I loved history when I was in school. So naturally, church history was one of my favorite courses in college. But I never could have imagined that studying the history of the church would be so impactful to my theology and worship. My thinking changed, and I developed a deeper understanding of what it truly means to be a Christian.
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Unfortunately, many of us know very little about the history of the Christian faith. I know this because I personally knew very little when I entered seminary. Sunday school, church sermons, and private Christian education taught me the fundamentals of Christianity and the Bible, but they barely skimmed the surface when covering the history of our faith over the past 2000+ years.
Here are some details that surprised me:
- The earliest Christians had no idea what they were doing. We often put them on a pedestal, but the first-century believers didn’t have it all together. Even Peter and Paul disagreed at times. As I studied the works of some of the first Christian theologians, I learned that there were a lot of disagreements and confusion over what would be considered the fundamentals of our faith. Think about it this way… they knew of Jesus, salvation, and the saving power of the cross. But they didn’t have the New Testament the way we do today. They also didn’t have clear instructions as to how “church” should be structured. They were in uncharted waters, to say the least!
- There are many pivotal events in our Christian history that should be common knowledge but aren’t. I was amazed at how many historical events I knew little about, but they literally shaped the Christian faith as we know it today. For example, the destruction of the Jewish temple was HUGE for Christianity and Judaism alike (in more ways than I have space to convey in this blog post!) I knew it happened as Jesus prophesied in Matthew 24, but I had no idea the impact until I studied it more in-depth. Another major event that surprised me was the Protestant reformation. Sure, I knew who Martin Luther was along with his Ninety-Five Theses, but his life was marked by so many other remarkable events. (And the Catholic church at that time was teaching some pretty interesting doctrine…)
- Theology has changed dramatically over the course of 2000 years. This one was hard for me. For all of my life, I assumed that the basics of our faith had always been there. But truth be told, theology has taken some pretty drastic turns since the first century. Some of our most basic beliefs were argued for centuries by early Christian scholars and theologians. For example, the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man (the incarnation) was argued about for nearly four centuries!
I should make one thing clear… the “basics” have always been there. Jesus, the cross, salvation in Him, eternal life, and the expectation of His return have been universally taught since the first century. Everything else, however, has been argued about…
Another thing to consider is that prior to Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s, the Bible was not readily available. Most Christians had no idea what the Bible actually taught. It was the view of the church that Christians should not read the Bible for themselves, but rather they should be taught by the church alone. Unfortunately, the church was a very unreliable source at the time, and the Scriptures were read in a very corrupted version of Latin… a language that most church goers did not speak or understand. Can you imagine if you had no Bible to read of your own? If you couldn’t hide God’s Word in your heart? This was the reality for Christians for nearly 1500 years.
- Some of the best and most well-known theologians had ideas that most of us would consider false teaching today. Considering their circumstances, this doesn’t surprise me one bit. But as I studied great men of faith (people I had actually heard of prior to seminary), I discovered that they weren’t perfect. They taught things that most of us today would probably disagree with theologically. But here’s the truth… every generation grew. They strived to know God and His Word to the best of their ability. Did they get everything right? No. But their passion for the Gospel is why we are here today.
Based on these findings, I learned two crucial lessons:
- Theology isn’t as “set in stone” as I thought it was. Beyond the basic fundamentals of our faith, we may not have it all figured out today… and that’s okay. We are still growing and learning as the body of the Christ. Our doctrine may not be perfect, but our hearts long to please God and to live by the power of His Holy Spirit. In the end, bowing the knee to Jesus is all that matters.
- God cares more about hearts than correct theology. Notice what God had the Israelites teach their children in the Old Testament. He commanded them to recall their history, not doctrine. Sure, they were told to teach the Law, but more importantly, they were instructed to teach their children all that God had done for them. He led them out of Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and went before them into battle as they entered the Promised Land.
The history of the Christian faith is fascinating in that it reminds us of how amazing God truly is.
Figuring out all of the doctrine and theology isn’t as important as surrendering your life to Christ and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide your life. Yes, it’s important. I was a theology major for a reason… We should study it, grow, and be able to discuss it with one another as we challenge each other in the faith. But it’s okay that we are still learning and growing as we become the glorious bride of Christ. And that is why it is SO important for us to study our history.
We can learn from our past and grow in Him.
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*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.