The Importance of Studying Church History

Why Study Church History?

Just a week or so ago I was asked to introduce some high schoolers to the topic of Church History.  My friend is a high school Bible teacher and he knows my passion for teaching Church History, so he asked if I would be a guest speaker and speak about the importance of studying Church History.  Here is a copy of the powerpoint slides I put together on this talk.  First I give a sort of outline of the specific areas that will be discussed, then I will examine each one individually:

The Bible and Its Interpretation
The History of Doctrine
The Roots of Todays Church
Missionary Endeavors                                                                                                       Guarding against heresy

The Bible and Its Interpretation

*The question to be asked is: How are the individual passages of the Bible to be interpreted? I believe use of the “interpretive journey” is the best way to interpret scripture (see the book Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays).

*Some throughout history have used the allegorical method which spiritualizes every element of every story, ignoring the cultural and historical context and the author’s intent.  All elements are in the story to pull out some sort of spiritual truth.  The story of David and Goliath is not recorded in order to show the faithfulness of a follower of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to show the power that that God has against His enemies, but it (this method) says the story is there to encourage all of us who have ‘giants to slay’ and how God can help us in ‘slaying those giants’ even though we a puny and weak compared to those giants.

*Others use the historical/grammatical context (the interpretive journey is based on this model).  This method uses the ideas of looking at the original culture and noting the differences between their culture and ours and then pull out some principles that apply to both situations.

*The study of Church History shows how people have interpreted the Bible then gives us clues to the appropriate way to approach it.

The History of Doctrine

Investigating the thoughts of people in Church History helps us in dealing with questions, such as:  Who is Jesus? Does the Bible assert that he is human or divine or both? If both how does that work?

What is the Trinity? Does not the Bible claim there is only one God? How can Father, Son, and Spirit all be God and yet be only one God?

The early church did not have all the teaching of the Bible fine tuned, precisely defined, and understood (do we?) so researching the issues helps us better refine our understanding of difficult (dare I say nearly impossible to comprehend) theological concepts.

The Roots of Today’s Church

Here are some ideas about the contemporary church that Church History helps us ponder:

Worship – Traditional or Contemporary, which is Biblical? Are either?
Sacraments – 7, 3, or 2? Why have any?
Confessions/Creeds – Some memorize them, others don’t, why?
Denominations – Why so many? Does God care if there are hundreds?

The Study of Missionary Endeavors

Matthew 28:16ff, Acts 1:7-8 – Followers of Jesus must spread the Gospel

Paul, Silas, Timothy, Peter, John Mark, Barnabas are examples from the New Testament of people who spread the Gospel outside of their immediate surroundings.

There are literally thousands of examples of followers of Jesus who shared their faith outside to their ‘Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and the rest of the world’.  Here are just two:

*St. Patrick – to the Celts.  Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and taken from his home in England to the barbaric Celtic people.  After six years of slavery, he escaped, traveled back home, and studied to be a bishop (pastor) in England.  God later spoke to him in a vision telling him to go back to the Celts and spread the Gospel.  He did and a majority of the Celtic people became Christian.

*William Carey – to India.  After several failed business ventures, William (a shoemaker) taught himself several languages and became very distressed about the spiritual condition of the peoples in other countries.  So he set off to India and spent the majority of his life spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He inspired so many people of his time (the late 1700’s into the early 1800’s) that he is now known as ‘the Father of Modern Missions’.

There are nearly innumerable stories of Christians in history who told others of the miracle of salvation in Jesus.  These can and should be studied as examples of how to share the Gospel.

Guarding Against Errors

As soon as someone starts preaching truth, some else preaches errors.

How can one know error if they do not know the truth?

Gnosticism, Arianism, Unitarianism, Modalism, Universalism,  Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Montanism, Manicheism, Platonism are all some form of theological/philosophical error that has been taught and believed in time past.  “There is nothing new under the sun” we are told in Ecclesiastes, this statement goes for bad theology also.  All of the heresy (bad theology) that is presented in our day, has been dealt with in the past.  We study Church History in order to better see bad theology when it comes into our midst.

As an example of this that comes to mind is the bad theology or at least bad information given in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  In this book the character of Robert Langdon has a dialogue with his mentor over the issues discussed during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  It is stated that the Emperor Constantine called the Council in order to push his political agenda of unifying the Roman Empire by convincing bishops (pastors) to keep certain books in the Bible and throw out others. Dan Brown claims the major purpose of calling the council was to keep the letters that assert the divinity of Jesus while rejecting those letters that specifically state a denial of this attribute.  There are many lengthy discussion that could be had over the assertions made in this book, but here it is mentioned merely to clarify that the major issue at the Council of Nicaea was NOT the letters of the New Testament that claim Jesus divinity, but the rejection of certain persons (Arius) who denied Jesus divinity and taught that Jesus was some kind of lesser god than that of the Bible.

The Council of Nicaea was not about the canon and those books that belong in the Bible but about a heretic who claimed something about Jesus that was not biblical.

Studying Provides Historical Character

*It provides repeated, concrete demonstration concerning the irreducibly historical character of the Christian faith.

*It shows the acts of God in time and space.

*Christianity is a truth claim based on historical events and people.

*It is not just a moral code or cute rules to follow

Studying Shows The Connection Between Church and Culture

*It provides a laboratory for examining Christian interactions with the surrounding culture.

*What should the Church do in light of issues like abortion, same sex union, or Euthanasia?

*How does the culture influence the church? Or vice versa?

Studying Provides a Way to Determine Which Doctrines Are Essential

*Can you be saved and yet not believe in the Trinity? Is the doctrine of the Trinity essential?

*Can you deny the deity of Jesus and still be his follower? Is this essential?

*Can you be saved by working for your salvation or is it exclusively by faith?