Why Should We Care
A history lesson? This sounds like academics! This is head knowledge not heart knowledge! I have the Holy Spirit and I do not need History! You are reducing God to an academic pursuit! I just need to read the Bible and believe what is says!
For many, the idea of a Christian history lesson sounds like one of Dante’s levels of Hell. If a Sermon or a Sunday School class focused exclusively on the church history, there would be accusations that the church is anti-Christian because the teaching was about Christians, not about the Bible. For many Protestants’, the implicit bias and unspoken understanding is that God ignored humanity until the second savior of Martin Luther. For Pentecostals, it can be even more dismissive, believing that Church history paused at the close of revelation, and only restarted at Azusa Street.
These are obviously broad generalizations and are not meant to be reflective of every person within a denomination. However, many questions what role understanding church history plays in Christ’s salvation narrative beyond giving academics with head knowledge something to argue about in Bible Schools and Seminaries. And so, the question is asked: why should we care about church history? I want to offer a few reasons why we should care in this article. Hopefully you will be convinced of the importance of having a basic understanding of Church History, but even if you aren’t, I hope you will stick with me as we go through this journey through the annals of Christian History. Particularly in the American Church, there are many who love to study our found fathers, and our nation’s heritage. Why should our approach to the Christian faith be any different?
I offer the following reasons we should care, at least some, about Christian History:
1) Our current beliefs are the products of post-Biblical Christian thought: After John the Revelator penned the final words in Revelation, the Christian body didn’t just have a codified understanding of doctrine and dogma. Not everything was clear to them about what it meant to be a Christian. Believers today can claim that we have the Bible and that’s all we need, but the reality is that the books which comprise the Bible we have today weren’t fully agreed upon by the church for hundreds of years after Christ’s death. Concepts which are dogmatic foundations of Christian faith such as the trinity, and original sin, are not clearly outlined in the Bible, but rather were the product of spirit-empowered men and women seeking to understand the nature of God. If we affirm that Jesus was 100% God and 100% man, that concept, while alluded to in different parts of scripture, is never fully identified by one of the scripture writers. Instead it coalesced after great spiritual debate hundreds of years after the resurrection. Furthermore, it caused dynamic splits within parts of the church. Tenants that we consider basic, fundamental truths of Christianity are the product of thousands of years of Christian History; they are built upon the shoulders of theological giants, and we should understand where they came from.
2) Church History is a witness to God: Hebrews 12 speaks of a great cloud of witnesses. This is more than just the heroes of the Old Testament. There are millions of believers throughout history who bear witness to God and what God has done. Many of those names and contributions have been lost to the vaults of history, but some have remained. We should hear the witness of the church and see the continuity of God’s salvation plan and how it has manifest throughout time. Similar to how the Old Testament is the witness of God’s faithfulness and the hope of the Messianic future, Church History is the testimony of fulfillment of God’s Kingdom on earth. John the Baptist declared that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we are living in the inauguration of God’s kingdom. We should want to know the history of the Kingdom of God and rejoice in our understanding of how God has displayed His sovereignty throughout time. We love to hear people share their testimony. There are millions of Christians throughout history who have testimonies which withstood the test of time.
3) Church history demonstrates the continuity of the Christian message: This one hits home for me as a Pentecostal. My understanding of Christian history growing up was that the Holy Spirit stopped speaking after the Scripture and disappeared until Azusa. I recognize that many Pentecostals would not necessarily affirm this is challenged on it (though some would), I also suspect that the thoughts, words, and actions of those same Pentecostals would betray otherwise. Maybe that is me being judgmental, perhaps it is just an expression of what I have witnessed throughout my life. There are many Pentecostals who will gladly read the words of A.W. Tozer, or Bill Johnson, because they are the empowered, spirit filled giants. Those same writers wouldn’t be caught reading the writings of St. Theresa of Avilla, or Thomas A ‘Kempis. Something I am comfortable declaring is that the more I study Church history, the more I see a continuous outpouring of the Holy Spirit on parts of the church. There wasn’t an 1800-year gap in the outpouring of God’s spirit. The life and writings of the Mystics, from St. Anthony of Egypt, through the Spanish giants St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avilla, into the modern-day bear witness to the continual movement of God. Protestant’s didn’t invent “being born again” or “having a personal relationship with Jesus” in the same way that the modern Pentecostal movement didn’t invent “the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” All of these are rooted throughout Church history. By studying Church history, some of the more modern Christian movements can demonstrate the historicity of their belief, as opposed to be dismissed as a gnostic of perversion of the Gospel. Furthermore, it helps humble believers who think only they understand or only their belief is right.
4) Church History expressed unity and solidarity with the Whole Church: Being a younger believer, I have often heard the generational struggle surrounding worship music and whether we should use modern songs or the “old-timey” hymns. The irony is that most of these “old-timey” hymns are only from the 18th and 19th centuries. There are parts of the Christian Church who sing hymns and listen to homilies which date to the 5th century and before. There are songs, prayers, and texts which have been engaged with by believers of all ethnicities, ages, and genders for thousands of years. By studying the writings, and reading the homilies of the Church Fathers, the modern believer engages is solidarity with Christians throughout time who have also encountered God through those texts. We can talk about praying in unity with other believers in the congregation or in our denomination, or even in our country. But Church history allows us to engage in solidarity with believers across time, across space, language, nationality, or any other dividing factor.
There are many other reasons to pursue an understanding of Church History. This blog will only scratch the surface. Perhaps it is important for me to share a bit of my own testimony to better express why it matters to me personally. I was raised in the church my entire life and was one of the “good kids” at church. My faith was hollow and shallow. I knew what to believe, but I didn’t know why I believed, or even how to really believe. I went to college and my faith crumbled. It was during a class I took on John Milton that a passion for God reignited in my life. I read as Milton presented what I considered to be heretical beliefs in his quasi-religious epic poem about the fall of man, Paradise Lost. I read excerpts from his theological treatise “On Christian Doctrine,” where he defended his beliefs eloquently, intelligently, and passionately. It was my first real exposure to apologetics, and to Christian history. From there, the desire to understand why we believed what we do has only grown. Throughout Seminary, I have soaked up as many opportunities as possible to study Church History and see the melody of God’s salvation as it has played throughout the orchestra of time. I’m not interested in just my part of the music, I want to understand the entire symphony, because by understanding the previous movements, I have a greater appreciation of my own time and my own role in the mosaic of God’s kingdom.
We will spend subsequent posts diving into various aspects of Church History. We are just going to scratch the surface of what is there. Our first series of posts will focus on the Patristic Period (ca. 100-600AD). From there we will journey into Medieval faith, the reformation, post reformation, and finally modern thought. What we cover here could easily fill half a dozen or more graduate level seminars. Trust me, I’ve taken as many. I ask that you journey with me, as we explore don’t ask yourself dismissively “how does this apply to me.” Instead ask yourself searchingly “how can this apply to me.”
© 2020 Chris Vasquez