I recently began teaching a few courses at St. John’s University in Queens. Among them is “History of Christianity I: Origins through the Middle Ages,” where I try to teach about thirty (mostly) sophomores–from a variety of faith traditions–a little something about the history of Christianity. While preparing for the course, I’ve found myself facing an important question: “Why do this? Why study Church history?”
As I’ve thought through the question, I’ve come up with four answers I thought worth sharing.
(1) It reminds us of the “historical character” of the Christian faith. That is, Christianity is not primarily a set of ideas or practices, but the story of God’s faithfulness through God’s saving acts in history, and centrally in Jesus Christ. This, moreover, is a story we are invited to join. What better way to join in that story than to get caught up on the story so far?
(2) It provides perspectives on Scripture. All Christians profess some kind of dependence on the Bible, but there are vast differences in how it is used and understood across time and space. By engaging these various perspectives, we can learn to see the Bible in new and bigger ways, while also avoiding ways people read Scripture incorrectly in the past.
(3) It gives us a space in which to think through our relationship with the surrounding culture. That is, it helps us understand how what’s done in the church impacts those outside the church. It also gives us conversation partners for many of the most important social issues of our day. Nearly all the questions we ask today have been asked before. Often, the church has answered these questions well. At times, it has answered them poorly. We today can learn from both our successes and failures, and hopefully, carve out a more faithful path as we engage with those around us.
(4) It shapes our perspective. Sometimes, when we get locked into a particular historical moment, we see things disproportionately. We start to focus on the wrong things, give too much importance to peripheral things, and underemphasize the central things. History can help realign us when that happens. Christian history in particular can also help shape our perspective in two other ways.
First, it will teach us humility. The church’s past has, at times, been nothing short of disgraceful. We need to face that, acknowledge that, and repent of it–so we can change. Second, it can teach us gratitude. Somehow, despite the glorious mess we have made of ourselves, God has not abandoned us to the grave. And the one who has promised has remained faithful.