Reformed believers will know that the Great Reformation of the 16th century, which we remember each October 31st (next Monday), is just part of the much bigger picture of God’s Son gathering, defending and preserving His church from the beginning to the end of the world (LD 21). There’s tremendous value in knowing about Christ’s work in church history.
What’s the benefit of reading church history?
First, seeing Christ pursuing His work is a stimulant to marvel at His continuing care for His church, which He loves so much that He gave His life for her, and to praise Him for this. Second, it helps us to identify the ways He does this and to be reaffirmed in the Gospel truths which Satan repeatedly attacks. Third, it affords us encouragement and rich comfort amidst those ongoing onslaughts of the devil.
As G Slings [i] says:
This is a wonderful certainty for the children of the LORD. No matter how hard Satan tries to destroy the Church, he will never succeed. He can try to introduce a false doctrine. He can try to remove the Church from the face of the earth through persecution, but the church will always be there. For there is someone who looks after the Church, and that is our LORD Jesus Christ. He is given all power in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He is the guarantee that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).
Indeed, familiarity with church history can help develop deeper appreciation of what it means to belong to Christ’s Church. But there’s still more benefit: it helps the reader to understand our own times, to see the King of kings moving forward relentlessly towards the culmination of history also today, despite all the resistance of the Satan. And it helps us to take a Scriptural position in this spiritual warfare.
We must tell our children about church history
Like the Israelites, who had to build monuments of stones so that they could be used as a stimulus to tell the following generations about the LORD’s great deeds, we must pass on to the children our even greater wealth of information of the LORD’s great deeds. That requires us to be familiar with it, of course. Whilst our primary source of information is God’s Word, we can also glean much about Christ’s further church gathering work from good church history books.
Good church history books by reformed authors. The late Rev K Bruning, in his preface to Young People’s History of the Church, [ii] made the following remarks:
Pure reproduction of Church history is the result of Scriptural judgement, confessing God’s work. Writing a good Church history book is possible only through a true faith in God’s Word and work. The book is trustworthy in so far as the material does justice to – and takes a stand for – God’s work in the preservation and reformation of His Church, once paid for by the precious blood of Christ.
To quote Rev Bruning again:
By means of this material – for reading and for study – future generations of the Church will see increasingly how wonderful it is, how blessed they are, to belong to a Free Reformed Church. Knowing this will add to their insight into their calling.
Yes, the calling. We all know what that is because we confess it in Lord’s Day 12: it is to share in Christ’s anointing—to confess His name, to sacrifice oneself in thankfulness to Him, to fight against sin and the devil (LD 12). It is to walk with God as He moves forward towards the return of Christ, towards the great judgement day and the glorious eternal paradise of God.
Walking with God through history
Walking with God requires knowledge of the Bible and of subsequent church history. For walking indicates movement and walking with God indicates moving in the direction God is going and at the pace God is moving. It is knowing what time it is on the clock of world history.
Consider the examples of Enoch and Noah. Both, say the Scriptures, walked with God. After the fall into sin, the antithesis set by God resulted in a dual development: Christ versus Satan, Christ’s church versus a world under the sway of Satan, godly life versus ungodly culture. A mere seven generations into human history sees those godless giants of human strength and achievement – Lamech and his inventive sons. At the same time there is that rapidly dwindling group of godly people.
What have they got to show for themselves, those churchgoers? Where is their culture? Have they developed anything comparable to Lamech’s sons – tents, iron implements and music? No, they have nothing to show for themselves.
But we do read something of infinitely greater value: Enoch walked with God. That is, he was a cultural force in the service of his God, the Grand Cultivator of history. Enoch saw God moving forward in the antithesis that had developed, knew how late it was on the clock of world history, knew that God’s judgement was inevitable. And therefore… he prophesied. He warned those godless people of the inevitable judgement that lay upon them (Jude 14). However, such warnings are most unwelcome with the ungodly and he was taken up into heaven to escape death at the hands of an angry world. [iii]
Of the Church a few generations later, only Noah and his family are left. Noah, the other one of whom we read that he “walked with God”. He too knew how late it was on God’s history clock. He too preached about the coming judgement in the face of ridicule and scorn. You can just imagine them mocking this “fool with his ridiculous shipbuilding project”. Yet it’s not through the cultural achievements of Lamech’s descendants but through this despised little group of believers that God brings judgement and a new beginning.
This is another great value of church history. It shows God pressing on and triumphing through His church. The world, which measures things in human terms, cannot see it because it does not have what Rev Bruning called “that true faith in God’s Word and work”. It may be explained to them. They may understand what’s being said. But without that true faith in God’s Word, they remain in darkness.
