Why study church history? What reason would we have for doing so?
In my own studies of church history, I have grown to love the subject and see immense value in it. Evangelicals (as broad as that term is) for the most part seem to have abandoned church history as the provenance of the Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox, at least as regards events prior to the Reformation. If you are like me and have a Protestant/evangelical background, church history was probably not emphasized at all, leaving you generally ignorant of any details of personalities, councils, or events in church history prior to the Reformation. I believe this is a vast deficiency and one that should be and can be remedied.
If you come from an evangelical background, you may have grown up with (or currently have) an implicit understanding of how the history of the church went, unfolding something like this: After Jesus ascended to heaven, the apostles spread the gospel across the Roman Empire and brought many to Christ. The church flourished during its first three hundred years and grew and expanded even as it faced persecution. Along came Constantine, who legalized Christianity and made it the official religion of the state, and merged church and state to the point that the church became corrupt. With the merger of church and state came the popes, who led the Church into apostasy for over a thousand years until a man by the name of Martin Luther came along and rescued the Church from its millennium of false doctrine and false gospels.
Now that description of church history, while understanding some general details aright (and conflating others), wildly misrepresents the actual unfolding of the history of the church. I must confess, this was my personal understanding of church history growing up, and I doubt I am alone in that general understanding. So in light of that, here are some reasons to study church history (not least of which is correcting that view):
Church history connects us to the history of God building his church
My understanding of church history growing up cut me off from the church as a whole. My understanding was that the church essentially was destroyed for a millennium, only to be rebuilt again after Martin Luther. Yet, when we look back at history, we see the providence of God in building and spreading his church, even in ways we may not fully commend nowadays. We can look back and see the spread of the church in the missionary efforts of Pope Gregory the Great, foundational ideas laid for Christian apologetics in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, or the work of Desiderius Erasmus for reviving Western interest in the Greek New Testament and for propagating it in printed form so that it could be used to translate the New Testament into other languages. None of these men would be considered “evangelical,” but they are nonetheless important figures in our history and to the shape of the church today, whom we have a connection to and whom God used in the church’s history.
Church history helps us defend our history against misrepresentation
“Constantine chose the books of the Bible.” “The church just picked the gospels it liked.” “Christianity as we know it is just the Christianity of the theological winners.” There are a whole myriad of errors and misrepresentations of church history circulating in both the public consciousness and (unfortunately) in the church. Gaining a familiarity with church history will help show why so many of these are historically inaccurate and provide us with a response to these types of misrepresentation.
Church history helps us understand Trinitarian theology
Have you ever stopped to wonder why we express the doctrine of the Trinity in the way that we do? Why do we say that God is one in essence, and three in persons? Why do we emphasize both the full humanity and deity of Christ? If we study church history, we see that struggles arose over these topics, and that the expressions we use today were hammered out to specifically guard against the errors some would express.
Church history shows us the heresies the church has dealt with
Similar to understanding Trinitarian theology, studying the history of the church shows the various types of errors that have arisen. Many of the heresies of today are just recycled heresies of the past. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach Arianism (the Son is a created being); Oneness Pentecostals subscribe to Modalism (the three persons are three masks, or “modes,” of God); some Word of Faith teachers fall into a form of Adoptionism (Jesus became the Son at his Baptism). Understand the heresies the church dealt with in the past, and you better know how to deal with the ones we see today.
Church history helps us understand why we have our canon
Looking at how the early church fathers used and spoke about books of the New Testament shows us what they thought of them. The Bible as we have it today was what was handed down from the apostles, not the subject of some arbitrary choice of books that they preferred. While the topic certainly requires nuance, to actually understand why we have the books we have in our canon requires an understanding of church history and the early writers.
Church history gives us insights into the textual transmission of the New Testament
It is sometimes supposed that textual criticism and the study of how the New Testament (or the Old, to some extent) was handed down to us through handwritten copies is simply a modern practice. Looking at church history and the early writings, we see that weighing the reliability of manuscripts was simply a reality of the day before the advent of the printing press. For example, Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202) was aware of a textual variant in his day reading that the number of the beast was 616, but he considered that to be an error and that the best manuscripts contained 666. While this type of study is more specialized, church history and the early writings are certainly related.
Church history gives us hermeneutic perspectives removed from our time and place
While I find standpoint epistemology to be problematic when applied to hermeneutics, as if our social location prevents us from applying proper rules of hermeneutics, there is validity to looking at the writings of other Christians from other cultures and times since we are all affected to some extent by our cultures. Looking at church history, we have a multitude of writings interpreting Scripture, from the first generations after the apostles, to the development of thought through the Middle Ages, on into the Reformation. While not needing to immediately privilege those who are closer to the time of the apostles, reading earlier writings should certainly challenge us to consider the validity of their hermeneutics and how valid our own are.
Church history gives us insight into the early practices of the church.
How did the church practice the Lord’s Supper? What did baptism look like, practically speaking? What did believers do when they came together to worship? Old works of church history, like the Didache or the writings of Justin Martyr give us valuable insights into what Christian practice looked like. It shows us both how it was different from today, yet also remarkably similar, giving us a common heritage across the ages.
Church history shows how the church has dealt with various difficulties
The church has been around for a long time and it has responded to many situations, both positively and negatively. How did Christians deal with persecution? How did it deal with the fall of Rome? What happened when the church and state merged? How did it handle plagues? How the church responded, both for better or for worse, may help inform us on how to handle similar situations when they arise today.
I’m obviously a little biased towards the first several centuries of the church, if you didn’t notice from the topics I considered. I am personally most fascinated by it due to its formative nature in the history of the church, since the unfolding of its history is related to these early stages. The earliest period is also the most manageable for primary sources, since the later you go into church history, the more material there is. That’s not to discount the later periods; I have simply not gotten there yet. I hope to dig deeper into medieval theology as time passes and gain a better appreciation for it, personally. There are probably a number of other reasons to study church history, but these ones have been most helpful to me.
If you had not been interested in church history, or have been but have not dived into it, I hope some of these reasons to study church history could serve as a jumping off point. If you wouldn’t know where to begin, I would recommend the below sources:
For Further Study:
The Apostolic Fathers:
This is a collection of the earliest Christian writings after the apostles. They span approximately the first hundred or hundred and fifty years after the apostolic age.
Eusebius’s Church History:
This is the first history of the Christian church written, dating from the early fourth century. It is a very valuable historical resource and preserves much that has been lost to history.
Modern Church History Books:
The History of the Christian Church, 2 volumes, by Justo L. González:
This is a good introduction to church history. I would recommend volume I since it covers the period most of us are less familiar with, namely pre-Reformation times. Available on Audible if you prefer audiobooks.
Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley:
The advantage this book has is that it covers the whole history of the church in a single volume; no need for multiple books. It is also available on Audible.
2000 Years of Christ’s Power, 4 volumes, by Nick Needham:
This series of church history books is not intended to be academic in nature, but it is still meant to be a robust introduction to the history of the church for the average layperson.
The History of the Christian Church by Lance Ralston:
If you don’t have time to read a book and aren’t into audiobooks, I would highly recommend this podcast. Lance Ralston breaks church history up into bite-sized chunks of about 15-20 minutes, giving a very good introduction to the various topics. If you start here, it would be a good foundation for moving to other sources.
 Against Heresies, 5.30.1.