Thinking About Church History

The title I have selected for today’s post happens to be the title of one of my categories of posts which deals with topics related to church history. I am a big believer in the study of church history. I have often repeated, if not nearly often enough on this blog, that we need to know where we came from so we can see where we are now and so we can see where we are headed in the future. I was excited last night to hear master documentarian, Ken Burns, say this very thing in relation to the importance of history. Burns, who has produced some legendary documentaries for PBS, like The Civil War, and Baseball, was interviewed yesterday on FOX News Sunday about his newest documentary on World War II called, The War. One of Chris Wallace’s final questions for Ken Burns, and Burns’ memorable answer, were as follows:


Wallace: You say you’re in the memory business. Why so much focus on history? Why so much focus on reawakening the past?


Burns:  I think we think that history is sort of like castor oil:  a set of dry dates and events that aren’t good for us, you know. We need to know where we’ve been, in order to know where we’re going. The current moment is so fraught with different perspectives, that we have to allow you, the journalist, to sort it out. When we get some perspective, then history gives us access to things, and it is paradoxically about our future. When you know where you’ve been, you are armed, it seems to me, with some of the best ammunition Americans could have. It equips us with the mistakes we’ve made, with the strengths that we have, and the ability, I think, to make very complicated decisions–particularly in times like this–and to go forward into a future that, I think, armed with a usable, serviceable past, that is less uncertain, and less dangerous.


I have a strong opinion about the relevance and value of church history for one’s personal and denominational interpretation of Scripture. One should not trust his own, or his denomination’s pet interpretations of Scripture uncritically. He should expose these interpretations to the light of day in the form of the corresponding interpretations of the great teachers of his own, as well as past, times. If the truth of God’s Word is a deposit handed down to us from generations past which extend back to the age of the apostles, then we have an obligation to make sure that doctrinal and practical transmission arrives to us in as undamaged of a state as possible. Sometimes, when we examine this divine cargo, we find that some reconstruction and repair is in order. I believe we are accountable to God for the state in which the following generations find our doctrine and practice.


Two quotes from great Christians of the past stand out in my mind which I’d like to share with you on this topic. The first is from Charles Spurgeon, and the second is from C. S. Lewis. These quotes well encapsulate my convictions regarding the value of church history for faithfulness to God’s Word. Iain Murry writes in a footnote of The Forgotten Spurgeon (page 34, note 14, 1994 edition, Banner of Truth Trust),

“Spurgeon had no patience with those who said, ‘We will not read anything except the book itself, neither will we accept any light, except that which comes in through a crack in our own roof. We will not see by another man’s candle, we would sooner remain in the dark.’ Brethren, do not let us fall into such folly.”

It is true that Scripture alone is our final authority in all matters of doctrine and practice, and that all human writings are subordinate to it, but Scripture was not written, nor is it well interpreted, in the vacuum of our own minds and experiences. We as members of the body of Christ are dependent on those gifted to teach us the truth of God’s Word, not only in our own congregation, but also from the universal church of all ages. Only in this way will we be able to truly “devote ourselves” (Acts 2:42) to the apostles’ doctrine. Writing in the current issue of Modern Reformation Magazine, Carl Trueman reviewed Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings, edited by Thomas C. Oden. He makes an interesting observation about the possible side effects of modern Evangelicalism‘s staunch position on the sufficiency of Scripture. He writes,

“Sadly, more recent Evangelicalism has, by accident or design, frequently isolated itself from such historic sources through a sincerely intended but naively executed commitment to the notion of scriptural sufficiency. This has borne unfortunate fruit. Over recent decades, the movement of many evangelicals to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy has been, in part at least, a reaction to such impoverishment of the Christian tradition within evangelical ranks. As people look for historical roots, Evangelicalism seems inadequate to meet the challenge, and such moves, though misguided, are at least understandable.”


Trueman’s words segue nicely to my second quote, by C. S. Lewis, which was given to us in his introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On The Incarnation. Lewis writes,

“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.”

How easy it is to assume that our age is the most advanced, the best informed. This goes for theology as well as for science and other academic and intellectual disciplines. But we mess things up just as easily as other ages have–we still have our own biases and pre-conceived notions. Lewis’ words remind us that some of these pre-conceived notions may be mis-conceived, and therefore our recourse must be to the checks and balances of old books. If we fail to do so, we are destined to get off track, lower our interpretive standards, and lose our way on the road to a theologically sound future. Please always remember and never forget: we Christians must learn where we’ve come from, so we can see where we are now, in terms of faithfulness to the apostles’ doctrine and practice, and be able to see clearly where we are headed with our doctrine and practice in the future.






9 responses

  1. Excellent thoughts, Capt.! Those who fail to look back often fail to look at all. Ignorance of the past is not a virtue. We see that clearly in the “innovative” Churches of the 21st century. They see only the present and make every effort to adapt and conform the Church to the “scene” they see in their current society. Worship suffers, in my opinion, because, in part, the transcendancy is gone.

  2. Amen, Christian! How badly in need is the American church of genuine reformation, not only in worship styles, but in doctrine. Reformata, Semper Reformanda! In English, that’s, “Reformed, Always Reforming.”

  3. JC,

    “Lest hold fast to our confession without wavering.”

    Good stuff…History is important huh? I’m tevoing the “War” too…

    Gage Browning
    Post Tenebras Lux

  4. One of the most significant changes in Western history has been that men once thought of themselves in light of God’s purposes and plans, and today men think of God’s purposes and plan in light of their own.

  5. Gage,

    Indeed, history is important. And so is being a Berean about our confession. To paraphrase some philosopher (Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, I forget which), “the unexamined [confession] is not worth [confessing].”

    Which, of course, is why I couldn’t stay a fundamentalist.

  6. David,

    Interesting way to reinforce the fact that natural religion is man-centered, rather than Christ-centered.

  7. Great post John, when I was preparing to leave the non-committal, err denominational church I was in before joining the PCA I asked the pastor if I should invest in the Ante-Nicene, Post Nicene fathers books and he said “Save your money and spend it on something you will use.” The worst advice I have ever received. All I can say is Amen, Standing on shoulders and other stuff.
    In Christ

  8. Sounds like you had a very “pragmatic” pastor, there. Mine was, too. Once he attempted to apply to me a term of endearment by calling me his “hyper-critical hyper-Calvinist.”

    I’ve got my eye on a set of the works of the Fathers, but I may have to wait some time before I can obtain them. Until then, I guess I’ll be standing on online shoulders. . .

  9. yes and amen to this topic!

    I am thinking about Nehemiah 9 and 2 Timothy 4.

    Nehemiah 9 when considered spans quite a bit of time and history.

    Here’s 2 Timothy 4:13

    2Ti 4:13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

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