Lecture: The Necessity of a Biblical Perspective on Church History
Ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests from South-Korea,
It is an honour for me to address you this day about the topic of church history. But first, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alexander Treur. I am one of the Religious Instruction Teachers at the Jacobus Fruytier. I was asked to share with you some ideas about the importance of church history. I have given this lecture the title: The Necessity of a Biblical Perspective on Church History.
To underline the need for a biblical perspective on church history, let me first begin by telling you what an unbiblical perspective on church history is. This will help us to see what we gain by a biblical perspective on church history. So first a wrong way of looking at church history. If we, as teachers, are only interested in learning students mere facts, we are approaching church history from an unbiblical point of view. And possibly even with an unbiblical attitude. If we try to approach church history as an essentially neutral attempt to repeat the facts, we forget our theology (Williams, 2013). This is what D.M. Lloyd-Jones called ‘antiquarianism’. An antiquarian loves an old chair just because it is old and not because of the ability it has to sit on it. If we teach church history only as something from the past, without teaching our students that church history can help us deal with the present situation in the church and in the world, we make a big mistake. If we only learn our students the facts without challenging them to interpret them with the key question: ‘What does this particular part of church history tells you about God?’, we are unfit for our task.
So mere antiquarianism is wrong. Facts matter, but always in the context of the works and acts of the Lord. To say it in Latin, our lessons about church history have to be taught Coram Deo, before the face of God. But Coram Deo also entails teaching under the authority of God and to the glory of Him. From this starting point we are privileged to tell our students about great men in our churches who have worked for the Kingdom of God. We look at these men in order that we may learn from them, and imitate and emulate their example (Lloyd-Jones, 2001). And let’s not forget that to speak and think about the people of God who have preceded us is a Biblical commandment! The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us so: Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (13:7-8). So the Bible itself urges us to speak, meditate and teach about the past in order that we may gain hope and faith for the future.
The Bible itself is in essence a history book, full with the works and acts of God. So teaching history is a fundamental Christian activity, because it is what the Bible does (Williams, 2013). The Bible tells us that it was God who created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). God in His goodness started the history of mankind. The Old Testament tells us about God providence for Israel and the promise of the coming Messiah Jesus Christ. In spite of the Fall, the Lord did not stop to take care for His creation. God has not abandoned this world. He is concerned about this world and its affairs and is doing something about it (Lloyd-Jones, 1999). In the New Testament we read about the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The One who came to die for sinful men and women. To think and speak about the works of the Lord in the past should fill us with hope and admiration. In the Acts of the apostles we read about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is the third Person of the Holy Trinity who takes care of the church in order to edify her, cleanse her and build her up. So speaking about the church history is essentially speaking about the works of the Holy Spirit. In spite of all the efforts of the devil, the church is still there. And she will be until the end of times. Not because of us, but because of Him. Soli Deo Gloria!
Another important thing there is to say about church history is that it is part of the Salvation History. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that the Lord is not slow to fulfil His promise, but is patient toward us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. Thinking about church history should therefore be done in light of Gods patient for us. In Dutch we speak about ‘genadetijd’, which means that there is still time to repent and seek forgiveness and salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ as long as we have the breath of life. The history of the church challenges us and our students. It brings us into connection with the great Head of the church. The history of the church asks us whether we are familiar with Him. Literally if we have become a relative of Him. That is the reason why there is not such a thing as ‘neutral’ church history. The Bible speaks with great awe, respect and reverence about the works of the Lord in the History of the church and in the lives of individual believers. For example in Psalm 103:2: Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. Let us search ourselves thoroughly if we are gripped by the greatness of God, because our students will notice this during our lessons. They see right through us. They will most definitely see if we are familiar with God’s grace and mercy or if we are alien to it. That is the reason why we should teach church history from a biblical perspective, in order to learn our students to look at the world as God describes it in His Holy Word. Apart from Christ the universe would unravel and spin out into billions of unconnected parts and we would leave our students without hope and without a proper perspective on the past and the future.
The person of Jesus Christ should be the key through which we study the history of this world and of the church. It is from a biblical perspective even possible to say that all history is in essence church history. Because through the ages until the second coming of Christ, God is gathering His church, preparing and persevering her. In other words, if historians don’t build their history-telling upon the foundation of Jesus Christ they are missing the point.
It is not a question whether we should teach our students about church history. If we want to see our students grow up as mature Christians who are able to see God’s hand in their own lives, they have to know God’s hand in church history. Institutions, governments, and organisations will come and go, but the church will last to the very end. To see God’s care for the church in this world through the sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit, is to see the key both to world history and to biblical revelation (Williams, 2013). The church is called together to be presented to Christ as a bride at the end of times, unspotted and unwrinkled. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him; His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:14).
The church history will not go on forever. Jesus Christ will return to this earth to judge the living and the dead. Our lessons about church history have to go about the past but also about what is to come. If we take the Bible as a model for our church history lessons, our education will automatically connect the past with the present time and the present time with the future of the church. This is not possible in the case of world history lessons, but the Bible grants us a view of the future. For example in Revelations 7:9: After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.
