Over the past three months we at SonRise have been studying the history of the early church during our Sunday evening gatherings. So far, over almost 12 weeks, we have covered almost 400 years of the early church and explored key figures such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius, The Cappadocians, and many others both heretic and hero. One question though that arose during our discussions is why is this important? Why should we in the 21st century pay much attention to the thoughts and work of the early church? Now these are fair questions and in this brief post I would like to lay out some of the reasons why the history of the Church is important to every believer.
It is Our Story
When we think of the history of the church, we come face to face with our own past, warts and all. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own current church issues, whether that be on a local level or a global one, but when we look back over the totality of our history, we see that people are still people and God is still God. Now what I mean by that is that by studying our history we see the loving perseverance of God, in spite of our own failings. We see God preserving a people in spite of themselves, for His glory and our good. In every era of church history we see people who use the church for their own selfish gains and twist the meaning of Christ’s work and word to bring about their own personal fame. We see men abuse their flock and seek to destroy the church, not from without but from within. We see the warnings of Paul played out time and time again to love the people of God and protect the church from false teaching. Unfortunately, we also see this truth twisted to man’s own evil ends, just as we do today. However, in each generation we also see men and women of faith seeking God faithfully, loving their community with the gospel and seeking to grow in the grace of God day by day. We see men and women stand firm on the truth of God in the face of sever opposition and pain. So, when I begin by saying church history is our story I mean it reflects the very things we experience today. Ecclesiastes reminds us that at the end of the day there is nothing new under the sun, and the challenges of the church remain the same: to love the Lord with all our hearts and to live out the faith in Love towards our neighbors, all the more as those who profess Christ seem to act in the exact opposite of his teachings, twisting His truths for their own gains. Thankfully, when seen in the scope of history and the reveled truth of God’s word we know that our story shows us that God has faithful preserved His church through every generation.
It’s our Theology
The first generation of saints had the apostles’ teachings and the truth of scripture and from there the Spirit of God instructed them in the truth and lead them in grace. As we look back into the history of that time, we see people wrestling with the truth of scriptures and working out the reality of its teaching in their lives and practice. Over the first 500 years of the church many theological heresies would arise within the church that required a diligent study of the scriptures to lead to an answer, serious theological issues such as the full divinity of the Holy Spirit or about the questions of whether Jesus was truly divine or on the other hand truly human. Questions arose about how one comes to faith, and can one fall away from faith, how does evil exist if God is good? Many questions were asked and answered, some well some not so well, but as we know many of these same questions still come up today, and in looking back we see how the earliest of Christians thought through the scriptures to come to their conclusions. We see how many of the questions and charges that we wrestle with answering have been answered in generations past, and not simply in our creeds but in the writings that influenced the creeds, and in the depth of scriptural wisdom these men had leading to their arguments. When we avoid the past, we are forced to re litigate the central tenants of the faith over and over again, because we are continual ignoring those who have fought these battles long ago, and at times because of this we have adopted heresies that were long ago proven to be in error when seen in the totality of scripture.
We get it wrong
This maybe an interesting third option to put in the study of church history, but it is a reality that we see in church history and that is that sometimes, godly people living godly lives who love the Lord, get things wrong, both in our day and theirs. While I just spent a paragraph praising the church fathers for their advancement of the truth of scripture there were still plenty of times, when they went beyond the realms of scripture and speculated on God and the church and came up with some crazy things, that rather than being relegated to opinions or culture applications, were treated as binding theology. Many an issue arose not over interpretations of scriptures but over power and authority and innovation. Most of the things that are now regarded as tradition and essential in many churches, were innovations and controversial in their days. For instance, in the 16th century the Vulgate was seen as a relic of the past that kept the people away from the scriptures, in the 5th century it was seen as an innovation ripping away the scriptures from their original foundations, and giving it to the people who could not understand Greek. So in praising innovation we must also realize from history that innovation can become a false idol just as quickly. And that in spite of innovation the greatest traditions of the church can be seen in the early church and the works of the apostles; the dedication to the people reading and learning the scriptures together, the truth reveled and celebrated at the table, and church’s hospitality found in the loving community transformed by the Work of Christ.
We are encouraged
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.
In the end, let me end with the author of Hebrews as he encourages the church to look to those who have gone before them, those who have run the race and kept the faith. This text comes after the encourages them with a resounding list of the OT saints in chapter 11 and its implications in 12. When we put this text in the course of history, we are reminded that the lives of the saints from the days of Christ to now are models for us. They show us how to live in times of peace and times of persecution. They show us the struggles that men and women dealt with living in a world surrounded by believers and one depleted of them. In each and every way we have a whole history to draw from and be encouraged by, for we have not run this race alone, and we will not eat the great feast alone on that last day, but with all those who have run it before us. Therefore, let us learn from them and be encouraged by their faith and in turn let us turn all the more to the word of God and growing in His saving grace.