The world contains few historians, and those who are men of history are usually leaders as a result. People with the wisdom of the past drive generations into the future. The greatest men are rarely original thinkers so much as they are intelligent in extrapolating value from the generations before them. Our ignorance of history often makes us useless for life because we repeat history’s mistakes. So then, we must endeavor to study Church history with the conviction of its necessity. There are a few reasons to study it.
It is the Humble Thing to Do. Regarding Bible commentaries Mr. Spurgeon wondered why people who appreciated the Spirit’s personal illumination so ignored His grace toward men who wrote great expositions of Scripture. So with history, we must understand that real lives are represented, lives as real as ours. If we care about our purpose in God’s plan, why ought we to ignore others involved in it? Are we more part of His plan than they are? Are we more valuable than they? No. History is marked by saints in every generation who loved the Lord Jesus, and they are near to His heart. Dare we arrogantly ignore them and pretend we have arrived at this point on our own? One has said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” and this is the only reason we can be great. To study history is to value the people God has deemed worthy of a record and to learn from the people He has given us as a warning. The Lord Jesus alone is worthy of centrality; we, on the other hand, are part of a bigger picture and do not deserve a central place. We must study history so that we may remember our place in a scheme that is far bigger than our present circumstances. It is arrogant to think that knowledge of previous generations and cultures is vain.
It Completes Our Knowledge of God’s Providence. Scripture contains much history, yet it is deliberately unfinished so that God might write the rest in our lives. Matthew’s Gospel ends with a commission to continue the work. John’s Gospel ends with the uncontainable works of Christ. Acts ends abruptly with Paul in prison in Rome, as if we were to respond with fervor for the gospel that demands our all. Scripture was not meant to record everything we could know regarding God’s dealings with His people. It was meant to give us everything we should know so that we may continue the work according to the original pattern. Church history is an exciting experience in which we get to trace God’s hand without having it explicitly mentioned as in Scripture. Scripture gave us the principles with which we can interpret all history, and so we should see God’s hand in all generations. The story did not end in the New Testament; rather, it just began. We are writing a narrative by our lives, and we ought to appreciate the continuation of divine work up to this point.
It Informs and Encourages Us in our Theology. With so many belief systems and denominational distinctives, without basic historical understanding we could view all beliefs as having equal merit. But when we understand their history, we find that denominations are rarely a fresh, unbiased return to the simplicity of Scripture. Rather, they were borne out of some event or circumstance that defined their shape and message. To understand history is to not be intimidated by the wide array of beliefs that exist, for we will see that modern controversies are repeats of what has come up before. This, therefore, encourages us that Scripture can be understood and obeyed, and that we don’t merely believe one among many possible options.
Along those lines, Church history will instruct our theology as well, for it will teach us what is involved in the discussion and development of certain ideas. This is called historical theology, and it is a helpful way to think about Bible doctrine from a practical perspective. Tapping into history allows us to learn from the greatest minds of the past and avoid the greatest mistakes of the past. Men have worked hard to give us the theological clarity we have today, and we ought to appreciate true pioneers in the study of Scripture.
It Contains Lessons from the Past. History is full of anecdotes, biographies, “aha” moments, warnings, encouragements, and so many other tools for the Christian along his pilgrim journey. Just as Biblical narrative is always the most helpful way of stirring up obedience, so the stories of those within our heritage remind us that “regular” Christians can please God as well, not just those in the course of God’s special revelation, as important as they were.
It is Necessary for Apologetics. The world’s ignorance is sad. What’s worse is that this is often enough to stumble any Christian. The Muslim claims the New Testament has been corrupted beyond reliability, and their striking statistics about manuscript differences will stumble the Christian who knows and cares nothing about the field of textual criticism. The Jehovah’s Witness will tell a person that the Council of Nicea invented the Trinity. The Roman Catholic Church will claim that history aligns perfectly with the beliefs of Rome and that Protestants are in the minority historically-speaking. Atheists cite documentaries, magazines, and blog posts to “prove” that Christianity would not have survived if Constantine did not make Christianity a tolerable and eventually dominating religion. The Christian will face these common objections repeatedly, yet his ignorance encourages the heretics to use these terrible arguments. Even a terrible argument will win if someone has nothing to stack against it. Church history will answer hundreds of false claims levied against true Christianity. Knowledge is power, and we too often are powerless, leaving people with the impression that Christianity is indeed a blind faith.