Overcoming the poverty of memory | Studies in church history

Part 1: The need to remember

The church

“Surely one of the remarkable aspects of Christianity today is how few of these professed believers have ever seriously studied the history of their religion.”

– Bruce Shelley

A friend of mine, Red Constantino wrote a book entitled: The Poverty of Memory and one of the main theses of the book is that the reason why the Philippines is what it is today is because it is guilty, of one particular sin – the sin of forgetting.

Whether you all agree or me with not, but I dare say that the Christian Church is likewise guilty of the same sin. We are guilty of not looking back, that’s why the same heresies that popped in the 1st 300 years of the church are still thought of as something new. That is why we cannot find ourselves in the common table with other Christians is because we focus more on the distinctives that we emphasize on; distinctives that were borne out of history, which divide us of our common witness to Christ.

We are guilty of forgetting – that’s why we are a poor witness to the world. We are guilty of forgetting that’s why we keep on making the same mistakes that dispels the compelling message of Christ in our congregational witness. We are guilty of forgetting that’s why we don’t pick up the lessons that were learned by the community gathered in Christ in its communal obedience to follow Christ.

We are guilty of forgetting by thinking that our local church suddenly came out of Luther’s opposition to the Catholic Church. We are guilty of forgetting whenever we believe that Christianity somehow started in Acts 2, eventually corrupted by Constantine and then emerges after a few centuries later in Martin Luther.

We are guilty of forgetting – that’s why we think highly of ourselves and our local church. It is in our forgetting of our history that we act as though we are the only valid expression of the Christian faith and that other Christians are in some way lower than us. Consider how we look at Christians from the liturgical, Pentecostal, emergent, charismatic and other traditions. Do we not think ourselves higher than they are that whenever they would do something that we do not fully understand we would be quick to brand it as heresy or false teaching?

We are guilty of forgetting. Because it is in this forgetfulness that we forget that God is present in the midst of the people who gather in His name, throughout its history. One of the interesting attributes of God is His omnipresence which means He is present everywhere, and that presence transcends time and space to disregard God’s presence in our church’s history is to devaluate this attribute of God.

Why we should study church history

The primary material that I plan to use in our study is Bruce Shelly’s Church History in Plain Language I have found this book exceptionally useful in clearing out clutters of biases that I use to have with Grace Bible Church and the Evangelical tradition that I belong to. But more importantly it has also taught me to hold firm to my convictions of what is Biblical and orthodox and at the same time appreciate the reality that God is present in the 2000 years of His church that has become an incarnate witness to His Son.

In a more recent interview with Shelley he noted that the story of the history of the Church is a drama, a powerful drama. Therefore we ought to study it and here are several good reasons why we should study it:

  1. It gives you understanding. How did we get the way we are? A study of the drama answers that. The study of history can make you wise without gray hair and wrinkles (though one certainly cannot say the same about the writing of that history!)
  2. The study of history introduces you to new friends. How else could you meet Augustine, John of the Cross, Martin Luther, John Wesley or Charles Finney? Only as you investigate the drama can you meet them.
  3. You learn the price that was paid for you!
  4. You avoid the pitfalls and the land mines of history. It has been said that he who is not a student of history is condemned to repeat it. The study of history is not done to exalt tradition. In fact, tradition can be enslaving. As Richard Halverson noted, “Tradition can be dangerous. It can not only modify the truth; it can replace it altogether.” A study of history teaches us which traditions are suffocating and need to be avoided and which are so crucial that they must be preserved at all costs.
  5. Studying history increases your effectiveness. You see what worked, what was effective. Mark Shaw said it all in the title of his book, Ten Great Ideas from Church History.
  6. History enhances your endurance. When you see what those before you endured, you will be encouraged to persevere.
  7. History will inspire you. Information may guide you, but inspiration keeps you going. A study of history can inspire. Hopefully, this one will.
  8. History makes the dead come to life. My friend Harold Ivan Smith says “no person is dead as long as someone keeps saying their name or telling their stories.” By telling this drama, the historical figures live once again.
  9. The study of history humbles you by helping you to understand that there was life before you were born. John Wesley once said to Adam Clarke, “If I were to write my own life, I should begin it before I was born.”1

What to expect from studying church history

A secondary reference that I will be using is Timothy George’s History of Christianity, and I would like to borrow some tips for getting the most out of the study of church history:

1.    Look at your learning about Christian history as coming to a great family reunion where you will find out about your kinfolk.

And if you are a committed Christian you are indeed coming to be with family for you are a part of God’s household of faith.

But even if you are not a believer, you are still invited!

This is a family that always has a seat at the table for anyone who wants to come. The Gospel is an invitation for everyone and this is one family that wants you to come in.

2.    Realize that as you come to the story of the church that it is different from anything else you might take up. It is indeed a strange one! Historian Paul Maier said that “Today, Christianity is the most successful single phenomenon, statistically considered, in all of history” (Eusebius, The Church History). He doesn’t exaggerate.

But at the same time this most successful entity is constantly and painfully aware of its many shortcomings. The church has fallen far short of what it might have been and needs to constantly repent of her sins and to heal and grow and reach out. So we are dealing with something that is at the same time glorious and weak.

3.    Keep reminding yourself to look for the big picture. You can’t help but see flaws, disgraceful aspects, even scandals. Remember we called this a family. And it is a huge family. Do you know any family that is not without its embarrassing stories and problem people? But as you look deeper you will find that this family, in spite of its frail ones, is a marvel that has survived and persisted even though its very essence and existence has been threatened in many ways at different times. Somehow it coped. Still it survives. Its doors are always open. And never forget that this is the institution that at is best seeks out the worst, welcoming in and caring for those who no one else wants.

4.    Be prepared to lighten up and realize that God must have a wonderful sense of humour. Go back to Jesus and see how he built His inner circle from ordinary working people from remote Galilee, not from the religious elite in Jerusalem. And sine that time God has been full of surprises, often choosing and using the most unlikely.

5.    Also keep in mind that we can cover only such a small part of the story. In fact we only know a small part of the story. We have no doubt that many of the greatest heroes and most devout are totally unknown to the record. But God knows. At least thankfully, we do have more than we can ever master. But what we don’t have is even greater.2


Studying church history should not be done for knowledge’s sake it should lead us to a humble recognition that we are a part of the community that God has been with in our 2000 years of history to bear witness to Him and His reconciling of all things to Himself through Jesus Christ.

Studying church history teaches us to read the Bible responsibly. Because history gives us an insight into how God’s people responded to the meaning, implications and commandments of God’s Word thru the ages in their obedience to follow Jesus.

If history is God’s story – HIStory then church history is our story and our responsibility is to re-tell our story in a manner that our story will proclaim and ultimately glorify God who has summoned us in Christ of His mission in HIStory through Christ.

We must understand that the way we are living now as individuals and as a church in a way makes us authors of minor sub-plots in the future’s church history, therefore if church history is part of the drama of God’s dealing with man through the community that gathers around Jesus, we must make our lives and our church dealings count as good stories.

Church history teaches us to love our fellow Christians and the Body of Christ in a manner that is not self-seeking, as we have mentioned earlier the Church is our family our global family and whether we like it or not those of the same household share the same covenant kinship with God thru Christ, therefore we must see Christ in our fellow believers.

Lastly, studying church history teaches us that the Church starts and ends in Christ who has revealed, Himself, redeemed us from the wages of our sin and summoned us to become one with Him in spirit and in truth as we live history towards a communion with our Triune God who has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Spirit.Notes:

[1] Shelley, Bruce – http://www.jimgarlow.com/?page_id=151

[1] George, Timothy – History of Christianity p.5

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