There are entire academic disciplines that exist in a kind of self-perpetuating circle. Professors teach students so those students can become professors and, in turn, teach more students. Such disciplines serve no practical purpose and have no reason to exist beyond academia. Like mathematics, for example. It serves no purpose in the world and nobody ever uses math once they graduate. It exists only within schools so it can create that perpetual cycle of students and professors.
Thankfully, there are other disciplines that have very important practical purposes for the functioning of the world and the church. One of the obvious examples is church history. We need church historians because we need church history. Few things are more important to the life and health of Christianity than a sound knowledge of our shared past.
We need church historians to help us understand the present. The present is the sum of the past. We did not arrive at twenty-first century Christianity suddenly or by chance but through the long and slow development of the Christian faith over millennia. To know who and what we are, we must know who we were and where we have come from. We cannot understand the past or the future without a deep knowledge of the past.
We need church historians to help us grow in humility. Few things spur humility like a close study of the past. We see, for example, that every generation of believers has some great flaw, some prominent blindspot. The godliest generations of the past still permitted or endorsed terrible sins. Why should we think we are the one generation that has completely understood the truth and perfectly lived it out? Why should we think that our generation will someday be judged less harshly? A realistic view of the past gives us the humility to consider how we will be assessed in the future, and to address those flaws today.
We need church historians to help us avoid sin. As we study the past, we see sin—so much sin. And we see righteousness—so much righteousness. As we see the sins and graces of our forebears, those we rightly respect and honor, we will long to be free from their sins and imitate their strengths. We will want to build on their foundation and strengthen it all the more. This close study of history motivates us to ask God to pour out more of his purifying grace.
We need church historians to help us praise God for his providence. We human beings are a thankless lot who so quickly turn from gratitude to grumbling. It is for this reason that in the Old Testament God often instructed his people to erect monuments that would stand as constant reminders of his gracious deeds. As church historians lead us to gaze at the past, they lead us to praise God for his providence, for his careful and undeniable guiding hand from the first day to the last. Church history, done right, leads to worship!
We need church historians to help us guard the faith. The scriptures tell us there is nothing new under the sun, that what has happened before soon happens again. Rarely do we see this with greater clarity than in studying the history of the Christian faith. The heresies of yesterday invariably become the heresies of today and the attacks of tomorrow. We need church historians to help us learn from the past so we can guard the gospel today and every day. We need them to help us answer contemporary challenges by seeing how our forbears answered them in the past.
We need church historians to help us meet our brothers and sisters who have already lived. A recent headline tells of a man who was the first child born to his mother, but had been put up for adoption immediately after his birth. Mom subsequently married and had 16 other children. As an older man, he began to try to track down his roots and was shocked to learn he was part of a massive family. And, of course, he wanted to get to know his siblings. In much the same way, each of us has entered into a great family that has existed for millennia. We have countless brothers and sisters and there is tremendous joy in getting to know them through their own words or through words written about them.
We need church historians to help us into 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 and even predict 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. When we understand where our current trends are taking us, we can react to avoid heading down paths that have been shown to be ruinous.
For these reasons and so many more, we need to know our history. And to know our history we need church historians.
Mathematicians: Don’t be mad at me. Obviously I honor your work, incomprehensible as it is to me. I’m merely trying to make a point about an academic discipline that probably doesn’t receive the love it ought to!