History Is a Great Story
Church history can certainly be taught in a way that makes it boring, but I think people who really dive in and immerse themselves in church history often find it to be like a great story. You know the old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I think that’s true. You couldn’t make up the things that you read about in church histories. It’s fascinating. Getting lost in a really good story is one way to melt away cynicism.
I’ve seen a lot of people move from an atheistic, nihilistic worldview to Christianity. Many times, one of the influences along the way is the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—not only their apologetics but even their fiction. There’s something about the book The Lord Of The Rings, for example. It’s hard to account for the beauty and the glory that is conveyed in that book within the limits of a nihilistic worldview. So it starts to sort of loosen the tentacles, so to speak, of any nihilism just to read that story. Church history can function in a similar way. It’s this fascinating story, but of course it’s a true story—and a story that we are a part of.
A Matter of Life and Death
One of the ways theological history specifically can be exciting is just seeing how much theology was a matter of life and death for people throughout church history. You think of Boethius in jail waiting to be executed and the way that he finds comfort in God’s providence. Or you think of Martin Luther, who just dreads, fears, and hates God, and the way his whole universe turns when he understands justification. We think of Bonhoeffer and the way his doctrine of the church takes on its shape as he’s struggling against the Nazis. It’s hard to read these people and think of their theology as boring because it’s concerned with the deepest things of life and the deepest longings of the human heart.
It’s hard to read these people and think of their theology as boring because it’s concerned with the deepest things of life and the deepest longings of the human heart.
A Whole World to Explore
Another way that I’ve found church history so fascinating is just seeing how much is out there. It’s almost like going through the wardrobe into Narnia and discovering there’s a whole world back there just waiting to be explored. I remember when I discovered how much there was to the early Eastern church. I had no idea how much history was back there that when I was growing up. But during the medieval era, there were many centuries during which Constantinople was the greatest city in Europe. And there’s this whole world of emperors, theological disputes, and mission efforts to India and China. Many times we’ve lost contact what’s going on in other places, and rediscovering that is incredibly exciting. It’s a pretty awesome thing to be able to read through church history and think This is a part of my story. This is a part of my spiritual ancestry. And I think that we can do that as evangelicals.
Gavin Ortlund is the author of Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need to Know Our Past to Have a Future.
The classic tale of The Pilgrim’s Progress has been popular with readers through the ages because it is rooted in the truths of the Bible.
Theological retrieval is a way to draw attention to things that you were assuming that you didn’t even know that you assumed.
Sometimes evangelicals view church history as though our main tradition is the last 500 years, but there's much more to our history.