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Why church history? For Christian faithfulness now

On the most recent episode of the Deep Roots Podcast, Tim Ward, Eric Ortlund, and I had the chance to talk about church history. Specifically, we touched on the whys of church history. As in, why bother with it all? At a theological college like Oak Hill, church history traditionally sits alongside biblical studies, systematic theology, and practical theology as one of the four main areas for study and reflection. And yet, unlike the other three, which all have a fairly straightforward and obvious relevance for the training of future church leaders, the need for church history sometimes seems less obvious. Retracing the issues and controversies of a hundred years ago can seem a bit remote from the pressing needs of ministry today. So, why do we bother with it?

If we were to survey Christians and ask them why someone ought to bother with church history, I suspect that most people would suggest that history is helpful to us insofar as it provides lessons to learn and models to emulate. So, for example, to study the life and martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) is to learn what Christian courage and resolve can look like. The historical account of Cranmer’s last days becomes a vivid piece of practical instruction and an inspiration to all believers who face hostility and persecution. Or we might consider the great preachers of the eighteenth-century evangelical revival and be renewed in our zeal for evangelism and mission. This is surely a right and good use of church history. Whether through Paul’s exhortations to emulate his own life and example (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:17), or the catalogue of saints celebrated for their faith in Hebrews 11, the Bible itself gives ample warrant for reflecting carefully on the lives of other Christians.

But as we look to the past for examples to imitate, we should recognise that there is more to the story than simply finding and highlighting the virtues and good deeds of exceptional individuals. That is a good thing to do, but, having done it, we can also start to consider how the historical contexts in which exemplary men and women lived might have helped to shape them into the kind of people that they were. In so doing, we move towards one of the deepest and most profound reasons for studying church history: namely, to develop a keener sense of our own place within the flow of historical events. What do I mean? By default, we all tend to imagine that the circumstances which characterise our own time and place represent a very natural, obvious way of being and doing. The way I dress, prepare my food, structure my time, and fill my leisure hours are often simply assumed as givens, and I live them out without much active reflection. In a hundred different ways, great and small, the cultural and social trappings which collectively constitute my manner of living, thinking, and relating to others are simply ‘the way things are’ - or so we easily assume.

Now, to some degree, this is both natural and appropriate—after all, if I had to constantly stop and thoughtfully reflect on the cultural and historical significance of every aspect of my twenty-first-century life, then a simple trip to Tesco would quickly become a rather drawn out and impractical affair! And yet, if I never stop to consider the ways in which my life is actually historically conditioned and shaped, then I risk assuming that certain things in my life are inevitable when in fact they actually could be, and perhaps should be, different from how they are. Studying history gives me a point of contrast against which to set my present moment. As I inhabit the past through the study of history, I can notice continuities and discontinuities between how people live and think now and how they lived and thought then. Just like travelling to a foreign country offers you a chance to notice things about your own country that you would have otherwise taken for granted, immersion in the past creates a backdrop against which I can better discern the peculiar contours of my present moment. The study of the past thus becomes a means through which I can cultivate a sort of self-awareness that I would otherwise lack.

And this sort of self-awareness is especially crucial for Christians. If we are called to resist being ‘conformed to this world’ (Rom. 12:2) then we must learn to clearly recognise the pressure points thrown up for us in the particular time and place in which God has placed us. Sin will always be with us in a fallen world, but the particular shape which sin and temptation takes in any given moment will vary from age to age, and from culture to culture. So, if I hope to effectively cultivate holiness in my current cultural moment, I will be greatly helped through a heightened awareness of where and how that moment might be shaping me in ways that are actually unhelpful. It’s all too easy to be carried passively along by the current of culture, but reading church history and learning to think historically can help us resist that.

I was given a lesson in this recently whilst reading David Calhoun’s history of Princeton Theological Seminary. Calhoun describes how, during the 1830s, the Seminary sought to actively expand its vision for international mission by establishing ‘a Missionary Institution, for the instruction and training of missionaries’. This programme was successful, and during the ensuing years the seminary saw greater and greater numbers of its students committing themselves to overseas evangelisation. And yet Calhoun records just how dangerous a proposition this sort of work was during the mid-nineteenth century. For example, between 1837 and 1841 five missionaries were sent from the seminary to Africa, charged with establishing a preaching work and a Christian school in Monrovia, Liberia. All five died, four shortly after arrival and one after just two years of evangelistic labour. Yet despite this tragic record, the response of the seminary students throughout these years was to keep at the work, refusing to believe that this part of the world was to ‘be given up.’1

Reflecting on the dedication and courage of these students, I am of course impressed by them as individuals worthy of emulation. I could stop my historical reflection there and be edified and encouraged. But, pressing deeper, I realise that the young Princeton missionaries challenge me to consider not just the virtue on display in the lives of these individuals, but also the broader cultural context which helped to form and support that virtue. I cannot help but wonder about the ways in which they were being shaped collectively by very different cultural currents than those by which we are being shaped in 2022.

And, indeed, reading on in Calhoun’s history, we observe a group of early nineteenth-century American Christians whose lives were much harder, much more uncertain, and often much shorter than our own. When compared with our technologically advanced, fast-paced twenty-first century lives, these believers had relatively few options for career and leisure. When compared with the safety, security and relative physical ease which most of us enjoy, these believers lived lives characterised by a hard, physical intensity and a constant sense of vulnerability to disease, the elements and the physical world around them more generally. And, perhaps as a result, they seemed to hold to this life more loosely than we often do. The willingness of these students to engage in very uncertain missionary work shows them to be men and women who lived as those ‘longing for a better country – a heavenly one’ (Heb. 11:16). Such reflections prompt me to question the ways in which our own entertainment-saturated, option-laden, physically undemanding historical moment might make it more difficult for me to cultivate such an attitude. What would it look like to live and think in a different way?

When we immerse ourselves in the study of church history, we are confronted with such questions. This is because reading about the past reminds us of the degree to which we too, like those we read about, are conditioned by the particular historical moment in which God has placed us. Historical study implicitly reminds us that the contours of our social, cultural, and material context could have been different from how they are. It challenges us to consider whether some of those alternatives and paths-not-taken might actually be more conducive to growth in godliness than those down which we are currently walking. The self-knowledge prompted by serious historical study thus becomes a means through which we can take a long hard look at our own assumptions and imagine what alternatives might look like. In doing so, we move from the study of the past to faithfulness in the present.

1 David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, Volume 1: Faith and Learning 1812-1868 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), pp. 205-210.


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