Studying Church History

Introduction: This part of the website is devoted to the study of Church History and the great line of Christian men and women who lived and served Christ and advanced His kingdom in the world since the days of the Apostles. Church History is a very important subject for pastors, Christian leaders, and all Christians to study and to learn from, far more than most realize. Church history shows the spread of the Gospel throughout the world, the rise and fall of kingdoms, God’s judgments on the ungodly, the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes, as well as the progress of Christian theology in its opposition to paganism and false religion. A godly and discerning knowledge of church history is essential for a faithful ministry and godly leadership in the church.

Foundations: The systematic study of Church History, as well as World History, is therefore foundational to the pattern of education and discipleship in our academy, from grade school to Seminary because we believe it is vital to the building of godly Christian leaders.  One of the great evils of the church today is that pastors and church officers are often completely ignorant of Church History and the history of Theology, and therefore fall into the same errors and patterns of false doctrine and idolatry of the past. We teach every subject and discipline of history from a strongly Biblical and Reformed perspective emphasizing God’s sovereignty, His saving purposes, the spread of the Gospel, the development of Christian Theology, the evil influence of heretical movements, idolatry and false religion, along with the virtue and valor of all the great preachers, missionaries, theologians, reformers, and Christian magistrates that lived for Christ, highlighting the place and importance of godly leadership in the church and the state. The study of history is essential for believers to understand and discern God’s providence in the present, to be discerning of world events, politics, issues in the church, the many evils of modern culture, and the growing apostasy in the church today.

There are many valuable reasons why Christians, and especially pastors and Christian leaders, should study Church History, and become familiar with the trials and triumphs of the church as well as the key figures, movements, events, issues, heresies, and conflicts within the church throughout history.

1. Historical – Church History is of great value in that it gives Christians a knowledge and understanding of the events of history from the perspective of God’s saving purposes, God’s church and kingdom, the growth and progress of the Gospel in the world in fulfillment of Christ’s words, and the great many events of world history that were largely determined by the spiritual forces and theological ideas in the church and the opposition that was made against it. Whether it is the Council of Nicea in 325AD or the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s, or many other events, studying Church history is an essential part of godly learning. See the Book of Acts.

2. Theological – Church History is of great value for studying the development of Theology and the godly instruction it brings through the knowledge of Scripture and sound doctrine. It is vital for pastors and Christian leaders to know and understand the progress and development of Theology in the Church, and role of such theological works as Athanasius – On the Incarnation of the Word; Augustine – On the Trinity; Martin Luther – On the Bondage of the Will, John Calvin’s Institutes, the Reformed Confessions, John Owen – On the Work of the Holy Spirit, Francis Turretin – Institutes of Elenctic Theology; James Orr- The Progress of Dogma; Louis Berkhof – Systematic Theology; A.W. Pink – The Sovereignty of God; and many others. The study of Church History, and of course historical theology, builds our faith and knowledge of God. See Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

3. Apologetical – Church History is useful in studying the Church’s defense of the Faith against false religions, heresies, cults, and deviant forms of Christianity. Studying God’s providence in the past is essential for believers to understand and discern God’s providence in the present, to be discerning of world events, politics, issues in the church, the many evils of modern culture, the growing apostasy in the church today, and how to defend the Gospel today in the midst of so many cults, false religions, and deviant forms of Christianity. For this reason, it is vital for pastors and Christian leaders to know the place of such apologetical works in history as The Apostolic Fathers; Justin Martyr’s Apologies; Irenaeus – Against Heresies; Athanasius – Against the Arians; Augustine – The City of God; Anselm – Why God Became Man; Huldreich Zwingli – On the Defense of the Reformed Faith; R.A. Torrey – The Fundamentals; Gresham Machen – Christianity and Liberalism; Van Til – The Defense of the Faith; and a thousand others. The study of Church History strengthens our faith and courage to defend Christ’s name and glory in the world See 2 Peter, Jude.

