7 reasons you need church history
Wisdom from the past should be warmly embraced by Christians today.
We know what “history” is. And we know what “theology” is. But what is “historical theology?”
I think of it as wisdom from the past: right interpretation of Scripture, and sound doctrine, that is handed down to us from wise Christians throughout the history of the church.
One example is the interpretation of the simple biblical phrase, “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). It means that by his crucifixion, Jesus paid the penalty we deserved to pay by becoming our substitute and dying in our place. Wise Christians have historically affirmed this understanding of Jesus’ work.
Another example is the doctrine of the Trinity, which can be summarized in three affirmations: God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the three persons is distinct from the others and is fully God. There is only one God. Wise Christians have historically affirmed this formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
This wisdom about Christ’s death as our substitute and about the identity of the Trinity comes down to us from the past and helps us know what Jesus has done for us to bring us into a personal relationship with God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So historical theology is very valuable to us today. Specifically, here are seven truths you can trust from historical theology.
1. The creeds can guide you.
The early church creeds are excellent summaries of what Christians today should believe as sound doctrine based on Scripture. From early on, the church has confessed the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit.
I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
These statements of belief summarize what the Bible teaches, and they present those biblical truths in an easy-to-remember way.
I know that Baptists are traditionally suspicious of these early creeds. Indeed, many Baptists exclaim, “No creed but the Bible!” But if Baptists bind themselves by a creed about no creeds, what’s wrong with creeds expressing sound doctrine based on Scripture? And such a posture towards the early creeds can be naïve, as all Baptists have beliefs about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, the church, and the future hope — beliefs that are expressed in the creeds!
So we can trust the truths as found in the early creeds.
2. The creeds can guard you.
The early church creeds contain sobering warnings about doctrines that Christians today should not believe — heresies that contradict or misunderstand Scripture. From early on, the church has condemned the following errors about the incarnation of the Son of God:
- The Son did not — indeed, could not — take on a human nature, so Jesus only appeared to be a real and fully human being: Jesus was an apparition, not a man at all.
- The Son only took on part of a human nature — a human body — and thus was not truly and fully human as we are: Jesus was more God than man.
- The Son incarnate joined up with a human person, so the incarnation was about the divine Son collaborating with the man Jesus.
- The Son with his divine nature absorbed the human nature of Jesus: Jesus was a DIVINE human being.
- The Son with his divine nature fused together with Jesus and his human nature: Jesus was a dhiuvmianne being.
- The Son gave up some of his divine characteristics — for example, he stopped being present everywhere, knowing all things, and being all powerful — so that he could become a real and fully human being: Jesus was more man than God.
- Each of these errors, as exposed by the early creeds, contradicts the sound doctrine expressed by those same creeds. The truth is that the incarnation was about the Son, who is fully God, uniting himself with a real and fully human nature, to become Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.
So we can trust the warnings about untruths as found in the early creeds.
3. The church recognized the canon of Scripture.
The early church gradually recognized the canon of Scripture, and this canon did not include the apocryphal writings.
By “canon” I mean the list of writings that properly belong in the Bible, because they are the God-breathed and authoritative truth for Christians. By “apocryphal writings” (“Apocrypha,” for short), I refer to the extra writings that are found in the Roman Catholic Old Testament and not in our Protestant Old Testament: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and additions to both Daniel and Esther.
An important development in the early church was its discernment of the writings that should be properly included in the church’s Old Testament and New Testament. Key Christians — for example, Origen, Athanasius, John of Damascus, and Jerome — provide us with lists of the books that the church gradually recognized to belong in Scripture. These leaders specifically denied that the apocryphal writings belong in the Bible. Eventually, the Catholic Church deviated from the position of these leaders, following Augustine’s view instead and including the Apocrypha in its Old Testament.
About a thousand years later, the Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted that Protestant churches return to the early church’s view and exclude these apocryphal writings. So Roman Catholic Bibles and Protestant Bibles are different when it comes to these books. But Protestant Bibles without the Apocrypha have a solid historical precedent.
So we can trust the truth that the Old Testament does not include the apocryphal writings as found in the Roman Catholic Bible.
4. Protestantism embraces sola Scriptura and justification by grace through faith.
Protestantism, which arose 500 years ago during the Reformation, embraces two principles: sola Scriptura and justification by grace through faith.
Luther and Calvin established Protestant churches on a completely different basis from Roman Catholicism. Specifically, the Reformers developed the two foundational principles of Protestantism.
The first (and formal, or structural) principle is sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone.
The Roman Catholic view was that God’s revelation comes through two closely connected, yet distinct, sources: (1) Scripture, the written Word of God, and (2) Tradition, the oral teachings of Jesus that are kept alive and transmitted by the Catholic Church. This source of revelation contains alleged truths about, for example, Mary: That she was conceived without sin (the Immaculate Conception) and that when she died her body was immediately taken up into heaven (the Bodily Assumption).
Against this view of Scripture and Tradition, the Reformers offered the principle that only Scripture (sola Scriptura), and not Scripture plus Tradition, is God’s revelation of truth for Christians to obey and believe.
The second (and material, or key content) principle of Protestantism is the doctrine of justification by grace through faith.
The Roman Catholic view was that justification is not only the forgiveness of sins, but also being born again (the new birth, or regeneration) and progressing in sanctification (becoming more holy like Jesus). A corollary of this view is that justification is a life-long process, with some Catholics being more advanced and other Catholics lagging behind. Additionally, whether advancing or maintaining or regressing, Catholics can never know if they have made sufficient progress to please God. Thus, they cannot have assurance of salvation.
