Don’t Know Much about History? (5)
“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
With these words the Lord Jesus announced His agenda for the last days, the days in which we are living, and in which the Church has been growing and developing since the first Pentecost (Acts 2:14-17). Seated at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus is upholding the universe and all things in it, unfolding the divine economy in every nation and among all peoples and cultures. And central to His agenda is the work of building the Church.
Look at the state of any nation or culture, at any point in history, and you will find in many respects a reflection of the state of the Church. As Augustine and Edwards point out in their sweeping overviews of the divine economy, God’s primary focus at any point in history, and within any nation or culture, is the work of building His Church. Typically, we find the story unfolding along one of the following lines: preparation for the Church, establishing the Church, building and expanding the Church, the Church flourishing, or the Church in decline. The story of how God calls, equips, commissions, and uses His people at any period of history is without doubt the most thrilling and rewarding of all topics for historical study.
There are many ways to approach gaining an understanding of Church history, and many lessons to be learned along the way. The place to begin, perhaps, is with a survey of Church history. A good survey will provide a centuries-long account of the ways the Gospel became established in a culture, how the Church began to grow, what its influence was during any period of history, and how it responded to the unique set of historical, social, and cultural circumstances it confronted. My favorite survey of Church history is the volume, A World History of Christianity, edited by Adrian Hastings. In this volume the historical development of the church in the various cultures of the world is written by representatives of those cultures. Thus the reader is treated not only to an overview of the Church but of how it took particular shape in the cultures where it became rooted.
A second way of gaining an understanding of Church history is to read an annotated anthology of documents representative of the character of Christianity in a particular time or place. For example, the volume, Celtic Christianity, edited by Oliver Davies, features an ample selection of documents showing the emphases and character of the Church in Celtic lands between the years 430 and 900 AD. Davies’ book includes samples of liturgical, theological, devotional, historical, and mystical documents which, together with the editor’s comments, help readers to engage a little-known period of Church history.
Yet another approach is to look at a cross-section of a period, to understand the state of the Church in a given period of time. Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianizing the Roman Empire provides a concise explanation of how the Gospel impacted – and was impacted by – the Roman world of the first four centuries. Mark A. Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity provides an even more concise and in-depth analysis of the state of the faith of Christ throughout the world in our own day.
Of course, you can also find excellent biographies and studies of issues that can open your mind to the ways Christ has built His Church in previous generations. Because the Church is central to human history, we do well to gain a good working knowledge of what our forebears understood, endured, and achieved as followers of Christ in their day.
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For more insight to the role the Church has played in history, order the book, The Church in History, by B. K. Kuiper, from our online store. More insight to the importance of history can be gained from reading the article, “Whose History is This?” by Chuck Colson.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.