Church history through world history
God has all world history in His hands, but it functions for the sake of Christ’s church. In broad brush strokes He even tells us how. We see that in the example of Nebuchadnezzar. When, in the days of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar sought the permanence of his Babylonian world empire, God gave him that dream of the image with a head of gold, chest of silver, loins of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. The different metals, we read, represented successive world empires, each one less impressive than the previous one. The dream also showed a stone which broke the image into dust, and which grew to become a mountain.
Nebuchadnezzar understood, even believed, the message God gave him in the dream, but revolted against it. His response was to create his own image entirely of gold. Did God say that his kingdom, the head of gold, would be replaced by another, one of lesser quality? This must not happen. He, Nebuchadnezzar, would ensure that his kingdom would be a permanent, glorious kingdom. Hence his demand that all the political figures in his unified world empire should show their allegiance to his ideal of a permanent Babylon by bowing to his image.
But what can puny man do before the omnipotence of God? God laughs at rulers who rebel against Him (Ps 2). Despite Nebuchadnezzar’s best efforts, his empire was replaced by a less impressive empire, in accordance with God’s Word. The world empires came and went as God foretold, but through them all the stone, God’s Church, continues to grow—despite the fury of the Satan.
Christ ensures the continuation of church history
Church history shows how Christ ensures the continuation of His church gathering work despite Satan’s fury reaching a peak after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit moved many to believe in Jesus Christ and when fledgling churches were being established through the apostles. Having failed to prevent the promised Messiah’s birth, work and ascension to glory, Satan turned all his efforts to destroying Christ’s New Testament Church.
Yet there’s comfort even in this traumatic time of church history. For the irony is that every attack of the Satan was turned against him and was used to promote the cause of Christ’s church and hence of His kingdom. When the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection, flared up in anger at the Christians, people’s attention was drawn to the great event – the resurrection of Christ – and many people believed. When the Pharisees, enraged by Stephen’s words about Christ fulfilling the law, persecuted the Christians, the fleeing Christians spread the Gospel as they went and more people embraced the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When Saul zealously persecuted the church (and thereby Christ), the Lord converted him and Paul’s zeal was channelled into establishing congregations. When the fanatical hatred of the Jews against Paul forced him from city to city, he spread the leaven of the Gospel right through to Rome, centre of the world empire. Satan’s every attack turned out to be counterproductive. Whether he used persecution (Saul), or lies (Ananias and Sapphira), or false doctrine (Judaists), or discord in the congregation (Corinthians), Satan’s every effort was turned to the benefit of the church.
Subsequent church history shows Christ continuing to uphold His church against enemy attacks. He converts Constantine to Christianity so that the church can expand and prosper throughout Europe. When heresies develop, believers study God’s Word and the church gets her three creeds. The decline of the church leads to the Lord giving reformers and the great Reformation with its tremendous impact on Western civilisation and culture. He gives society the printing press so that the common people can read the Word of God. Persecution leads to the Belgic Confession which is adopted by the church. The heresy of Pelagius leads to the Canons of Dort. And so the list goes on. Church history teaches us to recognise our enemies and to identify the tactics of the Satan. It also shows Jesus Christ working through history and turning events to the well-being of the church.
That’s the comfort and encouragement we draw from church history today. As in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, it’s the power play of the leaders in politics that attract the attention of the masses while the church is treated with the barely disguised contempt – if not open hostility – which Lamech’s line held for Seth’s line, which the Babylonians held for the exiles from Judah, which the Jews and Romans held for the Christians, and which the godless of this age hold for believers. But the thing to watch is not the image representing world power, however glittering the political scene may be and however much the media may focus our attention on it. The culmination of history will not come through escalating tensions between China and the USA, or through other political strife, but through Christ gathering, defending and preserving His Bride, the church, till the last of His elect has been gathered in.
Therefore, the thing to watch is the development through history of that stone, the Bride of the One Who directs all things and Who presses all history on to the grand finale. A sound knowledge of church history in Biblical times and later history helps us to appreciate who God is and what He has done and is doing today in Christ our Lord. It helps us to detect the spirits, to understand what’s happening – also on the local ecclesiastical scene – and to determine if we are remaining Bride of Christ. Are our congregations ‘pillar and bulwark of the Truth’, our families places where we nurture godliness, our people holy, walking with the Lord? For the future, as Nebuchadnezzar’s dream showed, lies not with the world but with that stone, Christ’s church, cared for by Christ to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.
[i] G Slings, Outlines in Church History, Pro Ecclesia Publishers, Armadale, Western Australia, 1988.
[ii] W Meijer, Young People’s History of the Church, Vol. 1, Publication Organisation of the FRCA, Launceston, 1967 (out of print).
[iii] K Schilder, Licht in de Rook, (Light in the smoke), W D Meinema, Delft, 1923 (rev. 1951), pp, 79ff.