Why Pastors Need Church History
One of my favorite cartoons shows a customer at the counter of a Christian book and trinket store, apparently inquiring about a particular item. The clerk behind the counter is saying, “Let’s see, Calvin’s Institutes–is that a new title?” The cartoon humorously illustrates the all too true and sad fact that modern American Christians are ignorant of their own spiritual heritage.
We might expect that the situation would be otherwise for those in the pastoral ministry, but such a conclusion is too hastily drawn. I suppose that for many pastors (and seminarians) the study of the history of Christianity (commonly known as “church history”) is considered to be dull, dry, and dreary. Not only that, but history is also thought by some to be quite irrelevant to the concerns of ministering in the present. Furthermore, for a discipline paying such apparently low dividends, its study would be terribly time-consuming in a day when the demands made on a pastor seem boundless. It is an unusual pastor who gives any significant attention to the history of Christianity after the completion of his college or seminary church history course.
Such a state of affairs ought not to be. The regular study of the history of Christianity–when undertaken in the proper way–can be one of the most informative, stimulating, and encouraging endeavors a pastor can pursue. What follows proceeds on three assumptions. First, the study of the history of Christianity should be conceived as broadly as possible: it involves Christianity not only in its internal and institutional development, but also in its relationships to the surrounding culture, institutions, movements, philosophies, and religions. This broadens the parameters considerably, to the point of touching upon all the major facets of Western civilization–which, incidentally, provides the context for contemporary ministry. Second, the study of Christian history is necessarily a lifelong activity, not just a single course that is taken and forgotten. Nothing less will prove so adequate and profitable. Third, church history involves an acquaintance with primary sources, not just modern history books. Exposure to the texts and documents of a historical era brings life and immediacy to one’s examination of the Christian heritage and promotes genuine knowledge of and empathy with those who have gone before. Undertaken in light of these three considerations, the study of church history becomes a living, vital activity.
Having granted all this, the question remains, What specific benefits can the study of Christian history provide us? Some of the benefits of church history mentioned below are enjoyed in common with all historical study generally; some are specific benefits of church history; and some have particular application to pastors, preachers, and other Christian workers.
How We Got Here
In the first place, historical study helps us to understand how we reached the point where we are today. The present has its roots in the past, and a knowledge of that past is necessary for understanding the present. For example, how does one explain the present theological shallowness of American Christianity? This condition is arguably traceable in large part to the decline of Calvinism in the nineteenth century and its replacement with a line of religious thought more in keeping with prevailing American cultural values and democratic mores. Awareness of this development alerts a pastor to the fact that American ideals do not always conform to the theology of the Bible and that it may take considerable pastoral courage to press genuine biblical teaching on twentieth-century Americans–both unbelievers and believers.
This is the particular use of history which Earl E. Cairns labels “an aid to understanding the present,” and it applies to more mundane matters as well, as Cairns points out: Why are there so many different Christian denominations? Why do their theologies, church order, and worship practices differ so? The answers must invariably be found in the historical personages and circumstances which lie at the foundation of the various Christian groups and denominations. Clearly, we cannot escape history; we are all caught up in its effects. But we can minister with greater understanding (and thus, perhaps, with greater effectiveness) if we know something of the history that has produced the present moment.
Second, the study of church history helps us to see things as a whole. It connects our present moment with the long past of Christianity and sets the stage for the future. We are thus allowed to see something of the pattern of God’s working in history. For example, one element that has been fairly constant in the great spiritual awakenings of the past has been God’s use of the powerful preaching of His Word.
This point was recently driven home for me with great emphasis when I acquired and began reading Calvin’s Sermons on Deuteronomy, reprinted by the Banner of Truth. Historians commonly recognize that Calvinism was the most dynamic element of the Reformation movement and have sought for reasons why. I suspect that a good part of the answer may be found in Calvin’s preaching, which has been a neglected aspect of that reformer’s life and ministry. A perusal of his sermons shows them to be straightforward Biblical exposition of great spiritual intensity and power, with searching and encouraging application (they are probably the most edifying reading I have yet encountered).
When it is considered that Calvin preached ten times every two weeks to a congregation that included many foreign exiles in Switzerland, delivering material of tremendous spiritual potency, then the dynamism of international Calvinism is no longer a mystery: the movement absorbed Calvin’s own approach to the Bible and drew its nourishment from that source, often ministered by Calvin himself, either in person or in print (Calvin’s sermons were being translated into English and printed in England by the 1570s).
From this scriptural source sprang Puritanism and the early Baptists, movements which also were furthered by biblical preaching and exposition. May we not conclude that the instrument which God so powerfully used at that time He may see fit to use again? And may not this insight encourage some pastor, whether in a lonely outpost or a prominent pulpit, to persevere in a faithful ministry of Biblical exposition, realizing that it is through His Word that God works?
Continuity and Identity
A third benefit of church history is that it fosters a sense of continuity and identity with earlier generations of Christians. As we become familiar with the lives and beliefs of Christians of previous eras we are struck not only by how they differ from us but also by how much we have in common with them; we are granted a sense of identity with them and of our own continuity in the historical stream of Christianity.
