Though it was written two hundred years ago, Jane Austen’s fiction is still popular since so much of it still rings true to human experience. In her novel Northanger Abbey (1817), for instance, the heroine Catherine Morland makes a statement that is amazingly prescient about the modern boredom with history. In Catherine’s words, history “tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.” Many in the modern world, sadly even Christians, see the past as little more than this: a tiresome account of a few big names with little wisdom to impart for life today. At best, it may offer a couple of hours of entertainment and diversion via a movie or a novel.
History, important to God
How different is the Bible’s perspective on the past. Here, history is obviously important to God, since it is the realm where God ultimately brings about the salvation of his people by entering into the very fabric of time and taking on our humanity, sin excepted, in the person of Jesus Christ. This divine activity in the realm of history should not be restricted to the Bible. Though it is impossible to trace out his footsteps across the sands of time in detail, it is blasphemous to deny that God is at work. His work may often be hidden, but it is biblical to confess that he is providentially guiding history for the glory of his Name and the good of his people. As such, to quote the seventeenth-century Puritan Richard Baxter, “The writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word.” Reading Church history should lead therefore to the praise of God and his adoration.
The individual and history
Men and women are historical beings, immersed in the flow of time. Without the past our lives have little or no meaning. When a community forgets its past, it is like a person suffering from dementia: they really cannot function in the world. So we must study history, and as Christians, this means Church history.
This reading of the history of God’s people can also provide us with models for imitation. For instance, in Hebrews 11–12:2, the writer uses the history of God’s faithful people in the old covenant to encourage his readers to run the “foot-race” of faith. He wants them to draw encouragement from the lives of past believers to press on in faith and obedience towards the final goal.
And we soon discover that this story of the past is not simply that of an elite few, but encompasses every believer’s life and that we can learn as much from the so-called minor figures of Church History as from the “big names.” As the American apologist Francis Schaeffer reminds us: with God there are no little people!
History—a path to humility & freedom
Studying church history also builds a deep sense of indebtedness to others who have gone before us, and thus helps to cultivate the great virtue of humility. The study of our past informs us about our predecessors in the faith, those who have helped shape our Christian communities and thus make us what we are. Such study builds humility and modesty into our lives, and so can exercise a sanctifying influence upon us. As Jesus said in John 4: “Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour” (ESV).
The study of Church history also liberates us from the tyranny of present-day ideas, what C.S. Lewis calls “the idols of our marketplace.” Consider Francis of Assisi’s attitude towards poverty. For him the word “poverty” (paupertas) was a bride to be embraced since he believed that it gave him true freedom. For modern Westerners, Christian and pagan alike, poverty is generally viewed as an unmitigated economic disaster that places severe limitations on one’s freedom. This example reveals the way that Church History can call into question what we take for granted as an absolute and reveal it to be merely relative and culture-bound.
Little wonder then that the eighteenth-century Evangelical Caleb Evans once said that “every Christian ought to be a good historian.”
* This article first appeared in Evangelicals Now (January 2016)