In his book In Praise of Forgetting (2016), David Rieff takes exception with George Santayana’s famous dictum “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Instead Rieff proposes that historical memory is not a moral imperative. Pointing to instances of war and slavery, the author suggests that collective remembrance can even be harmful for a community. Sometimes, says Rieff, it’s just better to forget. His thesis, while imbued with seemingly noble purposes, epitomizes the modern ethos that esteems novelty above antiquity. The result is a 21st century America that would rather forget its history than recognize a broader metanarrative aimed at uniting all things in Christ. Unfortunately, this worldview isn’t simply relegated to secular literature; it can often be found inside of the church.
In the words of J. Gresham Machen, “The modern church is impatient of history. History, we are told, is a dead thing.” Pastors can glimpse this modern attitude when congregants exercise a “whatever strikes me” hermeneutic detached from historical teaching or demonstrate an aversion to the ecumenical creeds. In many ways, the answer to this problem of modernity is a biblical theology steeped in historical theology. The Bible is a God-breathed, Spirit-inspired book. (2 Tim. 3:16) However, it’s also an historical document. According to Machen, “Christianity is an historical phenomenon.” The church itself claims a 2000-year old Nazarene as its cornerstone and the prophets and apostles as its foundation. (Eph. 2:20) The church should never stray far from its historical faith. Still between sermon prep, home visits, weddings, and other commitments, the average pastor often struggles to find time to read church history. The following are three reasons pastors should do so – for the good of their churches and their own souls.
1. We Fortify our Theology by Studying Its Development and Defense
As countless expository preachers can attest, there’s a difference between preaching through Matthew and preaching through Philippians. That difference is called narrative. The Bible itself is a testament to the didactic force of storytelling. For example, while Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is an excellent encyclopedic resource for every pastor, memorizing the doctrines of sin and justification isn’t the same as learning them through the personal and professional trials of Martin Luther as he wrestled with the “justice of God.”
The chronicled accounts of our theological heroes not only help us to absorb theological truths in a unique way; they also allow us to witness its development. Words like homoousios weren’t coined in a vacuum. Church history answers the “what” and the “why” of church dogma. With the cement of church history, a pastor’s positions become convictions – supported by Scripture and a great cloud of Christian witnesses. According to pastor and historian Sean Michael Lucas, “church history forces us to own our theological commitments in ways that are pastorally healthy. We are forced to think through how our view of God, humanity, justice, sin, redemption, and eschatology inevitably affect the stories we historians and pastors tell and the ways we tell them.” Want to increase your passion and conviction behind the pulpit? Read church history.
2. Your Local Church is One Chapter in a Larger Story
In his famous Desiring God, pastor John Piper writes, “For the good of your soul, I encourage you to read great books about God and about His people.” The trials and triumphs of the Lord’s church bring us encouragement. As the Apostle reminds us, “as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” (2 Cor. 1:7) Church history is a panacea for tunnel-visioned pastors who, over time, can forget that their labors are a part of a cosmic, multi-generational plan to extend the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth. Take heart pastor. The saints have gone before you. Local churches should constantly be reminded that a church is only one part of the church, and that this church has endured similar struggles for centuries. Church history is an enduring legacy to the unshakeable promises of God. Problems with liberalism in your local association? Read Spurgeon. Detect a lack of missional zeal in your pews or in your own pulpit? Read Fuller. Church history supplements the great truths of Scripture with the accounts of deeply flawed men who carried the burdens we face today. There’s encouragement and example for the pastor.
3. Good History is also Proleptic.
History isn’t just backward looking. It’s also forward-looking. In his magisterial Preaching and Preachers D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones recalls, “I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.” Church history doesn’t just bring us encouragement; it also gives us hope for the future. One cannot read of the endeavors of Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield and not possess some measure of excitement and anticipation for perhaps another American Awakening. Church history bears witness to a Christ-inaugurated kingdom awaiting an eschatological consummation – a heavenly wedding foreshadowed in each soul won for the sake of Christ. If history has a purpose, indeed the pastor can wield it as a proleptic tool pointing his congregation in the direction of glory.