Historical study implicitly reminds us that the contours of our social, cultural, and material context could have been different from how they are. It challenges us to consider whether some of those alternatives and paths-not-taken might actually be more conducive to growth in godliness than those down which we are currently walking.
On the most recent episode of the Deep Roots Podcast, Tim Ward, Eric Ortlund, and I had the chance to talk about church history. Specifically, we touched on the whys of church history. As in, why bother with it all? At a theological college like Oak Hill, church history traditionally sits alongside biblical studies, systematic theology, and practical theology as one of the four main areas for study and reflection. And yet, unlike the other three, which all have a fairly straightforward and obvious relevance for the training of future church leaders, the need for church history sometimes seems less obvious. Retracing the issues and controversies of a hundred years ago can seem a bit remote from the pressing needs of ministry today. So, why do we bother with it?
If we were to survey Christians and ask them why someone ought to bother with church history, I suspect that most people would suggest that history is helpful to us insofar as it provides lessons to learn and models to emulate. So, for example, to study the life and martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) is to learn what Christian courage and resolve can look like. The historical account of Cranmer’s last days becomes a vivid piece of practical instruction and an inspiration to all believers who face hostility and persecution. Or we might consider the great preachers of the eighteenth-century evangelical revival and be renewed in our zeal for evangelism and mission. This is surely a right and good use of church history. Whether through Paul’s exhortations to emulate his own life and example (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:17), or the catalogue of saints celebrated for their faith in Hebrews 11, the Bible itself gives ample warrant for reflecting carefully on the lives of other Christians.
But as we look to the past for examples to imitate, we should recognise that there is more to the story than simply finding and highlighting the virtues and good deeds of exceptional individuals. That is a good thing to do, but, having done it, we can also start to consider how the historical contexts in which exemplary men and women lived might have helped to shape them into the kind of people that they were. In so doing, we move towards one of the deepest and most profound reasons for studying church history: namely, to develop a keener sense of our own place within the flow of historical events. What do I mean? By default, we all tend to imagine that the circumstances which characterise our own time and place represent a very natural, obvious way of being and doing. The way I dress, prepare my food, structure my time, and fill my leisure hours are often simply assumed as givens, and I live them out without much active reflection. In a hundred different ways, great and small, the cultural and social trappings which collectively constitute my manner of living, thinking, and relating to others are simply ‘the way things are’ – or so we easily assume.