Nothing could seem less likely in our context today. If we see a reformation, it will be through the preaching of the gospel on the ground. We are, humanly speaking, centuries away from a truly Christian parliament or congress. Aspects of the Reformers’ programs are applicable today (preach the Word as they did, train up pastors like the Elizabethan church), but swaths of the detail are inapplicable—even the preaching of the Word was fostered by the Protestant government with books of prepared homilies prescribed for preaching by the clergy. Much of our learning from church history for our own cultural engagement will, therefore, need to be at a more general level of inspiration for Christian faithfulness rather than the more detailed level of strategies and programs. If anything, the culture we live in will find closer examples in the early church when the Christians faced a pagan culture, rather than in the Reformation era when Europe was in many senses “Christianized.”
A nuanced learning from history is harder to do than simply transferring examples and methods across the centuries to our day, so it will require a good knowledge of both their times and our own. Those who do not have the historical skill to make those adaptations can still let their predecessors inspire them to faithfulness by their example. A Christian with very little knowledge of history can find wonderful general encouragement and challenge from reading church history.
As we read about our family history, one thing becomes very clear: our Christian predecessors themselves engaged with their culture at every level. The Reformation was a gospel movement with political, legal, economic, educational, and artistic outworkings. These usually occurred without the Christians’ anxiously wringing their hands and debating how engaged they should be (another difference from our era). They occurred quite simply because Christians obeyed the Great Commission: they preached the gospel and then sought to live obedient lives. As they did that, they served as magistrates or lawyers or teachers or artists or farmers who sought to serve as though serving Christ (Col. 3:23), and thus, through their faithful obedience and without displacing the proclamation of the gospel, they inevitably formed Christian cultures. If they had not done so, it is unlikely that we would even have heard of them, since the wider impact of a disengaged, privatized faith would have been so minimal. Our own era is a time for putting down deep roots, but we must not confuse that with circling the wagons and disengaging from contact with the world around us. As we seek to live faithfully in that engagement, church history will certainly help us with the specific lessons that are often harder to work out, with encouraging stories of faithful living, and with salutary warnings of its opposite.