Ten Reasons for Studying Church History: Reason #10 – Studying church history will correct our doctrinal and practical errors.

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.

10 Responses to “Ten Reasons for Studying Church History: Reason #10 – Studying church history will correct our doctrinal and practical errors.”

  1. I wonder about “weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper” as both original and enduring. When Christ introduced it, it seems to have been as “As often as you drink of this Redemption Cup in the Passover meal, …” which would have made it annual. Soon afterwards, it became a weekly practice, but as an entire meal, not as something “pulled out” of the meal. Should the full meal with the whole congregation present still be a weekly practice, or is it supposed to be okay to just have bread and wine in isolation, even if the bread is leavened and no Passover Seder liturgy is being followed?

  2. Glenn:
    These are all great questions. Sorry to have to cross-reference, but I have treated this question in introductory fashion at The direct link to the essay itself is That will give my answer to all of the questions you pose. Thanks!

  3. Thank you, Michael. I’ll check it out!

  4. OK, I’ve read about half, into the Love Feast section. I disagree about the Passover interpretation, embracing the understanding that it was a particular Passover cup – the Cup of Redemption – which was taken after the food in every Passover, and that that particular cup is what was intended in Christ’s words “this cup”. Not only that, but I don’t think the Last Supper took place on a Sunday, so for the weekly celebration to have originated with Christ, we would have to have it weekly on a Thursday.

    We could discuss these details more, but the big picture is that the differences you and I have over details like these, say to me that this is not a core practice – the same everywhere and by all. Do we have any evidence that the Church in India carried on this practice, for instance? And doesn’t the Protestant movement since the 16th century count for anything when we consider “everywhere and by all”?

  5. For this issue it would probably be best to read the entire essay and also the primary sources and citations to which I refer. But I wont’t have anything more to add. i address the Reformation issue in the essay. Yes, the ancient Mar Thoma Indian catholic Christians observed weekly communion. When I refer to the Vincentian Canon of “everywhere, always, by all,” this was originally used to describe beliefs and practices up to and including the time if Vincent’s writings… Around AD 434. His was descriptive of what had been believed and practiced in the early church from the NT to his day. It was prescriptive in the sense of “we ought to maintain these things in the future.” So when we use this guideline or rule of thumb for identifying orthodox, catholic beliefs and practices, we need to realize that later Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant doctrines and practices added to or deviated from these core beliefs and practices of the early centuries… But the earlier, then, should be used to help us realign with apostolic beliefs and practices.
    As far as the passover connection, I must reemphasize the Old Covenant / New Covenant distinction Christ is explicitly making in the Lord’s Supper. All I can do is point this out and ask that it not be ignored. If you have a different view ofnthe relationship between Old and New Covenant signs, then of course we have reached an impasse. But for me, as a Christian and not a Judaizer, the Passover was a rite of Old Covneant Israel, and Jeremiah 31 says that the New Covenant is NOT like the covenant made when He took them out of Egypt. So to me this means the New Covenant cup is not the passover, but someing new, remebering Christ’s death and resurrection on the day of resurrection, Sunday. Again, I’m not interested in arguing on irreconcilable presuppositions, but I would like to be understood.

  6. I’m fine with considering weekly communion as a core Christian practice, well established and meriting being maintained as a tradition. I don’t see the origin as going back to Christ for this, however, but more likely to his original Apostles and followers. “Enduring”, yes. “Original”, just about, but not quite.

  7. Glenn, you may very well be right. Whether Christ Himself instituted this as a weekly observance is debatable for sure. Paul did say he received this “from the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:23), but we don’t know whether this included HOW to do it (frequency, etc.). I must also admit that there are practices in the early church that may have been instituted a certain way for certain reasons even by the apostles, but not necessarily meant to be permanent or universal. Because the weekly observance can be seen as practiced this way throughout all the churches at the close of the apostolic era. Thanks for your interactions.

  8. I don’t have anything against life verses, per se, because we have often used John 3:16 as a church as a whole to promote the gospel.

    We need to look at that too, as a corporate body before we judge those on an individual basis.

    I believe in context too, but don’t think that is all of it.

  9. Oops, sorry folks. Meant that to go on Lisa’s post.


  1. History Helps Us Keep First Things First « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (in Christ Jesus) - June 30, 2012


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