You know the old cliché: “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” And yet, sadly, when the subject of church history is brought up among many churchgoers these days, there’s not a lot of knowledge evident.
Sure, some folks may have a passing acquaintance with a few events or figures they really like — especially the heroes of their particular denomination. They’ve probably at least heard the names of St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and a few others, and maybe know a little about the Protestant Reformation.
And I do find (in my circles, at least) that a lot of people wish they knew more about church history. It’s just tough to get started!
With nearly 2,000 years’ worth of events and writings to cover, the history of Christianity is an intimidating subject to try and dive into. It takes a lot of time to get familiar with, and it can be tough to find resources that are both engaging and reliable to help us learn. Even so, I firmly believe that every Christian owes it to themselves to at least get a cursory knowledge of the rich heritage of their faith.
You won’t be able to cover everything, nor do you need to get a degree in church history (unless God is calling you to!). But I think we do ourselves a disservice by not knowing at least the broad contours of Christianity’s past. It behooves us to learn how we got to where we are today. (Yes, I did just use the word “behoove.” You’re welcome.)
That said, here are six important reasons why you should learn about church history:
- It connects us to our spiritual heritage.
If you’re a Christian, then learning church history is, quite simply, learning the history of your spiritual family. It connects you with those who came before, and this can help give your own faith a sense of rootedness in the past. You can see it as something robust that’s been passed down to you, instead of seeing it as something you have to make up as you go along.
After all, regardless of what you may have been told, becoming a follower of Christ isn’t just about “you and Jesus,” or “just me and my Bible,” assembling a spirituality on the go. It involves joining the spiritual community of believers throughout space and time — that is, the church — and inheriting their legacy, for better or worse! Knowing that legacy will enhance your understanding of what it means to bear the identity of “Christian.”
- It reminds us that many of our most important questions have already been answered.
Have you ever wondered why Bibles include the books they do and leave out others? Or why Christians believe that God is a Trinity? Or even why church buildings look the way they do? All of these questions have historical answers.
Indeed, most topics you can think of — whether about the Bible, or certain traditions, or ethics and spiritual living — have already been talked about by Christians who lived before us! They were people just like us, asking questions similar to ours about the gospel they believed in but struggled to fully unpack and live out (just like we do).
We can learn a great deal from studying the ways early Christians wrestled with the same or similar questions to ours, rather than just assume we can come up with something better from scratch. As C. S. Lewis points out, we need to avoid being guilty of “chronological snobbery” — of always assuming we know better now than those old guys did back then. A lot of them were much smarter than us, even if they didn’t have the Internet to help them (or maybe because they didn’t have it!).
- It sets guardrails within which the essentials of true Christianity are defined.
Similar to #2 above, we need to be aware of what Christians throughout the centuries have found most important and essential to our faith and identity in Christ. When we study how the earliest followers of Jesus defined, defended, and handed down their faith, we come to better understand what a “Christian” actually is. We see which beliefs are essential as opposed to which things we can disagree on.
In studying the creeds and councils of the early, undivided Church, I’ve come to learn something crucial: When we can define and articulate the core of what true Christians need to affirm, it gives us helpful guardrails against heresies that tend to pop back up over and over throughout the ages like bad weeds. Within these guardrails of the early creeds, we find that we actually have plenty of open space within which to discuss and study various doctrines that really shouldn’t divide us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
- It gives us perspective in our current struggles.
For as much as our world seems crazy and hostile to traditional Christian faith and values these days, even the briefest glance at church history reminds us that many who have gone before us have endured far worse. In much of history we see that really “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and this can be an encouragement to anyone feeling overwhelmed by their circumstances.
By learning about how the earliest churches navigated times of persecution under the Roman Empire, for example, we can find strength and confidence in the Lord who promised to build his Church so that even the gates of hell would not be able to stand against it (Matthew 16:18). In this way, studying church history can bolster our faith in the Lord of history, Jesus Christ.
- It offers us powerful examples to imitate (or avoid!).
Far from being dry and dusty, you just might be surprised to discover how interesting the stories of some of our Christian forebears can be! Whether it’s St. Augustine recounting his raucous and relatable journey from being a Roman party-boy to ending up a Christian bishop; or the tale of St. Nicholas of Myra (the inspiration behind Santa Claus) giving away his wealth to save three young girls from poverty; or how St. Moses the Black went from a life of crime to becoming a desert sage; you can’t say that church history isn’t lively!
Our Christian heritage is filled to the brim with fascinating figures whose lives we can learn from. Or, in other cases, we’ll also find plenty of negative examples to warn us of the ways religion has sadly often been abused. But for every squabbling pope or corrupt conquistador, there are also plenty of heroic missionaries, wise saints, and devout believers doing their best to live out their faith in the midst of their own trying circumstances. In them we can see how the gospel has impacted lives in every century.
- It can build bridges of understanding with believers of other denominations.
You don’t have to know much about Christianity to know that it is diverse, and that every denomination lives out their faith a little bit differently than others. But once you learn the history that led to these various expressions of Christianity — as well as how the majority of them still more or less hold to the same essential creeds — you can (hopefully) have a better understanding and empathy for members of denominations different than your own.
Having grown up in the Assemblies of God denomination, I was blessed by studying the lives of Baptist ministers like Charles Spurgeon, whose passion for preaching the Scriptures drove everything they did. I also appreciated the way Anglicans like John Wesley found ways to hold to both the ancient traditions of the early church fathers and emphasize the importance of personal piety and charismatic experience to meet new needs in the church.
All of this was a nice balance to round out my own tradition’s pet doctrines and identify my own blind spots. Indeed, my study of church history has been a large factor in moving me into a different denomination altogether! But I’ll still carry with me my AoG heritage’s emphasis on the importance of the Holy Spirit’s power, as I continue to seek deeper connections with the diverse body of Christ worldwide. Hopefully you, too, can can find your horizons broadened by your own study of church history.
How you can start learning church history:
I hope I’ve managed to whet your appetite enough to get you started. But we still have to address the perennial problem: Where do I start??
The good news is, you don’t have to sign up for a college class to begin learning church history (although if you happen to have a good Christian school near you, you might consider looking into auditing a course!). There are a lot of great resources available.
My favorite overview is The Story of Christianity (2 volumes) by Justo González. It covers just about everything you’d need to know in a very fair and judicious manner, but it’s also eminently readable.
Another good option for those wanting a one-volume work is Roger E. Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology, which is likewise very readable.
If you’re really wanting to dig in to the beliefs of the early church, the classic treatment is J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines: Revised Edition.
Don’t have the time or money to read a textbook? Thankfully there are a few helpful options around the Internet.
One professor (Ryan Reeves) has done us all a massive service by turning his church history lessons into a YouTube video series. I recommend starting with his playlist on the early & medieval church.
If you want to read the works of early Christians firsthand, you can find just about every historical Christian writing over at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.org) and read them online for free. Here are some I recommend everyone read:
– The Didache
– The Epistle to Diognetus
– Justin Martyr, First Apology
– Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching
– Athanasius, On the Incarnation
– Augustine, Confessions
– John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith
And finally, if you check back here later (or better yet, put your email address in the sidebar on the right to subscribe to future posts!), I’m hoping to start doing some posts here in the near future covering some church history topics myself (Lord willing). I’m not promising to make an exhaustive database or anything, but from time to time I’ll share some key takeaways from my own studies.
In the meantime, check out the books and Dr. Reeves’ YouTube channel I mentioned above, and let me know in the comments what other resources you’ve found helpful for studying church history!
See you down the path.
Categories: Historical Theology
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