The Value of Studying Church History

by Derek Brown

Well, things were going swimmingly with our Young Professionals Bible study until I queried the group to see what we should study next. I had mentioned church history a couple weeks prior after one of our post-study discussions, and apparently the idea had stuck.

All of a sudden, I was neckdeep in preparing weekly lessons on 2,000 years of a complex story of gospel-grounded courage, doctrinal development, church expansion, and severe persecution, all the while coming face-to-face with some of history’s boldest Christian apologists and her smoothest-talking heretics. Not to mention that in nearly every era of church history you find such an intricate interplay between theology, philosophy, politics, and ecclesiology, it is often difficult to identify what biblical faithfulness should look like in such contexts.

Yet, despite the complexities and difficulties inherent in the study of church history, it is not only possible to gain a solid grasp on some of the major chapters in this grand story of God’s global work; we are able to glean important and faith-strengthening lessons from the past because it is our past.

I entitled our multi-week study, Your Spiritual Heritage: A Brief Study of Church History. If you are a Christian, the history of the church is your history. Think about it. The gospel eventually made its way to you through the history of the church. Having begun in Jerusalem, the gospel came to you, not immediately through a divine vision, but through the passage of time, as Christians who received the good news continued to make disciples who made more disciples. By God’s grace, that Jerusalem gospel came to you through a faithful disciple who has a spiritual lineage all the way back to Pentecost. Pretty amazing, huh?  

So, the study of church history should pique some interest in the Christian due to the simple fact that it is the Christian’s family history, and because it is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise in Matthew 16:18 to build his church. Beyond that, there are a few other good reasons for why a Christian should take a little time to delve into the past. Let me offer three.

(1)  Church history helps us  see how God has protected the truth throughout time. Immediately into the post-apostolic church (c. AD 95, after John died), you see a concern by Christian pastors and theologians to protect sound doctrine. A few decades prior, Paul had exhorted Timothy to “guard the good deposit” (1 Tim 6:20) and Jude exhorted his listeners to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). Both of these passages imply that there was a body of truth that comprised true knowledge of God, Christ, and the gospel. This “deposit,” therefore, had to be protected from attack and compromise if people were to be saved and the church was to grow into maturity (see Gal 1:8-9; Eph 4:12-16).

From very early on you see theologians of the post-apostolic church articulating and defending basic Christian truths like the oneness of God, the history and reality of the resurrection, the truth of the Scriptures, the genuine humanity and deity of Christ, and the personhood of the Holy Spirit. From the New Testament church through the early church, the medieval church into the Reformation and post-Reformation church, and all the way to the church in her modern and postmodern settings, you can locate a common cord of doctrinal truth that finds its origin in the Scripture through church history that can be grasped even today. God used teachers, pastors, theologians, writers, counsels, creeds, books, and a host of other means to protect that sacred deposit the prophets and apostles left us in the Bible.  

(2)  Church history helps you remember that God uses flawed saints to accomplish his purposes. The moment you step outside the New Testament, you find a church that is far from perfect. That’s not to suggest the New Testament church was flawless; the believing communities in Corinth and Galatia are a vivid reminder that even in those apostolic church glory days, sin and doctrinal error still managed to weave itself into local congregations. Even Christ’s chosen leaders had their own flaws (e.g., Gal 2:11-14).

But once you move out from the apostolic era, it becomes even more clear that God’s chosen means of propagating his Word and building his church are forgiven sinners. Although you can trace sound doctrine from the New Testament through each era of church history, you also find plenty of Christian theologians making doctrinal blunders, pastors overreaching their authority, leaders advocating for illegitimate ecclesiological structures, and so on. Some of the brightest apologists were some of the most caustic; and some of the most promising theologians would occasionally wander into unhelpful and unbiblical speculation. 

Nevertheless, the gospel spread, truth was defended, disciples were baptized, and local churches were established. Pastors would be trained at local Christian schools, theologians would gather to hammer out vital doctrinal issues and create biblically grounded creeds to stabilize the church, and books would be written that would remain for centuries and nourish God’s people in the truth. Despite her many sins and shortcomings, Christ has used his church to advance the hope of the gospel from Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.   

(3)  Church history encourages our walk with the Lord by providing worthy examples to follow. One of the most helpful aspects of church history is the opportunity to learn from men and women who have gone before us. We are sure to find flaws, but we are also sure to find people who exemplified hope-filled courage, passion for Christ, sacrificial love, personal holiness, intimacy with God, rugged commitment to the truth, and powerful insights into Scripture. These examples spur us on to pursue Christ with even more fervency and to make the most of our short time on earth. Scripture instructs us to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). Church history enables us to fulfill this command over and over again.

These are just a few of the blessings of studying church history that I hope will encourage you to take up and read. But where might you find some of the better, more faithful resources to help you on your journey? I will list a few to get you started.

Recommended Resources

  1. **Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation | Everett Ferguson
  2. **Church History, Volume 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day | John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III
  3.  *Church History in Plain Language, Fourth Edition | Bruce Shelly
  4.  **The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day | Justo L. Gonzalez
  5.  **A History of Christian Thought | Justo L. González
  6.  *Christian History Made Easy | Timothy Paul Jones
  7.  *Zondervan Essential Companion to Church History | Stephen Backhouse
  8. **Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine | Gregg Allison
  9.  **Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine | John D. Hannah
  10.  **Early Christian Doctrines | J. N. D. Kelly
  11.  *Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel from Christ to the Reformation | Nathan Busenitz
  12.  *Why the Reformation Still Matters | Michael Reeves and Tim Chester
  13.  *The Kregel Pictorial Guide to Church History, Volumes 1-4 | John D. Hannah