Why Study Church History?

Is history boring? Is it just stories of old dead men about whom no one cares? What about church history in particular? What difference can looking at the past possibly make for my faith in Christ? Why even bother?

Here are four reasons why studying church history is very important:

Today’s Church does not exist in a vacuum

We’re not the first generation to read the Bible. For the past two-thousand years, Christians have wrestled with Scripture. They’ve preached sermons, written commentaries, defended orthodoxy (right belief) against heresy (false teaching), and articulated biblically faithful statements of doctrine in historic Confessions of the faith (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed and Athanasian Creed).

Does it not seem arrogant to disregard these historic experts, choosing instead to remain ignorant of this treasure-trove of spiritual wisdom? Surely we should desire to stand on the shoulders of these faithful people who have gone before us, and to learn as much as we possibly can from them?

Church history guards us against heresy

There is nothing new underneath the sun! Every heresy and strange teachings, which we see in some churches today, have already come in some form or another during the past two-thousand years. Studying church history helps us to confront false teaching.

For instance, if your pastor begins to teach that Jesus is inferior to God the Father, of a different substance to him – and if you’re familiar with church history – then you won’t believe him for one second. You’ll know that this is the heresy of Arianism, a teaching which was rejected by the Church from its earliest days.

For most of our history, the Church has maintained the “rule of faith”. This means that we have already settled on the major doctrines of the faith, whether it be the Trinity, the divine inspiration of Scripture, original sin, the Incarnation of Christ, or the atoning death of Christ and His resurrection. The Confessions of the Church helpfully summarise the Church’s rule of faith for us.

We can learn from the heroes of the faith

Studying church history can greatly encourage us. We need to be more familiar with the lives of those who made a significant impact on the Church throughout the ages. We’ll be motived as we understand the extreme opposition and hardships many of them faced, the battles they had to fight and the mighty ways in which God was able to use them.

William Tyndale is a good example of one of these heroes of the faith. He lived during the reign of King Henry VIII in the sixteenth-century. He was the first person to translate much of the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. His translation of the Bible was banned by the Roman Catholic Church, which at that time did not permit the Bible to be translated into the common language. Despite this ban, Tyndale’s English Bible became wildly popular and copies made their way all over England.

Tyndale was motived with a desire to see God’s Word read by everyone, not only the clerical class to which it had been restricted for generations in medieval Europe. To a fellow Bible scholar, he said, “I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more Scripture than thou dost”.

When persecuted, he fled England in 1524. Constantly on the run, he was eventually arrested in Brussels, strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. Though dead, his impact would live on throughout generations. His translation also helped sow the seeds of the Protestant Reformation in England since it made a way for everyone to understand the gospel.

Church history tells many more stories like this; stories of faithful Christians who faithfully proclaimed God’s Word and held fast to the gospel in the face of enormous pressures and persecution. Men like Polycarp, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer help us to persevere in our faith during tough times and inspire us to live our lives in full for God’s glory.

We see the unbroken chain of the gospel

The remarkable thing about studying church history is that, in every generation, God preserves a remnant in His Church to faithfully proclaim His true gospel. The gospel was received by the Church through divine authority from the Apostles (1 Cor. 15:1, Gal. 1:9). This apostolic gospel declares that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose again on the third day. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom. 1:16).

God ensures against all odds, against all kinds of opposition, rejection, ridicule and persecution, that this “foolish message” is proclaimed faithfully in every generation. It’s through this faithful proclamation of the gospel that the Church is established and continues to grow. Jesus Christ promises that He will build His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18). Church history is proof of this fact! Far from being boring and irrelevant, studying church history is of great importance for all Christians!

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