How We View History
In Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, one of the characters, Catherine Morland, states that history “tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”1In many respects, this statement is a good reflection of the contemporary Western attitude towards history. Generally speaking, men and women in the West rarely think of going to history for wisdom or direction or encouragement. History, at best, contains interesting and entertaining bits of trivia. But wisdom? No, that’s found by looking to the present and to the future. Yet, a popular Russian proverb warns: “He who dwells on the past loses an eye; but he who forgets the past loses both eyes.”2
It should also be borne in mind that the area of the West in which we are living, namely, North America, is even more allergic to the study of history than places like Europe, because there is less stimulus in the surroundings of North American culture and society to arouse historical curiosity. Of course, there are places like the old quarter of Quebec City that are rich in history, but certainly they are not as many as in other parts of the world.
The ESV Church History Study Bible is designed to help believers in all seasons of life understand the Bible—featuring 20,000 study notes from church history’s most prominent figures.
Tragically, this attitude towards history is also characteristic of far too many Christians. Like their culture, they are in the grip of a euphoria that places ultimate value on that which is new and innovative. This mentalité inevitably involves a dislike of the past. Whatever value the inheritance from the past may have had for its own day, much current church wisdom would have us believe that that value is now so diminished that it can easily be discounted in any reckoning about how to do church. Not only is this mentalité folly—we have no idea of where we are going if we do not know where we have come from—but it is at heart a clear manifestation of worldliness! As what follows will show, however, it is vital for Christians to care about church history.
History Has Meaning
Men and women are historical beings immersed in the flow of time. One cannot escape the effects of history. Even to think ahistorically for any length of time is a considerable task.
Not only is it important for the individual to realize his or her historical nature, but it is also essential for the community, especially the Christian community. For the Christian community, history is the stage on which the drama of redemption is being displayed—at the beginning is the Fall, at the end is the Last Judgment. In between, the most crucial event of all, the entry of the eternal God into time as a man, Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate. From the perspective of the New Testament, the incarnation is the culmination of the history of salvation sketched in the Old Testament.3 The incarnation proves beyond a shadow of a doubt God’s interest in history, for it initiated a history of salvation that embraces not only Israel, but the entire world.4
From the Christian perspective, God is undoubtedly active in history. And it is right and proper to study history for that reason alone. Though it is impossible to trace in detail his footsteps across the sands of time after the eras covered by the Scriptures, it is blasphemous to deny that he is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess heartily that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his name and the good of his people.
Learning from the Past
But there are other good reasons for studying what we call church history, the history of God’s new covenant people. It has been said, “A wise man learns from his mistakes; a wiser man learns from the mistakes of others; a fool learns from neither of them.” Here, then, is one of the more obvious reasons for studying church history: to learn from the mistakes of the past. Again, to cite the words of a famous proverb: “He who does not remember the past is doomed to repeat it.” Thus, for example, we can study the configurations of fourth-century Arianism that denied the full deity of the Lord Jesus to help us win those who have bought into the heretical views of Christ maintained by modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Yet, we can also learn wisdom from past disciples of Christ. As the Victorian Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon (1834–1892) once noted: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”5 And ponder these wise words of theologian J. I. Packer (1926–2020): “Tradition . . . is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.”6
Building a Sense of Humility
Human beings are historical beings, as has been noted. Their lives are inextricably tied to the past—their own immediate past and that of other humans. Gilbert Beers, a past editor of Christianity Today, recognized that “we owe much to many whom we have never met.”7 As Beers went on: “We live in a throwaway society; we dispose of things we consider a burden. My concern is that we do not add our predecessors to the collection of throwaways, carelessly discarding those who have made us what we are.”8 The study of church history informs us about our predecessors in the faith, those who have helped shape our Christian communities, and thus make us what we are. Such study builds humility and modesty into our lives, and so can exercise a sanctifying influence upon us.
For the Christian community, history is the stage on which the drama of redemption is being displayed.
Liberation from the Tyranny of Present
The study of church history also liberates us from the tyranny of present-day ideas, what C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) calls “the idols of our marketplace.” Listen to Lewis as he argues for the need to read old books:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. . . .To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.9
Consider Francis of Assisi, for example. For him the word “poverty”—in the Latin he spoke, paupertas—was something quite different than what it means to us. For him it was a bride to be embraced since he believed that it gave him true freedom. For modern North Americans, Christian and pagan alike, poverty is generally viewed as an unmitigated economic disaster that places severe limitations on one’s freedom. Which is right? Which is more biblical? Answering these questions would take us too far afield, but this example shows how church history can call into question what we take for granted as an absolute and reveal it to be merely relative and culture-bound.
Models for Imitation
Church history can also provide us with models for imitation. For instance, in Hebrews 11–12:2, the writer uses the history of God’s faithful people in the old covenant to encourage his readers to run the “foot race” of faith. He wants them to draw encouragement from the past lives of God’s people—“so great a cloud of witnesses”—and so press on in faith and obedience towards the final goal. His main point seems to be that encouragement needs to be drawn from what we see in these believers from the past, namely, their “witness to the nature and possibilities of faith.”10 Beyond a shadow of a doubt, their lives show that it is possible to live by faith. As the British biblical scholar Donald Guthrie has noted: “Although the writer is not urging the readers to dwell in the past, he is deeply conscious of the influence of the example of other men” for good.11 There is value in remembering the lifestyle of those whom God has used in the past.
Having said this, a caution needs to be sounded. I quote from John Jewel (1522–1571), Anglican apologist and erstwhile opponent of the Puritans, who, writing in 1582, stated:
But what say we of the fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, Hierome, Cyprian, etc.? What shall we think of them, or what account may we make of them? They be interpreters of the word of God. They were learned men, and learned fathers; the instruments of the mercy of God, and vessels full of grace. We despise them not, we read them, we reverence them, and give thanks unto God for them. They were witnesses unto the truth, they were worthy pillars and ornaments in the church of God. Yet may they not be compared with the Word of God. We may not . . . make them the foundation and warrant of our conscience: we may not put our trust in them. Our trust is in the name of the Lord.12
The Praise of God
Finally, the study of church history should lead us to the praise of God and his adoration. To quote Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan: “The writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word. . . . He that proveth not . . . what God hath been doing in the world . . . doth want much to the completing of his knowledge.”13 We study the history of God’s people to see what God has been doing in the world, and so praise him for his mighty acts in the past, and trust that he will display his power and glory afresh in our day.
- Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion, 4 vols. (London: John Murray, 1818), I, 255.
- Cited “Editorial: Keeping Both Eyes: The Value of Church History,” The Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology 12, no.1 (1993): 1.
- See, for example, Galatians 4:4, Hebrews 1:1–2.
- See Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:15–16.
- C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1.
- J. I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 25 (1982): 414.
- V. Gilbert Beers, “Editorial: Giving Thanks for Predecessors,” Christianity Today, 26, no.19 (November 26, 1982): 12.
- Beers, “Editorial: Giving Thanks for Predecessors,” 13.
- C. S. Lewis, “Introduction” to St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (1944, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1982), 4–5.
- David Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection. An Examination of the Concept of Perfection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 169.
- Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1983), s.v..
- Cited Barrington R. White, “Why Bother with History?”, Baptist History and Heritage, 4, no.2 (July 1969): 85.
- Richard Baxter, The Life of Faith in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 12:364.
Michael A. G. Haykin is a contributor to the ESV Church History Study Bible: Voices from the Past, Wisdom for the Present.
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