Why Should I Know the History of Christianity? Here Are 5 Reasons
Perhaps there is no more urgent task for the church today than heeding these words. Ian Shaw aims to help us.
In Christianity: The Biography Shaw charts the story of Christianity from its birth and infancy among a handful of followers of Jesus Christ, through its years of development into a global religious movement, spanning continents and cultures and transcending educational and social backgrounds. Here’s why:
Understanding and preparing for the future of the church requires opening the book of its past. The biography of Christianity has not been one of constant advance and progress. In times of growth Christians should not exult overmuch; in times of decline they should not despair. (3)
Burke and Shaw offer one reason why we should know the history of Christianity: our future depends on it. Here are five more.
1) We Need to Look Up and Take a Bigger Perspective
First, Shaw observes how Western and non-Western cultures read history:
- Western culture has become intolerant and suspicious of the old; there’s a supreme confidence in the new, which by definition has to be better; tradition is branded as “institutionalism” and a resistance to progress
- Non-Western cultures don’t divide the past and present, the living and the dead as sharply. “There is deep respect for the wisdom of old people and their traditions and forebears” (2)
Shaw encourages readers to do what the Lord himself encouraged Abram to do: “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west” (Genesis 13:14). In other words, take a bigger picture by respecting the past.
2) We Are Suffering from Ecclesial Alzheimer’s
“The Roman writer Cicero,” writes Shaw, “argued that the person without any knowledge of events from before he or she was born would forever remain an infant. The loss of community memory in some parts of the Christian world is deeply concerning” (2).
He likens such loss to Alzheimer's patients, for such people “cannot remember where they are, where they have come from or even who they are” (2). We must guard against the same loss by understanding our story and historical journey.
“For Christians the biography of Christianity is the history of their family and an exploration of their heritage. It should be an exciting adventure of self-discovery” (2).
3) We Ourselves Are Making History
The individual life of faith, the endeavors of their churches, the decisions of Christian leaders, denominations and organizations—all leave footprints on the sands of time. (3)
Given that we ourselves are adding to Christianity’s storyline, and those before us have often failed at writing our history, Shaw insists we should regularly ask ourselves “How can Christians today avoid making such a mess of things again?” (3) We can only answer this question if we know the history of Christianity.
In answering this question, Shaw also insists we should take care not to airbrush away the mistakes and ugly episodes of our past, so as not to repeat them. “Hagiography is historically dishonest.” On the bright side, reviewing history reminds us “God can use ordinary people in extraordinary ways” (4).
4) We Are Commanded to “Remember”
Another reason we should know the history of Christianity is because the command to “remember” runs strong throughout the Bible. Here’s one example:
In Joshua 4 the Israelites were told to build a monument from stones that had been in the middle of the River Jordan to provoke the question from passers-by ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then the history of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan would be retold. (3)
Of course, the bread and the cup of Holy Communion are similar historical markers, which Christ commanded us to “eat” and “drink” in order to “remember.” The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed are similar markers of remembrance, since “Remembrance is designed to feed faith” (5).
5) We Mature By Studying History
And yet, history marches forward; it’s not static. “It involves change,” reminds Shaw, “and Christians must keep up with it: Christians should not live in the past” (5).
Whether of a historical person, empire, or movement, when reading a biography you’ll notice growth and development. Therefore, finally we study church history to grow, develop, mature. “The study of history of Christianity brings maturity by rooting understanding in the reality of what actually happened…” (3). Shaw goes on:
Far from letting the past impede progress, Christians should humbly respect and build on its positive achievements and critically discern the not so good. Recalling the past should build capacity to live faithfully in the present and to be prepared for the future. (5)
“Opening up Christianity’s biography should deepen theological understanding and build faith, and inspire a longing to meet the One behind the story” (6).
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