My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

22 August 2006

Why Church History

Sunday morning the college class began a semester-long overview of church history, mostly using the outline provided by Mark Noll in Turning Points. The big discussion on Sunday was, "Why should we study church history?" This is most helpful to me, a recovering church-history scrooge. Here are some of the reasons Noll gives to study church history, to which we added a few more:
  • Studying church history shows the historical character of the Christian faith. Unlike many other religions which are based on philosophies and various theologies, Christianity is not simply a collection of doctrines or a comprehensive worldview. Rather, it is first and foremost about what God has done and will do in real time and real space.
  • Looking to the past will give us perspective on interpreting the Scriptures. It keeps us from assuming that way we read the Bible is the way it's always been read - not that church history should make us constantly doubt our exegesis, but should give us valuable perspective. We should be very careful when we find ourselves understanding Scripture differently than the church has for 20 centuries.
  • Perspective itself is a benefit of studying church history. How often do we hear that the modern world is the worst it's ever been? Or that we've finally found the one answer to our theological problems? Such histrionics, whether pessimistic or optimistic, would be tempered if we took seriously the study of Christ's church.
  • We have a heritage to claim and enjoy, so let's get to it. Whether it's our specific heritage, like the Covenanters, or the heritage enjoyed by the whole church, like the church fathers, we ought to honor those who have gone before us and claim that heritage.
  • We can learn great lessons from the saints in the past. As we learn about how our mothers and fathers of the faith faced down the pressures of the world and walked wisely (and sometimes unwisely), we will find wisdom and conviction.
  • Similarly, most of the battles faced by the church have already been fought. If we forget that and neglect to pick up and wield the weapons forged by our ancestors, how much the poorer are we! The most recent and painful example of this was the church's frantic arm-waving over the Da Vinci Code. Yes, it's bad and blasphemous and all that. But it's already been answered - all this heresy and silliness wasn't invented by Dan Brown. Were the church instructed in her history, would so many be so tempted or worried?
  • Studying church history will lay bare the great grace of God in sustaining an imperfect church through many centuries.
  • Perhaps more than most generations, our Christian generation operates in a historical vacuum and hast lost the power of the historic Christian faith. The church must find a stronger foundation than the self- and chrono-centric one she stands on now.
  • Finally, as hinted at by Psalm 78 and Hebrews 11, studying the history of Christ's reign with His people, studying church history builds faith. There is strength and courage and belief to be had when we lay hold of these stories - who doesn't need more faith?
Would you add any more reasons?


Josh said...

That's great that you are teaching a class on church history. I wish more churches offered classes in church history.

You bring up a good subject in the Da Vinci Code. I believe that if Christians had a firm knowledge of church history, Dan Brown couldn't get away with what he wrote and thus there wouldn't 100+ books demystifying, debunking, deciphering de-whatever the Da Vinci Code.

MarkPele said...

I find too much of an emphasis on church history in the RPCNA. I am considering writing a position paper, and the response to a very, very rough draft was: you need to do a historical analysis.

Well, not to sound too Reformed, but what is the emphasis on tradition if the Bible is the only rule for faith and life? I understand evaluating historical commentators to understand their arguments for or against, but what if we're talking about church government? The Roman Catholic church obviously left Presbyterianism quickly, and Calvin and Luther, for all the benefit they brought us, were steeped in that tradition. Yet, one cannot make a pointed argument without quoting the "greats", no matter how off base they were.

So, history is a wonderful study - to avoid repeating mistakes and heresies that keep on appearing, but too much emphasis on non-apostolic men who were flawed in their understanding just can't be healthy.

Tamara said...

I know I would not be ready for that study. I think about how divided the church is present day and I have a deep seeded feeling that we went wrong somewhere in history. Therefore we have a LONG journey to straighten it all out. But to avoid sounding pessimistic as one of the points warned I would stick to the bottom question.

If I were to study church history I would study lives and not organized religion/ church doctrine. Big names like Luther, Calvin, and so forth would only interest me if I found out how many hours they prayed a day. I would not study the big picture but the lives of the saints. Did they truly have integrity in their daily life? What did they busy there lives with out side of the church's eye. This is where I think the rubber meets the road. It is our testimony of how we followed our beliefs as well as the faith in them that glorifies God. I guess a good book to mark such a study is Foxe's book of martyrs. Or some church theologian’s biography. It is the individual’s walk that reveals the purity of the corporate church and it's effectiveness through out the age. As they say being in a garage does not make you a car just like being in a church doesn’t make you a Christian.

ellyn olivetti said...

