All Saint’s Day seems an appropriate time to ask this question, since this is the day that the Western Christian Church has historically paused to celebrate the fact that “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).
Readers: Does your church value church history?
You might be wondering, “Devin, why would you ask such a question?” (I’ve actually asked it, albeit in different ways, before — here and here.) I ask it again in this fashion because I think that Christian congregations in general should care about the past, and because I’m curious to know how local congregations relate to the larger story of Christianity, whether it be at a denominational or more ecumenical level.
I take my question from two self-described church historians, The Pietist Schoolman and Chris Armstrong, the blogger and seminary professor behind Grateful to the Dead. At his blog, The Pietist Schoolman situates his question this way:
But it seems like [valuing church history is] an important thing for churches to do, for a wide variety of reasons. Most of all, teaching history seems vital to discipleship. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, he was telling members of perhaps the least ahistorical people in history (the Jews) to go and make disciples of “nations” that had been enormously influenced by the people who invented history as we know it (the Greeks). There’s a reason why the Gospel of Matthew starts by rooting Jesus in a kind of history (genealogy, at least), and why the Gospel of Luke begins with a few verses of historical methodology that echo Thucydides. In that context, Jesus could not possibly have meant that disciple-making could happen absent some awareness of history.
I like what The Pietist Schoolman is saying. (Read the whole piece here.) I also like what Chris Armstrong says about the study of our “great cloud of witnesses” at this post, which explores why seventeenth-century Pietists came to value the study of the church’s past.
Moreover, I also think that the study of church history (or history in general) helps us as Christians living today to be more thoughtful about our present situation. When we consider the sweep of church history, we begin to see our present concerns — whether worship wars or our theology of Hell, etc. — within a broader context. We learn that questions like these have beset the Christian church for centuries. Our concerns are not as monumental or as insurmountable as we might immediately think. In fact, within the broad sweep of church history, we are rather insignificant. People have been wrestling with similar questions for a long time! (For some thoughtful historical perspective on the contemporary debate about evangelicals’ theology of Hell, check out Jared Burkholder’s blog.)
At the same time, as Armstrong’s article suggests, church history can also help us to better understand our theology, to see how our beliefs can be lived out. Of course, we need to be careful as history-minded people not to lapse into simplistic, idealizing hagiography. If done well, in thoughtful and constructively critical ways, the study of church history gives us a better sense of how to live in the present. It gives us, in other words, a useful past.
In other words, as one of our wise readers noted in her comment on an earlier post, studying church history provides “a powerful corrective to the sadly human inclination of assuming we are the smartest, most with-it, and most missional [Christians] who ever lived.”
So, again, I return to our titular question: Does your church value church history?