Theology & Worldview

Why Protestants Must Know Their Church History

Ten hands shot up at once. The place was my local church. The event was the bi-monthly evening service. At the end of the casual service, my energetic young pastor jumped up to the pulpit to give away a few books from his library as he always did, this week offering a book on parenting and another on marriage. Usually a few people would raise their hands, and my pastor would throw the book out to them. But this time, when he announced a title on early church history, half the congregation wanted the book.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, 130-202 A.D.

Imagine that the U.S. stopped teaching any history courses and decided to re-interpret the Constitution and legislation based purely off of ­­­­­the whims of today. As Christians, we too share a common history, yet many Protestants do not know that story and therefore have a limited connection with historic Christianity. The U.S. Constitution cannot unify Americans without the context of not only the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, but also later developments like Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and the Civil Rights Act.

Similarly, deprived of acquaintance with our nearly 2,000 year-old history, the Christian risks misunderstanding what his faith means in the present. No longer is the Church the bulwark of the faith and the cloud of witnesses, but assembling with it has become an optional event. Instead of commemorating Lawrence, grilled to death for his illegal generosity to the Roman poor, or Origen, who taught Scripture in the face of unimaginable trials, we insert movie clips in an attempt to be “seeker-friendly.”

Origen (185-254 A.D.), the first systematic theologian of the Church, teaching the saints of the future centuries.

As a Protestant who has studied Church history, it grieves me to see almost two millennia of Christian practice, perseverance, and doctrine ignored by my fellow believers in favor of trends and modern innovations under the guise of Sola Scriptura. I was introduced to Church history at fourteen when my Greek teacher recommended Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons. I had never heard of Irenaeus, but after reading his work against the second-century heretics, I was shocked to find that many of the same practices he condemned were alive and well within Mormonism and other cults.

Even within mainstream Protestantism, the void of Church history has given way to emotionalism, moral therapeutic deism, and a lack of perspective, allowing for cults of personality, unorthodox theology, and even apostasy.

The remedy for this historical negligence is teaching. Most Protestants could not name a Christian from the death of the Apostle John until Martin Luther, a tragedy which will destroy Protestantism as our culture dissolves into liquid modernity. While not a replacement for the ministry of the Word, the teaching of Christian history should be presented to equip the saints by readying them to give an answer to reliability and authenticity questions. Sunday schools should teach the development of theology and the good and bad along the way. Christian schools should require a course in their history, both pre- and post-Reformation. This need for education also permeates the seminaries: an elder at my church recently admitted that his Baptist seminary taught him no Church history before the eighteenth century. Seminaries must educate their students, equipping them to effectively lead their flocks.

Church history is not merely a hobby for detached intellectuals but an integral part of discipleship. Through the lives and conviction of martyrs like Perpetua and Cyprian, we appreciate the sacrifices of our spiritual ancestors. Understanding Calvin’s upbringing in the medieval scholastic tradition of Anselm and Aquinas clarifies much of the modern confusion surrounding Protestant distinctives rooted in the Reformation era.

While some might worry that such a focus would detract from the gospel, it would actually glorify both the Scriptures and the Savior. Learning how we received the Scriptures through councils, martyrs, theologians, and missionaries, only demonstrates how faithful our God is. That broadened perspective would keep us from taking our Bibles for granted, enable us to understand Christian truth with the lens of those who have gone before, and give confidence in God and his word.

 

Photos Cited:

“Apologetics with St. Irenaeus.” Catholic.com, Catholic Answers, 28 June 2016, www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/apologetics-with-st-irenaeus.

Keys, David. “The ‘Old Masters’ Of Roman Britain.” British Heritage Travel, 13 July 2016, britishheritage.com/the-old-masters-of-roman-britain/.

 

5 Comments

  1. This is a really insightful article, Jack. Thank you for writing it! 🙂

  2. I feel like this is an advertisement for my column. 😛 I’ll take it!

  3. Well, I know what I’m gonna be doing this coming summer!

  4. I really appreciated this article! I’m an Orthodox Christian, and I enjoy reading others’ perspectives on the use of church history in other denominations and how it ties into Christian faith and services. If you haven’t already read it, The Story of Christianity by David Bentley Hart is an excellent resource for learning more about the early church.

    • Oh, well, that makes two of us, I am Orthodox as well.
      I plan to cover the Schism in my column pretty soon, so that should cover a bit about how other denominations use Church History (for example; Roman Catholics and the historical papacy/filioque. Not long after I will do a small section on the Reformation, and possibly an article about the Copts, which will also cover this topic.