Archive | Michael Svigel

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. Continue Reading →

Why Study Church History? – Reason #9: Studying church history will clarify our interpretation of Scripture

Just get two or three believers together for a Bible study and you soon realize that not everybody interprets the Bible exactly the same way. Sometimes they come to completely opposite conclusions. Other times they emphasize certain passages or doctrines more than others. Even when we follow the same rules of methodical Bible study or the principles of exegesis, we sometimes come up with different interpretations.

By looking back over church history, we can gain a perspective that will aid (not replace!) our reading of Scripture in two ways:

First, early testimony can provide added insight into the historical and theological context within which the New Testament itself was written and read. By “early” I mean the writings of the period overlapping with and immediately following the New Testament apostles and prophets themselves, between about AD 50 and 150. Though these accounts can’t be treated as authoritative Scripture, these early authors’ interpretations, doctrines, and practices open a window into the teachings of the apostles themselves.

It’s reasonable to conclude, for example, that Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, reflects much of John’s theology and practice in his own letter to the church in Philippi, which he wrote around AD 110 . . . just a couple of decades or so after John wrote his Gospel, epistles, and Revelation. In fact, Irenaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp, wrote around AD 180: “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary . . . to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those whom they did commit the Churches?” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.4.1). That is, many people were still alive throughout the second century who had the authentic words and theology of the original apostles and prophets still ringing in their ears. Although these earliest testimonies cannot be adopted uncritically, we can’t afford to completely ignore these writings as tools to help us properly interpret the apostles’ writings in their actual historical theological contexts.

Second, enduring tradition refers to those things that continue to be retained, reaffirmed, or restored in every generation of Christian history. Christ promised that he would never leave us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). He also promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). We know that he is ever-present with the church by means of the person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16–18). Also, through the Holy Spirit the ascended Christ has gifted the church with not only first-generation apostles and prophets, but also enduring leaders called evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph. 4:11). The implication is that the truth-telling and life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit will prevail in the church against the hellish attacks of Satan. So, if individual leaders, whole churches, or even most of the universal Christian church were to stray from the fundamental saving doctrines of the faith, the Holy Spirit would eventually shepherd the church back to a proclamation of the gospel in its purity. So, by studying church history, we are studying the “further acts of the Holy Spirit since Acts 28.”

Through church history we can discern the core doctrines the Holy Spirit continued to emphasize throughout the ages. When we become aware of these central, unifying core truths of the faith that have endured throughout history, we can be constantly reminded of the boundaries of orthodoxy—the rules within which believers have freedom to responsibly interpret Scripture, but outside of which believers must never stray. As Vincent of Lérins wrote in AD 434, “All possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Looking back will help safeguard evangelical interpreters of the Bible from either denying central dogmas of the Christian faith or from centralizing opinions about what the Bible says. In other words, the core teachings of the Christian faith must never change. The faith has been once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). But in order for evangelicals to know the boundaries of their biblical interpretations, they must know which biblical doctrines are central. Looking back at the history of how the Spirit corrected, disciplined, pruned, and grew the church in its doctrinal understanding will help believers clarify their interpretation of Scripture.

Why Study Church History? Reason #8 – Studying Church History will Cultivate Christian Growth

Cicero wisely said, “To remain ignorant of what has happened before you were born is to remain always a child.” Imagine if during every summer break a student forgot everything she had learned during the previous school year. After kindergarten, her mind is wiped clean. Then, after struggling through first grade and barely keeping up, the next summer vacation clears her once again, and she starts over again for second grade. What would be the result? Although she might grow physically and keep advancing in grade levels, she would never have the necessary knowledge upon which to build. She would remain forever a child, needing somebody to instruct her over and over again about basic, foundational principles.

Similarly, the whole church must continue to pass along what she has learned throughout the past two thousand years of growth and development if she is to continue to understand and behave in a mature manner today and to continue to grow in the future. It only takes one negligent generation to forget the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the entire history of the church. To prevent this tragic amnesia, the church must continually look back at its history in order to apply its amassed knowledge to present circumstances and to pass it on to the next generation.

