Why read church history?
Why should we be interested in history? The humanist studies it to celebrate human accomplishment. His is a revisionist mindset, writing God out of the frame and so manipulating the evidence to suit his agenda. But the honest student of history focuses on the facts wherever they lead him, including those that point to a supernatural God.
We should study history because it relates to the truth. The New Testament emphasises that faithful witness must be born to true facts, however unlikely or unpalatable they are to the human heart.
It especially points to those facts that relate to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The central motif of the apostle John’s writings, for example, is testimony born by various ‘witnesses’ to Christ.
To study any aspect of ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ history is to discover, sooner or later, the works of the Lord in the affairs of men.
It is Jesus Christ who executes God’s decrees in the unfolding of world history (Revelation 5-8). And he does this in order to build his church — a glorious church not made of bricks and concrete, but of God’s people redeemed down the ages by sovereign grace, through the redemption that flows from Calvary.
In the calling of sinners through the gospel every tiny thing in history is, in some sense, an outworking of God’s mysterious and inscrutable providence (Ephesians 1:22). So to study history, and especially church history, is fundamentally to study the glorious works of God.
This exercise soon shows that the work of God in building his kingdom either proceeds quietly and slowly or rapidly and dramatically.
As the eighteenth-century theologian, Jonathan Edwards, explained: ‘It may be observed that from the fall of man to our day the work of redemption in its effects has mainly been carried on by remarkable communications of the Spirit of God.
‘Though there may be a more constant influence of God’s Spirit always in some degree attending his ordinances, yet the way in which the greatest things have been done towards carrying on this work always has been by remarkable effusions [outpourings] at special seasons’.
This study also shows that, both during and between such ‘special seasons’, movements of the Holy Spirit in the world share three characteristics.
First, they all take their impulse from the Spirit’s testimony in Scripture to Jesus Christ. Despite what many sincere people assert, the Spirit’s first testimony is neither to the traditions of the church nor to the utterances of preachers, however venerable or charismatic these appear to be, but to Jesus Christ as revealed in the Old and New Testaments.
Second, at the centre of all authentic gospel proclamation is the truth that no person can be justified before a holy God on account of good works, but on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. In other words, justification before God is by faith alone.
Third (and tragically) it is clearly demonstrable that the greatest antagonism to the biblical gospel may come from those who, while claiming to believe the truths of Christianity, have failed to grasp its real message.
All this, and much more, we learn for the first time (or are reminded of) through studying God at work in church history for the salvation of his people.
This is why Christians should read Christian biographies, and ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ history. In the last analysis, to do this brings into focus the glorious accomplishments of the risen and ascended Christ. History, viewed from that perspective, is sheer worship!
There are, of course, many other valuable things to read and study concerning the Word of God and Christian doctrine. But, one way or another, let’s get down to some solid reading this summer — and don’t forget the history!