Pillar Journal

History liberates us from the tyranny of the present

Church history repeatedly confronts us with something that is different from our experience. It stretches our understanding as it challenges our assumptions.

The study of church history also liberates us from what C. S. Lewis (1898– 1963) called “the idols of our marketplace.” Note Lewis’s argument for the need to read old books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period…. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.1C. S. Lewis, introduction to St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (1944; repr. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1982), 4–5.

Church history repeatedly confronts us with something that is different from our experience. It stretches our understanding as it challenges our assumptions—and in the long run, teaches us wisdom. American church historian George Marsden writes,

History is of major importance in alerting us to the transitory character of many of the values of our own age and culture. Rather than unknowingly allowing our values to be conformed to passing contemporary standards, we can strive to evaluate our current cultural norms intelligently and to apply to them the transforming values of Christ.2George Marsden, “A Christian Perspective for the Teaching of History,” in A Christian View of History?, ed. George Marsden and Frank Roberts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 33–34.

Popular culture in Western nations is sadly enslaved to the present. The only thing that matters, people believe, is what we experience now. They generally do not value tradition or the past; rather, they exalt innovation and progress into the future. J. G. Vos (1903–1983) wisely said, however, that “all true progress is building on foundations laid in the past. Only by appreciating the past can we have a truly valid attitude toward the present, and only so can we build soundly for the future.”3J. G. Vos, “The Use and Abuse of Church History,” Banner of Truth no. 66 (March 1969): 25. Building on those foundations, we see in the light of God’s Word that there is more to life than our own tiny slice of experience. God is advancing the kingdom of His Son among the nations, one soul at a time. That perspective ennobles the mind beyond the confines of our own interests or those of our clan or nation. We are part of something much grander than the here and now.

Studying history helps us make a balanced evaluation of our own times. We can easily become discouraged when our present situation looks grim. It is easy to think that these are the worst of times and that Christ must return soon or all hope is lost. A review of church history, however, enables us to remember that God’s people have always faced extremely dark times, only to experience revival in the years that followed. Conversely, an ignorance of history leaves us vulnerable to the delusion of too much optimism as we become blind to the weaknesses of ourselves and our churches. History shows how great works of God are mingled with much human weakness and sin, so that the sweetest revivals were tainted with bitter failures. For example, the Great Awakening in eighteenth-century England and North America produced much revival and yet was accompanied by excesses and fanaticism. In a word, a knowledge of history keeps our eyes on the Lord, for we know that mere man can neither defeat God’s purposes nor live up to His high calling.

A Christian view of history helps us see our present moment in light of creation, redemption, and the completion of God’s saving purposes. God’s creation of the world gives the present its reality, goodness, and meaning. Redemption reveals God’s love and righteousness in a world where what we see can be opaque to the eyes of faith or even apparently opposed. God’s promise of completion answers the brokenness, sorrow, disorder, corruption, wickedness, injustice, and death that plague us now. God’s Word thus allows us to receive the present with thanksgiving but delivers us from the tyranny of the present and gives us transcendent hope. As John Leith wrote of Calvin’s theology,

Hope places history in tension with that which is beyond history. Life within history is always not yet completed. It looks to its fulfillment beyond history. This tension between life as not yet completed and life as fulfilled energizes the whole Christian existence and drives it forward. It gives zest and purpose to life. 4John H. Leith, John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989), 146–47.

Excerpt From
Why Should I Be Interested in Church History?
Joel R. Beeke and Michael A.G. Haykin