The immortal line of the old song Wonderful World begins……“don’t know much about history….” It sentimentally reveals a deep bias in American life which disposes us to look down on what is old. We celebrate what’s hot. As historian Wil Durant once put it, “we Americans are the best informed people on earth as to the events of the last twenty-four hours; we are not the best informed as to the events of the last sixty centuries.”
Our culture disposes us to a short term memory. We’re a relatively young nation. We are present-oriented. And when it comes to the past, we have amnesia. Sadly, American Evangelicalism does not escape these trends.
So what’s the benefit of studying history? It’s massive! Let me briefly outline some of the blessings of studying church history.
1 It reaffirms a Biblical value of looking to the past
Of course, the Bible celebrates what’s new—new wine skins, new creatures in Christ, and a new heaven and earth. But multiple Scriptures call us to remember God’s deeds in the past. Deuteronomy repeatedly calls its readers to “remember,” and to look backwards for the sake of going forward. In Hebrews 11, inspiration to run the race today comes from recalling the great cloud of witnesses from yesterday. Even in Revelation, there’s special honor given to godly martyrs (Revelation 6.9; 20.4), and to the twelve sons of Israel and twelve apostles (Revelation 21.12-14).
2 It tells us the rest of the story
When you read church history, you are really reading through what we might call, “Acts Chapters 29 and 30.” God did not stop working at the close of Acts chapter 28. The Holy Spirit has a history. He has been working before you or I came on the scene, before Billy Graham and D.L. Moody, before Wesley and Luther, before Wycliffe and Francis, even before Patrick and Augustine. The Spirit of God has been active for 2000 years of church history—calling out a people to himself—forming, renewing, disciplining, and teaching them—revealing more of himself to the church as we come to more deeply understand God’s Word.
3 It frees us from faddishness
C.S. Lewis pointed out that each generation has both its blind spots and its correct perceptions. Studying history keeps us from seeing the trends of our day as the last word. Lewis said it liberates you from the tyranny of the present—and of the recent past.
Lewis put it like this: “I don’t think we need fear that the study of a day and period, however prolonged, however sympathetic, need be an indulgence in nostalgia or an enslavement to the past. In the individual life, as the psychologists have taught us, it’s not the remembered past, it’s the forgotten past that enslaves us. And I think that’s true of society. . . . I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a very recent past.”
He compared the reader of history to a person who has lived in many places. This person “is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” (“Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory.)
4 It is an antidote to arrogance
British historian Paul Johnson put it this way. “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”
5 It exposes us to some of the issues faced by the church in every age
One who wrestles with church history must come to grips with great themes that stand before the church in every age—fulfilling the great commission, proclaiming the eternal gospel in different cultures so it is understood yet not compromised, discovering the on-going impact of Scripture in each generation, tracing out how the light of Christ changes people groups and societies, dealing with heresy, being holy in the world without being of the world, coming to grips with the cost of discipleship in persecution, understanding the ever-changing relationship of church and state, looking carefully at how God works through all kinds of leaders, even with their flaws, discerning how God calls people, why people become spiritually dull, and how they are awakened, etc.. Other Christians can teach us to about all these relevant themes.
6 It helps us see further than we naturally can on our own
Church history also gives leaders the wisdom and perspective they need to lead. It helps us see further. Bernard of Clairvaux said, “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants but as dwarfs we are able to see farther than others only as long as we do not climb down from the giant shoulders.”
7 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 .”
8 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).
9 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).
10 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.
11 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.