Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
I want to learn from the pattern of Hebrews 11 and the logical flow into the next two verses. After examining the lives of many faithful believers from old testament history, the author tells us to lay aside encumbrances and run the race of the Christian life. But the inspiration is those who went before us, showing us how to fix our eyes on Jesus, and that He is faithful and true. I think we should intentionally study famous Christian dead people. I think Hebrews 11 is an example of why.
The author of Hebrews 11 demonstrates that God has always saved through faith alone, and not by works of the law. The word “faith” is used twenty five times, establishing a clear theme. And most of the usages are of the form, “By faith person did this something.” So not only does Hebrews 11 prove the historicity of salvation by faith to a Jewish reader, but it also gives us many clear pictures of what faith looks like when it is acted upon. This sets a Biblical precedent for using the lives of those in the past as motivation and instruction for our lives in the present.
An immediate objection to my hermeneutic is that the intent of Hebrews 11 wasn’t to encourage the believers to study extra-Biblical history to find examples of faith and learn from them. But I simply point to Hebrews 11 as an example of church (I use the term very loosely) history being used by an inspired author to instruct. In a similar vein I want to point you to 1 Corinthians 10:6:
Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.
Paul refers to the continual rebellion of Israel after the Exodus and before entering the promised land. So far I have presented a Biblical argument for studying Old Testament narrative. As I’ve said before, you should study the Old Testament. But I want to extend this logic to an argument for a familiarity with church history and post-Biblical heroes of the faith.
Those of you familiar with presuppositional apologetics are familiar with arguments that use the Bible to defend the Bible. I therefore expect you to be completely unfazed by my many subsequent usages of my knowledge of church history and heroes of the faith to defend the importance of that knowledge.
First note that the purposes of Hebrews 11 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 are to encourage Christians in their walk with the success of those past and warn against falling away with the failures of those past. These same lessons can be learned from extra-Biblical characters. In many cases, extra-Biblical characters may present these lessons in contexts similar to our daily lives. This is the reason I introduced these passages; they teach us how to learn from the past.
Studying church history and heroes of the faith will strengthen your faith in God. The standard English translation that came out of the Reformation before the King James Bible was the Geneva Bible. It includes, between the Old and New Testaments, a translation of the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is of course not inspired, so why was it included in the Geneva Bible? The authors included the following as “The Argument” of the Apocrypha:
These books that follow in order after the Prophets unto the New Testament, are called Apocrypha, that is books, which were not received by a common consent to be read and expounded publicly in the Church, neither yet served to prove any point of Christian religion, save in as much as they had the consent of the other Scriptures called canonical to confirm the same, or rather whereon they were grounded: but as books proceeding from Godly men, were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of the history, and for the instruction of Godly manners: which books declare that at all times God had an especial care of his church and left them not utterly destitute of teachers and means to confirm them in the hope of the promised Messiah, and also witness that those calamities that God sent to his church, were according to his providence, who had both so threatened by his Prophets, and so brought it to pass for the destruction of their enemies, and for the trial of his children.
Similar thinking can be extended to a study of post-Biblical church history, writings, and heroes. History displays God’s faithfulness. History reveals God’s providence. History portrays God’s patience.
I can hear the common objections already, “But that’s all stuff we know from the Bible!” True. “God gave us everything we need for life and Godliness in the Bible!” True. “Sola Scriptura!” Amen. But your exclamation of, “Sola Scriptura!” came from your knowledge of the Reformation. I think you miss my point.. Let’s start with explaining the importance of learning God’s character from history.
Consider 1 Kings 20:23-28:
Now the servants of the king of Aram said to him, “Their gods are gods of the mountains, therefore they were stronger than we; but rather let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we will be stronger than they.
Then a man of God came near and spoke to the king of Israel and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Arameans have said, “The Lord is a god of the mountains, but He is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’”
Notice the horrific Syrian theology: YHWH only has jurisdiction over the hills. I assert we use similar theology frequently in our thinking: “Of course God helped Paul through all his trials and persecutions, but I’m in over my head and can’t handle this,” or, “Of course God took care of the Israelites in the wilderness, but he’s not really going to provide for me financially unless I ace all my classes and get into a good grad school and get a great job,” or, “Well God answered Elijah’s prayers, but he won’t really answer mine.” A knowledge of church history shatters this thinking. You see the same God perform the same actions throughout history—providing for his children, supporting his servants in persecution, answering the prayers of his saints. He does the same today. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That record is incomplete without church history.
Concerning providence: if you don’t see the hand of God behind the invention of the printing press occurring around the time Tyndale and Luther started translating the Bible, if you don’t see the hand of God behind the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the preservation of protestantism in the UK, if you don’t see the hand of God behind the Spitfires and Hurricanes over the skies of Britain in 1940 preserving religious freedom and general morality in the Western world, if you don’t see the hand of God behind the choice of British military command during the 1770’s (“Never in the whole history of England were her troops led by men so inefficient, so sluggish, and so incapable as those who commanded her armies in the American Revolutionary War,” says G. A. Henty), if you don’t see the hand of God behind bringing a former slave trader into the life of MP William Wilberforce, then where do you see God working in the world? Do you really understand the detailed control He exercises over the universe?
So far I’ve made two main arguments: First, that the study of church history will give us examples of how we are to lead our lives, and how not to lead our lives. Second, that a study of history, and particularly its relation to the church and her members, reveals God’s character to us. I now move to a third. A knowledge of church history allows us to better develop our own theology. This is the argument to which I most expect the objection of, “Sola Scriptura!” I therefore quote Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology:
The Bible is no more a system of theology, than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics. We find in nature the facts which the chemist or the mechanical philosopher has to examine, and from them to ascertain the laws by which they are determined. So the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other. This constitutes the difference between biblical and systematic theology. The office of the former is to ascertain and state the facts of Scripture. The office of the latter is to take those facts, determine their relation to each other and to other cognate truths, as well as to vindicate them and show their harmony and consistency. This is not an easy task, or one of slight importance.
