The church of Jesus Christ remains, as always, a people called to faithfulness in this age as they await Christ’s return and the consummation of his rule in the age to come. Church history is part of that labor of both remembering and anticipating—of living between the times. We tell the truth about the past, give thanks for God’s grace, and repent of sin and failure. But we do it all through the eyes of faith and gospel hope.
I love teaching on a wide range of historical subjects. Get me lecturing to undergraduate American history students on the Cold War and the emergence of political conservatism, and I’m in my scholarly happy place. Step into my world history class and you’ll find me fired up to explain how colonization reshaped the entire world.
But teaching church history is different. While I bring some basic assumptions (and standards of historical research) to any historical study, studying and teaching church history is a profoundly theological enterprise.
Here are 13 principles for why studying church history is crucial.
1. Remembering is vital.
Throughout Scripture, rightly remembering is critical to faithfulness. As early as Eden, Eve listens to the serpent, succumbing to faulty interpretations of the past and of God’s revelation in particular.
Throughout the Old Testament, God calls his people to recall and retell his gracious saving acts. Yet Israel repeatedly forgets, fails, and strays. The New Testament is also clear: Historical events are at the heart of the good news.
Our mission is to recount that history and call the nations to repent and believe in the Christ. Even the development of post-apostolic doctrine involved history. The early church fathers and councils had to determine, for example, what it meant to say with historical confidence that Jesus was both God and man.
2. The sovereign Creator is also the sovereign Lord.
A robust doctrine of divine providence reminds us that human history is a giant canvas on which we see God paint his sovereign plan. History is not cyclical in any Marxian sense; rather, it is all leading to one grand summation in Christ.
3. History fits into the divine drama of creation, fall, and redemption.
For two millennia, God’s people have borne witness to the truths of his power and lordship, the centrality of his saving work in Christ, and the hope offered freely in the gospel. Since Pentecost, God has been demonstrating this grand story of redemption in real places populated by real people, in the church. As visible outposts of the kingdom of Christ, churches are where this one great story—a metanarrative to rule them all, if you will—continually confronts and collides with the stories of this world and the present evil age. Church history tells the stories of that confrontation, in all of its beauty and messiness.
4. God’s meticulous providence shouldn’t make us presume on his mysterious providence.
Historians must be careful not to casually ascribe divine motive where God has not plainly revealed it. From Scripture we understand his ultimate purposes of redemption and his pledge to build his church. We are often without human explanation, however, for why his plans take a particular course. We must be willing to acknowledge the mysterious nature of providence and remain silent where God is silent.