If church history does not get your blood pumping, you had better check your spiritual pulse. The sixteenth century alone provides a treasure of soul-stirring narratives. Think of Martin Luther’s bold and daring stand for the gospel against the destructive errors of Rome. Consider the faithful witness of the English martyrs who died singing psalms as they were consumed by flames. Or, how about the courageous life of John Knox, who while enslaved in the bowels of a French galley ship cried out, “Give me Scotland, or I die”?
The study of church history, however, is meant to provide more than just inspiration. Serious reflection on the past protects us from error, reminds us of God’s faithfulness, and motivates us to persevere.
Protection From Error
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wisely remarked that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Indeed, without a basic knowledge of church history, individual Christians and churches are prone to repeat the same doctrinal errors and foolish mistakes of former days.
Familiarity with the history and theology of the early ecumenical councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), for example, helps to protect individuals and churches from unwittingly believing ancient Trinitarian and christological heresies. Furthermore, careful reflection upon revivalistic movements such as the Second Great Awakening warns us not to abandon biblical ministry for manipulative methods and quick numerical growth. The study of church history, therefore, preserves both orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice).
In addition to safeguarding us from doctrinal error, the study of church history helps protect us from repeating the foolish mistakes of others. One example comes from the life and ministry of John Knox.
The fiery Scot wrote a polemical tract in 1558 titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women.” The work unapologetically condemns the rule of female monarchs. Against the better judgment of John Calvin and others, who were strategically working toward reform in Britain and on the Continent, Knox submitted his “First Blast” for publication. Though aimed chiefly at other lady monarchs, the tract inadvertently fell into the hands of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth I. Unsurprisingly, the queen was highly displeased. Thereafter, Knox and everyone associated with the Genevan Reformation lost favor with Elizabeth, all because of an unnecessary tract on female sovereigns.
The Scottish Reformer’s unwise decision to publish “First Blast” teaches an important lesson. It instructs ministers and others to be more careful about the content and timing of their writings, especially in a day when self-publishing and instantaneous (and often unedited) posting on social media are so prevalent. Not every deep conviction or strong opinion is worthy of publication. Knowledge of events from the past, therefore, constructively informs our decisions in the present. It protects us from heresy and imprudence.