(Excerpt taken from the PDF notes of R.W. Glenn’s MP3 audio lecture series on Church History found at www.solidfoodmedia.com in Minnetonka, MN)
A. Warrant for the Study of Church History
1. The Bible does not teach us everything about the outworking of God’s plan of redemption. Although this may sound like a controversial thing to say in a church that believes (rightly) in the sufficiency, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture, it is because of what Scripture teaches that I draw this conclusion cf. Matt 28:18-20; Rev 21:1-4. We learn from church history how God’s plan of redemption has been worked out from the time of the end of the first century until today. “The events of this world’s history set the stage upon which the drama of redemption is enacted.” (1)
2. The sovereignty of God over all of history cf. Isa 46:8-11. History is His story just as much as it is ours. Therefore we have an opportunity through the study of church history to see how God protected and preserved his people to the present day so as to bring about the sure accomplishment of his redemptive purposes in Jesus Christ.
3. The Christian faith is historical in character cf. Luke 2:1-2. Studying church history demonstrates concretely that the Christian faith is historical in character – it deals with real people in real places in real time.
B. The Value of Church History
1. In order to understand where we’re going, we need to understand where we came from. This is the value of history in general. Knowing your trajectory allows you to understand yourself better, to put your experience in the proper perspective.
2. Without it, Christian theology becomes theoretical rather than practical. Christianity is first and foremost the acts of God in time (and ultimately in Christ) more than it is morality, doctrinal formulations, or a worldview.
3. The study of church history provides perspective on the church’s interaction with surrounding culture. Mark Noll gives the example of choice of church music. Almost all the issues we face in the modern era have been addressed at one point or another – politics, art, music, economics, etc.
4. But perhaps the most valuable thing about church history for Christians is that it provides perspective on the study of the Scriptures cf. 2 Tim 3:14-15.
I’ll begin with a couple of helpful scholarly quotes and move on to flesh out how church history provides perspective on our study of the Bible.
“The discipline of church history cannot by itself establish the rightness or wrongness of what ought to be believed. On the other hand, Evangelicals in particular, precisely because of their high view of Scripture, have often been content to know far too little about the history of the church; and efforts to overcome this common ignorance can only be commended. Thoughtful Christians who sincerely seek to base their beliefs on the Scriptures will be a little nervous if the beliefs they think are biblical form no part of the major streams of tradition throughout the history of the church; and, therefore, historical theology, though it cannot in itself justify a belief system, not only sharpens the categories and informs the debate but serves as a major checkpoint to help us prevent uncontrolled speculation, purely private theological articulation, and overly imaginative exegesis.” (2)
“If a contemporary believer wants to know the will of God as revealed in Scripture on any of these matters, or on thousands more, it is certainly prudent to study the Bible carefully for oneself. But it is just as prudent to look for help, to realize that the question I am bringing to Scripture has doubtless been asked before and will have been addressed by others who were at least as saintly as I am, at least as patient in pondering the written Word, and at least as knowledgeable about the human heart.” (3)
a. From our historical vantage we can see that interpretations of the past, even those that were thought to be very persuasive, were in fact distortions of Scripture. This will function to make us more tentative about our own interpretative conclusions, conclusions we are drawing for the present time.
b. It provides perspective on what is important vs. what is more or less ancillary. What is essential and what is non-essential? We will see threads running through the tapestry of church history that reemerge or persist in successive eras – they are not fads, but “classics” of the Christian faith.
c. It helps us to realize how dependent we are on Christians who have gone before us for many of the doctrines that for us are forgone conclusions but historically had to be fought for in order to protect the Christian faith from the onslaught of false teaching.
(1) Iain D. Campbell, Heroes and Heretics: Pivotal Moments in Twenty Centuries of the Church (Christian Focus, 2004), 10.
(2) D.A. Carson, “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” in D.A. Carson and John D Woodbridge (eds), Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1986, 1995), 18.
(3) Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Baker, 1997), 16.