I like the smell of new books, but I love the feel of old books.

If you’re someone who loves old books—because you love church history and want others to share your enthusiasm—group Bible study can seem like a balancing act between trying to be helpful on one hand and appearing prideful on the other.

Nobody cares how many quotes you’ve memorized. Especially when it’s clear you’ve been itching to use that John Owen quote the whole night. It felt out of place and now the Bible study has gone cold.

What began as a communal dive into God’s word ended in awkward silence.

So how can we introduce our group Bible studies to church history in an edifying way? Here are four ways I’ve seen groups benefit from our heritage.

1. Teach Theology through Historic Controversies

In other words, tell a good story.

Not everyone gets on the edge of their seat when reading historical narrative. But everyone loves an arresting story. Gripping stories are great teaching devices, and the theological controversies from the church’s past are an excellent way to grapple with the deep things of God.

There is an origin story for every doctrine. When teachings are placed in their developmental context, the different arguments come to life. We can put names and faces to what would have been abstract ideas.

Luther and Zwingli were united over 14 out of 15 of the Marburg articles. On number 15, however, Luther believed there was a real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli didn’t. He said it was a memorial.

Here’s how Timothy George describes the event:

“The two generals met face-to-face in an explosive encounter.

Luther entered the room earlier and, unbeknownst to anyone else, chalked the words ‘Hoc est corpus meum’ onto the table in front of his seat. He then covered the inscription with a satin cloth.

In the course of the debate, the following exchange occurred:

ZWINGLI: It would be a shame to believe in such an important doctrine, teach, and defend it, and yet be unable or unwilling to cite a single Scripture passage to prove it.

LUTHER: (taking the cover from the inscription on the table) This is my body! Here is our Scripture passage. You have not yet taken it from us, as you set out to do; we need no other. My dearest lords, since the words of my Lord Jesus Christ stand there, Hoc est corpus meum, I cannot truthfully pass over them, but must confess and believe that the body of Christ is there.”

This is just one example. But Church history leaves no shortage of drama and offers an engaging plunge into theology.

Church History in Plain Language and The Story of Christianity offer a narrative telling of church history. These sources can equip students of theology with the unfolding drama of the past.

2. Summarize Truths through Biblical Confessions

Many controversies culminated in confessions. So, there is overlap with point one. But controversy produces clear expressions of truth. The precise wording of the historic confessions provides a lens for reading Scripture in harmony with the historic faith.

The Trinity is the obvious example. We don’t need to spend time developing creative illustrations or new phrases to explain “we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.”

The formulations the church has used for thousands of years are sufficient because they are biblical. Scripture is our sole authority. But the creeds and confessions which have stood the test of time remain in use because they summarize what the Bible teaches.

Ligonier Ministries recently uncovered the sad reality of heresy (whether unintentional or not) in our churches. More than 70% of Christians don’t see a problem with the statement “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” How much of this would be cured if our Bible studies played in bounds concerning the ancient creeds and confessions?

Creeds and confessions can be expanded to a host of issues. What if our first response to a question was “Scripture says” and then “Here’s how the BF&M 2000 summarizes it” or “Here’s what The Athanasian Creed says.”

Creeds are helpful because they unite us with a shared belief in a common heritage.

Almost all creeds and confessions are available online. I would also suggest Baptists and the Christian Tradition. This series of essays connects the creeds of Baptists with creeds of the ancient faith—a great tool for understanding how Baptists have laid claim to the confessions of church history.

3. Capture Emotions through Old Hymns

Most of our “old-time hymns” are less than two centuries old. The Bible tells us to “sing a new song”, but we don’t have to neglect the truths about God our spiritual ancestors articulated so memorably.

Matt Boswell says:

“Hymns are portable sermons that articulate, exegete and pronounce biblical truths. They shape the way we view God, man and Christ, and how we are to live in light of the gospel. The truths they communicate preach to us throughout the week following the style of Deuteronomy 6 —at home and away, when lying down and waking. Singing is a form of teaching that uses poetry to open to us the Word of God.”

There is a wealth of spirituality waiting to be used in Bible study. Old hymns are artistic. And they don’t have to feel out of place if the topic is clear. Hymns offer an avenue to respond to truth, even if we aren’t singing them.

Again, Boswell says,

“Singing the historic hymns of our faith reminds our congregations that we are not the first generation who have wrestled and prayed, asked and believed. We are not the first to write hymns of praise to God. We walk gladly in the footsteps of our fathers who have written praises to Christ that have stood the test of time.”

Hymnary.org is a database of Christian hymns reaching back to the earliest days of the church. You can search by topic, and date, in order to provide your bible study with a glimpse of historic spirituality.

4. Explore the Bible through Ancient Commentaries

More relevant to a Bible study than a random quote is an exposition of the passage at hand.

Old commentaries can still be of use. While modern commentaries range from technical to pastoral, old commentaries can be highly devotional and filled with wisdom. When preparing for Bible study, don’t neglect old commentaries. They may not confront the current critical issues of our day, but they provide insight into how the Holy Spirit ministered to the church in the past.

Trace the history of interpretation from ancient to medieval to the modern era and you may be surprised at the continuity or discontinuity. Either way, old commentaries provide a good supplement to helping us think about our biblical interpretation within the long line of Christian tradition.

The CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible is a gold mine for ancient commentary. Another is J. C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, a rich vein of expositional and devotional gold. Kindle also offers a great collection of old books for very low prices.