Why Care About Church History or Historical Theology?

I have a vested interest in that question. Partly because I have a Ph.D. in Reformation and Post-Reformation historical theology, partly because I teach academic courses in historical theology, but mostly because I have found the study of historical theology illuminating, liberating and humbling.

Illuminating in the same way that studying my own family of origins shines light on my personal story. The more I understand about my experiences growing up, my own family’s history and the cultural context of those early experiences the more I understand myself. I begin to understand something of why I react at a gut level the way I do. As my unconscious becomes more conscious I am more aware of how many of my feelings and gut reactions are due to earlier experiences rather than reflective engagement with the present. In addition, the more I know about the stories of others, the more I understand them and thus appreciate their journey.

Historical theology can illuminate our theological past; it can describe our theological family of origins. This is a necessary part of developing theological self-understanding. Just as we cannot understand ourselves psychologically without some sense of our family’s history, neither can we understand our own theological proclivities, reactions and preferences without some sense of historical orientation to the faith in which we grew up. It may very well be that the way we read Scripture, what we believe and how strongly we feel about something is more rooted in our history than it is Scripture. If we don’t know our own history–our theological ancestry, we are limited in our ability to understand ourselves as well as others.

Liberating in the same way that acknowleding my family’s past history or patterns enables me to transcend some of the natural pitfalls that are part of my story. Living in ignorance of my own history endangers me since I am unaware of how my lenses have been colored by my own experience or why I react to something so strongly when the present circumstances really do not warrant it. Our own personal stories are often blind to how our histories have shaped us.  Blinded, we are thus shackled by the darkness and come to believe that the way we see it is the only way to see it.

Historical theology can liberate us from the chains that bind us and blind us; it can discern the critical difference between embracing something because it is so familiar or comfortable and embracing something because we have authentically heard an alternative and reflectively chosen to believe what we find most truthful. Discernment involves some kind of historical consciousness since history helps us see alternatives. Without historical perspective we are bound to our own limited perceptions.

Humbling in the same way that recognizing how my father and mother pioneered my faith and life teaches me gratitude. Whatever I am and have become is, in part, due to them. They have taught me, trained me, and guided me. In turn, they were shaped by their parents, and thus so all the way down. I am neither the first nor the center of my family, but one part of its history. I owe more than I could ever give back.

Historical theology can illuminate us as we learn from students of Scripture and practioners of the faith in earlier ages; they teach us and we are rightly awed by their faith, devotion and thought. We would be the most arrogant of people to think that we have nothing to learn from those who read Scripture and worshipped God in the past. We do not have to reinvent the wheel, but rather humbly acknowledge the gifts God gave to his people in the past, enjoy the benefits of that grace left for us, and use that sacred deposit  in our pursuit of a mature faith.

I research, reflect on and teach historical theology because it illuminates my own journey in faith, liberates me from the chains of my own blindness, and humbles me before the gifts God has previously given to his people. Whether I’m reading Tertullian, Jacobus Arminius, John Wesley, Alexander Campbell, James A. Harding or Thomas B. Warren, I seek illuminating descriptions, liberating discernment and humbling instruction.

9 Responses to “Why Care About Church History or Historical Theology?”

  1.   Randall Says:

    How very thouightful, and oh how true! Would that everyone recognized these things.

  2.   Steve Allison Says:

    And it is not a solitary endeavour. It is amazing how much diversity of opinion there can be of the interpretation of events, people, and reports, ie history. Interacting with others pursuing the same goal and of differing perspectives is important too.

  3.   clyde s. Says:

    Very well said, and very true.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Great reminder and well said.


  5.   phil Says:

    John Mark,

    Thank you for this post, but most importantly thanks for your teachings on paper and off of the paper. While I was a student of yours you played a key role in helping me understand this very thing you write about today. You played a key role in helping me realize a faith that went beyond my parent’s beliefs, but also provided me insight as to what building blocks my own faith was built upon; and at the same time, helped me discover the purposes of being created in the image of God. I know you are continuing to be a blessing to your current students. Peace be with you!

  6.   Steve Kenney Says:

    Some of the most dangerous things I’ve ever heard taught at church would be remedied if people simply knew that we do indeed have a history, and it is not that of an assumed but secret succession back to A.D. 33!

    Grace & Peace,
    Steve Kenney

  7.   nick gill Says:

    Someone should write that novel!

    It would sell like wildfire across the brotherhood!

    The Secret Succession — Discovering the One True Church

    An intrepid preacher begins to investigate the true history of Christianity — dodging bullets from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and progressive Church of Christ assassins all the way! Will he find the cornerstones of the Seven Churches of Asia (all enscribed — in English — Church of Christ meets here since 33AD) before it is too late?

  8.   rich Says:

    thanks for this one john mark…

    so many thoughts comming to my mind are so forign, they are uncomfortable…

    insterumental music…. and the heavenly type. (shadow)… i used from ezekeal…….
    what a funny feeling …. to think exclucively…
    no more . just now a believer…
    alive from the dead….like all the faithfull.

    boy ,oh .boy

    thanks again john mark

  9.   Victoria R. Basant Says:

    I completely agree that one needs to fully understand the past of their family. A family is a constant belief and to understand that background is equivalent to understanding a church’s history. This full faith and belief can only be enhanced by knowledge. As a history education major, I fully understand the importance of history. Knowing the roots can strengthen the faith. The notion that everybody needs to constantly learn is humbling and enlightening.

Leave a Reply