Besides the benefit of corporate maturity, individuals can grow in both knowledge and wisdom by reflecting on the past. That is, history provides us with bad examples to avoid as well as good models to follow. The more lessons we learn from the victories and defeats of those who have gone before us, the more mature we’ll be today. This concept of looking back to the saints of old for inspiration goes all the way back to the first century.

After Hebrews 11 reviewed the lives of the Old Testament men and women of faith, the author concluded, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1). The words and works of those saints who have gone before us still surround us like a cloud, inspiring us to follow their examples and avoid their mistakes (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1, 5–6, 11). Continue Reading →

Why Study Church History? Reason #7 – Studying church history will complete a balanced faith

When I was a kid, throwing together what experts described as a healthy meal was easy. We had it down to the four food groups: grains, meats, dairy, and fruits & vegetables. We knew that to have a balanced diet, we should never have too much of one group . . . or too little of another. If we turned our noses up at our turnip greens, mommy could always point at the fourth food group as a model of balance. We knew that balance was the key—a balance achieved through moderation and variety.

The same is true of the Christian faith. Believe it or not, a believer can overdose on just one aspect of an otherwise well-balanced Christianity. Too much Bible study alone can lead to an over-confidence in one’s own personal reading and a head of Bible trivia that fails to move from the head . . . to the heart . . . to the hands. Too much academic theology can produce a dogmatic know-it-all with a lot of passion but no compassion. Too much exposure to practical how-to manuals for the Christian life can create shallow pragmatists who wave to and fro with every wind of doctrine or latest idiosyncratic interpretation of Scripture. These disciplines—each one good and necessary—all need to be pursued together without embracing one and neglecting the others.

However, the three food groups described above—Scripture, theology, and practical living—aren’t enough. To keep even these things in proper balance, believers need historical perspective. Knowing the history of interpretation will help us balance our own personal reading. Grasping the history of doctrinal development, controversy, and consensus will balance our own doctrinal confession. And learning how believers of the past lived their faith in a variety of unique cultural contexts can inform us as we try to live our Christian lives in the twenty-first century.

Like a four-legged table, a complete and balanced faith must draw on biblical, theological, practical, and historical sources. These stabilizing elements of Christian knowledge and wisdom must be applied with moderation and variety—neither overindulging in one or two, nor neglecting the precious input of another. However, because evangelicals have often forsaken their history and forgotten wisdom from the past, their table has become wobbly, lopsided, and easily turned. We need to labor hard to restore the insights of history to balance the Christian faith.

Why Study Church History? Reason #6 – Studying church history will capture the interest of outsiders

Several years ago, a childhood friend of mine contacted me with some questions about the history of the early church. He had read some non-Christian fiction as well as seen programs that presented a distorted view of early Christianity. He knew I had spent over a decade and a half studying church history, so he had direct access to somebody who could help him think through his questions. Sadly, too many outsiders with a genuine interest in the history of the church have no place to turn but the internet, which is a treacherous ocean of ignorance obscuring a handful of sunken treasures of truth.

Thankfully, I was able to respond to all of my friend’s questions in a way that continued to intrigue him, keep his attention, and save him from being carried out to sea by persuasive currents of misinformation. Throughout our discussions, my friend eagerly asked for more and more. I recommended a couple books on the history of the early church, including Oskar Skarsaune’s excellent treatment of the first few centuries, In the Shadow of the Temple.

Within a few months, that friend of mine had read through Skarsaune and, by reading church history, became more curious about the unique claims of the historical Christian faith. He experienced a personal conversion to Christ, joined a believing church, got involved in its ministries, and continued growing in his faith. Last year he succumbed to cancer, having trusted in his Savior to the bitter end. Today that friend of mine is an immovable member of the body of Christ because church history captured his interest.

Yes, some people get bored when you mention history. Others become fearful or distrusting. Still others find it quaint and interesting, but unimportant. Yet several outsiders will be drawn to the claims of Christianity through a discussion of its historical roots and development. Many people today are interested in history in general and in religious history in particular—at least enough people to support a “History Channel” and push historical fiction and non-fiction up the New York Times bestsellers list. I’ve discovered that some skeptical, suspicious, or cautious outsiders will be far more open to discussing the history of the church than looking up verses in the Bible, conversing about competing religions, or weighing the claims of the gospel.

