There is no branch of history as diverse as the story of the Christian Church. It spans two millennia, every continent, and factors into just about every major event in some form or another, but it's not just an interesting tale or adventure story that happens to be true. The history of the Church is the history of God's people and His direct dealings with mankind.
It's also not just an academic discipline. That's not to say we don't need scholars willing to devote their lives and talents to studying it as such, because we do. It's only to say that it's not merely academic, that the study of Church history is as much for our spiritual benefit and growth as for our intellectual knowledge and maturity.
One of the best ways to engage the subject is as a story. The lives of godly men and women make a great starting place, and provide context for things like the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation, and the birth of Neo-orthodoxy. Contrary to popular opinion, making the study of history personal isn't an impediment; this is especially true when learning about the Church and past saints, who are our spiritual forebears.
Spiritual forebears, that is, who had an immense impact on the secular as well as the spiritual realm. The printing of books was realized through the work of Johannes Gutenberg, who built his printing press to make Bibles; David Livingstone explored much of unknown Africa in order to share the Gospel with unreached tribes; Hudson Taylor made inroads into China as a missionary long before the West was generally admitted. (For locals, the Pacific Northwest was largely settled through missionary activity.)
There are plenty of lowlights, too. Persecution and hardship are common themes in the story of God's people, and while we usually look back to the Roman holocausts, the 20th century saw more Christian martyrdoms than any previous century and the 21st century is already shaping up to be much worse. And that's not even addressing the damage done in the name of Christ.
Some might suppose Church history should be less distinctly human, but that's to confuse Christ Himself with His Body. In His ineffable wisdom, God ordained fallen humans to comprise His people; our sins are forgiven, not expelled, and perfection is something only enjoyed once we pass from this life into the eternal one.
Still, God's hand is present and active in all of history, not least in the history of the Church. It's a story we neglect at our own peril as followers of Christ—we cannot imagine our generation is the first to encounter attacks from secularism, or to have discovered orthodox doctrine, or to successfully identify the marks of a healthy congregation.
The past is our measure for most things. What Christians have always believed, how they have always worshipped, how they have always prayed: these are our standards for thought and practice. That's not to say there's no room for progress, but it's only progress if it doesn't counter or depart from the historically established truths of the faith.
Church history is a cornerstone of Christian education. We think it's just as important as science, English, math, or social studies, and in many ways more so. That doesn't mean those disciplines should be neglected, but that they should be contextualized within the story of God's people. As you study, revel in the grace of a God whose will is accomplished even through the chief of sinners and the weakest of men.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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