Three Reasons For You To Study Church History

We must humbly bow before the Lord and give Him all glory, honor, and praise for the amazing things He has done.

Guest Post by Zachary Dewey

Recently a close friend of mine began his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Needless to say, it was not long before our conversations shifted from the doctrines of grace and the five solas to theories of the atonement, the authority of the church, and the nature of justification.

What quickly became apparent was that if a Reformed Protestant and an Orthodox believer were ever going to maturely discuss their differences, what I needed was a much richer understanding of the church’s history and theology prior to the arrival of Martin Luther and his mallet.

So for me, this was what I needed to begin studying the vast sea of Christian Days Gone By. But what about those of us who have not had the distinct pleasure of serious conversation with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends?

Why should the everyday Christian care about church history? Below I will offer what I believe are the three best answers to that question.

1. A Biblical Reason

When I reflect on the many texts of Scripture that mention the approaching post-apostolic period, there are two that quickly stand out. The first of these comes from the infamous exchange between Peter and Jesus in Matthew 16:13-20.

While the debate continues regarding the office of the papacy, what we must not miss here is the great promise that Christ makes following His renaming of Simon to Peter: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [my church]” (Matthew 16:18).

It is not that Christ’s church completely died somewhere along the way and the Reformation somehow brought her back to life.

This statement, at the very least, reveals that it is not that Christ’s church did not completely die somewhere along the way and the Reformation somehow brought her back to life. True Christians, and therefore a true church, has always remained. The Reformation simply brought a larger portion of it back to the truths of Scripture.

Also, it in no way teaches the infallibility of the church, but rather simply that she will never completely fall away.

Matthew Poole writes, “The power of the devil and all his instruments shall never prevail against it utterly to extinguish it, neither to extinguish true faith in the heart of any particular believer, nor to root the gospel out of the world.”[1]

The next vital promise that Christ makes is from John’s Gospel where He says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you all the things that are to come” (John 16:13).

Directly, this promise refers particularly to the Spirit’s work in aiding the disciples and, subsequently, in their penning the very words of Scripture. But indirectly it applies to those who would believe in Christ on their account; namely, the church.

In other words, what we have here is a promise from Christ that the Spirit will guide the church into “truth” which, by the way, He defines a chapter later as the God’s “word” (cf. John 17:20).

Collectively, these two promises give us all the reason in the world to take seriously the fact that Christ’s church has always been alive because of His great power to sustain her and that she has continuously been guided into all truth and protected from complete apostasy. Although perhaps not at the forefront of history, the church has always survived from the time of Christ until now.

Therefore, we should take an active interest in what has happened in the history of the church, and this includes what happened prior to the Reformation.

2. A Hermeneutical Reason

Hermeneutics is the interpretation of Scripture. In relation to church history, the principle at work here is sola Scriptura, the Reformational view of Scripture as our ultimate authority.

The pendulum swings too far, though, when a high view of Biblical authority leads to a strict, radical “Scripture only” hermeneutic. Some have rightly dubbed this view “solo Scriptura” as opposed to sola Scriptura.[2]

Rather than Scripture being our highest authority by which we can understand and evaluate correct church tradition, Scripture is sometimes viewed as the only authority and that we cannot benefit at all from the history of Christian life and thought.

If the Biblical reason offered above is correct, then it follows that the ways in which the Christian church has historically interpreted Scripture (i.e., what we call “tradition”) still retains a high place of authority in the life of every Christian.

This, for instance, is why Protestants hold to and confess ancient statements of faith such as the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. These historical formulations, however, are still subject to the authority of Scripture.

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda. “The church reformed and always being reformed.”

This is precisely why another Reformational slogan, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (“the church reformed and always being reformed”), became so important in the 16th century, because any true theological innovation that cannot be found in Scripture or the tradition is by nature an error and, because of this potentiality for such a discovery, the church must always be looking to maintain and return (when needed) to the purity of the apostolic period.

Perhaps the best example of this is sola fide (justification by faith alone), which is seen by Roman Catholics as an innovation, but by Protestants as a returning to Scriptural truth.[3]

But what we must note here is that the Reformers in no way rejected the tradition, but rather honored it, taught it, and cared so much for it that they sought to correct it where they saw that it had deviated from apostolic Christianity.

As Michael Allen and Scott Swain have concluded in their latest work, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, “we believe that commitment to sola Scriptura enhances our reception of the catholic[4] fullness of the church’s past.”[5]

Practically speaking, one proximate and serious benefit of this attitude is that we are protected from rampant individualism, as we seek to understand the hermeneutical history of the Christian church and to stand consciously within the great historic stream of orthodoxy.

As Alister McGrath brilliantly states,

Rediscovering the corporate and historic nature of the Christian faith reduces the danger of entire communities of faith being misled by charismatic individuals and affirms the ongoing importance of the Christian past as a stabilizing influence in potentially turbulent times…Tradition is like a filter, which allows us to identify suspect teachings immediately.[6]
Alister McGrath

In short, we must never seek to reinvent the wheel, but rather allow it to steer us (insofar as it is biblical) as an interpretive guide into the truth of Scripture.

3. A Doxological Reason

Doxology, or worship of God, also factors into church history. It is ironic that those of us who so deeply love and cherish the Reformational truth of God’s complete and unqualified sovereignty over all human affairs and creation are so often the ones who dismiss church history prior to the Reformation, as if our Lord was not providentially at work in and through the saints of ages past. We must reject this attitude if we are to honor God and be truly consistent with our theology.

God has been perfectly and supremely faithful to His Bride

One of the greatest benefits of studying church history and the story of her theological development is that, by doing so, we are brought face to face with the magnificent story in which God has been perfectly and supremely faithful to His Bride.

There are many heresies that have popped up within the church since the very beginning, such as the Judaizers, Docetists, gnostics, Arians, Sabellians, Pelagians, and many others. Despite these challenges, the church has managed throughout it all, by the strength and power of God, to avoid being destroyed them as she clung to orthodoxy (i.e., biblical Christianity).

Reflecting on this, we must humbly bow before the Lord and give Him all glory, honor, and praise for the amazing things He has done.

If we truly believe, as the Westminster Catechism reminds us, that God “hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass,”[6] then we must diligently work to understand what has come to pass and use it as even more reason to magnify our Triune God.

[1] Matthew Poole commentary on Matthew 16:18.
[2] For more on this, take a look at “Solo Scriptura The Difference a Vowel Makes
[3] In my opinion, the best historical argument for this particular doctrine is Alister McGrath’s groundbreaking book, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, wherein he traces the development of the Western understanding of justification from Augustine onward and concludes that although the Reformers did indeed introduce a theological innovation into the Augustinian tradition, that they rightly did so in order to correct the Augustinian categories along more ancient (i.e., Scriptural) lines.
[4] “Catholic” in this sense is in reference to the universal church, not to Roman Catholicism.
[5] Reformed Catholicity, 50-51. Baker Academic, 2015.
[6] Alister E. McGrath, “The Importance of Tradition for Modern Evangelicalism,” in Doing Theology for the People of God, ed. Donald Lewis and Alister E. McGrath, 166.
[7] Westminster Shorter Catechism, 7.

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