The history of the church is not only a tale of positive growth and development of doctrinal knowledge and practical wisdom. It’s also a dramatic account of the conflict between orthodoxy and heresy . . . facts and fiction . . . truth and error . . . righteousness and sin. You’ve probably heard it said, “Those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it.” This is true in politics, in war, in economics, and in personal life decisions. It’s also true with regard to doctrinal and practical error.
We don’t have to read too far into church history before we realize that not everything that happened between A.D. 100 and 2000 was praiseworthy. Sadly, the earthly body of Christ has been marked with a number of permanent tattoos—shameful memorials of its not-so-pretty past, self-inflicted blemishes that remind Christians today to never do, say, or believe those stupid or shameful things again. Of course, we need eyes to see the errors of the past and ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church today through His chastisement of the church of previous generations. Four categories of errors can be easily identified and eventually corrected by studying church history: doctrinal errors of accretion or deletion and practical errors of omission and commission.
Errors of accretion occur when churches add their own idiosyncratic doctrines to the unchanging core of essential Christian truths as if they, too, must be believed to be saved. Today these might include a particular Protestant theological system (dispensational or covenant), a certain form of church government (episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational), a dogmatic view of the atonement (demanding that people not only believe that Christ’s death and resurrection save us, but being able to explain exactly how it saves us), or a certain hermeneutic (historical-grammatical, theological, canonical, or Christocentric). By looking back, we can be constantly reminded that the core doctrines of the faith that mark us as true Christians—things like the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, salvation by grace, the authority of Scripture—cannot be added to without obscuring the Christian faith. Distinctive doctrines can be held by different denominations within the bounds of orthodoxy, but those distinctions and different emphases should never be held up as marks of orthodoxy.
Finally, errors of deletion are the results of excising original and enduring doctrines of the Christian faith that have been core essential truths from the beginning. Some have rejected the virgin conception of Christ as an unnecessary doctrine, others have relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendix, and still others have jettisoned the church’s historic high view of Scripture. By looking back, we can plainly see the sine qua non of the Christian faith—the doctrinal beliefs “without which it is not” Christian. This kind of knowledge will help us protect those things that are essential for Christian identity from those who would happily delete them from their confessions of faith.
Errors of omission include practices of the church that were both original and enduring, but had fallen out of observance through either intentional deformation (often disguised as “reformation”) or unintentional neglect. Today these might include things like the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper; the purely benevolent outreach to the poor, hungry, homeless, and oppressed; the rigorous evangelism of certain neglected people groups; the intentional discipleship of new converts toward maturity; and the practice of church discipline. By looking back, we can see what practices have been lost as sea while our sleek, modern vessel continues to cruise through unknown waters.
Errors of commission involve practices of the church that would never have been tolerated in either the original churches established by the apostles or by any of the subsequent generations. Or, when they did appear in church history, the Spirit eventually weeded them out. These might include the over-indulgence of the American church in wealth and luxury; the blind tolerance of sexual immorality disguised as “grace” and “mercy”; an unbridled nationalism that reeks of a new Constantinianism, which blurs the lines between church and state and turns the people of the Prince of Peace into veritable warmongers; or the intrusion of our entertainment-oriented and consumer-driven culture into our worship forms and ministry models. By looking back, we can see how God has dealt with these kinds of unwelcome corruptions of authentic Christian attitudes and actions.
In short, studying church history will correct our errors. History will tap us on the shoulder and pointing us away from our own narrow opinions and personal preferences. And it will equip us to focus our attention on those things that have been believed and practiced everywhere, always, and by all.