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Why Study Church History? by Dr. Don Sweeting, part 2
February 18, 2013
by Dr. Don Sweeting
President, RTS Orlando
James Woodrow Hassell Professor Church History
This article is a continuation of "Why Study Church History?: Getting Beyond American-Evangelical Amnesia" by Dr. Sweeting posted on February 8, 2013, found here.
6. It gives us insight into our own culture
The study of history also gives us a deeper understanding of the spiritual dynamics of our own civilization. Of course Christianity is not inherently Western. But it had a transforming effect on Western civilization. You can’t understand countless aspects of our civilization (from the scientific revolution, to early rock and roll or even the origins of basketball!) without understanding Christianity. Because our culture is soaked in “leftover Christianity.”
7. It provides warnings about what to look out for and what not to do
I tell students that history is not a hitching post to tie ourselves up to but a guide post to heed as we go forward. Or to use another image, it is like the view from the driver’s seat in a car. To go forward you must of course look forward. But you must also look through your side view mirror to see what is happening next to you. And every few seconds you must look through your rearview mirror to see what is behind you.
As we look we will see examples to follow (or not to follow), movements to draw inspiration from (or avoid), heresies and mistakes to look out for (there are no new heresies only old ones in new clothes), lessons to heed (“those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them”), questions to think about (whatever question is on your mind, someone smarter than you has already seen it clearer, thought about it longer, and probably expressed it better).
8. It can be used to spark a longing for awakening and revival
It was in looking to the past that some of the prophets wrote about their own longing for revival. God said through Jeremiah, “Stand by the roads, and look; and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16). Looking backwards, the prophet cried out, “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). The psalmist speaks the same way when he petitioned—“will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (Psalm 85:6, 7).
9. It Implants hope in dark times
Church history reminds us that history is going somewhere. It moves according to God’s plan. And in the center of history there is a cross, a resurrection and a Pentecost. Things that are not supposed to happen, sometimes happen. Strange reversals can take place. By his very breath, and the work of his Spirit, God can blow on dead, dry bones and make them live again. He can sovereignly bring awakenings to his people.
Periods of revival are game changers, which seem to accelerate God’s work. Along with that, believers in every age wait for the blessed hope of Christ’s return, and a day when in a new heaven and earth, the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord.
10. It offers company and help in difficult seasons of ministry
In hard seasons, when we experience the sting of persecution or disappointment in the church, we may be tempted to give up. We catch ourselves saying, “Why am I doing this?” Well….church history may help you go the distance. It reminds us that we are not the first to go through trials. It gives us a “ministry realism.”
Rather than be disillusioned, we draw comfort from those who have gone before us. They become, as it were, encouraging friends. They not only help us understand God’s Word, bringing light from another age, but they also help us ward off spiritual depression. As we read a great Christian biography, or consult the writings of the saints, we meet friends who can help us stay the course.
The Sum of it all
I sometimes hear people talk about history as if it is the most impractical subject in the world. But that’s simply not true. On the contrary, church history is one of the most helpful studies in the preparation of Christian ministers. It gets us beyond our natural short sightedness, faddishness and pride. It becomes a source of warning, wisdom and encouragement. It provides spiritual sparks to awaken us and lift our eyes so that we might have renewed hope. And it gets us beyond our own American evangelical amnesia. This is all extremely useful. It is a study filled with blessing.