For our source of spiritual truth, we can confidently cry, “Sola Scriptura!” However, we need to interpret it correctly. We need to arrange its ideas and be able to express constructs not explicitly stated, such as the trinity or the doctrines of the atonement or the details of the imputation of Adam’s sin. We need to find ways to apply Scripture’s truths to situations not explicitly mentioned, such as computer hacking or dating. We need a systematic theology and a Biblical worldview. So in order to develop this, we need teachers and pastors and elders and disciplers. See Proverbs 15:22:
Without consultation, plans are frustrated,
But with many counselors they succeed.
I assert that the principle behind this proverb is quite simple: other counselors will see your blindspots. They’ll see obstacles you did not. They’ll better spot your inconsistencies. And the more different they are from you, the better they are for this purpose. So let us have dead Christians become our counselors. For their completely different culture and times will let us best see some of our modern Western blind spots. And by seeing theirs, we can learn from their mistakes, or perhaps learn that we are wrong and they are right after all. On this note I cite C. S. Lewis’ On the Reading of Old Books. I strongly encourage you to read the entirety. I quote only:
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.
As regards systematic theology, these old books may best allow us to ensure that our theology is correct. For we know that there is nothing new under the sun, and hence our theology shouldn’t be. So it is quite probable someone has said before, and much better, what we have intended. (For example, compare the Lewis link to this blog post.) And perhaps that will also enable us to better develop our theology. For who, after all, by reading the Bible over and over as a lay person, is going to arrive at a better description of the trinity than in the Athanasian creed? Or who, by studying the Bible in spare time, is going to arrive at a better description of man’s purpose than the Westminster Shorter Catechism? Not, that a man could not reach this conclusion on his own, but that it would only come with great labor and difficulty. And not that there is no better wording, else it would be in Scripture, but these works have persisted through the centuries as classics; they have stood the test of time. The church has deemed them immensely valuable and helpful, often the most helpful works of their generations.
Practically, the reason people aren’t more familiar with church history is that they don’t care about it. What knowledge we have makes us complacent. We know the Gospel and have some limited working understanding of the atonement. We have an idea of how we can pursue our sanctification. What more do we strictly speaking need? The (sarcastic) words of a dear friend of mine state this feeling quite clearly: “The goal of the Christian life isn’t to do the bare minimum, it’s to do a little bit better.” Sadly many people guide their lives by that principle: be saved and do some Christian things to pass the bare minimum threshold.
I began this post with Hebrews 12:1. We fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the finish line of the race. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:1. Our goal is to be like Christ, not be a little bit better than the bare minimum. This leaves no room for complacency: for we can’t be good enough; Christ is infinitely good. This returns, though, to my point. Older Christians model for us how to strive to be like Christ. Lord willing there are many living examples of faithful Christians in your lives to follow. But as a church we share a common legacy of famous great examples to follow: famous Christians of the past, famous for their faithfulness to the Lord. And we can learn from their example in how they lived. We can learn from their words. Insomuch as they followed Christ, we can enhance our own capacity for the same.
A final brief but valuable argument to my point: a familiarity with church history promotes global church unity. Sometimes we forget about the doctrine of the global church, so I remind you:
She is from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
What is most remarkable about the faithful saints of the past is that they held the same faith that we do. They had our same fundamental convictions. And so they share that with the entire true church throughout the world. Being reminded of this strengthens our relationships with Christians from other churches, other denominations, and other nations. And sharing the same history is but another piece of our familial bond in Christ. And surely knowing that history would help us understand where they came. Surely it would help us better respect their beliefs and convictions. Surely we could learn from that how to love them better. Which will be helpful—we have to love them forever in heaven after all. This is no hippy, dippy, skippy unity derived from pretty pink unicorns dancing on fluffy, colorful rainbows in the sky while eating candy corn, but rather the Christ centered unity declared in Philippians 2 and Ephesians 4. Suffice it to say, this unity is a Biblical priority.
I conclude my arguments and pass on to application. What exactly have I been arguing for in the past 2000 words? Why does it matter? I want us to avoid the trap of becoming isolated Christians—isolated from the church we came from, from the heroes who went before us, and from those around the world who can see our sin better than we can—thinking in our pride and stupidity that we have this Christianity thing figured out for ourselves, and through our own expertise. Basic familiarity with history and regular reading of books that were not written in our time is instrumental in defeating this pride.
Thus the application: find a dead author and read his books. (Or her books, for example my mother has given Stepping Heavenward to a number of teenage males.) If the author’s any good, find a biography about him. To those of my age: stop being the TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) generation. Good things require time and effort. Stop insisting that our spiritual instruction come from sound bytes and two minute youtube videos and short, bullet-pointed, click-baity blog posts like at Relevant. That has never been the way of theological development in the past, and I sincerely doubt God intends it to be the means of theological development now. Our laziness and unnecessary busyness shall be the death of our spiritual growth. This is an example of the spiritual apathy I mentioned in a previous post.
I conclude this ridiculously long post. Go read an old book by some faithful believer so dead you’re not really sure what language he spoke. Ultimately, we can imitate such ancient saints as they imitated Christ:
As saints of old still line the way,
Retelling triumphs of His grace,
We hear their calls and hunger for the day
When, with Christ, we stand in glory.