The value of church history is not always immediately obvious to everyone. In particular, Americans seem generally allergic to history. This is true of American Christians who are influenced by the American prejudice against history. Look at the History Channel (but only briefly). How much actual history do they show? Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and Ancient Workouts are quasi-history at best. This is not snobbery. I watched a lot of Pawn Stars and even visited the shop in Las Vegas (while passing through). It is smaller than it looks on television.
American Christians (and Christians of all other nationalities and times) should care about history and even learn a little of it. Why? The Christian religion is a historical religion. In 1931, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) wrote,
The student of the New Testament should be primarily an historian. The centre and core of all the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads up to an historical climax. The Bible is primarily a record of events.1
He continued by explaining, quite correctly, that the–
modern church is impatient of history. History, we are told is a dead thing. Let us forget the Amelekites and fight the enemies that are at our doors. The true essence of the Bible is to be found in eternal ideas; history is merely the form in which those ideas are expressed. It makes no difference whether the history is real or fictitious; in either case, the ideas are the same.
Machen was exactly right. The Christian faith is a historical faith. We begin with a historical creation. God spoke into nothing and created the world. We regard that as a historical fact. The history of salvation, under the types and shadows, is essential to our faith. Look at Hebrews 11. His entire argument rests on historical figures. Indeed, Paul says that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, i.e., if his resurrection is not a historical fact, then our faith is meaningless and we Christians are to be pitied (1 Cor 15:17). Our faith is grounded in history, in a claim that real, historical persons went to a real, historical tomb and found it empty. Further, we claim that real persons saw and touched Christ after he was raised (1 John 1:1). These are claims about matters of fact.
So, every Christian necessarily is a historian of sorts and every Christian will either be a good historian or a poor one. Why should you care about history? For one thing, it shapes who and what you are. Consider your own family history. My better half has been researching both sides of our family for several years. Recently she was working on my maternal family history and filling in some gaps. It is not only fascinating, it is illuminating. Knowing where my family was and under what conditions they lived, under what influences they grew up, tells me about the language I learned and about the assumptions and attitudes with which I was raised. It explains some things. Let us say that J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy tells me something about that part of my family.
So it is with the Christian faith. Every Christian, like or not, know it or not, has a family history in the post-Apostolic church. If someone says to me, “But I just follow the Bible” I will reply, “That makes you part of a Bible-only tradition.” That is a part of the Christian family tree. It means that, as much as some might like to “follow the Bible” without reference to history, they cannot. So, when they refuse to learn the history of their tradition (also known as Biblicism, not to be confused with being biblical), it is akin to refusing to learn about one’s Great Aunt for fear it might somehow have a corrupting influence. It is exactly the wrong attitude to take.
What if there is a genetic predisposition to some ailment? Is it not useful to know that? What orphan does not wonder who their parents are and whether they have siblings and who and what they are? It is one thing to be involuntarily orphaned, but why would Christians voluntarily choose to be an orphan from their own tradition?
Reformed Christians, who have deep roots in the early Christian fathers, in the medieval church, in the Reformation, and post-Reformation periods should be especially zealous to learn their family history. Think of learning history like talking to an older relative. My mother is aging and she remembers things about our family that I do not know. She is a living museum of family and cultural history. I wish now that I could talk to my grandparents and great aunts and uncles to ask them the questions I was too dull or too busy to ask when I had the opportunity. When we read the Reformed scholastics (e.g., the Classic Reformed Theology series or Francis Turretin, Johannes Wollebius, William Perkins, Caspar Olevianus, or Zacharias Ursinus), I am asking them to help me learn Christian and Reformed theology, piety, and practice and they are more than willing to oblige.
Some years ago, I was abandoned by my colleagues (unintentionally I am sure) to meet with some accreditors by myself. They challenged me about whether, at our school, our assigned reading was sufficiently cross-cultural. They assumed, an assumption I do not share, that a work is inherently valuable simply because it is from a non-Western perspective. I replied that good and bad literature occurs in every culture and being from a non-Western culture does not, ipso facto, confer value on a text any more than being Western confers value upon a text. What confers value is whether a writer has something important to say and whether he says it well. Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, I accepted their premise but argued that, as far as I can see, our curriculum is quite multi-cultural. Our students read literature from the many cultures in which Scripture was given. They read patristic literature from the Greco-Roman world and North Africa, they read medieval and Byzantine literature. They are challenged with non-modern, non-Western perspectives regularly. Further, they read contemporary authors from a variety of non-Western perspectives.
Do not miss my meaning. Learning from other cultures is inherently valuable. Living and traveling abroad is a wonderful experience. Reading our own writers from the past, learning our institutional history, our family history is like traveling abroad. It is much harder to be parochial once one has engaged the rest of the world. When I lived overseas, I learned that there were people who ate remarkable things, which I would not voluntarily eat, and who consider it perfectly normal. That was good experience. There are other ways of doing things. The ways I learned are not the only ways.
So it is in the faith. When we learn the past, we take a trip out of our own world to another time, another place, and our assumptions are challenged. That is a good thing. Reading the Fathers has changed my mind about any number of things, about catechesis, about church discipline, about how to read Scripture, about sanctification. Some of my reading in the Medievals has taught me what not to do, but I learn from them regularly. Peter Lombard has become a friend, as has Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, and Bernard. They have all helped me to understand the faith, the Scriptures, and the Christian life.
I have known people who very proudly have said that they have never left their own county. I do not think a Christian can afford to take a deliberately blinkered approach to the Christian past. We are not the first to read the Scriptures. We are not the first to wrestle with difficult theological and ethical questions. Our forebears in the faith have much to teach us if only we will let them.
1. J. Gresham Machen, “History and Faith” in The Princeton Theological Review (July, 1915), 337.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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Wish there were emoji options (only good ones👍, no easy feeding for the trolls .) Obviously the accreditation argument sufficed. Good reminder for the rest of us that we have a deep family history.
Banner of Truth published an excellent little book, Sketches from Church History, that I’ve really enjoyed. It’s a good, easy intro to the subject, for laymen. I’d be really good for family teaching.
I bought my copy used on Amazon for 4.99$.
Author is S.M.Houghton
Machen was great in so many areas. I actually think Machen is by far and large the most applicable and relevant of the neo-Calvinists (especially from an American perspective)…. At least based on what he adds, and upholding the teaching and thought of those who have come before.
Both Table Talk and Reformed Forum are doing invaluable summaries/reviews of his contributions.
Amen re Machen.
Neo-Calvinist usually refers to the movement in the Netherlands associated with Abraham Kuyper. Machen was appreciative (he hired Van Til, who was a neo-Calvinist or a neo-Kuyperian) but was himself an Old School American Presbyterian (with roots in the Southern Presbyterian tradition). See John Muether’s wonderful introduction to Van Til.
IIRC Bob Godfrey has a good lecture series on early church history available through Ligonier Ministries. It ain’t cheap though – good for something like a Sunday morning class.
It is an excellent series! I don’t know if it’s still a good offer, but on Jan. 26 I received an email from Ligonier offering this 73 part series (digitally, but also with DVDs mailed to you) for a gift of any amount. Those who are interested should contact them to see if it is still a valid offer.
What if there is a genetic predisposition to some ailment? If only we could take that question seriously. But no, we are all expert miners, pulling the one tiny golden nugget from the mountain of ‘yes I know they also believed x, and y, but I just ignore that part’…As if pre Americans had the same fast food menu option mentality towards doctrine as we do.