I would love to take a class on church history - wish I could sit in on your class! That is something I never learned much about and would love to know. Is there a good overview book you would recommend on the subject?

Jared said...

Mark, I gotta say that I really disagree with your sentiments. Perhaps it's our congregation, but I find far too little of an emphasis on church history, which is one of the reasons for the class. You'd have to go a really long way to prove to me that we're even historically well-informed, nevermind over-informed. A passion for history doesn't mean we do everything they did, but that we take seriously what has gone before and depart from the historic church only with really, really good reasons.

To answer your question, a sole emphasis on the Bible as our rule for faith and life is not reformed, but fundamentalist. Keith Mathison discusses this in his book on sola scriptura. He lays out several positions toward Scripture and how those positions also account for the authority of church history. He labels the fundamentalist, "no creed but Christ" position as "history zero." He labels the reformed position as "history one." The eastern orthodox position would probably be "history three", placing the authority of church fathers on par with Scripture.

I think the counsel you got on doing a historical analysis is wise counsel. Many times, when folks bring position papers to synod or presbytery, it seems as though they've simply ignored those who have gone before us, giving the impression that they have the corner on interpreting Scripture. This chrono-centric mindset is extremely flawed and dangerous, not to mention prideful.

Mom - the book I'm using, Turning Points by Mark Noll, is a great overview of church history!

MarkPele said...

WSC: Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

WCF 1.6: The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

WCF 1.9: The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

WCF 1.10: The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined; and in whose sentence we are to rest; can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

I may be a fundamentalist, but I think I'm in good company. This to me puts a proper perspective on history - that it provides good insight into understanding scripture, but isn't infallible. We are Presbyterian because Calvin rightly interpreted the scriptures in a chrono-centric way, understanding that nearly the entire history of the Roman Catholic church was fundamentally flawed in terms of church government. Should we then point our fingers at Calvin, calling him flawed, dangerous and prideful and walk back into the arms of the Pope and his minions who have 1400+ years more history than we?

Tamara said...

If scripture is the most important thing why does the church find it so important to right out confusing, wordy documents. LOL

Jeff Kessler said...


No one in the reformed camp claims history to be infallible. Yet the teachers of the church (past and present) still have real they should be studied. And an important theme in Scripture is to remember. So, even if one doesn't want to study church history for theology, it is important to build faith by seeing what God has done over the years...just recount all the great stories.

By the way, I think your last paragraph proves the point...history is important...we can study the diff. between Calvin and the RCs. And I find it interesting that you use the WCF (an authoritative, historic, although not infallible, document) to make your point about the Scripture.

Jeff K

Jeff Kessler said...

I thought I might add to my previous comments.

The Reformers were serious students of church history. While the Bible was their primary and only infallible source of information, it was not their only source. You don't have to read much Calvin to realize that he was well read on history, esp. Augustine. Much of what the reformers were pushing was a return (first to Scripture), but also to the beliefs of the early church on many (not all) issues, esp. the doctrines of grace. They had to know their history.

I believe Luther was reading Augustine as well as Scripture when justification by faith alone started to make sense to him. Luther was also well aware of the things Hus and Wycliffe had written just a 100-150 years earlier. Luther would comment (a paraphrase) there was little in his theology that Hus had not already taught.

Not only is Jared teaching church history to the college kids, but he has me teaching it to the high school kids as well. I'm excited about it and pray that excitement will rub off on the high school class too.

Jeff K.

Jared said...

I think Jeff hit the nail on the head - by saying "I'm in good company," you prove the very point you're trying to disprove: that it's good to know what those in the past have said, why they said it, and to love having their company. No one's questioning the ultimate authority of Scripture, but if the church of the ages has no authority, then each generation is left to themselves to write new creeds, new confessions, new defenses of theology, etc. As you point out, it's sometimes necessary to deviate from a large portion of the historic church - but we ought to know when we're doing that and do it with great care, copious prayer, and an absolute certainty of the necessity of the change.

Church history, too, means more than having a second or third opinion on our exegesis. It's a means of being faithful to remember God's mighty deeds, a way we can build faith in ourselves and our kids as we see the God of the Bible never falter in His faithfulness over 20 centuries of assaulting the gates of hell.

MarkPele said...

Um. I quote the WCF because it is part of the Constitution of the church. I'm not quoting it because I think it has the corner on Biblical interpretation.

I agree that studying church history is a good thing, but you seem to say that an argument devoid of an acknowledgment of non-Biblical historical "authoritative" documents is worthless. Obviously many questions have been answered before, so one needs to do research, but the real question is what the Bible says.

