The Importance of Knowing Church History (1)

 

This is the edited text of the speech Rev. Spronk gave at the annual meeting of the RFPA on September 25, 2014.

Introduction

One purpose of this article is to convince you that you must know the history of the church. You must know, and should be interested in, the history of the church that is recorded in the Bible. You must know and should be interested the history of the church after the closing of the canon of Scripture—from the first century A.D. to the present. Maybe you are wondering if it is really necessary to make the case that knowing church history is important. Is it not a given that knowing church history is important? I hope that I am writing to brothers and sisters who understand the importance of the church’s history. But the fact is, that we live in a day when there is not much interest in the history of the church. So it is worthwhile to consider why church history must be known and is also worth knowing.

The second obvious purpose of the article is to encourage you to read and study church history. I would guess that you probably need this encouragement to read and study church history more than you need to be convinced that knowing church history is important. You know the past is important. As Reformed believers, you love the heritage of the Reformation. And you want to walk in the old paths and maintain the traditions that have been handed down to us by our fathers. So you know the history of the church is important and do not have a great need to be convinced of that. But how much time must be spent actually digging into the past? When was the last time you read a book, much less an article, about the history of the church? This may be a bold statement, but I will make it anyway: in general, the members of the church today do not read as much as they should; and in particular they do not read as much church history as they should. So I will attempt to stir up in you an enthusiasm for reading and studying church history.

We ask a simple question: why is it important to know church history? To that question a multitude of answers could be given, but I will answer that question under these two headings: 1) We are required to know church history; 2) It is for our benefit to know church history.

We are required by God Himself to know the history of the church. This is not to say that God requires that we know every detail of church history. If you do not know all about the life of St. Augustine, you do not need to fear you are guilty of disobeying God’s demand that you know church history.

But, we do learn in the Bible that each generation must pass on to the next generation the knowledge of God’s law (Deut. 6), the knowledge of God’s mighty works (Ps. 145), and the knowledge of God’s truth (II Tim. 3). By requiring this transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next God requires the knowledge of church history.

We find an example of this in Joshua 5. The people of Israel had crossed the Jordan River. They crossed Jordan because God performed a mighty miracle. The Jordan had overflowed its banks. It was humanly impossible for all of the people of Israel to cross the river with all of their possessions. But God performed a wonder by opening up a path through the river. After that miracle God ordered Joshua to set up twelve stones as a memorial. The purpose of these stones was that they would serve as a means of instruction for the future generations of Israelites. We read of this in Joshua 4:21-23,

And he spake to the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? Then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over.

By ordering Joshua to build the memorial and the fathers to teach their children about this event in the future, God required the knowledge of church history.

Sadly, we find in Judges 2:10 that this generation that God commanded to teach their children did not do so: “And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works that he had done for Israel.” The following generation did not know church history! And the passage clearly teaches that God deplored this lack of knowledge. God is not pleased when one generation does not learn from the previous one the works He has done to save His people in the past.

The New Testament also requires the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. In I Timothy the apostle Paul spoke to Timothy as his spiritual son (I Tim. 1:2). Paul committed the gospel unto Timothy and trained him to be a pastor (I Tim. 6:20). The truth was handed from one generation to the next. Consequently, in II Timothy Paul tells Timothy he must commit that same gospel to the next generation of ministers: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2). The gospel is to be handed down from one generation of ministers to the next, so that in each generation there will be ministers to preach the Word to the people of God.

The idea is that each generation must commit the gospel to the next until the coming again of Jesus Christ. The truth does not change. Each generation of the true church of Jesus Christ confesses the very same truth confessed by all of the generations before. If the church today will confess the truth, then her confession must be based on a knowledge of the truth that was confessed by the saints who lived before.

Thus the Bible requires not only that we study and know the confession and life of the saints in the days of Abraham and David in the Old Testament, of the saints in the days of the apostles, but also of the saints in the days of Athanasius and Augustine, of Luther and Calvin, of Hendrik De Cock and Simon Van Velzen, of Hoeksema and Ophoff, and so on.

The truth of the church’s oneness explains why God requires that each generation know the doctrine and life of previous generations of the church. Through Jesus Christ God gathers one church from the beginning of the world to the end of the world. The members of the church in every age are redeemed by the same Savior, gathered by the same Spirit, and united in the same truth. Because the truth we confess today came to us from the church in the past, we must know something of the history of the church in the past. And because the truth we confess today is not to be any different from what the church confessed in the past, we must constantly look back and compare what we confess today to what was confessed before.

Because God requires the knowledge of church history, the church’s confessions, which derive their teachings from the Bible, also demand the knowledge of church history. One of the church’s conscious reasons for adopting confessions is that they preserve the truth of God’s word for future generations. The church in the past drew up confessions in order to say to future generations, “you need to know your history, you need to know the truth confessed before you.” In the confessions, the church of the past says to the church today, “this is the truth we fought for, the truth we died for, the truth we confessed, the truth we lived, and we expect you to do the same.”

It should be obvious that the requirement to know the church’s past is not limited to a certain segment of the church—perhaps the ministers and professors of theology—but falls on every member of the church, including the children. Several of our liturgical forms require that the children of the church be brought up with the knowledge of what the church’s historical confession is. For example, the second question parents are asked by our “Form for the Administration of Baptism” is, “Whether you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian Church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation?”1 This is basically the same wording as the first question asked of a person making public profession of faith. The question is not simply, “Do you know and believe the Old Testament and New Testament?” But the question is, “Do you believe the doctrines of the Old Testament and New Testament as taught here in this Christian Church?” Every member of the church is required to know the historic faith of the church. Parents need to know the historic faith, and they vow at baptism to teach it to their children. Confessing members, every one of them, must know the historic faith of the church in order to be able honestly to say, “I know and agree that the articles of faith taught in this Christian Church are the true and complete doctrine of salvation.”

Although we will treat this in depth in the next article, we can already see that knowing church history is of great benefit to the church today. Since the church is one throughout history, the church today must not turn away from the confession and life of the church of the past. But turn away the church will do, if she does not know her past and consciously root herself in the past. Instead of sticking to the “old paths,” she will be blown about by every new wind of doctrine. And if the historic confession and walk of the true church are replaced by new doctrines and practices in a particular church, she is no longer worthy of the name church. She deserves the name of false church.

The church that knows and maintains the historic confession and walk of the saints in earlier ages may be sure she is united in the truth with one church of Jesus Christ.

... to be continued.


1 The Confessions and Church Order of the PRC. Grandville, MI, 2005, p. 260.