This is especially important in our own rootless and amnesiac age: modern Christians and pastors who are aware of church history can see that they stand in a long line of Christian believers who have held to the same truths, adhered to similar principles, and attempted to live out a consistent Christian lifestyle in their own generation.
The Baptist pastor who wonders about his own sanity or doctrinal moorings because he doesn’t follow after every current practical gimmick or theological fad can find little better tonic than to read a few pages of John Dagg’s Manual of Theology, realizing that what was believed and taught by Dagg was adhered to and preached by the mainstream of Baptists before him, by the Puritans from whom the Baptists sprang, and in the main by Calvin and the other reformers. In other words, he will recognize that he stands in a long line of sound Christian believers who placed truth (and certain specific truths) at the center of their own identity. Church history thus serves the same function as the recital of the roll of the faithful in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews: it shows us that we do not stand alone but with a great cloud of witnesses, in a stream of continuity with them, believing the same truth, acknowledging the same Lord.
Illumination of Theology
In the fourth place, the consideration of church history helps to illuminate and clarify Christian theology. The doctrines we teach and the theological systems to which we adhere did not drop down from heaven borne on the wings of angels. They are the result rather (we hope) of Spirit-guided reflection on the contents of the Bible and on human experience in light of the Bible.
An acquaintance with the historic theological discussions shows us how Christian orthodoxy developed as earlier Christians intellectually engaged the Biblical materials and came to a consensus concerning their major teachings. The theological thinking and argumentation of those Christians can inform and guide us in dealing with those doctrines with which they struggled first. One’s appreciation of the doctrine of grace, for example, will be enhanced by a familiarity with the controversies in which Augustine, Luther, and Calvin were involved in their own day. One’s conception of the church can be sharpened by an acquaintance with the views of the early Baptists or of Jonathan Edwards. And one’s grasp of the essentials of Christology will be heightened through an awareness of the controversies in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Another service performed by this theological function of church history is to instruct us regarding doctrinal errors. Martin Lloyd-Jones warns us how easy it is to become unbalanced and to fall into doctrinal aberrations if one is not aware of the theological past. How many Baptist pastors would be surprised to learn that what they believe about the Trinity is known as modalism or Sabellianism and was condemned by the early church as heresy? “Church history is one of the essential studies for the preacher,” Lloyd-Jones asserts, “were it merely to show him this terrible danger of slipping into heresy, or into error, without realizing that anything has happened to him.”
A fifth function of church history is to serve as a motivating force in our Christian walk and service. When we realize that Calvin was wracked by disease and pain for many of the last years of his life and that John Bunyan spent twelve years in prison as a result of his preaching activities, we are inspired to press on in spite of our trials. When we are called upon to take an unpopular but biblical stance in our own day, we can be encouraged by the example (and instructed by the principles) of C. H. Spurgeon in the “Downgrade Controversy” or of J. Gresham Machen in the Presbyterian Church conflict of the 1920s and 1930s.
We can also be motivated and encouraged by a familiarity with the great revivals in the history of Christianity such as the Reformation, the Great Awakening, and many others. Lloyd-Jones testifies, “I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been, more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.” And the same history, he reminds us, can also serve to humble us as well (which, along with encouragement, will ordinarily tend to make us more useful) as it keeps us from being filled with pride.
A sixth benefit–and the last to be considered here–is that church history illustrates spiritual principles, providing examples for us to emulate or avoid. My recent reading of the letters of Francis Schaeffer revealed, as Schaeffer recognized, the lack of love in the separatist Presbyterian movement of the 1940s and 1950s. While rightly emphasizing the need for correct doctrine and a pure church, some in this movement lost sight of the need for the demonstration of God’s love in relationships with other Christians. This provides a worthy caveat for anyone involved in a movement of theological or ecclesiastical reform.
The wisdom of divine providence, as well as humble submission to that providence, is illustrated by Spurgeon’s attempt as a young man to enter a college–only to have that attempt foiled by circumstances he could not control. Spurgeon came to believe that it was God’s will that he not attend college–and he seems to have suffered not a whit for it. There are many such lessons to be learned from history.
The point will not be lost on pastors, of course, that any labor expended in uncovering examples of spiritual principles at work in history will be amply rewarded with abundant material for sermon illustrations.
“Okay, okay. You’ve convinced me that I should get into church history. But how should I go about it?” Perhaps the most painless way to approach church history is through the reading of biographies. When I was in the pastorate, I set aside time every Sunday afternoon for reading a chapter or two in the biography of some important figure in the history of Christianity. This or some other scheme for the reading of biographies might be a good place to begin, then one could move to more systematic works that survey the whole course of Christian history, or treat a major period such as the Reformation, or deal with a particular aspect of the history of Christianity, or answer a particular question you might have.
Whatever approach you decide to take, remember that the benefits flow not from good intentions but from your own personal exposure to the history of God’s working in, through, and (sometimes) in spite of His people and His church. The rewards are there. What are you waiting for?