The importance of remembering God’s works in history is a recurring theme of Scripture. In the introduction to the Law in Exodus 20:2 God reminds His people of His works in their history, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. The Psalms also urge God’s people to “Remember his marvelous works that he hath done; … He sent Moses … He brought them forth also with silver and gold . . . And gave them the lands of the heathen. . . (Psalm 105:5, 26, 37, 44). Also, Hebrews 11 and 12 remind us of God’s works through the faith of the Old Testament saints, who surround us as “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Throughout the Bible God teaches us to remember the mighty works which He has done.
We learn of God’s works, first of all and primarily, in the Bible. That is why reading and studying the Bible should always have a central place in our lives. The often break-neck pace of this world must never hinder us from pausing to learn of God’s works through Bible study.
We also learn of God’s works in Church history. While the Bible is God’s divinely inspired record of His work, subsequent history also records God’s activity. We believe that God still “worketh all things after the council of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). We confess that He continues to “rule and govern all creation according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment” (Belgic Confession – Art. 13). God continues to watch over His people, preserve them, and confound their enemies.
A greater knowledge of Church history is a valuable asset for any Christian. Too often, however, it is left only to those with a natural inclination for things historical. That’s unfortunate. An increased understanding of Church history benefits all of us in many ways.
First, we see how God’s plan transcends all kingdoms, nations, and denominations. God draws His people in every age and from every tribe and tongue. The nations of this world wage war against each other, one empire rises, another falls and God uses them all to further His purpose. As creatures of this earth we easily lose sight of this transcendent power of God. We are tempted to place our hope in earthly powers rather than the almighty God who uses them to fulfill His own will. The better we understand history as the outworking of God’s council the more we are in awe of the overwhelming breadth and scope of God’s plan.
Second, we gain a better understanding of the Church’s continual development in her understanding of the Truth. We see that Christianity is not something to be rediscovered anew by every generation but an inheritance passed down through the ages. Each generation has built upon the understanding of those preceding, giving due credit to the work of the Holy Spirit in ages past. Much like the generations of workers on a great cathedral, they did not start from scratch but built upon what had been accomplished before. This makes us more wary of theological innovation. It strengthens us against being “carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).
Third, we gain a fuller understanding and deeper appreciation for our creeds and confessions. We realize that they were not conceived in some ivory tower of scholasticism but were formed on the firing line of dispute over the very heart of the Gospel. They were of crucial importance in defending and promoting the Truth against various errors and corruptions. The early creeds concerning the Trinity, for instance, were not simply rationalistic attempts to define God but were fervent defenses of Christ’s divinity and God’s unity against the claims of Arius, Marcion, and others. Similarly, the confessions of the Reformation set forth a valiant defense of the Gospel against Roman Catholic corruptions as well as the errors of the Anabaptists. When we study the history surrounding the formation of our creeds and confessions we gain valuable insights into the critical issues at stake in the doctrine and dogma of the Church.
Fourth, we realize that we stand with a long line of spiritual fathers with whom we share our faith and convictions. We see that throughout the Church’s history men have had to defend the sovereignty of God against those who would make man the author of his own salvation. Without the study of Church history, we might imagine that we are the first generation to oppose the idea of a common grace of God for all men. We might assume that we stand alone in our rejection of the idea of a free offer of the Gospel. When we study Church history we see that these ideas have their roots in errors which the Church has rejected many times, beginning with Augustine’s rejection of semi-Pelagianism some 1400 years ago. There is some encouragement in the realization that we stand in agreement with men like Augustine and the Reformers, and that these men also faced ridicule for their beliefs.
There is, of course, also a danger that we put our Church fathers on too high a pedestal. We may never raise agreement with John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, or Herman Hoeksema to be the highest court of appeal. Despite their contributions, we must remember that they were sinful men and prone to error. The Bible is always our final authority. We must study the writings of our fathers as the Bereans of old studied Paul’s words, “they . . . searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). Also, we must always remember that just as God sent Moses (Psalm 104:6) God also raised up these men to do His work. To God only belongs the glory.
Fifth, we gain insight into the continuing development of error. We witness how seemingly insignificant innovations have led to massive departures from the Truth. We see that when people see Christianity as just a lifestyle, and not also a doctrine, they inevitably grow in ignorance. When the importance of right doctrine is de-emphasized; soon also a holy life is considered unimportant. We realize that new theological “discoveries” are often old, old heresies newly robed in orthodox sounding terminology. Further, we realize that the Church is always under attack; we must ever be on our guard.
Finally, we grow in our appreciation for God’s continuing preservation of His people. The Church’s commitment to the Truth is continually tested, both from outside and from within. Only through God’s gracious care has the Church persevered through the persecutions of Nero, the darkness of the Middle Ages, the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the materialism of our present age.
We have considered some of the benefits of studying Church history but in conclusion we should stress its purpose. Learning more about Church history for mere knowledge’s sake is vanity. Seeking to impress friends or family is similarly vain. Learning more about God’s works in history should not make us proud but profoundly humble. We are but earthly creatures and God is the Creator and Sustainer of us all. When the Bible instructs us to remember the great works which God has done for His people, its stated purpose is that we keep His statutes (Exodus 20), worship Him in thankfulness (Psalm 105), and laying aside all sin, run the race which He has set before us (Hebrews 12:2). Obedience, praise, and a life of thankful service: this should also be our reaction upon delving into the mighty works of God in the annals of Church history.