The Protestant view, based on the Bible, is that justification is God’s twofold declaration that sinful people are not guilty (Rom 3:25; 5:9) but righteous instead (Rom 5:18–19). Justification as God’s pronouncement is based on Christ’s death in our place, resulting in forgiveness, and Christ’s obedience, which is imputed (or credited) to us when we hear the gospel and believe in Jesus to save us. Thus, justification is accomplished by Christ alone, granted through God’s grace alone, and received through faith alone. And those who so believe may enjoy assurance of salvation (Rom 8:1, 31–39).
The Reformers underscored this truth of justification because it is affirmed in Scripture, which is the only source of God’s revelation.
So we can trust the truth of the two principles of Protestantism.
5. Protestantism also embraces two (or, in some cases, three) marks of the true church.
When Martin Luther and his little band of followers started the first Protestant churches of the Reformation, they were surrounded by the massive, historical, and powerful Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, this Church claimed to be the only true church of Jesus Christ.
Yet, these Protestants had the audacity to call the Roman Catholic Church a false church and claim that their little, novel, and persecuted churches were true churches! On what basis?
Protestant churches are characterized by two or three marks: “The church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered. And unto the true unity of the church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments” (Augsburg Confession, 7:1–2; cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.8). Historically, then, Protestant churches are known for their preaching of the Word of God and their celebration of the two ordinances (not the seven sacraments, as found in the Roman Catholic Church) of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are the two marks of a true church. Some Protestant churches include a third mark, the exercise of church discipline (e.g., Belgic Confession).
These marks have solid biblical foundations. For preaching the gospel, Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20), Paul’s challenge to engage in the ministry of reconciliation through teaching the Word of God (2 Cor 5:17–21; 2 Tim 4:1–5; Col 1:28–29), and the many examples of proclamation of the good news in Acts (e.g., Acts 2) are just some of the biblical support.
For the administration of the two ordinances, Jesus commands the church to baptize new believers (Matt 28:19; exemplified by Philip and the eunuch, Acts 8:26–40) and instructs the church to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26–29; and Paul’s teaching, 1 Cor 11:17–34). For church discipline, Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to his church (Matt 16:13–20) and establishes a four-step process (Matt 18:15–20) for its exercise.
So we can trust the marks of the true church.
6. Protestantism holds to five solas: Scripture, Christ, grace, faith, the glory of God.
Protestantism also embraces five solas (“onlys”): sola Scriptura, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone.
Another development at the time of the Reformation was the formulation of five solas over against the Roman Catholic view that integrates mutually exclusive positions (for example, faith plus works).
As we’ve already seen, sola Scriptura emphasizes that only Scripture, and not Scripture plus tradition, is authoritative, divinely inspired truth.
Christ alone underscores that it is only Jesus, and not Jesus plus the Roman Catholic Church (which self-identifies as the whole Christ), that is the necessary ground of salvation from sin.
Grace alone highlights that it is only God’s favor, and not his grace plus human cooperation, that operates/produces salvation from sin.
Faith alone emphasizes that it is only trust in Jesus, and not faith plus good works done to merit eternal life, that embraces salvation from sin.
The glory of God alone underscores that it is only God’s fame, and not his fame plus special honor, for example, to Mary, that is magnified in salvation from sin through Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone.
These five solas are firmly grounded on Scripture. For example, Paul affirms, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).
So we can trust the truth of the five solas of Protestantism.
7. Baptists are Protestants with biblical convictions.
Baptist distinctives express our firm convictions, based on Scripture, that distinguish us from other Protestants, yet without separating us from them in an exclusionary way.
One of the important developments that flowed out of the Reformation was the formation of Baptist churches. To the two principles of Protestantism — the marks of a true church — and the five solas, Baptists added unique elements such as regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, congregational church polity, and local church autonomy (and the correlative rejection of the state-church culture).
Regenerate church membership signifies that only people who have heard the gospel, repented of their sins, and believed in Jesus Christ for salvation are permitted to become members of a Baptist church. This position is in contrast with, for example, Reformed churches, which include the children of believing parents in their covenant community.
Believer’s baptism means that only people who can offer a credible profession of faith (described above) are permitted to be baptized. This practice is in contrast with, for example, Methodist churches that baptize the infants of church members.
Congregational church polity maintains that ultimate human authority in Baptist churches resides in their members. This structure is in contrast with, for example, the Roman Catholic Church that locates ultimate authority in its bishops, in particular its pope, who are at the top of its hierarchy, above priests, deacons, and church members.
Local church autonomy means that each Baptist church is an independent entity that is responsible for establishing its own leaders (pastors, elders, deacons), managing its own finances, developing its own ministries, establishing its own membership, and the like. This position is in contrast with, for example, Presbyterian churches, which have several authoritative structures — presbytery, synod, and general assembly — above the local church level. This distinctive is at the heart of why Baptists churches broke away from the centuries-old church-state structure. Historically, Baptists have denied any possible role for the state (for example, the English monarch) in church matters.
Baptists offer a strong biblical and theological case for each of their distinctives. They also acknowledge that other Protestants can offer a case for their opposing positions (for example, infant baptism). Thus, while Baptists distinguish themselves from these other believers, Baptists do not deny they are indeed Christians and do not consider them to hold heretical views.
So we can trust the truth of Baptist distinctives. But we don’t take the further step of separating from other Christians in an exclusionary way.
In conclusion, historical theology is a treasure trove of right biblical interpretation and sound doctrine. As wisdom from the past, it should be warmly embraced by Christians today. It will help us avoid what, in Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” or “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”