Many outsiders are fascinated by the neglected neighborhoods of Christian history rarely visited except by the most committed. The fact is, now more than ever we have an eager crowd of tourists wanting to know more. As the true heirs of church history, we have a choice: we can either let outsiders mangle our own story in ways that lead people away from the God of history . . . or we can be trained to serve as the tour guides of our own forgotten past.

Why Study Church History? Reason #5 – Studying church history will counter the claims of critics

Prior to the eruption of World War II, between 1925 and 1935 a frantic France fortified the long border it shared with Germany. The “Maginot Line”—named after the man who conceived the idea—included a network of bunkers, forts, tunnels, and fortifications for thousands of soldiers. For all practical purposes, the Maginot Line was impenetrable. The French army had prepared to fend off a frontal assault by the Germans —and history proved that the defenses were successful.

But the Germans didn’t bother to penetrate the Maginot Line.

They went around it!

Because of a treaty with Belgium (which stood between France and Germany), the French had not anticipated that the Nazis would simply roll through Belgium to circumvent the Maginot Line. But they did. The Germans found the weakest point inFrance’s defense and exploited it. They found, as it were, an unguarded back door.

In its brief history as a distinct Protestant movement, evangelicalism spent over a century building up its fortifications first against the destructive skepticism of modernist liberalism and more recently against postmodern cynicism. To hold the line, they set guards on the borders of biblical inerrancy and secured the doctrines that directly related to the Protestant message of salvation by grace through faith. At the same time they sent forth an army of evangelists, missionaries, apologists, and teachers to take new ground. But in the process of fortifying the obvious points of direct attacks, they neglected their heritage in the ancient and Reformation eras.

The result? In the last few decades clever critics and sneaky scholars have switched their assaults from attacks on the Bible, theology, and personal faith to an all-out assault on the Achilles’ heel of evangelicalism: the history of Christianity. Their attacks have left evangelicals scrambling to defend a history they had forgotten and saints they had forsaken.

A line from the first thirty seconds of the movie Braveheart expresses summarizes the critics’ view of church history: “History is written by those who have hanged heroes.” These scholars say the early church fathers changed the real human Jesus from a controversial rabbi and idealistic martyr into a risen Savior and God who bears no resemblance to the historical Jesus. They claim the early catholic Christians browbeat those who opposed their agenda, selected Christian writings that agreed with their positions, and then rewrote history to make it look like theirs had been the original view of Jesus and the apostles. All other views were then unfairly declared to be “heretical.”

It all boils down to this: Did the early church fathers after the apostles preserve and defend the faith or did they pervert and destroy it? Did the Protestant Reformers restore Christianity to a condition similar to the early church, or did they create a new religion from scratch? Are the early fathers and later Reformers “heroes” or “villains”? Who are those people that we implicitly trust to have accepted the right Scriptures and rejected the wrong ones? How do we know they could discern the difference between correct teachings about Jesus and false doctrines? Most evangelicals have no idea how to respond to these questions in order to deflect the attacks and contend for the faith.

The time has come for evangelicals to refortify this vulnerable target, so when critics launch their inevitable attacks, we won’t lose the battle on our own soil. We need to strengthen our levee, so when the storms of controversy rise, we won’t be flooded with needless doubts. And we need to inspect our historical foundations, so we can adorn this two-thousand-year-old temple of the church with gold, silver, and precious stones instead of wood, hay, and straw (1 Cor. 3:12–13). Only by studying church history will we be adequately equipped to counter the claims of these critics.

Why Study Church History? Reason #4 – Studying church history will connect us to a rich legacy

Picture Christianity throughout its history as a giant tree that has continually grown for numerous generations. Some of its branches have gone one way, some another. Some are more in line with their roots in the apostolic church and the straight trunk of the first few centuries. We might call this trunk the “ancient catholic church” as opposed to later developments in the Western (Roman) Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Other branches, unworthy of a place on the tree, have withered and fallen off.

