Church History (What is it good for?)

I am almost finished reading a superb book about Church history by Bruce L. Shelley. It is called ‘Church History in Plain Language’ – and it’s most certainly that. It is written in a wonderfully narrative-ish style, and is gripping enough for me to get through the 490 or so pages.

Before I began the book, a Christian friend of mine expressed surprise that I would bother to read up on such a topic (especially such a lengthy one). He was also unconvinced about the usefulness of Church history knowledge – particularly for the layman. So the question I’d like to address is: what is Church history good for?

To begin with, I’d like to use the reasons that Shelley himself outlined in the prologue. He wrote that “many Christians today suffer from historical amnesia. The time between the apostles and their own day is one giant blank. That is hardly what God had in mind. The Old Testament is sprinkled with reminders of God’s interest in time…” Shelley further pointed out that ignorance of our history leads to vulnerability to cults (distortions of Christianity), a “shocking” case of spiritual pride (our way is the only way), and a lack of a wider context for any work in the Church (e.g., “how shall we use our time and effort?”). Shelley pointed out that study of Church history can give us the means to separate the “transient from the permanent, fads from basics”.

In addition, I would like to add that although we have the Bible for our own study today, our interpretations of the writings are coloured and shaped by our Christian ancestors. Why do we take this passage to mean one thing, that passage another? A quick glance into the past can make it clearer. There are also many valuable lessons to be learned looking though the corrective lens of hindsight. We don’t want to make the same mistakes again, do we?

For me personally, it has been a humbling experience. As I glimpsed into our past, it became surprising to me that God would choose to get anything done by us at all! We made so many stupid mistakes. It became obvious that God has his plan (whatever it may be), and manages to accomplish his will through us, by his choice.

My study also gave me an appreciation for the wider body of Christ, which is the true Church. I was suffering from some of the spiritual pride Shelley described. Now, I am in favour of denominationalism, but I was interested to discover that this idea came about in order to encourage unity though diversity (or at least, it stopped those who differed from killing each other). A denomination, by its original definition, did things the way it felt was right, but at the same time recognised that Jesus’ Church is much bigger – and there may be other ways of doing things. It seems now that I had too high a view of my particular way of doing things, and too high a view of mankind’s capability in the Church.

With this in mind, I encourage any Christian, even the layman, to investigate our Church history.

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