Church history and its study, like every other realm of historical inquiry, are intimately bound up with questions of truth and the passion to discover what really happened in the past and why. Without the facts of history and their persistence in material record, historical study would be impossible. Of course, students of history are quick to confess that neither complete knowledge of the past nor total objectivity are possible given human finitude and fallibility. As Thomas J. Nettles astutely noted in a faculty address delivered at Southern Seminary:

The Christian historian … must … recognize that his path toward historical purity is strewn with many barriers intrinsic to our nature. We are creatures with all the limitations of those that are described as flowers of the field, a morning mist, a vapor, a moth, a breath, a worm. We do indeed see through a glass darkly. We find difficulty even in understanding our own lives, our own circumstances, our own hearts. We have difficulty discerning why we fail or why we succeed. Our own motives are mysteries to us and how motives relate fully to our actions is a profound cipher. We cry, “O wretched historian that I am, who shall deliver me from the bonds of my disposition!” … How can we ever hope to look at another age, another person, another series of events and give an unalloyed account? 

All history writing then has these “two horizons”: that of the historical events which cannot be altered and that of the historian or student of the past whose life is battered by the ebb and flow of historical tides. It is nigh impossible for the interpreter of the past to achieve pure objectivity, yet the facts of history ever remain to challenge and disprove erroneous or clearly tendentious historical interpretations.

In seeking truths from church history about God and his people, the student of history must thus become aware of truths about himself or herself as well as truths about the flow of history and its sovereign Lord.

1. History opens us to “the clean sea breeze of the centuries.”

The awareness that all interpreters come to the reading of church history as biased and frail is of enormous help in discerning the truth about the past as we reckon with our innate biases. Here, the study of church history can liberate us from the tyranny of present-day ideas that we have all unconsciously assumed to be true but what C.S. Lewis rightly called “the idols of our marketplace.” Listen to Lewis as he argued for the need to read old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. … To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

Consider The First Life of Francis of Assisi (1228) by Thomas of Celano (c.1185–c.1260),for example. Thomas stated the following regarding Francis’ view of poverty.

His father saw that he would never be able to deter Francis from the course he meant to pursue, and now concentrated all his efforts on recovering the money he had lost. Francis had wanted to give it all away for the feeding of the poor and for rebuilding the church. … When the money was found where Francis had thrown it into the dust of the window ledge, his father’s rage abated a little and his mercenary instincts were somewhat pacified. He then took Francis before the bishop of Assisi and demanded that he renounce all his possessions before the prelate and give up everything he had. This Francis agreed to do, and not only that, but he happily and readily offered to do what his father demanded.

For Francis, poverty was something quite different than what it means to us. For him, it was a bride to be embraced since he believed that it gave him true freedom. For modern North Americans, Christian and pagan alike, poverty is generally viewed as an unmitigated economic disaster that places severe limitations on one’s freedom. Which is right? Which is more biblical? Answering these questions would take us too far afield, but this example shows how classic Christian writings from the past can call into question what we take for granted as an absolute truth and reveal it to be merely relative and culture-bound. 

In this way, church history confronts us time and again with something that is foreign to our experience, with something that is different. As the famous first line by Leslie Poles Hartley (1895–1972) in his novel The Go-Between (1953) put it: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” 

2. History illumines “what the Holy Spirit reveals.”

The study of church history, especially that of Christian thought, can provide us with needed truths for the living of the Christian life. It is exhilarating to stand on the East Coast and watch the Atlantic surf, feel the tang of salt-water in the air, and hear the pound of the waves. But this experience will be of absolutely no benefit in sailing across the Atlantic to England. For that, a map is needed, a map based upon the accumulated experience of thousands of voyagers. Similarly, we need such a map for the Christian life. Experiences are fine and good, but they will never serve as the substantial foundation for our lives in Christ. The basic map of the Christian life is, without a doubt, the infallible and inerrant Word of God – the Scriptures. But the thought of other Christians down through the ages can help illumine and illustrate what is contained in the Bible. 