Now picture your church’s place on this massive tree. Your own church is but a tiny leaf, hanging from a small twig, shooting from a thin branch, attached to a large limb, connected to a thick bough, growing from a massive trunk. The diverse Christian churches and denominations of today (the various branches of the tree) are not necessarily united to each other through visible, institutional unity. However, every generation has been connected to the apostolic and ancient church by legitimately receiving its core beliefs and practices.

For example, every believer who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was baptized by somebody who had also been baptized by a predecessor. This line of baptism, though it may have taken various forms throughout history, connects present-day believers to the church of the first century. The same may be said of ministry ordination. Today’s ministers, who have been tried, tested, and approved by other ordained ministers, stand in a long and ancient line of those who had been themselves ordained by the “laying on of hands,” a practice that reaches back to the apostles, themselves. Evangelicals are also connected to the rich legacy of their Christian heritage by receiving—intact and unadulterated—the apostolic and prophetic Scriptures, as well as the core message of the Christian faith. Many participate further through orders of worship, hymns, liturgies, and denominational structures, which were passed down from previous generations.

By studying church history, evangelicals can connect to their own tradition actively, consciously, and critically. They can seek out their spiritual ancestors, experiencing familiarity and a feeling of kinship with the people of faith who preserved Scripture, took a stand for the gospel, reformed church practice, and glorified God with their words and works. They can see their own particular traditions in light of a broader spectrum of emphases and practices, understanding their own church’s attitudes and actions in light of its history. By re-establishing an active and conscious connection to their rich legacy, they will also be equipped to sort through the positive, negative, and neutral aspects of their beliefs and practices, led by more than mere personal preferences or thoughtless traditionalism.

Connecting to a rich legacy of the faith will therefore add a previously unknown depth to personal faith and corporate worship. It has the power to shape the identity of both individual believers and local churches. This identity will help us to transcend our own lonely and seemingly insignificant place on the greater tree, making us aware that we are all part of something far bigger than ourselves.

Why Study Church History? Reason #3: Studying church history will conserve the faith for the future

The Lord’s brother, Jude, urged Christians “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The Greek verb translated “delivered” refers to a sacred trust or tradition. Paul described this tradition as he handed it down to the Corinthians: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand. . . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor. 15:1, 3). Jude used the same language as Paul for receiving the tradition and sending it forward to the future. In this case the things “received” and “handed down” were the central truths of the Christian faith.

Paul also wrote letters to his younger disciple, Timothy, for the purpose of encouraging the next generation to faithfully convey the core Christian tradition into the future. Paul wrote, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3:14). He also said, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). By observing what our spiritual forefathers fought to preserve and pass on, we come to understand and appreciate the need to continue the pattern established by 2 Timothy 2:2. By looking back, evangelicals today can learn how to conserve and convey the timeless message through time-tested methods.

Today the evangelical church is facing numerous serious crises directly related to their inability to make disciples who are passing the faith on to the next generation. To put it bluntly: evangelicals today are dropping the baton but still running the race! According to a 2006 Barna Group study, 40 to 50 percent of kids who were “equipped” in church youth groups walk away from the faith or the church in their college years. Study after study shows that evangelicalism itself is shrinking in America. Mega church and multi-site ministries mask the problem, as far too many of those big box churches grow in number by weakening smaller churches, not by converting the lost or restoring the un-churched. This kind of model of ministry is simply unsustainable. In many respects, American evangelicals are simply failing to pass the faith on to the next generation. Unless this trend is halted, the disaster will be epic.

The incredible challenges we’re facing today aren’t new. Pluralism, cynicism, paganism, immorality, political corruption, war, persecution, social unrest, atheism, skepticism, and me-theism—the early church thrived in that kind of culture, while we’re doing all we can to simply survive. As we look back at the history of the church, the pre-modern, pre-Christian models and methods of evangelism, catechesis, initiation, and life-long discipleship can help us re-think how we face the current challenges in our increasingly post-modern, post-Christian world. By studying church history we can rediscover and restore wise and effective ways to conserve the faith for the future.

It’s not too late.