I love teaching on a wide range of historical subjects. Get me lecturing to undergraduate American history students on the Cold War and the emergence of political conservatism, and I’m in my scholarly happy place. Step into my world history class and you’ll find me fired up to explain how colonization reshaped the entire world.
But teaching church history is different. While I bring some basic assumptions (and standards of historical research) to any historical study, studying and teaching church history is a profoundly theological enterprise.
Here are 13 principles for why studying church history is crucial.
1. Remembering is vital.
Throughout Scripture, rightly remembering is critical to faithfulness. As early as Eden, Eve listens to the serpent, succumbing to faulty interpretations of the past and of God’s revelation in particular.
Throughout the Old Testament, God calls his people to recall and retell his gracious saving acts. Yet Israel repeatedly forgets, fails, and strays. The New Testament is also clear: Historical events are at the heart of the good news.
Our mission is to recount that history and call the nations to repent and believe in the Christ. Even the development of post-apostolic doctrine involved history. The early church fathers and councils had to determine, for example, what it meant to say with historical confidence that Jesus was both God and man.
2. The sovereign Creator is also the sovereign Lord.
A robust doctrine of divine providence reminds us that human history is a giant canvas on which we see God paint his sovereign plan. History is not cyclical in any Marxian sense; rather, it is all leading to one grand summation in Christ.
3. History fits into the divine drama of creation, fall, and redemption.
For two millennia, God’s people have borne witness to the truths of his power and lordship, the centrality of his saving work in Christ, and the hope offered freely in the gospel. Since Pentecost, God has been demonstrating this grand story of redemption in real places populated by real people, in the church. As visible outposts of the kingdom of Christ, churches are where this one great story—a metanarrative to rule them all, if you will—continually confronts and collides with the stories of this world and the present evil age. Church history tells the stories of that confrontation, in all of its beauty and messiness.
4. God’s meticulous providence shouldn’t make us presume on his mysterious providence.
Historians must be careful not to casually ascribe divine motive where God has not plainly revealed it. From Scripture we understand his ultimate purposes of redemption and his pledge to build his church. We are often without human explanation, however, for why his plans take a particular course. We must be willing to acknowledge the mysterious nature of providence and remain silent where God is silent.
5. God has unique purposes for his church.
The church is historically unique. God enters into a particular covenant with this new people, through the saving work of his Son, and makes promises to them as revealed in Scripture. Church history is the story of how God has guarded, purified, chastised, and strengthened his undeserving people.
6. Theological development doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Understanding the historical circumstances surrounding doctrinal formulation should make us better theologians. Ultimately, I’m much more concerned that my students be skilled theologians than historians (though I think they can be both!).
7. Truth matters.
Sometimes, church history reminds us of the failures and shortcomings of many of our forebears, even our heroes. One challenge for any generation of Christians is not to whitewash or excuse these failures (for example, Southern Baptists and race; Jonathan Edwards and slavery; John Calvin’s complicity in Servetus’s death, and so on).
Facing down such warts with historical honesty is not just a scholarly duty, but also brings glory to God. And it reminds us that the perseverance of the church has never been dependent on any human being. We’re all too frail and imperfect. The church of Jesus Christ is established, furthered, and guarded by the King himself.
8. A biblical doctrine of depravity makes us healthy skeptics.
Along these lines, George Marsden points out that “the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.” Not only does a biblical doctrine of depravity give us an appropriate skepticism, it also provides needed humility to acknowledge we lack authoritative certainty about what happened in the past. This doctrine should warn us against the temptation of hagiography, calling us instead to critical truth-telling about those who have come before us.
9. Church history is our corporate history.
No matter your nationality, ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status, if you’re in Christ church history is the story of your true community and family. This belief runs contrary to how we often understand ourselves. My brothers and sisters from the 16th century, for example, compose my spiritual family. Though separated by time, we share one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph. 4:5). The bond we share in Christ is more real and enduring than the connection we have with our families in the flesh.
10. We must treat our subjects—our own brothers and sisters—with grace and truth.
Humility and empathy are required. Before we too easily judge motives, prejudices, or intentions, we must ask how we would fare in others’ shoes. Honesty compels us to speak plainly when previous generations of Christians have erred (for example, anti-Semitism, persecution of religious minorities, slavery, white supremacy, and so on). But it should also cause us to speak with charity and empathy, recognizing we are not much different from them.
11. Church history is a global story.
“If the people of God come from every tribe and nation,” Mark Noll writes, “so then should a history of the people of God try to take in every tribe and nation.” Church history can’t be limited to Western or English-speaking peoples. One of the great stories of the past 50 years is the spread of Christianity throughout the Global South. This story has marked the return of the faith to regions that had been reached with the gospel in the first millennium.
12. Historical scholarship will always be revisionist and evolving.
Yes, truth is objective, real, and knowable. This conviction is grounded in the character and nature of a self-revealing, truth-telling God. But we understand that our knowledge is never full and always clouded. Due to our finitude and fallenness, we will always need further steps toward the truth. This pursuit requires hard work, original research, and a humble spirit.
13. The imago dei reminds us to listen to historical actors beyond the elite and privileged.
Not every actor or group will have the same historical significance, but we should be leery of casually dismissing those that may first appear insignificant. We should also be eager to allow historical actors to speak for themselves, rather than through mediating groups or powers.
The church of Jesus Christ remains, as always, a people called to faithfulness in this age as they await Christ’s return and the consummation of his rule in the age to come. Church history is part of that labor of both remembering and anticipating—of living between the times. We tell the truth about the past, give thanks for God’s grace, and repent of sin and failure. But we do it all through the eyes of faith and gospel hope.