By Michelle Van Loon
I was once told that the study of history doesn’t really make sense until we’re adults. Grown-ups brains have the ability to form connections between events, synthesize information, and assess meaning in a way that younger minds aren’t physically able to do. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that younger students shouldn’t study history. Familiarizing them with names, dates, places and most importantly, stories lays an important foundation they carry into adulthood when they can begin to make meaning out of the data they’ve learned.
We in the Church have a unique relationship with history as well as history’s Author. So much of our Christian family story has long been intertwined with the sweep of political, economic, and social events, particularly in the West. Yet I’ve been surprised about how little many believers seem to know about history, and even more specifically, about church history. Frankly, this kind of shocks me. It is our own family story.
Author Michael Crichton said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” That may sound a little harsh, but I appreciate the wisdom in those blunt words. God has been at work among in his community of called-out ones and in the world he loves before, during, and since the canon of Scripture was closed. Knowing the whole story helps us find our place in it.
The author of Ecclesiastes opens the book with his assessment that there’s nothing new under the sun (1:9) – and he made that observation between two and three millennia ago. I see this truth played out most clearly when I review the various heresies that have captured the imaginations of both innocent sheep and predatory spiritual wolves alike over the centuries. One example: when I look at the influence of “Name It, Claim It” prosperity preaching on not only certain streams in the Charismatic movement, but also in a diluted form in some mainstream Evangelical congregations, I find its ancient ancestor in Gnosticism as well as the more recent bootstrap spirituality in the Good Ol’ American Dream. Knowing a bit of history helps us recognize old-school error in modern form so we can pry ourselves loose from its influence.
My husband and I have been through a couple of truly wretched church experiences. Having a sense of the sweep of Church history offered me a helpful longitudinal perspective about the particular temptations of power for leaders and the call to reform and renew from prophetic voices outside of the centers of power in an institution/organization. Biblical and Church history offered realistic narrative to me during times when my present-tense circumstances were toxic. History reminded me that there was nothing new under the sun, and that the church was, to borrow a phrase from my Reformed sisters and brothers, always reforming. It also reminded me that in the painful process of church dysfunction, God was also reforming me.
Learning something about church history also connected me to the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). When I affirm the words in the Apostles’ Creed that I believe in the communion of saints, there are countless nameless, faceless ones among them But because I’ve read a bit of history, I also have a sense of a few of the flawed and faithful followers who are cheering us onward as we seek to follow Jesus here and now. Their words and stories inspire me, warn me, provoke me, and have discipled me.
There may be a few churches that have the capacity to create a class or other vehicle for a study of church history. But none of us need to wait for something like this to materialize. A readable overview like Bruce Shelley’s Church History In Plain Language, Mark Noll’s Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity or Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) are each helpful places to begin if you’ve never dipped your toe in this subject area.
What books would you add to this list, readers? And what other benefits to learning a bit of church history would you add to my list above?