I often tell people that I majored in history in college because I like stories. I still like stories, but I have pursued an ongoing study of church history because I think it makes me a better Christian and a better pastor. Here are some reasons I think you should read church history, too.
Millard Erickson is right: “History is theology’s laboratory, in which it can assess the ideas that it espouses or considers espousing” (Christian Theology, 28). Church history shows us our theological blind spots, reminds us of crucial topics our era ignores, provides confessional guardrails, and gives us the writings of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards—among others.
If you are like me, ministry is often hard work and the fruit sometimes seems slow-growing. Reading stories of God’s work in revivals and awakenings stretches my faith and rouses me to pray bigger prayers. Also, reading about the fruits of long-term, faithful preaching and prayer helps keep me steadfast.
Pragmatic approaches to “doing church” are so common today that one might think that this is the way it has always been. Reading the Reformers, the Puritans, and others reveals that they asked more than just, “What works?” They thought the Bible teaches what the church is and what it should do. Historical discussions of the nature and marks of a true church challenge the way we think about the church in a way the latest church-growth manual simply cannot.
We tend to be locally minded and even ethnocentric. Most of us envision a ministry in a place like the one we grew up in among a people that look like us. Learning what God has done to spread the gospel over the past 2,000 years helps broaden our vision.
Christians have not been using the same hermeneutics book for the past 2,000 years. We are now able to see some of the interpretive errors of earlier eras (for example, over-allegorizing), and we can try to avoid some of their pitfalls. However, we sometimes forget that our present cultural and intellectual context likely shapes our own biblical interpretation in unhelpful ways. Commentaries and sermons from other eras help reveal some of the errors in our own methods of interpreting God’s word.
Jesus tells the church in Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:5). The problem is that we often don’t “remember.” We don’t realize we have fallen because we never look back to a time when the church was more faithful in certain ways. Church history can help us realize our need for reform and call us back to faithfulness.
Studying church history shows us how small deviations from biblical truth play out over time. It is helpful to know if you or someone in your church is holding a deviant or unbalanced doctrine before it infects your entire theology. Church history is one tool that will help you do so.
The sheer fact of believers across centuries and continents worshiping God reminds us that our Lord is over all and everywhere. A poem scratched out by a persecuted Christian in prison or the testimony of a missionary’s communion with Christ as he faced imminent martyrdom or the story of whole peoples in Burma coming to Christ all point to the God who alone can satisfy every human heart.