I'm trained as a scientist and physician. Yet you will rarely meet a more passionate advocate of studying history than me.
We are commanded to study history. "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction" (Romans 15:4). Someone else has said, "There is nothing new in the world except the history that you do not know. " And yet the disciplined study of history, especially the regular reading of primary texts, is a scarcely practiced habit. This makes many people poorly equipped to understand the origin and implications of popular ideas. The tragedy of the resulting ignorance is difficult to overstate: the poorly examined ideas that swirl around today are consequential. Dallas Willard wrote, “World as well as individual events ride upon the waters of an ideational sea. The killing fields of Cambodia come from philosophical discussions in Paris.”
For those who call themselves Christians, the significance of history is of vastly greater importance. The heresies and errors of our day have been repeated again and again. "For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out. For we are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you and utter words out of their understanding?" (Job 8:8-10). Still again, "Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you" (Deut 32:7). Despite these commands, many do not avail themselves of the writings of those who have gone before us. We suffer like trees without roots.
Church history has been described as a 2,000 year old Bible study. Because there is nothing new under the sun, one of the best preparatory activities for biblical interpretation is to survey church history. While history does not repeat, it rhymes, and we should learn the tune. Like Bunyan's traveler, Christian, in the Pilgrim's Progress, we can obtain great value from meditating on the successes and failures of those who have gone before us. Unfortunately most have not labored at this exercise, dooming themselves to divisiveness and loops of rhyming errors. Consider the following truths:
- Church splits continue over predictable issues that could have easily been resolved with insights from church history.
- Much of modern Christianity is revived Gnosticism.
- The man who promoted unbaptized infant damnation and the compelling of people into the state church remains, outside of the Bible, the single most important influence in the church today .
- Many Anabaptists have read little of the history of their own forefathers.
Given the consequences of ignorance (church division versus unity, heresy versus truth, salvation versus unbelief), how can we best read history? Let me offer a few guiding principles:
1. Read humbly. We all have much to learn from those outside our time period. Each generation has its blind spots, which are usually different from prior generations' blind spots. Let us therefore read with humility, knowing that we need correction and instruction.
2. Read history in community. There is no better way to process and to find the strengths and weaknesses of an author than to do it collectively.
3. Read contextually. This past week I read a chapter by Calvin on baptism. I read the chapter in context, without skipping paragraphs or sections, and was astonished at an argument he made against rebaptism. He argued against rebaptism by stating that when Paul baptized the Ephesian disciples in Acts 19, there was no literal baptism at all. He took baptism as being figurative, perhaps involving teaching or laying on of hands. His bias and absurd conclusion was evident by reading his argument in context. Do not simply rely on secondhand references, but on your experience of an author's writing in context. We can scarcely be honest readers unless we read in context.
4. Read carefully. Instead of truth being determinative, people generally follow eloquence. Most people are moved more by rhetorical style, vocabulary, impressive citations, and reputation than by the actual content of an argument. The mega-churches and popular ideas of our time typically grow because of eloquence and polish, not because authors are calling for cross-bearing and obedience to the hard teachings of Jesus. Indeed, they grow because they avoid them. Compare your reading with Scripture, and never allow Scripture to be subordinate to any author's ideas.
5. Read systematically. Strive to have read the most important works of church history and connect the flow of ideas to today. Trace out significant ideas from author to author. Just as a physician cannot skip key classes to be a doctor, so students of church history should not skip key concepts, periods, and authors.
6. Read critically. Jesus said that you will know a tree by its fruits. We ought to read with suspicion the beliefs of those who lived lives in obstinate rebellion against God. I myself am particularly suspicious of writers whose lives are not marked by love for enemy or who must defend the status quo. This suspicion helps to guard against error.
7. Read diligently. There is much to learn and read. College is an invaluable time to gain the knowledge that becomes much more difficult later in life once the hustle of family, work, or other responsibilities prevail. Virtually all college graduates (including myself!) say they did not appreciate what a gift it was to have extended periods to read, study, and develop one's heart and mind. Cherish this time to become trained as a skilled worker in God's kingdom.
8. Read habitually. One of my daily habits is to read just one page of a primary source. It is amazing what small but consistent effort can yield. Habits like these could be lifelong and yield compounded returns of great value.
9. Read and review. When you read, take notes and regularly review them. Do not allow these insights gained through much labor to be wasted.
At Sattler College, though it will take much discipline, labor, and prayer over four years, we will equip you to be a wise student of history.