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Why read church history?

September 2013 | by Simonetta Carr

I noticed in a homeschool blog an interesting comment from a young boy to his mother. He had just read some books (including one of mine) on church history, so he asked her: ‘Mom, why do people make it so complicated? All God wants is for us to love him and believe him.’

Anyone who has delved into the theological conflicts and debates of the past will sympathise with his feelings, but human history is always complicated. I decided to share my thoughts with this boy. Perhaps they will help someone else too?

Dear Elijah,

I am glad you are reading some interesting books on church history. You have asked a very important question, and you are right when you say God just wants us to love him and believe him. The Westminster Catechism says our main goal in life is ‘to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’.

The problem is that not everyone in the world knows God as he has revealed himself in the Bible, and sometimes Christians get confused too. So pastors and theologians have to keep reminding us just who the God we should love is, and why we should love him, and how.

Adam and Eve knew God personally and could speak to him directly, but after their act of rebellion against him, their nature and that of every human being after them (except Jesus) became corrupted by sin.

In fact, it became so corrupt that, instead of desiring to love the God of the Bible, human beings began to run away from him and tried to replace him with some idea of God they liked better.

Athanasius and Anselm

If we don’t know who God is, we will end up loving a god of our imagination. In the fourth century, for example, many found it so hard to believe that Jesus could be fully man and fully God, so they started to make him into something they could understand better. Some said he was some sort of lesser god or superman.

People argued so much that they had actual fights and Emperor Constantine had to gather the church leaders to try to come to an agreement. Their conclusions are in the Nicene Creed, which we believe today.

But the struggle didn’t stop there. You can find out more by reading the fascinating story of Athanasius, who defended the biblical teachings about Jesus, even if that meant leaving his country and friends and risking his life.

Athanasius had many friends who lived in the desert, away from everything, because they wanted to spend their lives just loving God, and I am sure he often wished he could do the same. Still, he knew he had to live in the busy and dangerous cities where the Bible was attacked the most, because fighting for the truth is part of loving God. Once he even called his friends to come and stand by his side.

Another man who helps us to understand God, so we can love him for who he really is was Anselm, a 12th-century monk. Like you, Anselm just wanted to love God and believe him. In fact, he was often frustrated because he had to take care of many other things that took him away from his time of prayer and study.

He helped Christians understand why Jesus had to become a man. Have you ever wondered why? Couldn’t God have saved us some other way? We often hear that Jesus died to take away our sins, but what does that really mean? If he took our sins away, what did he do with them?

Anselm explained how sin has created a terrible problem, because on one hand God cannot just forgive it without a repayment, and on the other hand we have no way to repay him.

To save us from this terrible problem God had to send someone who was fully God (so he could live a perfect life and take the enormous punishment for the sins of others) and fully man (because it was man who sinned, so a man should be punished). That person was, of course, Jesus.

Jesus’ mission

In Anselm’s day, there were people who explained Jesus’ sacrifice in other ways. Most of them believed that Jesus had to die to satisfy the devil who had taken over human souls. Anselm knew this is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus never owed anything to the devil.

Other people said that Jesus died just to show us God’s love. It’s true that Jesus’ sacrifice shows us God’s love, but that’s not the only reason for his life and death. Jesus came with a mission to save his own and accomplished it!

Jesus’ mission is at the centre of the wonderful story of our salvation. It’s hard for our pride to accept a Saviour who does everything for us or a God who stoops down to become a man. So, it’s really sin that complicates things!

When we understand what God has done for us through Christ, we love him so much more! That’s why Paul said, ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!’ (Romans 11:33).

With so many contradicting voices around us, sometimes knowing God can be a struggle. It’s important that we study the Bible carefully, ask our church leaders for help, and take advantage of the wonderful creeds, catechisms and confessions the church of the past has produced for us.

Sometimes things may seem complicated, but we need to trust God that his truth is both simple and profound, and we will understand it fully in heaven where we will be free from sin.

Paul said, ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). Then we will be really totally free to love God and believe him!

I am sure your mom has already given you a good answer to your question. Since it was posted online, I decided to share my thoughts too. It’s so encouraging to find young readers like you who have already found the right priorities at such an early age! Keep it up!

In Christ,

Simonetta Carr

The writer is a mother of eight and author of the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Books. The characters mentioned in this letter (Athanasius and Anselm of Canterbury) are part of her series.

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