This article was originally published under the title “3 Reasons Church History Matters for Pastors at equip.sbts.edu
In his book In Praise of Forgetting, David Rieff takes exception with George Santayana’s famous dictum “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Instead, Rieff proposes that historical memory is not a moral imperative. Pointing to instances of war and slavery, the author suggests that collective remembrance can even be harmful for a community.
Sometimes, says Rieff, it’s just better to forget. His thesis, while possessing noble purposes, epitomizes the modern tendency to value novelty over antiquity. The result is a 21st century America that would rather forget its history than recognize a grand narrative aimed at uniting all things in Christ. Unfortunately, this worldview isn’t simply relegated to secular literature; it can often be found inside of the church.
In the words of J. Gresham Machen, “The modern church is impatient of history. History, we are told, is a dead thing.” The modern attitude of Christians is on display when they adopt a “whatever strikes me” approach to reading the Bible detached from historical teaching or demonstrate an aversion to the ecumenical creeds. In many ways, the answer to this problem of modernity is a biblical theology steeped in historical theology.
The Bible is a God-breathed, Spirit-inspired book (2 Tim 3:16). However, it’s also an historical document. According to Machen, “Christianity is an historical phenomenon.” The church itself claims a 2000-year-old Nazarene as its cornerstone and the prophets and apostles as its foundation (Eph 2:20).
Following are three reasons Christians should read and study church history.
1. We strengthen our theology by studying its development and defense.
The Bible itself is a testament to the didactic force of storytelling. For example, while Wayne Grudem’s popular Systematic Theology is an excellent encyclopedic resource for every pastor, memorizing the doctrines of sin and justification isn’t the same as learning them through the personal and professional trials of Martin Luther as he wrestled with the justice of God.
The chronicled accounts of our theological heroes not only help us to absorb theological truths in a unique way; they also allow us to witness its development. Critical issues such as the divinity of Jesus were not defined overnight. Church history provides insight into how such critical issues of doctrine came to be accepted by the church based on their understanding of the biblical text. With the cement of church history, a believer’s positions become convictions—supported by Scripture and a great cloud of Christian witnesses.
According to pastor and historian Sean Michael Lucas, “church history forces us to own our theological commitments in ways that are pastorally healthy. We are forced to think through how our view of God, humanity, justice, sin, redemption, and eschatology inevitably affect the stories we historians and pastors tell and the ways we tell them.”
Want to increase your passion and conviction for your faith? Read church history.
2. Our local church is one chapter in a larger story.
In his famous book, Desiring God, pastor John Piper writes, “For the good of your soul, I encourage you to read great books about God and about his people.” The trials and triumphs of the Lord’s church bring us encouragement. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort” (2 Cor 1:7).
Church history is an antidote for Christians poisoned by the tunnel-vision that causes them to ignore that their labors are a part of a cosmic, multi-generational plan to extend the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth. Take heart! The saints have gone before you. Local churches should constantly be reminded that a church is only one part of the church and that this church has endured similar struggles for centuries.
Church history is an enduring legacy to the unshakeable promises of God. Problems with the liberalism you encounter in the post-modern world in which we live and work? Read Spurgeon on the Downgrade Controversy. Detect a lack of missional zeal among your fellow believers or in your own soul? Read Andrew Fuller’s Gospel Worthy.
Church history supplements the great truths of Scripture with the accounts of deeply flawed men and women who carried the burdens we face today. There’s encouragement and example for Christians in their stories.
3. Good history prepares us for what lies ahead.
History isn’t just backward looking. It’s also forward-looking. In his magisterial Preaching and Preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones recalls, “I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.”
Church history doesn’t just bring us encouragement; it also gives us hope for the future. One cannot read of the endeavors of Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield and not possess some measure of excitement and anticipation for perhaps another American Awakening.
Church history bears witness to a Christ-inaugurated kingdom awaiting an eschatological consummation—a heavenly wedding foreshadowed in each soul won for the sake of Christ. If history has a purpose, indeed Christians can wield it as a proleptic tool pointing us toward the direction of glory.