Most Christians know more about NFL history, or the history of last years episode of their favorite TV show than they know about Church history. Its no secret that most people don’t know much about church history. Students at good Christian colleges like Creighton or Bethel where I used to teach in Minnesota do get some basics, like Augustine, Aquinas, and probably some Calvin and Luther, and maybe a few desert fathers or minor theologians along the way. But regardless of denomenation, most people don’t know a lot of church history, and that is not good. It means we are ignorant of our tradition, which makes us look ignorant to others (and we should look ignorant, because we are).
Simple Free started a study group at a local hang out on Wednesday nights where we read from a book called “131 Christians Everyone Should Know” We’re up to the 5th week, we do 10 per week, so we’ll be 50 people into it. There are only 2-4 pages on each thinker, and we’ve studied famous thinkers lke Augustine and Aquinas and Luther, and some lesser known like baxter and Chrysostom and Knox. But while we have had to fly through them (10 per week) people have really enjoyed learning more about these key figures in the history of the church. One of our goals at Simple has always been to help people develop an intellectual and cultural and historical understanding of their Christianity, and this study group is helping.
I went to seminary for a while to learn about philosophy of religion and theology. A lot of guys there were studying to be pastors. I remember one of them– who had just gotten out of a class on classic theology– complaining about it: “Why do we have to study all these french and german theologians? Why can’t we just study the Bible?” This student felt that studying about theolgians views was a waste of his time, because what mattered wasn’t theologians views, but what the bible said. That kind of anti-learning viewpoint is really harmful to Christianity, and helps us continue to stupify ourselves at an alarming rate. Its amazing the things people do know, and what they don’t know. They pour time and energy and money even to keeping up on the latest fashion and entertainment news and sports news and car news, but when it comes to understanding their Christian thought more clearly– that is a waste of time.
The Bible doesn’t always explain itself, and while we can figure out a lot on our own with God’s grace, part of God’s grace has been other thoughtful gifted people who have written about how the Bible can make the most sense. To ignore theologians and refuse to learn Church history is to throw away those gracious gifts God gave to us. Many Christians, when it comes to Christian history and theology, are like children with no sense who show open disappointment with gifts from grandma and grandpa– God has given us a rich heritage and history, and yet most Christians treat that knowledge like a rotting fish. God gives them fish– they want chicken. God gives them theology– they want Vogue. God gives them church history– they turn away and turn on ESPN (or futurama reruns)
I am so thankful for the friends who have gotten together these Wednesday nights to pursue understanding Church history. Its an encouragement to find other Christians who want to know about where thoughts came from, how thought changed the world, and how it changed over time. I think there are a lot of good reasons to study Church History, and here are just a few:
SOME BENEFITS OF STUDYING CHURCH HISTORY:
1. Thankful Humility: Learning about those who have gone on before us helps us have a more appropriate attitude of thankfulness and humility in the light of all that has gone on before us. Thank God for all those who helped work out things in the history of the Church!
2. Theological understanding: Understanding church history helps you understand theology better. The history of the church is in many ways a history of theological discussions and debates.
3. Better Personal Theology: Since church history is about theology, you will hopefully have a more thoughtful coherent understanding of your own theological views, so you don’t have to rely on others and remain basically ignorant yourself.
4. Open-Mindedness: Learning about various views within the history of the church will hopefully help you become more open to disagreement, once you realize that the church has always been full of disagreements. Learning why people you differ with came to their viewpoint will probably help you feel more sympathy for their view, even if you still disagree.
5. Interesting: The less you know, the less you have to work with, but as you learn about different thoughts and viewpoints and debates through the history of the church, you will have more interesting things to think about and mull over. Life itself will probably have more meaning and more richness.
6. Practical Help: Knowing what previous Christians have thought through and struggled with will possibly help give us answers to our issues. It certainly will help us realize that we are not the first to struggle with the things which are often sources of debate and discussion today.
I believe that our study group is helping us in all 6 of these ways. Iron is sharpening iron as we learn more and more together about the greats who have gone before us. Honestly, what we are doing is in fact very little. Reading 20 pages per week of brief sketches of the lives of Church Greats is hardly a strenous or monumental achievement. But it is still more than most of us normally do, and that little bit of exercise is better than none at all. Whatever you can find to look into, I’d encourage you to work this year to learn more about the history of the church. More Church history, less futurama/espn/survivor/name-you-distraction…. Do what you can wherever you are to learn more and to start groups like this to help others learn more and to become more thoughtful!