History was one of my favorite subjects throughout my school years. What helped was that my family had vacationed in several hot spots of American history - Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., Boston, even Tombstone, Arizona, where the notorious shootout at the O.K. Corral occurred. As a child, I was also an avid reader. The Little House series was my favorite and that had plenty of history within its pages.
As an adult, I keep up with my love for history by viewing documentaries, reading, and some travel. We also watch movies based on historical events. Sometimes, our family discusses history when we eat dinner together. The other day my son asked, "Mom, what is the importance of studying church history?" He asked because he had talked to a fellow Christian who did not know that the Greek Orthodox Church existed. Jon was able to tell this person that the Greek Orthodox Church had split from the Roman Catholic Church, thus forming two major denominations (This occurred in 1054 and was called The Great Schism).
"This person did not know that the Greek Orthodox church existed," Jon said. It clearly frustrated him but this might make you wonder why. Why does something that happened in 1054 -- 959 years ago -- matter in 2013? Why is studying church history important?
History connects us with the past
The study of history connects us with our past. In the church, the Roman and Eastern churches have done a pretty good job keeping history alive, especially through the veneration of the saints. Studying the lives of the saints gives us a connection with Christians who lived before us. We can learn from them and be inspired.
The study of any type of history is useful. Artists study history in order to concentrate on the methods of the masters in their trade whether the media is painting, book binding, sculpture, calligraphy, stained glass or drawing. Sociologists study the history of sociology in order to know how theories of behavior have developed over the years. They study history in an effort to understand what forces in culture drive groups to do what they do. Religion students study religious history to know how church tradition shapes theology and vice versa. Connecting with our past in this sense, gives us a stronger foundation for future work.
Knowing history helps us in the present
In eighth grade history class, I learned that the study of history helps us not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Sadly, it seems that sometimes we can study history without learning much from the errors of our predecessors. Wisdom is necessary in order to apply lessons learned from the past, to the present. For example, if in World War II, Adolf Hitler had learned anything from the history of France, he would have realized from studying Napoleonthat he should have neither overextended his supply system, nor should he have tried to fight the Russians during the winter. This error arguably cost Hitler the war he was waging on the rest of the world. I am thankful for this, of course, but can you imagine the outcome if Hitler had learned his history lessons well?
Knowing the history of the church will help the church perform like the church should. From Acts, we learn that evangelism and love went together as naturally as breathing. Acts 2 says,
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
What are we known for today? In America, it seems like Christians are known as members of the Republican party, as people who hate homosexuals and Obama. We are known for our legalism and for views of science and history that dismiss research by experts in those fields. We stab each other in the back and "shoot our wounded." Protestants are known for hating Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others. The term "WASP" reeks of prejudice and disdain toward others. Need I go on? It appears that study of our history would help us get back to our roots.
We can also learn from the negative points in our history. Do we want to repeat The Inquisition, when anyone who disagreed with the Church was tortured and killed? Would we like to return to the ways of pre-colonial America, where Christian-on-Christian persecution was rampant? Do we believe that war is the best way to solve our problems, like the Crusaders of old? Do we want to intertwine ourselves with the government so much that our national leader dictates church policy?
Knowing church history also helps us tolerate other views of Christianity. By this I mean views of Christianity from other Christians who are different from ourselves. In this way we can learn to get along with and even love folks from other denominations because we understand why they think the way they do.
The Study of History Takes Us Confidently Into the Future
Knowing our past and using wisdom to apply that knowledge to the present, can help us move confidently forward into the future. Have we made mistakes? Have we sinned? If so, how can we avoid that action and become what God wants us to be as the Church, or body of Christ? Sweeping our history under the rug, so to speak, and ignoring it has never helped us. We must confront the truth about our past, repent of sin and learn how to move forward.
To help us in this endeavor, I would like to take Yahbut blog readers through a study of the book "Christian History in Plain Language," by Bruce L. Shelley. This study will start on Thursday and continue on that day each week. This study will be in addition to our year with Henri Nouwen.
I hope you enjoy it!