When I started theological studies, one of the subjects that I least expected myself to enjoy was church history. The thought of having to memorize events, dates and people just seemed so tiresome and irrelevant. Yet as I reflect through, I daresay that church history is probably one of the most important subjects and also one of subjects I now thoroughly enjoy. But why the change of heart toward this subject?
I can think of a few reasons. Firstly, the realization that church history has got every bit to do with the present church today. No church exist in a vacuum. I recall attending a public lecture once where the lecturer said “The history of the church is the history of the people of God.” And precisely because the church is made up of God’s people, we never ever have the existence of a church without having at the same time a string of events that took place in the lives of people woven together to form the church. By extension, what we see in churches today, is very often the fruit of what took place in history. In that sense, to study church history involves the study of the lives of people who have laid the layers of foundation for us.
But the study of history also serves as a reminder of what the church has stood for in the past. Using the early church as an example, we remember the early missionary identity of the Church. This in turn serves as a reminder for what we as the church today is called to be and known for. For example, Christians in the past had gained a reputation for caring for the sick and dying during periods of plagues. They would also help to raise funds to ransom slaves and even provided food for the hungry. This acts of kindness and mercy coupled together with their proclamation of the gospel served as a good testimony to the public for what the Christian faith was about. If anything, this informs us as a church what we as Christians can do today. It also forces us to reflect on how Christianity is perceived in this present day and the reasons for such perceptions. Is it because we have focused too much on the proclamation of the gospel to the neglect of the other? Looking at the missionary identity also helps us remember that Christians in the past understood that all earthly homeland were merely temporary for there was an ultimate home that they would one day be called to go back to. This was especially true in a time where Christians were persecuted and often had to flee. By extension, we can ask ourselves whether we have made too much out of a particular place or job that we fail to realize where our true citizenship lies. Reading and studying the early church then educates us on what Christianity has been and stood for which in turn helps us to reflect what our church today should be and stand for.
History also informs us about the methods deployed by the early church in their attempt at missions and the implications for churches today. Church history not only informs us of what the church did, it also makes us consider what approach was particularly effective. In the early church we realize that very often the conversion of a nation was often tied to the conversion of state leaders, in particular the king or emperor. As a result early Christian missionaries did spend considerable amount of time in trying to convert the leaders. An example of a nation taking after the religion of the leader would be Constantine (controversial though that may be). However we must also recognize that the use of trade routes and merchants did play a part in the proselytizing of the Christian faith among the locals as well. The lesson that we can learn concerning our methodological approach in Christian mission is that evangelism at the level of the church and at the marketplace must take place today for Christian mission to be effective. While the church as an institution can spread the gospel at the ground level, we are also dependent on Christians in the marketplace particularly those holding leadership positions to make a positive influence on other leaders that pastors may have no contact with. Following the example of the early church, churches today can and should recognize the importance in having both forms of ministry as they come hand in hand in spreading the gospel.
Still we can go further with church history. For even the doctrines of the church that is professed and taught today finds its root in ecumenical councils of the past. The doctrines that we have are almost certainly not new and always passed down from those who have gone before us. This is more obviously true of mainline denominations where we identify ourselves with a particular tradition. But I think the same can be said of the charismatic movement as well. While charismatics like to speak of this movement as something new that the spirit is doing, we actually find that what we are seeing is not new but remarkably close to a movement that took place back in the late 2nd century under Montanus. If anything, this informs us that the doctrines we see today are barely new and that most Christians belong to one tradition or another. Some people have made this out to be a bad thing and prefer to just call themselves bible believing Christians without wanting to have any ties to any tradition whatsoever. While I understand what they are trying to communicate (that scripture takes precedence over tradition), I am not persuaded that such a position is possible. In fact, I’m quite tempted to say that it might be both arrogant and dangerous of us to completely disregard tradition as though the whole Christian faith only revolves around you, a single person and God. Take for instance the doctrine of the Trinity that the early church spent years debating about. To completely disregard tradition would be to disregard all that has been said and thought about concerning the trinity. To put it another way, if we are willing to trust and assume that the spirit works in the illumination of our minds such that we can understand scripture, then what about the people in the past? Did not the spirit work through the illumination of those living in the past as well? We must not be too quick to put aside the views of others while not doing the same for ours. At the same time, to affirm the classical doctrine of the trinity or to recite the Nicene Creed for instance would be to place yourself within the tradition of the early church fathers.
In summary, there are so many learning points that one can make from church history that is directly relevant for the church today, if only I had the time to type them down. But for now, I must end here. Till next time.
“How shall we labor with any effect to build up the church, if we have no thorough knowldege of her history, or fail to apprehend it from the proper point of observation? History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s Word, the richest foundation of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity.” – Philip Schaff