In the minds of many, history is a subject to be tolerated when necessary, but ignored whenever possible. Sadly, this is also true for church history. The philosophy behind this attitude is that whatever was done in the past is dead and gone, but what is happening now is living and vital. But Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 (ESV), “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” Several times in Scripture we are told to learn from the things done in the past, that we may become wiser (1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4) and this is especially true regarding church history.
Church history is full of controversies, heresies, and battles for the truth. We must familiarize ourselves with those if we are to stand faithfully in the present. As humans, we tend to love new innovations and discoveries, even when it comes to theology. While new things may pique our interest, we must be on our guard to ensure they are based on that which is tested and true. Robert Shindler, a close associate of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, noted “it is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.”
God has revealed in Scripture everything that is necessary for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), and those foundations will never change. A study of church history will reveal that the new innovations in theology (and sometimes practice) are simply a re-packaging of old heresies which were rejected by the early church.
In the first centuries of the church, the foundations of every cardinal doctrine and practice were tested and confirmed. Questions about the nature of God, the identity of Christ, the reality of heaven and hell, the nature of man and the impact of sin, and many others were debated as new teachings cropped up. The writings of the early church fathers and the decisions of the church councils dealt primarily with these things. Arianism taught that Jesus was similar to, but not equal with God, a theory condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Eutychianism, condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, claimed Jesus was neither fully human nor fully divine. Pelagianism taught that man is born spiritually neutral, and is free to live either a holy or a sinful life (compare Romans 3:23; Psalm 51:5), another theory that was condemned, this time at Carthage in 418.
In the late 1800s, Charles Spurgeon and others recognized a dangerous trend in the church, and addressed it in a series of articles in The Sword and the Trowel, which gave rise to the “Down-grade Controversy.” Robert Shindler noted that there was a widespread shift in England toward a form of liberalism called Socinianism, named after Faustus Socinus, who rejected the idea of the Trinity in 1574. Socinus didn’t originate this teaching, for the same error had been addressed by Tertullian in the early 3rd century when he wrote against Monarchianism. According to this teaching, Jesus wasn’t fully God, but was a man who was given special power at His baptism. Another aspect of this heresy was the denial of man’s sinfulness and the subsequent need for Jesus’ substitutionary death. While we may not hear these terms used much today, Socinianism and Monarchianism are still found in churches today, and we must be on our guard against these and other errors which may creep into our fellowships.
John Piper, in a message titled “The Value of Learning History,” stated that the little book of Jude gives a potent lesson in the importance of history. Jude compared the people threatening the church in his day with other people and events in history. One interesting aspect of his approach is that he chose some relatively obscure historical points, yet expected his readers to know the details of those subjects. In verse 11, he referred to the way of Cain, the error of Balaam, and the rebellion of Korah. In a society where personal libraries were unknown and personal copies of Scripture were practically unheard of, Jude assumed most people would know what those ancient events were about. By applying those historical lessons to their current situation, Jude taught the believers to be watchful against compromise and error.
Another reason to study church history is to help us liberate our thinking from the current fashions that shape our understanding of issues. Whether we like it or not, we are a product of our times, and the hot topics of our day inevitably inform our thinking. By getting the perspective of other ages on any given topic, we can weigh ideas that may otherwise escape our notice and judge whether those things are timeless truths or passing fancies. Reformed theologian J.W. Nevin said that his greatest sin as a young Christian was an inappropriate posture as to the facts of church history. He later realized that it was the life story of Christ’s family, and thus his own story that connected him to Christ.
We are commanded in Jude 3 to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” There is a past emphasis and a present emphasis, and the two cannot be divorced. Our faith is an ancient faith, based on ancient and timeless truths, and we are called to live it in the present. Wisdom would lead us to learn from those who have fought the battles and learned the lessons before us, so we can carry on our duties more effectively.