Why Every Theologian Should Be a Good Historian
With one foot in systematic theology and the other in church history, historical theology can be the bridge to take our study of God to the past or our study of the past to God.
It’s a great time to study church history. Podcasts, free lectures, articles, books, and movies abound with great information to help us understand God’s dealings in history. But why should we go looking in the past if we want to supplement our spiritual disciplines now?
Tom Nettles, an accomplished Baptist historian once told me the reason he dedicated his life to studying and teaching church history was because historians get to do a little bit of everything. New Testament interpretation, Old Testament studies, systematic theology, philosophy, and whatever other topic, the historian has the tools to participate in the conversation because every topic has a history.
Thus, doing church history will refine all areas in our pursuit of knowing God.
I suggest you apply his wisdom and broaden your spiritual horizons with the study of church history. I don’t know exactly where you should begin in studying the past, but here’s a simple method to begin supplementing your personal devotions with church history. My journey took me from loving Scripture, to theology, to church history. From being a theologian to a historical theologian (informally).
Scripture, Theology, and History
I first loved the Bible and then grew interested in the topic of God’s sovereignty over salvation. Passages such as John 6, Ephesians 1, and Romans 9 raised questions I had to investigate further. From there, I began to read and listen to topics related to theology. I loved thinking deeply about God.
I wanted more.
Naturally, my plunge into theology led me to history because the same questions I kept asking were already present through centuries of Christian thinkers. For the first time, my faith didn’t feel like me, my Bible, and God. I was immersed into something bigger. I was participating in the timeless church built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. I had discovered my spiritual family’s history.
I went from Scripture (John 6, Eph. 1 & Rom. 9) to theology (doctrine of election) to history (the Reformation). The Reformation was my first exposure in church history which sent me back to Augustine and forward to the Puritans. It’s a tapestry with an infinite number of starting points and possible routes—all reaching the same destination of intimacy with God.
Scripture to theology to history is the route I suggest you take to enhance your Bible study. It assures our ultimate priority is devotion to God through his Word. Spirituality, our prayer lives, bible reading, and evangelism is the meat of our Christian lives. Then we can go deeper into history to see how Christians have applied their theology and become witnesses to God, who by his Spirit, has been thwarting the gates of hades from overwhelming his bride.
Doing Theology through History
John Piper captures the value of studying the past in light of God when he writes:
“If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is insurrection, not scholarship.”
When we study church history, we’re studying God. How he’s worked and how others have thought about him.
With one foot in systematic theology and the other in church history, historical theology can be the bridge to take our study of God to the past or our study of the past to God. Historical theology does not draw theology from the Bible, but it examines the past and studies how doctrine has developed. We ask questions like, what context was this theologian writing in? How did this doctrine change over time? What caused them to think about God in this way? Historical theology helps us understand systematic theology which in turn helps to foster better biblical theology.
It’s a key part of my argument that historical theology be a primary reason for learning church history. If there’s no study of God to gain from looking at the past, you’re better off sticking to new theology books.
But that’s impossible. Because every new theology book worth its salt will be doing historical theology. Sometimes you can’t understand a doctrine unless you know how it developed or was refined over time. When you pick a newer systematic theology, like Wayne Grudem’s, he will be interacting with older systematic theologies like Louis Berkhoff’s (1932) and Calvin’s Institutes (1559).
So, here’s a question: When you read old theology, are you doing history or theology? Both. But there’s a difference.
Historical theology asks how Calvin thought about God. Systematic theology asks how you should think about God. If you’re doing historical theology, your goal is to understand, from a historical perspective, what Calvin meant. But if you’re reading Calvin to deepen your systematic theology, you’re wanting to see how you can learn from Calvin’s application of reason to the scriptures.
This makes it seem like systematic theology is more important than historical theology. It is. But, whether you intended to do historical theology or not, you did it. As you’re studying Calvin, you’re reading for your own growth. But you also gain a better idea of what Calvin argued.
Getting Our Priorities Straight
It’s important to get this step from theology to history right. What I mean is that it’s more important to love the Trinity than to map out the development of the Trinity. It’s more important to understand, in your own heart, the doctrine of justification of faith alone than to understand what Luther meant when he taught justification by faith alone.
Does learning about the development of the Trinity help us understand the Trinity? Absolutely. There need not be a sharp distinction between theology and history, but there is a priority. Understanding theology will always be more God glorifying and soul refreshing than learning about theology.
I know many Christians who love God and his Word, but don’t see the value of making time for church history. Partially because they don’t know where to start, and partly because it seems like a task separate from personal devotions.
Whether it’s exposure to podcasts, documentaries, biographies, or primary sources, Church history can be accessible and refreshing to your soul. By moving from Scripture to theology, to history, you may discover figures who inspire you to pursue godliness or begin to grasp theological topics that ignite your soul in worship.