Church History

Teaching Church History in Our Churches

St. Paul's Cathedral, London

History is boring! How many times has that been said, mostly by schoolchildren who have to learn names, dates, and events for an exam? History can be boring, but it doesn’t need to be.

I have been a vocational historian of Christianity for the past two decades and have had the joy of teaching aspects of the subject to men and women around the world, in classroom settings as well as church settings. One of my goals is to teach history in a way that makes the story come alive, stirs interest, engages the listeners, and demonstrates its relevance to my hearers. Of course, to do this, to make history alive, engaging, interesting, and relevant to others, it has to be all of those things to me. I can’t teach others to love what I find boring or uninteresting.

Therefore, while I taught seminary, I tried to give my students a love for history. Sometimes it worked. A few years back, a student who had struggled a bit in class called me from his first pastorate to tell me he had been visiting a retirement center and had run into a retired priest who probed the young Baptist pastor about church history. The former student was elated that he felt he could go toe to toe with the retired gentlemen. Admittedly, I found this story satisfying, for I had evidently accomplished my goal.

So even if we are not vocational church historians, why should we teach church history in our churches? How will stories from the past profit churches today? What purpose might it serve to provide believers with occasional or regular lessons or illustrations from church history?

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From the Archives – Making Church History Relevant for Pastors & Students (Part 2)

From Faith Pulpit, Summer 2015. Used by permission, all rights reserved. Read Part 1.

Example: Transubstantiation

The Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church in 1215 mentioned the term “transubstantiation” to describe what happened in the Mass. Transubstantiation taught that the bread and wine actually and literally became the body and blood of Christ. But how could this be, seeing how everyone still tasted bread when they partook? The doctrine had been building steadily for some three centuries prior, but how could the scholastic intellectuals of that day explain and justify something which obviously went against the experience of everyone who participated?

As Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) would clarify, when the priest pronounced the words of consecration, the “essence” of bread and wine changed to become the essence of Christ’s body and blood. The “accidents” (the external characteristics of the bread—salty, sweet, crunchy, soft) remained the same. How can the RAMHI help us understand this monumental doctrine of the Catholic Church?1

First, who was in charge? The answer is the scholastics of that day, and Thomas Aquinas in particular. They sought to give a “scientific” or credible explanation for this unusual occurrence.

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When the Government Told Churches What Language to Speak

"Part of the history of us Missouri Synod Lutherans, a church body that was started by German immigrants fleeing persecution from the state church, is how congregations switched from the German language in worship to English, due to the patriotic anti-German sentiments of Americans during World War I." - Veith

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From the Archives – Making Church History Relevant for Pastors & Students (Part 1)

Ancient Corinth

From Faith Pulpit, Summer 2015. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

Most of us took our church history classes1 in Bible college or seminary (or both) because we had to complete another requirement to graduate. Of course, there were some famous episodes within the last 2,000 years of Christian history that we wanted to know about. And we were told, as the common maxim goes: “Those who do not learn from the errors of [church] history are destined to repeat them.” Also, I remember one revered seminary professor at Faith telling us that the department of church history was always the last in a theological institution to turn liberal. If that is the case, surely there must be something important in those historical classes that will help us remain true to our Biblical heritage.

The challenge is how to discern what those lessons might be in the midst of all those religious figures, civil leaders, dates, locations (mostly European), and events. Sometimes students get lost in all the details of the (admittedly lengthy) narrative. A legitimate question to ask of church history is: How does knowledge of this material matter to my life and ministry? My response is that submitting a given event or period of church history to a prescribed model provides a helpful way to answer this question.

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Book Review – Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era

Daniel R. Bare, Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity* in the Segregation Era (New York University Press, 2021). 260 pp. $30.00 USD

Ever since George Marsden published his landmark work, Fundamentalism and American Culture, in 1980, a steady stream of books on the movement has flowed from the American press. However, virtually all of these books have focused on the movement’s most prominent institutions and leaders, which were white, leaving a generation of readers with the impression that fundamentalism was an exclusively white phenomenon. It was with great interest, then, that I took up Daniel Bare’s new book, Black Fundamentalists, which chronicles the African American contribution to fundamentalism during the crucial years 1920 to 1940.

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