Now, in looking at church history, I think that the understanding of the nature of authority is flawed. Call me an arrogant fool, but looking at the church, family and government I see that each wants to usurp the proper role of the next. One easy example is whether the church has the right to regulate family worship (DCG 5). I know what will happen if I write a paper, though. If it's not returned outright (whether I spend weeks or years researching it) I'll get some stock response, quoting long sections of the WCF, Calvin and other people, with very few, if any Biblical verses. I suspect Ren Adams spent a good deal of time doing exhaustive historical research only to find that Synod mostly ignored the requests of his paper and merely returned it.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a proper understanding of the Bible has merit of itself, whether or not all the "greats" agree. A novel understanding ought to be more diligently argued, but novelty alone should not be grounds for return.

Jared said...

Mark - I'm getting less sure about what we're debating. I totally agree that "a proper understanding of the Bible has merit of itself" - but the assumption that I can attain a proper understanding of the Bible without passing my exegesis through the fires of history is a much higher view of my Biblical prowess than I'm apt to take.

Re: a paper. I truly hope what you assume would happen wouldn't happen. I hope any response would address first the Bible's teaching, then the church's historic position. But if you wrote a paper dealing with a historic (and hopefully Biblical) position of the church yet you dealt only with what you understand the Bible to be teaching, synod has much less reason to take it seriously. To say it a different way, not only should "a novel more diligently argued", but it should be more diligently doubted, prodded, and poked (with Scripture & the testimony of history), until we're sure it is faithful to Scripture. Perhaps even more strongly, while novelty along might not be grounds for return, it is grounds for great doubt and reservation.

MarkPele said...

I think this is the core of our differences: both you and Jeff talk about the "authority" of the historic church. How do you describe that authority? I will also say that you cannot use "Biblical authority" (i.e. that the document agrees with Scripture) or "current authority" (i.e. that those in current leadership agree that the document reflects the teaching of the church) There is some weight to the fact that the WCF is a document that was adopted by many of the Reformed synods, making it the teaching of the church at that point, but I don't know as I would call that authority.

Please forgive me as I was trying to really understand why the statement bothered me, so my argumentation was more probing why we believe history to be critical.

MarkPele said...

I think this is the core of our differences: both you and Jeff talk about the "authority" of the historic church. How do you describe that authority? I will also say that you cannot use "Biblical authority" (i.e. that the document agrees with Scripture) or "current authority" (i.e. that those in current leadership agree that the document reflects the teaching of the church) There is some weight to the fact that the WCF is a document that was adopted by many of the Reformed synods, making it the teaching of the church at that point, but I don't know as I would call that authority.

Please forgive me as I was trying to really understand why the statement bothered me, so my argumentation was more probing why we believe history to be critical.

Nathan Stockwell said...

Jeff's point about the WFC being quoted was simply that you are using a historic document to disprove using historic documents as an authority. I believe a correct understanding of the Bible and history is that we use the Bible as our glasses for looking at the events of our forefathers. Where they simply preached and taught the Word of God correctly we say, “God is great” and use their material, but where they err we take caution and thank God for His grace of allowing us to see it. We don't look at history and say, "John Calvin is our bottom line, and whatever he says goes" or pick your poison.

Look at the Old Testament, or the New. Why are we talking about all these dead guys? The Psalms and the Prophets refer over and over and over and over to events that came before them. How about Acts 6 and 7 with Stephen testimony before the Sanhedrim? Come to think of it why do you even read that old book the Holy Bible? I'm not joking. Taken to its logical conclusion your position undermines what it tries to uphold. You probably don’t believe that the Bible is useless, but what’s to stop you from believing that? If you say Holy Spirit you would be correct but also inconsistent.

Of course there are dangers the other way and it is very wise to avoid those, but ". . . God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." (Rom. 8:28) And what pray tell is one of the assurances the Paul gives us that this statement is not just a "warm fuzzy"? Why, the event of the cross (Rom.8:32 - 36). Which when Paul wrote it he was referring to events that had gone before the writing of his letter!

History is very subjective business in terms of what to keep and what to leave out. However, that is another subject and while I'm sure much of what we don't know of church history would be very helpful, or hurtful, for reasons we won't comprehend but we must believe that what God has allowed to remain "... was written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come." (1 Cor. 10:11)

Now, I have grown up in the RPC all my life, but I have attended and have friends in church which I believe would warmly receive your "no creed but Christ" outlook. I have many discussions with them about the church and its practices. A lot times I hear "we need to get back to New Testament worship" or New Testament such and such. I have begun to see through such sayings as both code and nonsense. It is code for "we don't believe Matthew 16:18" and thus utter nonsense.