How to Begin a Study of Church History

In a previous post I tried to make the case that Christians should incorporate the study of church history into their regimen of spiritual discipline. The next question is, “How should one begin?” To help answer that question I queried a few friends and organized their responses under three headings.

[The bracketed name indicates from whom the suggestion came. At the end of the article more information is given on the contributors. I have not taken the time to provide polished transitions from one thought to another nor have I provided bibliographic references or links to all of the resources named]

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Incorporate the Study of Church History into Your Church and Family Life

a.       Careful integration of history into the regular preaching, to familiarize people with history in a context where the usefulness of the discipline is obvious.  Always better to show people that something is a good thing rather than merely tell them.  Guide them to historic resources on particular topics, without flagging up that they are historic: “Hey, you’re struggling with prayer?  Here’s a great book by a guy called Luther!”  etc. [Carl Trueman]

b.      A good adult Sunday school curriculum that works through the theological encyclopedia over a couple of years, with a solid Church History section. [Carl Trueman].

c.       Since we are such a video-attuned world, maybe at your church you could do a monthly movie night. We’ve used the 1950′s version of Luther followed the next month the recent release [Nancy A. Almodovar].

d.      We handed out book lists for various age groups if they wanted to read more.  One family took us up on it and now try to read a book on a historical Christian person each month as part of their family worship time [Nancy A. Almodovar].

2. Study Something That Interests You

a.       Don’t set the bar too high too early. Beyond biographies, I think very few people will ever pick up much “straight” historical theology. That’s okay. But no one has an excuse for not learning (1) all the great heresies, and (2) the Scriptures that refute them. I’m not one who thinks we need to know all the history or the men involved necessarily. (Few folks have the time or real capacity to hold onto that much information anyway!) Rather it is most important to know that many problems have been averted by knowing the Scriptures which squashed them. This is the way to refute error in the local church today [Phil Urie].

b.      Encouragement requires that a person feels confident about his ability to do it; church history should not be a wall to scale but a pleasant walk through the hills. (Or at least, it should start out that way.) This can be accomplished through: books that explain the origins of current customs, such as liturgical traditions; books that explain differences between current church affiliations, with some historical background; biographies and historical novels; an overview of Christian doctrine with historical notes; a discussion of controversial/relevant doctrinal or practical issues which investigates the history of the matter. In all these ways, I believe, the reader will discover the relevance of history, the many similarities between then and now, and the fact that history repeats itself. Of course, encouragement also comes from personally sharing your enthusiasm with others. In discussions you could make connections with historical situations and explain where you got that information and why it is relevant [Arjen Vreugdenhil].

c.       Rather than finding the thickest volume on church history and wading through it taking notes as though for an exam, read about a subject that interests you: church architecture, for example. Architecture can help develop a mental time line of the church and introduce us to characters like the iconoclasts. It will enrich: what do those tall spires signify? and inform our decisions: should we display artwork in the church? As we learn about the printing press, it’s hard to deny Providence. Or quench gratitude [Jan Horton].

d.      Don’t be afraid to put a book down if it’s not what you’d expected. In Banner of Truth one time a man said that the Christian can ‘dabble’ in several books at once and not be ashamed. I’ve heard older writers warn against this, but I simply don’t agree. It sparks interest to keep reading when one book gets slow [Phil Urie].

e.       Begin with an era. Begin with a location. Begin with a people group. Maybe you’re interested in finding out more about your own background. If you’re Irish read a book on St. Patrick.

3. Begin with a good title. Here are some suggestions.

a.       The Bible. The Bible is some ‘ancient thing’ until we teach and work at getting others to understand that the Scripture itself is historical theology! This includes the NT. And today we are living in the same era of grace depicted in the New Covenant [Phil Urie].

b.      Begin with a good survey. A good survey of church history is an excellent entryway into its study.  A good survey should keep the narrative flowing, but also discuss the important doctrinal issues of any period (Trinitarian and Christological debates, etc.) [Sam Perez].

c.       Introduce Banner of Truth Magazine. It has a constant historical bent. On-line gift subscriptions are reasonable. Also when you resubscribe, BOT often offers a free copy or two to someone you know [Phil Urie].

d.      Christian Focus do some good stuff for kids/young adults. Nick Needham has a nice, accessible series covering the whole of church history. Very readable. (Here are some audio lectures by Needham.) [Carl Trueman].

e.       I began by reading Phillip Schaff’s work (History of the Christian Church) as part of my daily reading time.  Bobby and I also purchased some videos from nicenecouncil.org that dealt with specific people from the Reformation and Church History to ignite a desire to read more about them.  I grew up reading missionary stories and their adventures so that too made it exciting to learn [Nancy A. Almodovar].

f.       I like Wm. G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, a quite unbelievably good Systematic Theology book as it interacts with Historical Theology throughout. There is absolutely nothing like it! [Phil Urie]

g.      I adore Ursinus Commentary on the Catechism because it also has a strong historical and anti-heresy method, though considered to be a pure Systematic Theology book. [Phil Urie]

h.      The now dated biography of Luther by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, is still a favorite.  Much of Bainton’s account has been confirmed by later study [Sam Perez].

i.        Of course, Augustine’s Confessions is a classic on many levels: a penetrating biography that is also a careful study of sin’s effects on the soul, as well as God’s redemption [Sam Perez].

j.        George Marsden’s 2003 biography on Jonathan Edwards was a triumph in synthesis: biography, doctrinal reflection, and socio-political analysis are all woven together in a way that properly situates Edwards in his context.  It assumes some knowledge of history, but does a good job explaining much of the context [Sam Perez].

k.      I have found Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language an excellent introductory resource.  The tome has some blind spots, but that is to be expected [Sam Perez].

l.        BK Kuiper’s The Church in History is worth noting, but it suffers from the excesses of Protestant triumphalism: all the good guys were Protestant or proto-Protestant, and all the bad guys are on the other side [Sam Perez].

m.    No less biased, but itself a foundational text, is Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.  It is an unabashed study of how theological reflection can influence historical writing.  There was no doubt in Eusebius’ mind that certain events were God’s direct judgment or salvation (like the destruction of the Jewish temple or the rise of Constantine to power).  Paul Meier’s edition is the best I’ve seen, because of its helpful photographs, charts, sidebars, and footnotes.  It is a riveting story [Sam Perez].

n.      A text that is not part of Church History proper, but still merits citation, I think, is David Hackett Fisher’s Washington’s Crossing (a scholarly complement to David MacCullough’s 1776).  Fisher writes from what he calls a web of contingency historical perspective (that is, things did not have to happen a certain way, humanly speaking) which has much resonance with a Christian view of history. [Sam Perez]

Hopefully something here will help you begin or continue a study in the history of the church of Jesus Christ. If you’d like to add to this list, please leave a comment. Thanks to the following for helping to put together this post!

Nancy A. Almodovar, (Th. M., member of West Sayville Reformed Bible Church; URCNA.)

Jan Horton (Occasional contributor to LR, member Covenant Reformed Church.)

Sam Perez (Seminary student at Westminster Theological Seminary; member of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship)

Carl Trueman (Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary)

Phil Urie (Occasional contributor to LR, member of Hazleton Area Reformed Presbyterian Church.)

Arjen Vreugdenhil (Physics professor at Grand Valley State University; worshipping at Bethel United Reformed Church.)

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One Comment

  1. Robert S. Rapp
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I was surprised at Sam Perez’s comment that BK Kuiper’s The Church in History “suffers from the excesses of Protestant triumphalism” when, in fact, it is is a wonderful survey of the glory of Protestantism over the anti-Christian message, practice and persecution of the Roman church.

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