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  • Daniel Klassen

The Relevance of Church History

One of the sad facts of modern Christianity is the apparent lack of interest in the history of the Christian religion. I do not mean that Christians pay their own history no mind, but that they do not think it has any say in our present day. The prevailing thought of the day is that the people of history lacked our progressed perspective of life and are ignorant on important issues we face today. However, such is a foolish thought seeing that the issues we face today are no different from the problems those who have gone before faced. Furthermore, it is an abhorrent form of pride to say that we know better than our forbearers in the faith. Do you know why there is no record of successful people who ‘knew’ better than those who preceded them? It is because they failed to bring anything of value to the Christian faith.

The history of the Christian religion is important for Christians today to consider because it acts as a lighthouse guiding our ship through the torrential rains and treacherous waves of our time. Our forbearers have traveled this path, and we would do well to follow in their footsteps. Studying the history of the Christian religion comes with great benefit; there are three which particularly stand out.

The Authority of Scripture

The first observation we find in church history is the necessity to believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. This is seen most clearly in the contrast of those who do not hold the authority of God's Word. They become unhelpful to the Christian cause and are banished from the positive light of remembrance by those who succeed them. Rather, a shadow is cast over them. Indeed, it is almost as though they cast it themselves by holding the reason of man or their own experience as a higher authority than Scripture. There is no true Christian faith found outside the scope of Holy Scripture (Rom. 10:17), so it should come as no surprise that those who disregard Scripture as their Authority are themselves disregarded by the Church.

It is in the 16th Century Reformation we see this displayed most clearly. Where the church had been buried under the weight of human tradition (meaning extra-biblical tradition), the Reformers pulled the true gospel from the debris for the true church to flourish. It is the Reformation that stands as a great defining moment in the history of the church, not the years prior where Popes and Emperors ruled the church. When God's Word is held as the ultimate authority, the church prevails, but when it is not, the church flounders in darkness. When historians trace the line of Christianity, they do not trace it where the reason and experience of man ruled the church; they trace it where the Holy Scriptures stood as the authority over the people.

The Scriptures are the unifying factor of Christians through all ages and times, for in them Christ is given to us. It was his prayer in John 17 that his followers would be united in truth, and so it has been. The similarities we share with all Christians far outweighs all the differences we have. We possess Christ through the Bible, and that unifies us; everything else falls by the wayside. We know that the Christians of history at certain times acted out of their sinful desires, thought certain things were more important than others, and fought for causes which are not prominent today. Those, however, do not define them as Christians. Christ does, and he does so through his Word.

Creeds and Confessions

In the history of the church, creeds and confessions greatly benefitted Christians in their time, and not only theirs, but ours as well. After the Apostles died, Christians had a tough time gaining traction as a viable religion. They were plagued both from without and within the church. The creeds and confessions which the councils of church fathers drew up served as a guideline for the struggling Christians. They knew what they believed about the Bible because the things they were supposed to believe were written for them in simple and clear language.

The reason these early creeds and confessions still remain today is because of their effectiveness to guide Christians in their understanding of Scripture. Wherever there was a desire for clear biblical teaching, you could be sure to find the creeds and confessions nearby. They were for the correction of bad doctrine and practice so that Christians might live lives according to Scripture. Christians, both then and now, need creeds and confessions in order to direct them in biblical understanding.

Recently, a meeting of church leaders was held in the city of Nashville, TN, to sign a document confessing a biblical understanding of marriage, sex, and gender. The Nashville Statement, as it's called, has received an enormous amount of backlash from both outside and inside the church. It should not come as a surprise, seeing as many inside the evangelical community have erred on these issues, swayed by the culture pressure to give into popular demand. In fact, such backlash displays the necessity of forming such a document. Just as the creeds, confessions, and statements[1] of the past have been necessary and helpful, so this one is as well. The study of church history tells us that in 300 to 500 years from now, Christian historians will look back on the Nashville Statement with thankfulness for faithful Christians in our time. These leaders will be hailed as heroes. Those who denounce it now, however, will be forgotten, and if remembered, looked upon with disdain.

We Are Not It

We observe from church history that we are not the first, nor are we the best that Christianity has to offer. As I said above, the Christians of history had their flaws. Yet, God used them to bring Christianity along to this day. We are not much different than they, plagued with the sins of our time, and the sins of our hearts. We, like they, are lost apart from Christ. Sure, we may have corrected some ethical issues, but we have also fallen in our commitment to others. We are not the best generation of Christians to walk this earth because we struggle with the same indwelling sin as every Christian prior to us, and every Christian to come.

We are following those who have followed, but there were some in the early church that served as pioneers. There is special grace given to pioneers because they have little understanding of the type of ground their next step will land on. If they faltered, it was because of ignorance. It was still wrong, but they were earnestly seeking the best path. When one comes along and sees a well-used trail but decides to go off on their own, they are to blame for their downfall. The same grace for pioneers blazing a trail is unavailable for those who see the trodden path, but decide to walk another way.

Take Origen of Alexandria (185-264) for example. He was the first to produce a system of theology for Christians. There was a need to both refute the pagans and set a firm foundation under the feet of the believers. However, he was influenced by Plato’s philosophy, and so his biblical theology was, at times, unbiblical. Many scholars have given Origen a bad name for this, but others realize that he was a product of his times, trying to help a fledgling religion gain traction and viability in the hostile culture which surrounded them. He may not have had everything correct, but he set a foundation, and those who succeeded him worked to smooth out the path so following generations would have a safe path to tread upon.

For us today, there is a road set out for us. It has been traveled not only by those who preceded us in the faith but by the apostles and Christ himself. We are to fall in line behind those who have gone before us, and those who come behind must do the same.

Church history teaches us that we are not the first to come up with anything original concerning the faith. Indeed, it also teaches us that we should never seek to be original. We are to plagiarize the faith "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3). We have nothing special to bring since all we have as Christians is found in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Let us learn from our history the importance and value of falling in line behind faithful men and women who fell in line behind Christ.


[1] Another recent statement is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy signed in 1974.

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