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Why Study the History of the Church?

Christian instruction has a distinct and most unique contribution to make. It is intended to be one of the means whereby the people of God can instruct the seed of the covenant. In order to accomplish the task of covenant education, the seed of the church must be thoroughly instructed in the history of the church and must know the background and origin of the doctrines which the faithful church of the twentieth century loves and cherishes. The heritage of the church is precious and must never be spurned by those who have been sealed with the sign of the covenant in their foreheads.

In this apostatizing age it becomes increasingly important for the children of God’s covenant to be aware of the firm foundation upon which the church is built and also to be thoroughly apprised of the facts of the history of God’s church, as God has chosen to establish and gather his church in time through the work of his eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. To appreciate and love the heritage of the church, each individual member must know the sufferings and struggles which God has sovereignly sent upon his church through all the centuries of its existence in the world.

There are at least five substantial and crucial reasons for studying the history of the Christian church. Although these reasons overlap somewhat, they are nevertheless significantly unique so that they can be used as a motivation for studying church history. They are significant enough so they can be used to satisfy those who will ask the question (which ought to be asked) concerning the need for this kind of study in the life and training of the Reformed Christian.

These five reasons are the following:

  1. The Reformed Christian cannot correctly understand world history unless he understands the history of the Christian church. We adopt the position that all history is fundamentally and centrally church history. The Apostle Paul says to the church at Corinth in I Corinthians 3:21ff as follows: “…let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours: And ye are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” And in Colossians 1:18, 19, and 20, we read as follows: “…that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.”

We can say therefore that because all history is church history and because all things happen for the sake of the church, it is essential that the history of the world be understood and studied in terms of the history of the church.

  1. The Reformed Christian studies church history because the history of the church aids him in understanding the Scriptures. Although the Scriptures are perspicuous, the history of the gathering of the church, as this is recorded in the Scriptures, can be more clearly and more fully understood when these Scriptures are read and studied by one who is thoroughly familiar with the subsequent history of the church. All of history is integrated. All of history is one history. All of history is for the sake of Christ and his church. The Scriptures, which record sacred or Bible history, are also part of the record of the gathering of the church by the eternal Son of God, who gathers his church out of the whole human race from the beginning of the world and until the last elect saint shall be born. The Son of God, who gathers, preserves, and defends his church by his Spirit and word, does this through the Holy Gospel, which is recorded for the saints of all ages on the pages of the holy Scriptures. This gospel which is God’s means to gather the church was first revealed in Paradise to Adam and Eve, later it was published by patriarchs and prophets, it was represented by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law, and was lastly fulfilled by his only begotten Son. (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, questions 19 and 54.)

We can say therefore that the Scriptures, the infallible spectacles through which we (the members of Christ’s church) understand all history, can be understood more comprehensively when historical facts and events in the later ages of the history of the church are used to aid in the investigation of the prophetic word of the Scriptures.

  1. Reformed Christians, who are citizens of the universal and catholic church of Jesus Christ, have an obligation to know their own history. Young people and children desire to know the history of the country in which they have their natural and earthly citizenship. This is right. Young people wish to be acquainted with their family ancestry. They never tire of hearing the tales concerning the exploits of their grandparents. Because the Reformed Christian confesses that God gathers, defends, and preserves his church out of the whole human race by means of the instituted offices and activities of the church (eg. the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and Christian discipline), it is the calling of all Reformed Christians to know that history. It is the history of the Christian from the time of its initial institution in Paradise to this very day that the Reformed Christian studies.
  2. The Reformed Christian also knows that the history of the church cannot be separated from the history of the development of the doctrines and dogmas of the church. So that he may understand these doctrines and dogmas, which have been developed as the Truth of the Word of God, the Reformed Christian must study the history of the times in which these doctrines were developed and correctly articulated by the church. Believers and their seed must attempt to become involved in the history of the times when these doctrines were first stated in the form that we have them today in our Ecumenical Creeds and our Reformed Confessions. The heritage of the truth is important.
  3. The Reformed Christian has a calling, which is distinctive and is enormously important in these last days. He has a calling, which demands certain intellectual and spiritual accouterments so that he can fulfill that calling. The man of God must be thoroughly furnished to stand forth as a courageous and informed defender of the truth of the Word of God. In these last days the enemy of the church becomes sinister and strong. The Bible declares that even the elect would be deceived were it not for the preserving power of God. Because the “present is the fruit of the past” and the “germ of the future,” the Reformed Christian is called to fight the battle of faith in the defense of the truth—a truth which was once delivered to the saints. Unless the Reformed Christian knows the battles which the church has fought in the past and through God’s sovereign power has won, he cannot be strong in the present struggle. The Reformed Christian may not neglect to use the divinely ordained means for fighting the battle of faith. The Reformed Christian has to fight many of the same kinds of enemies fought by the church of the past, and there is a certain fundamental truth in II Timothy 3:7, to which he must listen. The Reformed Christian is not to be one who is “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Although every generation must fight against the same principalities and powers, the present generations must rely upon the truth developed by the fathers, and future generations will rely upon the truth elaborated and articulated by means of the battles fought by the present generations. II Timothy 3:14a exhorts as follows: “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned….”

The battle never changes fundamentally. The Church can learn from the victories and failings of the past. Good generals in the armies of the world always study the great wars and strategy of former generals and armies. The enemy is always principally the same. “There is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). That means there is no totally new heresy under the sun either. The name may change, and there may be slight mutations, but the fundamental error continues to exist. The church always fights against SIN.

The church which does not learn nor love the heritage of the truth will lapse into error.

God grant that we may be faithful and that we may cling to the certain promise given by Christ. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”