What the Dead Can Offer the Living

Laptop and old books with path

I’m not short on reading material, but I’m still hungrily eyeing the latest biography by Michael Horton. Chances are, I’m going to rearrange my reading list to make space for this new work on an old figure. My fascination with historical characters is that they are historical. I like stories, history is a story—ergo, I like reading about those who shaped history. But reading church history does more than entertain, it informs. Here are 5 reasons why I believe that being familiar with church history is essential for the future wellbeing of the church:

1. It breeds humility.
Every era is susceptible to chronological arrogance. Dismissing early thought as primitive, truth is treated as a recent discovery. But reading the works of history quickly curbs that arrogance—the men and woman of yesteryear were downright brilliant. Reading the works of Jonathan Edwards is enough to make one feel like a minnow. The more time I spend with past theologians, the less likely I am to be prideful of my place in God’s story.

2. It breeds further humility.
Martin Luther is an absolute gem. In an age that got so much wrong in theology, he got so much right. His brilliance is all the brighter because of the darkness that surrounded him. And yet, in spite of his genius, he was completely wrong in his attitude towards the Jews. His blind spot reminds me to keep checking my vision. Like a good carpenter, a Christian should measure twice before cutting their opinions.

3. It offers foresight.
I recently read a tweet insisting that before any Christian is allowed to post an opinion online, they take a course in church history. Amen. What is so shocking about the recent stress within evangelicalism between conservatives and progressives is that it’s nothing new. We may find the issues before us unique, but the foundational frictions have been felt before. If we want to see how things play out in the future, we should look back into the recent past.

4. It builds courage.
Jesus reminds us that allegiance to him will bring us hostility. More and more, this is proving to be true and it can be tempting to become a Christian wallflower. But when I read about the tenacity and bravery of the church in ages past, I grow bold. In a sense, I find myself borrowing their courage; if they can withstand cold steel, then I can endure cutting comments. Their resilience inspires me to stand firm in my faith.

5. It spurs worship.
Inspirational people inspire me. Inspired people inspire me more. It’s easy to be impressed with those who are brilliant, but when these people praise someone else, their respect becomes your awe. When I encounter the devotion that my heroes had for Christ, my affection for him grows. I love reading Spurgeon’s writings, because when I do, I find my love for Jesus growing deeper. History is never old, and it only gets dusty when we neglect it. Those who look behind, will likely prove to be able guides for what lies ahead.

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