4 Reasons to Study Church History

Recently, a friend sent me a quote from the great Catholic church historian Etienne Gilson:  “We live in a time and place full of Christian ideas which have no memory of their place of birth.”

The quote resonated with me because I’m currently teaching a class that is revealing how little I know about the history of the church.  I feel Gilson’s critique:  I am full of Christian ideas but have no memory of their place of birth.

This is something I am actively rectifying, and not just because I’m a teacher.  Every Christian should be conversant in church history for at least four reasons:

  1. To grow wise–We should study church history to draw on the wisdom of past Christians.  Church history is a treasure-house of intellectual tools:  apologetic approaches and arguments, ideas, pastoral perspectives, doctrinal illustrations and examples, exegetical brilliance, and profound insight.  To ignore this inheritance is a conscious choice to be ignorant, or at least to foolishly attempt to reconstruct twenty centuries of meditation and scholarship in one lifetime.
  2. To sharpen our doctrine–The Church struggled mightily with heresy for the first five centuries of its existence.  This struggle led to the codification of the core doctrines of Christianity, doctrines that had existed from the beginning but were not yet expressed in clear, precise forms.  Unfortunately, because we’ve forgotten our history, we can’t recognize these old heresies when they appear in modern guise.  For the last 200 years, we’ve been struggling with the same opponents the early church defeated over 1500 years ago.
  3. To see our true selves–C. S. Lewis once argued that we should study the past “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”  Studying the church of the past reveals our mistakes in the present, and prescribes a way to change.  Church history exposes our parochialism, our narcissism, and our ethnocentrism.  Like a good mirror, it shows us the dirt on our faces and in our hearts.  And like a bright lamp, it shows us the path to the well.
  4. To know our roots–The Church is a historical community, a generational family.  When we know our family history, we know the forces, stories, struggles, successes, and failures that have defined who we are.  When we know our family, for better or for worse, we know where we belong.  We also gain an appreciation for other parts of the church and the wisdom they offer–we realize that even crazy Uncle Leo knows something about true piety that we don’t.

Though it can seem a daunting task, learning church history is actually easier than ever.  In the last several years, dozens of resources have become available to make church history easy and even enjoyable.   Here are some of my top recommendations:

  1. Read a book on church history.  I’d recommend Justo Gonzalez’s two-volume The Story of Christianity for its clarity, scope, and humility.  The Introduction to the History of Christianity is quite good and has a number of visual aids.  For an in-depth study, Philip Schaff’s eight-volume History of the Christian Church is required reading (and the Kindle edition is only $4.99!).
  2. Listen to lectures on church history.  Right now Reformed Theological Seminary has three free seminary courses available from iTunes U:  History of Christianity I, History of Christianity II, and History and Theology of the Puritans.  If you have an iPad, iPhone, or iPod, you can also access the course book that accompanies the lectures.  This is easily the most effective and least painful way to learn church history.  Download the lectures and listen when you can.  (RTS has over 41 full audio courses available, including classes on the OT, NT, systematic theology, apologetics, etc.–over 5 years worth of material.)
  3. Read a book by a church historian.  Follow Lewis’s advice above and learn church history by reading an old book by an old historian.  Paul Maier’s translation of Eusebius’ Church History is the standard for the first three centuries of church history.  J. B. Lightfoot’s The Apostolic Fathers is an anthology of the writings, sermons, and speeches of the early church fathers.  Henry Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church is another fine anthology of pivotal documents from church history, from the patristic age to the Second Vatican Council.

C. S. Lewis once warned, “It is the forgotten not the remembered past that enslaves us.”  We have forgotten much, so let us take up and read.  Books can’t solve all our problems, but they will take us a long way toward the solution.