Why Study Church History? Getting Beyond American-Evangelical Amnesia by Don Sweeting

by Dr. Don Sweeting
President, RTS Orlando
James Woodrow Hassell Professor Church History

The immortal line of the old song Wonderful World begins……“don’t know much about history….” It sentimentally reveals a deep bias in American life which disposes us to look down on what is old. We celebrate what’s hot. As historian Will Durant once put it, “we Americans are the best informed people on earth as to the events of the last twenty-four hours; we are not the best informed as to the events of the last sixty centuries.”

Our culture disposes us to a short term memory. We’re a relatively young nation. We are present-oriented. And when it comes to the past, we have amnesia.  Sadly, American Evangelicalism does not escape these trends.

So what’s the benefit of studying history?  It’s massive!  Let me briefly outline some of the blessings of studying church history.

1. It reaffirms a Biblical value of looking to the past

Of course, the Bible celebrates what’s new—new wine skins, new creatures in Christ, and a new heaven and earth. But multiple Scriptures call us to remember God’s deeds in the past. Deuteronomy repeatedly calls its readers to “remember,” and to look backwards for the sake of going forward.  In Hebrews 11, inspiration to run the race today comes from recalling the great cloud of witnesses from yesterday. Even in Revelation, there’s special honor given to godly martyrs (Revelation 6:9; 20:4), and to the twelve sons of Israel and twelve apostles (Revelation 21:12-14).

2. It  tells us the rest of the story

When you read church history, you are really reading through what we might call, “Acts Chapters 29 and 30.” God did not stop working at the close of Acts chapter 28. The Holy Spirit has a history.   He has been working before you or I came on the scene, before Billy Graham and D.L. Moody, before Wesley and Luther, before Wycliffe and Francis, even before Patrick and Augustine. The Spirit of God has been active for 2000 years of church history—calling out a people to himself—forming, renewing, disciplining, and teaching them—revealing more of himself to the church as we come to more deeply understand God’s Word.

3. It frees us from faddishness

C.S. Lewis pointed out that each generation has both its blind spots and its correct perceptions.  Studying history keeps us from seeing the trends of our day as the last word.  Lewis said it liberates you from the tyranny of the present—and of the recent past.
Lewis put it like this:  “I don’t think we need fear that the study of a day and period, however prolonged, however sympathetic, need be an indulgence in nostalgia or an enslavement to the past. In the individual life, as the psychologists have taught us, it’s not the remembered past, it’s the forgotten past that enslaves us. And I think that’s true of society. . . . I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a very recent past.”
He compared the reader of history to a person who has lived in many places. This person “is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” (“Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory.)

4. It is an antidote to arrogance

British historian Paul Johnson put it this way. “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

5. It exposes us to some of the issues faced by the church in every age

One who wrestles with church history must come to grips with great themes that stand before the church in every age—fulfilling the great commission, proclaiming the eternal gospel in different cultures so it is understood yet not compromised, discovering the on-going impact of Scripture in each generation, tracing out how the light of Christ changes people groups and societies, dealing with heresy, being holy in the world without being of the world, coming to grips with the cost of discipleship in persecution, understanding the ever-changing relationship of church and state, looking carefully at how God works through all kinds of leaders, even with their flaws, discerning how God calls people, why people become spiritually dull, and how they are awakened, etc..  Other Christians can teach us to about all these relevant themes.

6. It helps us see further than we naturally can on our own

Church history also gives leaders the wisdom and perspective they need to lead.  It helps us see further.  Bernard of Clairvaux said, “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants but as dwarfs we are able to see farther than others only as long as we do not climb down from the giant shoulders.”

Check back February 15 to read part two of Dr. Sweeting's aricle...

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