History is easily one of the most misunderstood disciplines, especially in Singapore. Here in Singapore, students often have the impression that history is a subject to memorise. And they spend time memorising their textbooks that they fail to see beyond the content. Hence, most students in Singapore tend to avoid history when they pursue their further studies. However, as Christians, we need to realise the importance of history in Christianity and see beyond our misunderstandings. Now, I am not only talking about church history but the study of history in general. You can read why church history is important in this post by Christianity Today.
In this post, I would like to offer eight reasons on the importance of history in Christianity.
#1: Christianity is inherently based on real history
The issue with Christianity is that the Bible does not claim that the narratives in it are myths or legends. These are narratives based on real history. Therefore, when we read the narratives, we are actually reading a record of history. This applies as much to the narrative of Abraham to the narrative of Esther and Nehemiah. Even in the OT, God is intentional in ensuring that the nation of Israel remembers their history. For example, when the Israelites crossed the Jordan river after forty years of wandering, this is what God instructed them to do:
When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, 3 and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.
The reason for the stones is mainly so that the Israelites will remember the history of how they crossed the Jordan river. Even in the Psalms and the Prophets, God continues to remind them of His history with the nation.
This applies to our New Testament accounts as well. Our central thesis and truth for Christianity is that God sent His Son to become man incarnate to die for our sins. So, what this means is that Christians cannot afford to be apathetic to history. We read history when we are doing our devotions. We study history when we are studying the bible.
This brings me to my next point.
#2: The defense and study of the Christian faith hinges on history
Because Christianity claims itself to be based on history, the defense and study of Christianity hinges on our study of it. There are many points to be made here. Firstly, when we study the Bible, we need to be aware of the historical background of not only the purpose and occasion of the books, but also the cultural historical backgrounds of the contents. For example, in the book of Philemon, we study not only why Paul wrote the epistle, but also need to study the concept of slavery and patronage amidst all things. This requires us to dwell into history.
Secondly, we need to understand history before we can understand how to defend our gospel accounts. In the Bible, we have four different gospel accounts that accounts different details of Jesus’ life and death. If we have understood historiographical method, we will know that in any historical narratives, the author will always have a purpose and message to argue for his narratives. This will shape the way he writes his narrative. This is the same for the four gospel accounts. Each gospel writer had their own purpose and reason for writing their narratives. They had different audience to address to and hence, they wrote their accounts to meet the needs of their audience.
Based on this brief account, it is not surprising that understanding the importance of history in Christianity will aid us a lot in not only our studies but our apologetics. I often tell people, I started my journey of bible study through my own study of the history behind the texts. My own bible study skills grew when I began to understand the historical context behind the texts.
#3: History serves to remind us of the faith of martyrs
History records the life and death of not only Jesus but also the martyrs who died for his sake. The book of Acts already recorded the death of people like James and Stephen. But there are many more martyrs who died over the years Such martyrs include the likes of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In these characters, they died as a direct result of their Christian faith. But despite what they went through, they were able to remain steadfast to God. This is certainly something history can continue to remind us, that Christianity is not a bed of roses and God never promises good ending (at least not in this era) to His people.
#4: History serves to remind us of God’s faithfulness
That God is faithful is a fact that the Bible often reminds us of. However, how do we know that God is really faithful? In some sense, faithfulness is a quality that can only be proven over time, not at a point in time. This means that God must continually prove Himself in order to demonstrate that He is faithful. Imagine, I keep telling my spouse that I am a faithful husband but I have never demonstrated my faithfulness in concrete terms. That is where history comes in. History serves to remind us of God’s faithfulness over history. And this is one technique that the Scripture writers employed.
For example, in the epistle of Romans, Paul devoted three chapters worth of content to go through the history of Israel to remind his readers of God’s faithfulness. This is the discussion found in Romans 9-11. Likewise, when we study history in Christianity, we find that God’s faithfulness can be found through the pages of history, and even in the personal histories of many Christians. And when we are reminded of God’s faithfulness, we find that it becomes progressively easier for us to trust God for our future.
#5: History helps us to remember the theological errors of the past
The correction of theological errors and false practices is another importance of history in Christianity. The present is usually the product of the past and the seed to the future. Paul reminded us in Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 that the events of the past are to help us avoid the evil and emulate the good. Ignorance of the Bible and the history of the church is a major reason why many advocate false theologies or bad practices.
For example, we remember the theological debate of Arianism which leads to the Council of Nicaea. Despite the colourful depiction by Dan Brown, this council was actually there to debate about the divinity of Christ, whether Christ is truly human or divine. Today, this error manifest itself in the form of cult groups such as Jehovah Witness.
So theological debates do not normally take place in a vacuum. By learning history, we learn how some of our theologies take their present form. This helps us to appreciate that we truly stand on the shoulders of theological giants who had come before us.
#6: History helps us to remember our common heritage amidst our diversity
The history of man and his religious life cannot really divorce from one another. One who has studied the history of the church will sense the unity of the true body of Christ and not be denominationally provincial. He will also become more tolerant of those who differ with him on nonessentials but accept together with him the fundamental doctrines of the faith.
This point is crucial as we face so much diversity within the church today. Without understanding this common heritage, we fail then to recognise our roots. We run then the risk of becoming vigilante from the larger body of Christ. It is because of this that I normally encourage ecumenical collaboration between Christians from different traditions. The knowledge of this common root helps me to appreciate the theological differences while not having a kind of Pentecostal/Charismatic arrogance towards my own theology.
#7: The importance of history in Christianity lies in the fact that it links our past to the future
History links the past of the Christian gospel with the proclamation and application of that gospel in the future. It shows the Spirit of God in action through the church during the ages of its existence. It also shows a meaningful link between exegetical and practical theology as the student sees how systematic theology has made an impact on previous human thought and action. As we begin to trace the development of these Christian thoughts, we begin to appreciate that we truly stand on the shoulders of giants. This gives us assurance that God will continue to work in the future just as how He worked in the past.
#8: Our testimonies are part of the Christian history
The last importance of history in Christianity lies in our testimonies. We may not realise but our experiences with God are part of that history as well, even if they do not get recorded down in the annals of history. Of course, with social media, it is easy to share these stories. But each of us plays a part in God’s history. We play a role in the building of His church and kingdom. Hence, understanding how history works is really crucial for everyone of us.
So the study of history is indeed important in Christianity. Our entire faith is built on the foundations of real historical events. It is in these events that God did His redemption work. And it is in the history that follows that He continues to do it. In fact, history is perhaps one of the most important subjects that a Christian can ever consider as part of his study in theology and the Bible. In any case, it will become inevitable that he will touch them anyway.
So what do you think? Share your thoughts with me about your views on history in the comments. I will love to read them.