Why Should I Study Church History and Tradition?

I recently had a conversation with a young professor of church history at one of our seminaries. We were discussing the importance for all Christians, not just seminary students, to study church history. Many people wonder why they can’t just study the Bible without being concerned with something so seemingly dull and dry as church history.

In the book reviews, we have reviewed a book entitled Pocket History of Theology by Roger Olson and Adam C. English. As I read that book, anticipating writing this column, I was reminded afresh about the importance of knowing our history and tradition. I was also reminded of the time when I did not see the ongoing importance of history or tradition, other than to acknowledge their existence. I remembered how as a seminary student my church history professor, Dr. William Childs Robinson helped me understand differently. However, I must admit that I still had negative leanings regarding tradition because what I had known as tradition was that it referred to something antithetical to Scripture. I had also heard that tradition was often placed on the level of or even above Scripture, especially by the Roman church and that was part of the reason for the Protestant Reformation.

I am so grateful that God later led me to see that while Scripture is our only rule of faith and practice, we do not study the Bible in a vacuum. We need to know about the development of those great creeds, confessions, and doctrines. Men actually gave their lives to formulate some of those doctrines contained in our church creeds and documents we profess to believe. Pocket History of Theology opens up some of those early church people and events that formulated our Christian faith, and some of which was done prior to the accessibility to the written Word. The teaching and tradition of the Apostles, and later church fathers, were essential transmitters of the Christian faith.

In his new book,Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, D. H. Williams, professor of religion in patristics and historical theology at Baylor University, explains that both Scripture and tradition are necessary for the process of orthodox teaching, and there is a reciprocal relationship between theology and the life of the church.

“Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church” gives a thorough introduction into the development of theology in the early church. It does so in a way that highlights the fallacy of those who would say the Bible, and nothing else, is the only necessity for a Christian life. While many of the contemporary churches have failed to use things such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, and others fail to see the importance of the confessions of faith developed over the years, those who do include them in their church’s life and ministry often fail to appreciate the ingredients that went into their development and take the time to explain the process of development to the people.

We have heard the claim that Protestant Christians, in contrast to Roman and Greek Orthodox Christians, are not interested in history and tradition. However, as Williams states, “to be deep in history for evangelical Protestantism need not be and should not be oxymoronic.”

Because discipleship, passing on the faith to the next generations, and teaching the Bible and its doctrines in a life-oriented way are Christian Education and Publications’ missions in the PCA, this book is especially important to us because it explores how the early church catechized Christians and those interested in becoming Christians. Williams observes that while many churches carry on their worship empty of content and without historical significance, those who do incorporate content with historical significance find their worship deepened and enriched by understanding the Scriptures in their historical setting and how that touches our lives.

One segment of the book explains the importance the early church placed on catechizing and discipling. Williams writes:

Evangelicals can learn much from the ancient church’s focus on catechesis, that is, on carefully instructing converts or those preparing to join the church in the biblical and doctrinal fundamentals of the Christian faith. In the preface to his manual of Christian instruction, Gregory of Nyssa declared:

Religious catechism is an essential duty of the leaders ‘of the mystery of our religion’ (I Tim.3:16). By it the Church is enlarged through the addition of those who are saved, while ‘the sure word which accords with the teaching’ (Titus 1:9) comes within the hearing of unbelievers.

….This need for equipping cannot be displaced in favor of simply giving one’s own testimony anymore than a personal experience of faith can be substituted for a reasonable grasp of that faith. If the church, as the apostle phrased it, is ‘the ground and foundation of the truth’ (I Tim 3:15), then, the church’s leadership must not shirk from the critical and time-consuming job of imparting Christian truth or catechizing those who profess to be Christian (154-55).

While reading Williams’ book, along with Pocket History of Theology, I was impressed again and again with the importance that was placed on understanding both the content and practice of the Christian faith for those in the early church. While many of the early believers did not have the Bible and were taught by the catechism method of passing on the tradition of the Apostles orally, this was done with much care and fervor because those Christians were living in a pagan environment where Christians were blamed for all kinds of wrong. As I read, I was reminded that we are living in a non-Christian culture, though there are remnants here and there. If this is true, how much more we need to prepare and equip our covenant people to believe and understand the doctrines of the Christian faith and how to live in a non-Christian environment where there is little to encourage us “to think God’s thoughts after him.”

As you read, you will find obvious comparisons to the early church and our contemporary church. You will also observe the different results in the different methods used, plus you will be reminded that principles such as: “sola Scriptura,” “sola fide” or “priesthood of all believers” are not understood in a vacuum.

God has given us his Word as his revealed will, but has also given us hundreds of years of church history to help us better understand and apply his Word to our life and world. The Apostles passed on that tradition to the early church and through the church to us today. We do not worship in a time warp. We are not existentialists only focusing on the present moment. As evangelical and reformed Christians, we realize that we worship with saints of all the ages and we stand on the shoulders of giants of the faith who have preceded us. Even as we continue to do our theology today, we do so being able to reflect on what has been done in the life of the church and kingdom. And, if we are to pass on the faith to the next generations, we need to have some understanding of how it was passed on to us.

I conclude with a repeat comment from our “Welcome” article in this issue because of its importance today. Recently, I read a comment by Collin Hansen from the Christianity Today Library online that hit me squarely between the eyes. He said, “Evangelicals sometimes don’t know what to do with history…We use history as a euphemism for churches that let allegiance to the past snuff out the Spirit’s work today.” That reminded me of a question in the book One Faith, the Evangelical Consensus, by J. I. Packer and Thomas Oden: “Are evangelicals fragmenting into ever smaller divisions, as some fear?” I quickly researched some of my major works on “evangelicalism.” It dawned on me, while there are general topics dealt with on God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, etc. in those outstanding books, the topic of the church (ecclesiology) is strikingly absent. Is it any wonder that there are so many para-church organizations, denominations, and a lack of understanding of the church? Could that be contributing to a lack of appreciation, love, and importance of the church for Christians today?

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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