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The Study of History

While I currently work as a web designer, and despite receiving training in another area of the computer field (network administration, for those who may be interested), my most significant training was in history. It was history that I studied while in college and it is, in many ways, still my first love. In the eight or ten years since I completed college I have continued to read in history, and in particular, in church history. Over the past few days I have been working my way through the first volume of The Baker History of the Church. It is a little bit intimidating to find myself only a few chapters into a five-volume set and this has caused me to step back and consider the importance of the study of history.

This morning, as I read about the first-century church, I was struck by the blessedness of living in our generation. As I study the very early Christians I begin to see again just what a legacy we have as Christ followers. The faith as we know it today was not simply handed to us, but was developed over hundreds and thousands of years. The Scriptures have been studied again and again and again, and the general pattern has been incremental steps forward and often larger steps backward. Sometimes God sees fit to allow the church to take a giant step forward, as in the days of the Reformation, but more often the church has slowly and deliberately developed doctrine that accords to Scripture. Today we have unprecedented access to the Scripture and to resources dealing with the Bible. For this we ought to be profoundly grateful.

Here, then, are some of the reasons that I believe we need to engage in the study of history:

God Tells Us To: The Bible continually exhorts believers to search out and remember the past. The Old Testament in particular is filled with references to God commanding the Israelites to remember His deeds of the past. He instituted ceremony after ceremony, festival after festival, that caused His people to look to what He had done in the past. Veiled in many of these ceremonies and festivals was a glimpse of what would happen in the future. And so, when we look to the past, we may also glimpse just a little bit of what God promises us in the future.

“For inquire, please, of bygone ages,
and consider what the fathers have searched out.
For we are but of yesterday and know nothing,
for our days on earth are a shadow.
Will they not teach you and tell you
and utter words out of their understanding?”
(Job 8:8-10)

To Understand The Present Climate: Because so much of the history and theology of the church is defined in terms related to error and great difficulty, we should study the past to understand the present. The study of history, when done right, is always a humbling experience. It allows us to understand and sympathize with the plight of those who came before us. It helps us understand the blessings we enjoy today that were not always enjoyed by our brothers and sisters in days past. It also prevents us from developing a view of the faith that is irrationally focused on our day and ignores the long, storied history of the church.

To Understand the Future: History is not just a study of the past in an attempt to understand the present, but is also an attempt to understand the future. When we see the patterns of days gone by, we can begin to formulate ideas about where current trends will lead. By understanding the past we begin to understand the future.

To Understand Providence: As Christians we are often guilty of dwelling in the present and looking eagerly to the future while forgetting all about the past. But to do this is to lose sight of the valuable teaching of the past. In past days God revealed Himself in mighty ways, continually providing for His people through trial and persecution. When we study the past, we can see many of the ways in which God’s providence has been already displayed. This can serve as a valuable teaching tool as we prepare to face trials or persecution in our day. It can and should spur us to greater love and appreciation of God and give us greater confidence in His promises. As He has been faithful to men and women of days gone by, He will be faithful to us and to our children. This assurance gives us great stability in our faith.

To Understand Error: In many ways the history of the church is a history of action and reaction. Much of Christian theology has been developed and strengthened in reaction to error and heresy. When we visit the past we can see how error has arisen in the church and we can see which errors have already arisen and have been decided by a consensus of the church. This can be valuable as we face the inevitable error in our own day. Many Christians engage anew in battles over doctrine for which they could receive a great deal of guidance from great theologians of days past. By studying what has happened, we can avoid future errors and even the patterns that precede error.

To Understand People: We all enjoy considering who we would choose to sit for a meal with, were we able to select from all the people who are living or have lived in the past. The reality, of course, is that we cannot speak with our heroes who have lived before us. Yet by studying history we can come to know and understand them. We can come to see the parts of their lives that brought glory to God and the parts that brought Him dishonor. We can see what led to their rise to prominence within the church and perhaps the character flaws that led to their downfall. We can learn much not just from history, but from specific people who lived in a period of history.

To Understand Endurance: Since Christ left the earth, Christians have lived in anticipation of His return. Those who lived in the first century expected that this event would be imminent. And yet, two millenia later, we continue to wait. As we look to history we arm ourselves with the knowledge that Christ’s return may still be far off. As we see how men and women have persevered throughout the history of the church, we are strengthened with endurance, knowing that we, too, shall be witnesses to Christ’s return when the Father sees fit.