4. Ecclesiastical – Church History is of great value as an interpretive guide to understanding the present circumstances of the church today and the desperate need for revival and reformation. Anyone who knows church history knows that the church is presently in a state of apostasy, and in need of repentance and reformation. The Gospel today is distorted by a great deal of false religion, cheap grace, and the church is poisoned by idolatry and superstition like the Middle Ages. And there is widespread covetousness and religious hypocrisy in the church and among ministers. Pastors and Christian leaders need to learn from such works as John Chrysostom – On Idolatry; John Hus – Letters on Reforming the Church; Martin Luther – The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; John Calvin – The Necessity of Reforming the Church; Thomas Cartwright – On Purifying the Church; and many others. The study of Church History strengthens our conviction to be devoted to Christ’s church, to true Biblical worship, to Christian service, and the faithful ministry of the Word. See Mt.13; Rev.2-3.

5. Devotional – Church History is of great value as a guide to spiritual devotion and to learning the practice of godliness and the discipline of Christian discipleship in an ungodly world. The worldliness of pastors and Christian leaders today show not only a gross ignorance of Christ and the Word of God, but also the godly virtue of faithful ministers and Christian leaders of the past who were devoted to Christ. Pastors and Christian leaders should have knowledge of such works as Augustine – On the Sermon on the Mount; Bernard of Clairvaux – On the Love of God; Gerard Groote – Following of Christ; Thomas Kempis – The Imitation of Christ; John Bunyan – Pilgrim;s Progress; Thomas Watson – The Godly Man’s Picture; John Owen – Communion with God; Charles Hodge – The Way of Life; Martyn Lloyd-Jones – The Sermon on the Mount; and many others. The study of Church History, and the great devotional works of the past sanctifies our hearts and lives by leading us to greater love for and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. See the Song of Solomon.

6. Practical – Church History is of great value as a motivating force giving hope and encouragement for the Christian life. Whether you are studying the early Christian martyrs, the 7-8th century missionaries, the Waldensians, the English Reformers, the Puritan Revolution, the Great Awakening, the great missionaries of the 19th century, there is a vast treasure of Christian practice and devotion to be learned from the lives of others that have gone before. It is a great blessing as well to have read such works as Athanasius – Life of Anthony; Roland Bainton – Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther; Theodore Beza – Life of Calvin; Merle D’Aubigne – Cromwell the Protector; George Marsden – Life of Jonathan Edwards; Steven Lawson – Pillars of Grace; and many other books and biographies on the lives of great Christians. It inspires us to great acts of Christian service and sacrifice for Christ’s kingdom and glory. See Heb.11.

7. Ministerial – Church History is of great value for ministers to learn the art and discipline of preaching the Gospel by from the great preachers and evangelists of the past. There are many series of expository sermons or books on preaching that would do well to instruct preachers today to be faithful not to compromise the Gospel: Augustine – On 1 John; John Chrysostom – Sermons on Paul’s Epistles; John Calvin – Sermons on the Pastoral Epistles; William Perkins – The Art of Prophesying; John Flavel – The Fountain of Life; Jonathan Edwards – Sermons; George Whitefield – Sermons; C.H. Spurgeon – Sermons; and many others. It strengthens the power, the eloquence, and the effectiveness of preaching and teaching of the word of God by learning from the great preachers of the past. See Mt.5-7 and Jesus Sermon on the Mount.

8. Polemical – Church History is of great value in helping us to distinguish true and sound doctrine from false doctrine. A discerning study of Church history can easily discern the evil influence of such heretical movements as Gnosticism, Arianism, Roman Catholicism, Neo-Orthodoxy, as well as all the various cults and false religions of the present day. The study of such books as Augustine – On Rebuke and Grace; Martin Luther – On the Bondage of the Will; the Reformed Confessions; John Owen – On Apostasy; and others are of great value to pastors and Christian leaders in the refutation of false doctrine in the church. A godly understanding of Church History would also help inform Christians today of the foolishness of Broad Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, Dispensationalism, New Calvinism, and the Cheap Grace Presbyterianism that is widespread in Reformed denominations. Anyone who studies the Puritans and reads the Reformed Confessions can see that the church today is in a state of apostasy. It gives us a greater discernment and conviction to oppose false doctrine in the church. See Colossians.

9. Political – Church History is of great value in learning about the rise and fall of nations, the great kings and magistrates of Christendom, the importance of godly magistrates, the great evil of false religion and political ideologies in the world, and the great need for reformation in the nation. It is tragic that most Evangelical and Reformed pastors today are almost completely ignorant of the history of nations, politics, wars, political philosophy, and the great Christian kings and magistrates that changed the world: Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian, Alfred the Great, Oliver Cromwell, and many others. It gives Christians a greater awareness of the need for godly magistrates and to promote godly reformation in the nation. See 1-2 Samuel and the Psalms.

10. Spiritual – Church History is of great value in learning the spiritual heritage of God’s people and His saving work in history, the gradual accomplishment of His divine plan to redeem a people to Himself, prepared as a bride for her husband. It is a great treasure to be able to trace the lines of history that God has drawn in time to magnify His name through His church and people. It gives us a greater confidence and hope in trial and tribulation to know that God will fulfill His purposes in the world and Christ will return in glory. See Revelation.

Academy: It is for these 10 reasons I believe the study of Church History is essential for Christian education at every level. For the Academy, our coursework covers a 4 year period several times over at all age levels: (1. Elementary 1-4; 2. Intermediate 5-8; 3. High school 9-12, and also for advanced students in 5. College – 4 years; and then also in 7. Seminary – 4 years. In my academy, the study of history and especially Church history has a vital place. Students read and study the Early Church fathers as well as various medieval theologians, along with the rise of Christendom and the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church. They learn in great detail the work of the Reformers, the English Puritans, the New England Puritans, the Reformed Confessions, Reformed Orthodoxy, the Great Awakening, the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, the Victorian era, the 19th century modern missionary movement, the development of Biblical scholarship, the Princeton theologians, as well as the apostasy of the Enlightenment and all the cults and false religions that resulted, and a hundred other important events, movements, and issues that arose in history. And they learn also of the divergent theological views in the church and the world today in order to discern the evils of false doctrine that have spread in the modern world.

It is important to understand here that the coursework in these History classes covers at the same time the various aspects of World Literature and Christian literature, with a heavy emphasis on Scripture, Christian classics, sermons, treatises, confessions, historical documents, theological works, short biographies, poetry, hymns, and other godly literature that is important to God’s saving purpose in history, and that is at the same time sanctifying to the believer. To be clear, we strongly believe that reading and studying the Bible and godly Christian books like Augustine’s Confessions, Thomas Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Martin Luther’s Sermons, John Calvin’s Institutes, the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Jonathan Edwards History of the Work of Redemption and Religious Affections, the great Hymns of the Faith, etc… are of significantly greater importance for education than pagan or secular literature. And so we cover in great detail over every four years:

  1. Ancient History: Biblical and World History (From Creation to Christ)
  2. Early and Medieval History (From Christ to the Reformation)
  3. Reformation History (The Reformation to the Great Awakening)
  4. Modern History (The Great Awakening to the Present)

For College and Seminary level work, we divide Reformation History into two parts: 1. Reformation history (the 16th century Protestant Reformation) where we go thoroughly over the life and theology of the Reformers Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, Farel, Bullinger, Tyndale, Knox, Perkins, the Elizabethan Puritans, as well as the Reformed Confessions. 2. The Puritan Revolution through Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. This class includes the 17th century English Puritans, the Colonial Puritans, Oliver Cromwell, the English Civil War, the Westminster Assembly and Standards, the Dutch Second Reformation, Reformed Orthodoxy, Francis Turretin, and then also the Great Awakening, George Whitefield, concluding with the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards.

*Augustine Marloratus said, “History is the mistress of life and salvation, the theater upon which God records His name and glory among men; and here the Gospel has and proves its proper victory.”

Brett Woody, Pastor-Teacher