Is Church History Really Important?
by Wesley Scoggins
If someone is not a history buff, it can be difficult to sit through Church History class. A class composed of nothing but: “So-and-so did this, and so-and-so did that” can make for a long 3 hour class. But what if I told you your Church History class is a fundamental part of how you do Christian Theology.
Church History is vital for the formation of Christian theology. While it’s not supreme or inspired like Scripture is, our theological convictions would be ill-informed if they are not developed in light of the past 2000 years of biblical interpretation. Church History is so important because it is how the Church has interpreted the Bible. As Alister McGrath states: “Modern evangelical theology cannot afford to ignore engaging with church history and historical theology.” Also consider what Paul says in Galatians 4:4 “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…” While this is primarily used as Christmas verse, I believe it’s also a Church History verse. At the right God sent Christ in the world, but in the same way, God sent Athanasius at the right time to combat Arianism. At the right time God sent St. Augustine to become the greatest writing theologian. At the right time God sent Martin Luther to start a Reformation that would change the world.
God’s sovereign hand is all over the history of the Church. Church History also shows us how our cultural setting can affect our biblical interpretation. Ever since the Church began, biblical interpretation has been slightly shaped by cultural settings, and it is important to see where our modern-day interpretation is doing the same. Looking at the ways that culture has shaped biblical interpretation in the past allows us to look at our own theological method, and think of how future generations will look back to our work to see how our cultural context shaped our interpretations. Also, it’s important to note the rich and beautiful language that is used by our brothers and sisters in the past, especially with the Church Fathers. Listen to the way that the Nicene Creed (325 AD) speaks of Christ:
“[We believe] in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-Begotten, that is one essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth.”
I don’t know about you, but just reading that lifts my spirits up to praise our Lord, Jesus the Christ. Church History is filled is such beautiful language that exhausts Christ.
Church History, while not inspired, is a vital foundation to our theology. Warning flags should go up if someone comes up with a theological idea that is contrary to the past 2000 years of the Church doing theology. In this way, tradition can be used as a safeguard to insure that our theological conclusions are actually orthodox. Our conclusions are not some “new” discovery that has not had light shed on it throughout the history of the Church. However, at the end of the day Church History itself must be put through the lenses of Scripture. If a doctrine or tradition in Church History is contrary to Scripture, then it should not be used to develop theology. Instead, it should caution us not to think in that certain way, since it is now known that it is wrong thinking. Tradition is to be submissive to the Word of God. Further readings on Church History: Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Hugh T. Kerr (edited), Readings in Christian Thought Alister McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Throught