Author: David Luke, IBC Tutor
Genealogy is big business. It is estimated that in the USA people typically spend between $1,000 and $18,000 tracing their family tree. One genealogy website has more than 80 million members.
What motivates people to begin this quest? Sociologist Anne-Marie Kramer writes tellingly that ‘Roots are seen to be something absolutely essential for life. What plant can grow without them? What human, then, could grow without roots?’ We all recognise that the past is part of our story. The past helps us to understand who we are and to orientate us in the present.
What is true of our biological family tree is also part of our Christian family tree. The study of God’s family in the past helps us to understand our place in it and to orientate us for the present. Without understanding our roots as Christians we are in danger, as Kramer suggests, of inhibiting our own growth.
So, how can studying the Christian past help us to live for God in the present?
Christianity is an historically-orientated faith
One distinctive aspect of Christianity is that it is rooted in history. The Old Testament is in many ways a history book. Beginning with an account of how our world came into being it then traces how God’s great plan of salvation was worked out through Abraham and his descendants. Even the prophetic books provide a commentary on historical events. When we turn to the New Testament its fundamental focus is the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, unfolding who he is and what he has done. Indeed, it even points us towards the goal of history with the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth.
Christianity is not simply a religion, or a philosophy, or a set of rules to live by, or a collection of ancient writings. Rather, it is focused on God’s revelation of himself through his activity in history.
It delivers us from cultural captivity
We all live with a tendency towards, what CS Lewis called, ‘chronological snobbery.’ He defined this as ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.’ This is very much the cultural air that we breathe today where newer equals better and change counts as progress. Job’s words could be written over our generation that ‘No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you!’
Yet, the reality is that culture is continuously shifting. This gives rise to the danger that, as William Inge, a former Dean of St Paul’s, put it ‘whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.’ If we ignore the history of God’s people then we are left as free-floating prisoners of the next cultural moment. Should we give up so easily on what previous generations considered matters that were worth imprisonment, exile or even death?
It helps us to wrestle with contemporary issues
I once heard John Stott say that we wrestle with many issues in the church because we think that they are new issues. Yet, if we knew our church history, he continued, we would realise that Christians in previous generations have already dealt with them. When we take time to read church history we realise that there really is little that is new. The cultural clothes may be different but the issues do not change.
We, of course, must not live in the past. We are called to be God’s people today. Yet, we must allow the issues of church history to shape our understanding of the present. We must recognise that the wisdom of the past is a deep well from which Christians might draw.
It encourages and inspires
We sometimes refer to Hebrews 11 as the roll call of faith. The list is there not to set these people apart but to remind us that they were people just like us who, in faith, kept looking to God. The same is true as we consider the story of the church through the last two millennia. It is a story not of superheroes but of frail and fallen people who have been greatly used by God, warts and all, to accomplish remarkable things. Athanasius, Augustine, Patrick, Wycliffe, Luther, Carey, Judson, Spurgeon, Carmichael, Elliot, Roseveare, to pick just a few examples, are all part of our story. When we read of how God used these men and women we remember that, as the hymn puts it,
We bear the torch that flaming
Fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming
That Jesus died and rose
Ours is the same commission
The same glad message ours
It demonstrates the progress of the gospel
When we consider the state of the church and our society today we can be left with feelings of uncertainty, if not despair. Yet, when we take time to consider the history of the church we will discover that the story of our world is ultimately the story of the advance of God’s kingdom. We think of the small groups of Christians who made up the churches of the New Testament. Yet, within a century of the death of the last Apostle John there were perhaps a quarter of a million Christians in the Roman Empire. We can look at periods when the church seemed dead and buried yet God did remarkable things. In the time of the Killing Fields in Cambodia it is estimated that the number of Christians fell from ten thousand to two hundred. Today the estimated number of Christians in the country is half a million, with an annual growth rate of almost ten per cent.
The history of the church is the story of the progress of the gospel. Almost always it is the story of progress in the face of apparently insurmountable odds.
It is a reminder of God’s faithfulness
As such the story of the church is the story of God’s unfailing faithfulness. It is the story of the remarkable fulfilment of Jesus’ promise ‘I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’ (Matt. 16:18) It is the story of how, as the church has fulfilled its Great Commission, Jesus has kept his promise ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’(Matt. 28:20) In considering the history of the church we are encouraged by the faithfulness of the Lord of the church to remain faithful to him.
The true history of our world is not the story of kings, politicians, battles or revolutions. It is the story of God’s great plan of salvation unfolding in the history of our world. It is our story. So why not read some church history this summer and let it inspire you?
Some Suggested Reading
David Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries
Marki Galli & Ted Olsen, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know
Tim Grass, Modern Church History
Nick Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ's Power Vol. 1, The Age of the Early Church Fathers (First part of a four volume history)
John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful
Michael Reeves, On Giants’ Shoulders
Michael Reeves, The Breeze of the Centuries
Dana Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion
(This article first appeared in Insight in 2018. Insight is the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland).