In a classic Peanuts comic strip, Sally carefully labels her paper, “Church History.” As Charlie Brown glances over her shoulder, Sally considers her subject.
“When writing about church history,” Sally scrawls, “we have to go back to the very beginning. Our pastor was born in 1930.
Charles Schulz’s comic strip may be amusing, but it isn’t too far from the truth. In sermons and devotional books, Christians encounter names like Augustine and Calvin, Spurgeon and Moody. Their stories are interesting. Truth be told, though, most church members have a tough time fitting these stories together. The typical individual’s knowledge of church history ends with the apostles and doesn’t find its footings again until sometime in the twentieth century.
Still, the story of Christianity deeply affects every believer in Jesus Christ. The history of the Christian faith affects how we read the Bible. It affects how we view our government. It affects how we worship. Simply put, the church’s history is our family history. Past Christians are our mothers and fathers in the faith, our aunts and uncles, our in-laws and –in a few cases—our outlaws!
When a child in Sunday School asks, “How could Jesus be God and still be like me?” she’s not asking a new question. She is grappling with an issue that, in AD 325, three hundred church leaders discussed in a little village named Nicaea [ni-SEE-ah], now the city of Iznik in the nation of Turkey. Even if you’ve never heard of Iznik or Nicaea, what those leaders decided will influence the way that you frame your response to the child’s question.
If you’ve ever wondered, “Why are there so many different churches?” the answer is woven somewhere within two millennia of political struggles and personal skirmishes. When you read words like “predestined” or “justified” in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, it isn’t only Paul and your pastor who affect how you respond. Even if you don’t realize it, Christian thinkers such as Augustine and John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards also influence how you understand these words.
So, if the history of Christianity affects so much of what we do, what’s the problem? Why isn’t everyone excited about this story? Simply this: A few pages into many history books, and the story of Christianity can suddenly seem like a vast and dreary landscape, littered with a few interesting anecdotes and a lot of dull dates.
Despite history’s profound effect on our daily lives, most church members will never read Justo Gonzalez’s thousand-page The Story of Christianity. Only the most committed students will wade through all 1,552 pages of Ken Latourette’s A History of Christianity. Fewer still will learn to apply church history to their lives. And so, when trendy novels and over-hyped television documentaries attempt to reconstruct the history of Christianity, thousands of believers find themselves unable to offer intelligent answers to friends and family members.
What we don’t seem to recognize is that church history is a story. It’s an exciting story about ordinary people that God has used in extraordinary ways. What’s more, it’s a story that every Christian ought to know. (Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones, pp. 6–7: Book and DVD)
Do you believe that? I hope you do.
Church history is a story of trial and error, of success and failure, of compromise and reformation, of heresy and orthodoxy, and ultimately how Christ’s promise to build his church is accomplished through an endless maze of sinful decisions and spell-binding grace.
For us looking back on church history, there is much for us to learn. And over the next three months at our church, it is my prayer that we will better be able to answer many important questions from church history.
- How did we get the Bible? Is Dan Brown right it’s origins?
- What is Orthodoxy? What should we learn from the early, catholic fathers?
- How did God become a man? What does it matter?
- Was Augustine a professor of grace or a false teacher? Both?
- Did anything good happen in the Dark Ages?
- What triggered the Protestant Reformation?
- Who were Martin Luther and John Calvin? Where did all the ‘Neo-Calvinists’ come from?
- When did the Baptist Church begin? Does it have to go back to the first century?
- How did the church change when it came to America? What does it mean that America is a ‘Christian nation’?
- What effect did Charles Darwin have on the faith? Did Fundamentalists respond rightly?
- Who was Friedrich Schleiermacher? And why do we hear his liberal theology on K-Love?
- What does it mean that speaking in tongues is a modern phenomenon?
These and so many other questions are best answered by learning from the past. As Solomon said ages ago, “there is nothing new under the sun,” which reminds us that there is much wisdom to glean from our long, extended church family. At the same time, by learning how we got to where we are today may help give perspective on some of the doctrinal challenges that continue to plague Southern Baptists. Since “the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way” (Eccl. 8:6), it is imperative for us to know our history so that we can be make decisions now and in the future.
Our sovereign God, through the diligent effort of his literary saints, has kindly preserved for us a well-documented history of the church. On Sunday night’s we will consider this history together.
To help you follow along, let me recommend that you read Timothy Paul Jones’ colorful book, Christian History Made Easy. It is well-written and filled with pictures, quotes, and maps to give you a sense of your family story.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds