In the span of time since Jesus Christ foretold the Church’s inception to a small group of Jewish followers (Matt 16:18), to our era of the megachurch, much has transpired. The Church was formally inaugurated at Pentecost shortly after the ascension of Christ (Acts 2) when He baptized the believers into the Holy Spirit. Very little time passed before the ecclesiastical pattern shifted from a close-knit body of God-centered, Bible-believing Christians meeting in each other’s homes, to an increasingly tradition-centered, group of religious people meeting out of duty. Eventually, the church’s doctrines (whether biblical or not) where nothing more than good-luck charms, and leaders could be defined as power-hungry rather than spirit-filled. With a few exceptions it was downhill from the death of the Apostolic Fathers until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
The student of Church history must nail down in his mind why these things are important, and what he aims to gain from understanding these events if he is going to take away anything of lasting significance. Why study Church history? To answer this question we must form a biblical purpose and philosophy of learning. Why do we study anything? At the risk of being over-simplistic we must step back and ask, “why do we exist?” The biblical answer to that is clearly “for the glory of God” (Is 43:7), and every thing we pursue should be towards that joy-filled end. The Scriptures say that the glory of God should be the aim of everything we do on this earth, down to the most trifling acts like drinking a cup of coffee in the morning (“whatever” I Cor 10:31). God is glorified in the world (made to look glorious or great) when the things we “eat and drink” (I Cor 10:31) and “everything” (Phil 3:8) is considered inferior to Christ! Like Paul, we should seek to honor Him by finding our supreme joy and satisfaction in Him alone (Phil 1:20-23).
Jesus told the Scribes that the preeminent law was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Some have taken the phrase “with all your mind” as a proof-text for all intellectual pursuits, but this fails to see the command as a whole. In a 2009 talk, Dr. Don Carson wisely refocuses our attention to Jesus’ main point by saying, “We cannot forget that Mark 12… [does] not tell us to exercise heart, and soul, and mind, and strength in order simply to understand God better. The commandment is to love Him.” What then does it mean to ‘love God with our mind.’ A thought-provoking answer comes from John Piper in his recent book, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. He writes, “Loving God with all our mind means wholly engaging our thinking to do all it can to awaken and express the heartfelt fullness of treasuring God above all things.” One begins to see now how the things we study (whether Church history or any other subject) can serve life’s ultimate end of glorifying God. In other words, when we come to class, or crack open a book, our aim should not be “I need to pay attention so that I will pass this class and get a degree,” or, “I need to listen up so that I will know a lot of doctrine to impress by friends and pastor,” but, “What can this subject teach me about the nature and character of my God? How can the truth I learn today awaken, or increase Godward affections in me, and therefore glorify God?” Also, “How can I use what I am learning today to impact others with the Joy of the Lord, and therefore glorify Him?”
These questions (coupled with their answers) form a compelling reason to study Church history. Furthermore, the study of history provides us with examples of what particular ideas or actions result in. Ideas have consequences. What happens to Christianity when the Bible is placed on the shelf? The student of history can learn valuable lessons from the past.
The answer to the question, “How can Church history awaken, or increase Godward affections in me, and therefore glorify God?” may seem like a difficult one initially, but there are ways in which this is accomplished. One is found in God’s mercy and Grace so evident in the history of the Church. Part of what makes up God’s glory is his grace (Ex 33:18-19), and His glory is what draws us to love Him. God created the world, and man rejected Him and declared himself king, but God (in His grace) prepared a plan (Gen 3:15) to reconcile man to Himself once more. Thousands of hard years went by, the Jews awaiting this promised redeemer. When the time was fulfilled God the Son invaded our world to redeem us. He was hated and mocked. Ultimately He was killed. Soon he resurrected, proving the Father’s acceptance of Christ’s atonement (Romans 4:25). Even after all of God’s demonstrated grace, mankind did not forsake its ways. Man continued in his God-hating, sinful direction. God’s mercy and grace persisted.
The apostles quickly spread the good news of reconciliation around much of the known-world, and Christian leaders sprang up in various places. Within one generation men were already deviating from God’s written revelation. A clergy-laity division was forming, elements of monarchial church leadership were rising, and Gospel-adjustments were being made by the Apostolic Fathers. In this the depravity of man shows up undeniably. God was walking the face of the earth just a few years prior and man was already screwing things up. Wherever we see man’s depravity we also see God’s grace. A God of any less grace would send fire down on the earth in the face of such continual rebellion.
With the rise of the Roman Catholic Church in the following centuries one can see just how far man drifted from the doctrine of Christ. In the midst of this God raised up pockets of Gospel-believing Christians in various places. The grace of God is evident in the history of the Church. Wherever we see God’s grace we should be reminded of His unfathomable grace towards us, and be drawn to worship.
Besides seeing God’s grace in 1500 years of error, we can learn from the mistakes that the men before us made (and avoid making them ourselves). The Bible gives us propositional truth statements as to what is right, and church history gives us grave examples of what happens when we ignore them. The nearly two thousand years of history since Pentecost has provided no shortage of examples for us—both in successes and failures. Unfortunately, mostly the latter. For one, we can see the problems that arise when one’s theology and practice are not grounded in Scripture. The Church was not a pure, regenerate Church after the pattern of the New Testament, but became a mere cultural commodity. A Church which was once the gathering of those who had been saved by Jesus, Son of God, became a church who denied that Jesus was the Son of God. The defining characteristic and central doctrine of Christianity—salvation by grace alone—had been tossed only a couple hundred years after Christ, and was replaced by a works-driven system. Baptism as a sign of salvation became baptism as the means to salvation. Virtually all of the glorious doctrines of the New Testament had been replaced by demonic misrepresentations—in the name of God. Edmund Burke is famous for saying, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” We can learn from the mistakes of those who went before us, and therefore glorify God.
Every student of Church history should first know why he is studying anything to begin with. Once he realizes that all should be done for the glory of God, he must discover how his particular subject at hand can accomplish that goal. For the Church history student in particular we can begin to see the nature and character of God displayed by his fingerprints in history. His grace is evident, and for this Christians should worship Him. Secondly, one can learn from past mistakes and successes in the history of the Church. One can lean the particular consequences of certain ideas, and Lord-willing not walk the same path.