (by Leland Ryken)

      A Puritan Theology (by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones)

      * * * * *

      5. Great Awakening/Evangelical Revival

      Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (by Iain Murray)

      George Whitefield — 2 vols. (by Andrew Dallimore)

      Revival and Revivalism (by Iain Murray)

      * * * * *

      6. Modern Missions Movement

      (Any of a number of biographies on David Brainerd, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, etc.)

      * * * * *

      7. Fundamentalism and Contemporary Evangelicalism

      In Pursuit of Purity (by David O. Beale)

      The Old Evangelicalism (by Iain Murray)

      Evangelicalism Divided (by Iain Murray)

  • Helen Goh

    “The Bad Popes” (book title)? Is there such a thing as a good pope?!

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Helen,

      ‘The Bad Popes’ is a book that documents the corruption of the papacy from the 9th through the 14th centuries. It helps explain the need for the Reformation, by showing just how dark and despicable things had gotten in Rome in the late middle ages.

      You can get a sense of the book by reading Jesse Johnson’s review:

      The book doesn’t claim that the papacy is good. In fact, it does the opposite, by showing just how corrupt it can be.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Helen Goh

        Thanks for troubling to reply. My original comment was whimsical rhetoric!!!, but reply still good to read!

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  • Joshua Daugereau

    Thanks for the articles! They are very helpful and insightful.