So why is church history so important?
Or is it?
For the average Christian, the thought of studying church history most likely seems boring or irrelevant–but church history is vitally important!
So what’s so important about church history?
Here’s a question-and-answer I did a short while ago on this topic as part of a discussion about my DVD-based study entitled Christian History Made Easy.
1. Your last product of this sort was the Four Views of the End Times DVD series. How did the experience of participating in that project affect how you approached Christian History Made Easy?
In Four Views of the End Times, I struggled throughout the series not to slip into rhetorical rhythms that are more characteristic of preaching than teaching. This time, I practiced and prepared to teach with more calmness and clarity. This time, I was also far more prepared for the technical aspects of working with cameras and with the green screen technology.
At the same time, I was far less prepared than I thought I was for the challenge of condensing two millennia into this format and for the sheer mental endurance that I needed to remember it all! I used very few notes while teaching, except when I referred to an exact quotation from someone in church history, and these videos were filmed over the course of four days, almost all day every day. By the end, I was mentally exhausted.
2. Why is church history important, particularly for those not in vocational ministry or scholarship?
Doing the Christian life without knowing church history is like doing marriage with total amnesia; sure, it can be done, but there will always be something missing.
What draws us together as believers is not only a shared Spirit and a common faith but also the shared story of how God has worked through past believers. If we aren’t aware how God worked in their lives, we are less likely to recognize the rhythms of God’s work in our lives; we are unable to distinguish which truths are vital to the faith; and, we are less able to articulate why we believe what we believe.
The challenges that Christians face today are not that different from ones that Christians have faced before. Even if previous generations of Christians failed to face these challenges well, understanding how and why they responded as they did can help us to consider the challenges of our own generation with deeper humility and wisdom.
3. Why is the average person in the pew largely uninformed about church history?
I think there are at least a couple of reasons:
(1) Particularly among American evangelicals, there has long been a tendency to seek and to value whatever is newest and trendiest, and to separate ourselves from the wisdom of the past. If there’s any reference to church history at all, it typically takes the form of decontextualized illustrations and quotations from past saints.
(2) In school, many church members have experienced history poorly-taught–history that centers on isolated facts instead of focusing first on the stories that link us with people long-past. The result of poorly-taught history is that people perceive history–all history, even church history–as boring, dry, irrelevant. History isn’t boring, of course, but it’s difficult to change people’s minds when they’ve experienced years of boring history in school.
4. What needs to be done about this?
Well, that’s pretty obvious: there’s this new video series called Christian History Made Easy that every church should purchase and use!
More seriously, though, one way to help people value church history is to begin with the stories and then move from the stories to the theology and the historical facts. If you want people to value the councils that crafted the Nicene Creed, don’t begin with a long recitation about the years 325 and 381. Tell them about Athanasius, a short dark-skinned deacon at Nicaea who became a bishop against his will and ended up defying and outsmarting the most powerful men in the Roman Empire. Tell them about Nicholas of Myra who emerged blood-streaked from prison, after a time of persecution, to cries of “Nicholas! Confessor!”–and who, according to one uncertain account, may have attended the Council of Nicaea and slapped a heretic. Tell how Gregory of Nazianzus went to Constantinople and proclaimed the full and eternal deity of Jesus at a time when this proclamation wasn’t particularly popular. Then, once they have heard this wondrous legacy by which God preserved his truth in the fourth century, explain to them the theology that mattered so deeply to these church leaders.
5. How does one condense 2,000 years of rich, complex material into twelve 30-minute sessions?
Skillful editing! Every time you see a camera cut or glimpse a picture fading in and out, something was trimmed to fit twenty hours or so of video into twelve thirty-minute segments.
But it had to do with the planning too. I really did try to shape each session to begin with the stories and then to move to the theology in the clearest and most rapid way that I could.
6. What books about church history have influenced you the most?
I mostly enjoy reading the primary source materials. Two seminary professors–both PhD graduates from Southern–influenced me in this regard. I took several New Testament courses with F. Alan Tomlinson, and his most frequent note on my papers was, “Did you go back to a primary source for this?” The other professor, under whom I took almost all my electives in various areas of historical theology, was Mark DeVine. At one point, I recall that I wanted to do an independent study on the function of faith in Karl Barth’s theology, but most of the books I suggested for the course were secondary sources. Dr. DeVine said, “If you want to learn Barth, don’t read about Barth; read Barth”–and he assigned me the entirety of volume four of Church Dogmatics to read and to analyze for a single two-hour course. I read almost half of that volume before it began to make any sense; then, I learned to enjoy Barth in a way that I never would have without that assignment. That revealed to me the value of focusing on primary source materials.
7. What is your favorite thing about Church History Made Easy video series?
The animations! Nearly all the sessions include a whimsical animation that tells some story from church history in just a few minutes.
8. What is your favorite period of church history to study? Why?
The second and third centuries, and the nineteenth century. My primary interest has long been the proclamation and preservation of Christian faith in the context of competing faith commitments. Those centuries are the ones where Christians most clearly struggled and yet the faith survived and thrived in contexts where there were clear options other than Christianity.
9. Are there any other questions that we should have asked you?
A couple of things that may be of interest:
Looking back, I am amazed that this project was completed at all! During the preparation for these videos was when my father was diagnosed with cancer and passed from this life–ironic, in some ways, because the book had been dedicated to my father and mother. When the time came to film the series, I was not nearly as prepared as I had planned and hoped to be. Three of my doctoral students helped me to finish the materials—with full credit given, of course!—and they wrote the Leader’s Guide and Participant Guides for the series.
Another interesting fact: Christian History Made Easy began as a photocopied study book that I wrote in the 1990s for Green Ridge Baptist Church, a tiny congregation in rural Missouri where I served as pastor. I wrote this study book because I could not find anything that was interesting and simple enough for the people in my church. I first taught the series there. This study book then became a black-and-white paperback, then in 2009, Rose Publishing turned it into the full-color book that I had always envisioned. This book won the Christian Retailing magazine Retailers’ Choice Award in 2010. Now, I’m teaching those materials again just like when it began, as a study for ordinary people in local churches–except now, I am teaching it via video to thousands of church members in churches around the world.
Click here for more information about this study.