Why bother with history?
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, famously said that ‘History is bunk’. One wonders what he had in mind. Perhaps he thought that enterprise in the present is more important than reflection on the past. If so, many people would agree with him. They want to get on with their lives today and are impatient with what happened yesterday. Christians can be affected by this attitude. They may not be interested in reading about history in general or church history in particular. But this is a mistake. There are important reasons why we should bother about church history. Here are seven.
The Bible is a history book
The OT records what God did and said in the history of His ancient people and it points us forward to what He had planned to do in the giving of His Son to the world. The gospels tell the story of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, and the book of Acts describes the growth and spread of the church. The NT epistles interpret these events but they do so within a specific historical context. History lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. This is reason enough to study it.
The fact of tradition
Each of us has a personal history and our lives have been shaped by what has been handed down to us. For example, how did you learn that God is holy and gracious? How do we know that Christ is our prophet, priest and king? Tradition has influenced us profoundly. To know about traditions enables us to evaluate them by Scripture. They are not sacrosanct and if they can be replaced by something better, well and good. But this does not mean devaluing or despising them. Traditions matter.
Understanding today’s world
We follow almost twenty centuries of Christian life and thought. We can only properly understand what is happening today if we know something about those centuries. That is true of the development of Christian doctrine, of the emergence of denominations, and of the influence of movements and men. It is impossible to understand the present unless we have some knowledge of the past.
Studying history enables us to judge other views and attitudes objectively and critically. For example, how do you assess the view that outpourings of the Holy Spirit are impossible because Pentecost was a unique redemptive event? Knowing that God has, in fact, poured out His Spirit in subsequent revivals helps us to evaluate this view in the light of history. We cannot deny facts.
Why should our interests be limited to today? Why should we imagine that we are better than our forefathers? It is true that science and technology have given us skills that our forebears could not have imagined. But it is also true that earlier generations have given us a great deal which the present generation may be unable to provide. One only has to think of the wealth and depth of Christian literature from, for example, the seventeenth-century to appreciate how indebted we are to the insights given to former generations.
Travelling in the dimension of time
We live in a mobile society and we love to travel. What about travelling in the fourth dimension of time? ‘A man acquainted with history may in some respect be said to have lived from the beginning of the world’ (David Hume). This will give us a better perspective on our situation today. For example, are the churches in the West in decline and if so how do we know? We also learn from the mistakes and wise decisions of previous generations. And what valuable lessons we can learn from the reading of Christian biographies.
To be relevant we need not only to know what questions people are asking today. We also need to know what the right questions are. People may not be asking these. These are the questions the Bible asks. God’s questions are the ones that really matter. His question to Adam ‘Where are you?’ and then to Cain ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ could hardly be more relevant. In the same way the questions raised during the history of the church are as relevant now as they were then. For example, Luther’s questions, ‘What is a Christian? What is a church?’ are as important in an ecumenical age as they were in the sixteenth-century.
Therefore, it is important to develop a historical perspective. ‘History is what we read, write and think about the past’ (Prof. Michael Howard). To help us on our way let me suggest four books that we might read in the year to come. Hopefully they will whet our appetite for more.
- The Story of the Church by A.M. Renwick and A.M. Harman (IVP)
This is a general introduction to church history for those who may have little background knowledge.
- An Introduction to the History of Christianity edited by Timothy Dowley (Fortress Press)
In a visual, audio age this book, with its accompanying CD Rom, will provide a more graphic overview of the past 2,000 years of church history.
- 2000 Years of Christ’s Power (Parts 1, 2 and 3) by N.R. Needham (Grace Publications)
There is much more detail in these three volumes which take us up to the Reformation. Two further volumes are being prepared.
- William Grimshaw by Faith Cook (Banner)
This is an important biography of an eccentric but godly man.
Andrew Davies lectures on the EMW’s theological training course.