Consider, for instance, theteaching on the Holy Spirit by the African theologian Athanasius (c.299–373) in his letters to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis, written over the course of 359 and 360. Key to Athanasius’ pneumatology was that “from our knowledge of the Son we may be able to have true knowledge of the Spirit.” The present day has seen a resurgence of interest in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. This is admirable, but also fraught with danger if the Spirit is conceived of apart from Christ. The Spirit cannot be divorced from the Son: Not only does the Son send and give the Spirit, but the Spirit is also the one who makes Christ real within us and who has come to glorify Christ in our lives. Many have fallen into fanaticism and bizarre attitudes and actions because they failed to realize this basic truth: the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from the Son.  

Charles H. Spurgeon (1834–1892), the celebrated Victorian Baptist preacher, has nicely summed up the necessity of this general truth of learning from the wisdom of believers who have gone before us: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” 

3. History lifts us “upon the shoulders of giants.”

Human beings are creatures of time – their lives inextricably tied to the past, their own immediate past, and that of other humans. V. Gilbert Beers, editor of Christianity Today from 1982 to 1985, has noted that “we owe much to many whom we have never met.” As Beers elaborated: “We live in a throwaway society; we dispose of things we consider a burden. My concern is that we do not add our predecessors to the collection of throwaways, carelessly discarding those who have made us what we are.” 

The seventeenth-century scientific genius Isaac Newton (1642–1727) put it well when he said in a letter to his fellow scientist Robert Hooke (1635–1703): “If I have seen further it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” The study of church history informs us about our predecessors in the faith, those who have helped shape our Christian communities and thus make us what we are. Such study builds humility into our lives. 

The faithful witness of a Baptist community in Hamilton, Ontario — Stanley Avenue Baptist Church — and its pastor at the time, Bruce Woods, played a significant part in my conversion. I knew absolutely nothing of the history of this Christian community, none indeed of Baptists in general, when I first walked through the doors of this church in late August 1973. But over the years that I attended Stanley Avenue, I began to learn her history and appreciate deeply the witness of many who were long in glory when I first came to the church and how that witness had had a profound impact on my own life. 

The study of the Christian past, though, not only provides models for emulation (cf. Heb 11 and 13:7). It also reveals the sad and sinful failings of God’s people: the Apostle Peter’s hypocrisy (Gal 2:11–21), Monnica’s sinful expulsion of her son Augustine’s (354–430) common-law wife from their household, John Calvin’s (1509–1564) approval of the execution of Michael Servetus (1511–1553), Oliver Cromwell’s (1599–1658) failure to extend clemency at the Siege of Drogheda, Jonathan Edwards’s (1703–1758) ownership of slaves, and a multitude of other sins. If Christian history contains a host of men and women whose lives we can and should imitate, it also reveals these very same men and women as sinners, which tempers our emulation. 

4. History is where “God’s works are to be known.”

Finally, church history also contains great truths to be learned about God, as the Puritan author Richard Baxter (1615–1691) once observed:

[T]he writing of Church-history is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known, as well as his Word … He that knoweth not what state the Church and world is in, and hath been in, in former ages, and what God hath been doing in the world, and how error and sin have been resisting him, and with what success, doth want much to the completing of his knowledge.

Baxter, like the Puritans in general, was convinced that the sphere of history is a realm in which God is active, ever sovereignly expanding his reign. The Puritans had learned from the Scriptures that history is the stage on which the divine drama of redemption is being played out. At the beginning of that drama is the fall, and at the end is the last judgment. In between, is the most crucial event of all: the entry of the eternal God into the web of time as a human being, Jesus Christ, to accomplish our salvation. In the words of the venerable Creed of Nicaea (325) that was confirmed at the Council of Constantinople (381):

We believe … in one Lord, Jesus Christ, … who, for the sake of us human beings and for the sake of our salvation, came down from heaven and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin, and became a human being, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.

This confessional text brims with history as it affirms that the great salvific acts of God in Christ have taken place on the stage of history: the incarnation, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Thus, history is hallowed as a place of divine activity.

To be sure, unlike the biblical authors, modern historians cannot trace in detail the hand of God in the record of the past. Nevertheless, as we look at the historical record, it would be short-sighted in the extreme not to see the hand of God, for example, in the recovery of the gospel at the time of the Reformation or the remarkable revivals of the eleventy years stretching between the 1720s and 1830s. So, as Baxter stated, the “writing of Church-history,” as well as its study, “is the duty of all ages, because God’s works are to be known.”