The poverty of memory in the Christian church

Recently, I’ve been asked by someone in my local church if I would like to consider teaching a Sunday School series that focuses on biographical sketches of the Church Fathers.

I think it’s a good move for the church to recognize the contributions of the Church Fathers to the life of the Body of Christ, however I feel that one cannot stop with a mere study of Augustine, Athanasius, Origen, Iraneus or Clement of Rome. I believe the study should furthermore encompass that to go as far as to really study the drama of God’s History with His covenant people – that is the Church in its expression as the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church that has been attested to in the Creeds.

I believe the study of church history in a local church setting is important in the sense that it brings every believer into a mystical family reunion whereas the Church is the household of God is not just a single nuclear family that merely comprises the local congregation but a multitude that includes every tongue and tribe from all nations.

Already I’m seriously pondering using Bruce Shelley’s classic Church History in Plain Language as the material because personally the book in its own way has helped me move away from a stunted perspective of ecclesiology towards a more wider view of God’s plan of salvation that encompasses our local church traditions and dogma.

Below is an interesting conversation with Bruce Shelley about the importance of studying church history.

"Surely one of the remarkable aspects of Christianity today is how few of these professed believers have ever seriously studied the history of their religion." - Bruce Shelley

The story of the history of the Church is a drama, a powerful drama. Why study it?

1) It gives you understanding. How did we get the way we are? A study of the drama answers that. The study of history can make you wise without gray hair and wrinkles (though one certainly cannot say the same about the writing of that history!)

2) The study of history introduces you to new friends. How else could you meet Augustine, John of the Cross, Martin Luther, John Wesley or Charles Finney? Only as you investigate the drama can you meet them.

3) You learn the price that was paid for you!

4) You avoid the pitfalls and the land mines of history. It has been said that he who is not a student of history is condemned to repeat it. The study of history is not done to exalt tradition. In fact, tradition can be enslaving. As Richard Halverson noted, "Tradition can be dangerous. It can not only modify the truth; it can replace it altogether." A study of history teaches us which traditions are suffocating and need to be avoided and which are so crucial that they must be preserved at all costs.

5) Studying history increases your effectiveness. You see what worked, what was effective. Mark Shaw said it all in the title of his book, Ten Great Ideas from Church History.

6) History enhances your endurance. When you see what those before you endured, you will be encouraged to persevere.

7) History will inspire you. Information may guide you, but inspiration keeps you going. A study of history can inspire. Hopefully, this one will.

8) History makes the dead come to life. My friend Harold Ivan Smith says "no person is dead as long as someone keeps saying their name or telling their stories." By telling this drama, the historical figures live once again.

9) The study of history humbles you by helping you to understand that there was life before you were born. John Wesley once said to Adam Clarke, "If I were to write my own life, I should begin it before I was born."

Copyright 2002, all rights reserved, used by permission

It is my prayer that as I will be a part of the journey of studying church history in my Sunday school class that we would learn from the church’s past so that we will no longer fall short in responding to the challenges posed to our faith today as I am confident that there is ‘nothing new under the sun,’ as far as the communal life of the church goes. Furthermore that the study of church history would cause to pause in awe and would be forced to bow our knees in worship to a God who has set Himself to establish a people who would bear witness to His name and His Son.

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