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Church History

I.  Introduction:

 I remember being in a history class during my first year of college and hearing the professor make a passing reference to the Reformation in a manner that assumed we all knew what he was talking about.  Yet, I had no idea.  I knew the Church had a history.  In my other history classes leading up to that point we had bumped up against this history, but only marginally.  Add to that my lack of interest in the subject of history in general and you have an 18 year old Christian Studies major who knows very little about Church History.  In fact, it was not until seminary that I had my first class on Church History.  At that point, however, my perspective had changed.  I was very excited, although still not very knowledgeable, about the History of the Church.  Needless to say, the class gripped me and encouraged me and convicted me.  As I said last week, I left the class determined to know more and determined to share what little I knew with others to encourage them in knowing the history of Christianity. 

 It is this determination that has led us here.  Let me say again, my knowledge of the subject is far from great, but hopefully it can whet your appetite to know more.  We will be covering rather large sections each week and will therefore miss many details.  Yet, the goal is to hit the major actors and their major actions as we survey the 2000 years of Church History.  

 Let me say a word about our format.  I taught a couple of courses on Church History at Cornerstone and I will be following what I did there for the most part.  I will generally be following a book by James P. Eckman entitled Exploring Church History.  Although we will vary from the book at times, we will use the book to serve as our general outline (see handout) for the series.  With that said, let us now answer the question of why study Church history?

II.  Why study Church history?

 1.  We study Church history in order to be obedient to the command found in Hebrews 13:7.  In this passage, the author of Hebrews writes: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.  Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.  Here, the writer of Hebrews calls his readers to remember their leaders, to consider how their lives turned out, and to imitate their faith.  Thus, the author of the letter is calling his readers to study those who have gone before them and to consider how their lives turned out.  It seems he is doing this so that they will look at their leaders’ entire life.  As we see in the warning passages throughout this letter, the author recognizes that at times people may profess to be Christians but then their lives do not match their profession.  Thus, he calls his readers to consider the outcome of their way of life.  And then, after considering the outcome, he then calls them to imitate their faith.  Notice that it is the faith that he calls them to imitate.  Thus, if they have shown themselves not to be believers then there is no faith to imitate.  However, if they have spent their lives on the glory of Christ and have kept the faith, then the author calls them to imitate such faith.  This call comes to us as well.  We are to consider the outcome of the lives of those who have gone before us and we are to imitate their faith.  Again, this does not mean that we will imitate their actions and all they do.  Rather, we will imitate their faith, or their stand and perseverance in the faith.  For this reason we need to labor in studying Church history. 

 2.  A second reason why we should study Church history is the importance of history and historical events for the Christian faith.  We are not a people without a history.  We are a faith that is rooted in historical events.  We believe in a God who controls history.  The creation is a historical event (or the beginning of historical events).  The Fall of Adam is a historical event.  The flood is a historical event.  The people of Israel are a people with a history.  The incarnation is a historical event.  Christ’s death on the cross is a historical event.  The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical event (otherwise, as Paul says, ‘our faith is in vain.’)  Thus, Christianity is a faith that is rooted in history.  Likewise, there is a history of people believing in Yahweh.  There is a history of people believing in the Trinity.  There is a history of people believing that Christ was in fact God in the flesh.  These histories do not prove the claims of Christianity, but history does provide legitimacy and weight to our claims (especially in light of the history of other religions).  Thus, we see a second reason to study Church history in the importance of history for the Christian faith.

 3.  A third reason to study Church history is to avoid certain errors that are often made in considering Church history.  Let me specifically identify two.  The first error that studying Church history helps us avoid is the error of thinking that ‘everything is rosy’ in the history of the Church.  Let me be clear: there are dark times in the history of the Church.  Instead of pretending that this is not true, we need to identify these times, seek to understand the errors that were made, and strive to avoid these errors again.  There is much that we need to learn from Church history and some of it revolves around mistakes.  Not that we are the perfect judge of all of history, rather, we need to humbly recognize that we are not the first generation to face certain questions and certain struggles.  This leads us to our second major error to avoid.  The second error that studying Church history helps us avoid is the error of self-sufficiency.  We must realize that our day is not the only day.  We are not the beginning of Church history and if the Lord tarries we will not be the end.  Our current battles are not necessarily new.  Others have gone before us.  Granted their circumstances were different, but there is much we have to learn from them and much we have to be grateful for.  For example, the issues of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are not new.  The issues of how we should govern ourselves as a local Church are not new.  Even the issue of pluralism is not new.  All these issues, and others not mentioned, have histories.  It would be arrogant for us to ignore those who have fought before us.  Thus, by laboring to study Church history we can hopefully avoid these two errors and others that might tempt us.

 4.  A fourth reason to study Church history is to motivate and encourage us in our own day of Church history.  As we have already noted, there is much for us to learn from Church history that is applicable for our current struggles.  Again, we must take time to learn these valuable lessons.  In learning these lessons and looking at Church history, we are forced to ask the question: What will be written of us?  Will we be remembered as a generation that fought to promote the truth of the gospel and the glory of God, or will we be remembered as a generation that did not?  It is my prayer that as we consider those who have gone before us (those like Athanasius and Augustine and Luther and Calvin and Edwards and others) that we will be motivated and encouraged to fight the good fight of faith in our own day (even if we are among the mighty throng of believers who never get books written about them). 

III.  Conclusion

 As we have said, this semester will only be an introduction to the history of the Church.  It is my prayer that as we study certain people and certain events, that you will want to learn more and more about their lives and what the Lord accomplished through them.  My hope is that after this series you will want to know more about the history of Christianity.  May we labor in this for our great good and for the Lord’s great glory, that indeed He may receive glory in His Church both now and forever more!  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Monday, 23 July 2007 )

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