What a future awaits the church! The apostle John saw a great multitude that no one could number. He saw the people that had lived before him but also the people that would be born long after he had gone to glory. In other words, he also got to see us. He saw Christians from the all over the world. He saw Christians from South-Korea and from the Netherlands. Let us pray for each other so that we will be encouraged to seek the best for our students. Let us tell them about the constant love and care of God for His church. He will not forsake us. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted. But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me." "Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me (Isaiah 49:13, 15-16).
So whether we speak about Paul, Augustine, Luther or Calvin, we should always do this with one purpose in mind and in our heart: to glorify the triune God!
To see Gods care for the church should also fill our hearts with shame. Most of the time mankind was not cooperating with God, but instead was trying to ruin the Christian church. Sometimes even with the best intentions! False doctrine about the Bible, wrong views about redemption and the role of the Saviour have often made the spiritual life of the church crumble. We often pushed the church into the desert of our sinful constructions instead of the green pastures of God’s Word. And then to see God’s providence and fatherly care for the church!
Due of the limited time, I will give four short arguments and pointers why we should teach church history from a biblical perspective. This part of my lecture will serve as a kind of summary of what I have said before. So why is it necessary to teach our students church history from a biblical perspective?
First of all, it gives the right perspective on the history of the church and in a sense of mankind. No culture can live long without an articulated history. In telling history we define our world. Or better said, we define God’s world and we locate ourselves at a particular point in it. History is fundamental to our sense of who we are as men but also as Christians (Williams, 2013).
Second, we in the Netherlands are rapidly going back to a pre-Christian mode of living. A lot of churches are closing. The secularization is horrible. We as a reformed school are privileged to be financially supported by the government. But for how long? Anti-religious and anti-Christian tendencies are growing in the Netherlands. In some countries real persecution of Christians take place every single day. In times like ours we can and must look to the history of the church. For example to the days of the early church. They also lived in a time with many dangers from within and from outside the church. The ethics of those days weren’t any better of ours today. The Bible and the church history can help us and our students to stand fast. We must not give in or give up. Let us be a light to those who walk in darkness. Our Lord Jesus Christ urges us to. Because it is righteousness, and righteousness alone what exalts a nation (Lloyd-Jones, 2001). The history of the church clearly shows us so.
The times are bad, let us be honest about that. There is a tremendous moral breakdown. So much crises in marriages, church and even in the life of our students. How can we help them? By providing them a biblical perspective on church history. By taking them by the hand and showing them God’s faithfulness and tenderly care for His people. It is as the writer of Psalm 119 sings: ‘If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life’ (92-93).
Thirdly, the church history provides us with more than enough examples that it is worthwhile to live to the honour of God. Many enemies of God and the church have gone. They were lost in the clouds of history and will not come back to live on the new earth that is coming. But countless men and women have lived for the honour of God and they were not made ashamed. Let us inspire our students by telling them about men who lived there life before God. About the martyrs who could smile in the face of persecution, just because they experienced the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. Let us tell our students about men who knew that without praying they were helpless. Let us tell them about the reformers and the puritans to whom we owe so much. In other words, let us show our students the goldmines of our past. And let us pray that they will find in the midst of all those witnesses the most Precious One of all, the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Fourthly, the history of the church teaches us that churches worldwide are under a constant spiritual attack of the devil. Whether he brings false doctrine, liberal theology or temptation, he is always trying to destroy what the Holy Spirit has built. This is the same today as it was in the past. The tactics of the devil may change, the goal remains the same. A total destruction of the truth that there is only life in Christ through His redemptive work. A big challenge for the church at this moment is the so called health, wealth and prosperity Gospel. This false doctrine misleads people in believing that earthly possessions can bring true joy and happiness. What a denigration of the true message of the Gospel! Thousands and thousands, even in South-Korea fall for the evil of the health, wealth and prosperity Gospel. The situation is alarming! Our students will form the church of tomorrow. A church which have to take care for the Christian heritage.
Let us therefore dig into the treasures of the church history and its teachings. Just like Luther and Calvin have done. Of course they were great theologians with a tremendous legacy and yet, their most profitable contribution to the church was the rediscovering of what Augustine already had discovered, and which had been forgotten (Lloyd-Jones, 2001). That there is only justification by faith alone! The history of the church points us back to the origin, to the norm and the standard which are to be found in the New Testament. And that is how the circle of this lecture is complete. The Bible urges us to study church history, and church history urges us to constantly return to the Scriptures in order that we and our students may find guidance and direction for our lives.
Finally, I hope that I have convinced you about the necessity of a biblical perspective on church history and that you have received some guidelines and input which will help you to seek the best for young Christians in South-Korea. May the Lord bless you abundantly in your work and personal life.
I would like to end this lecture with an old English hymn which sings about the beauty and secret of the history of the church:
O Word of God incarnate,
O wisdom from on high,
O truth unchanged, unchanging,
O light of our dark sky!
O make thy Church, dear Saviour,
A lamp of burnished gold,
To bear before the nations
Thy true light as of old.
By J.W.J. Treur MA, Religious Instruction Teacher at the Jacobus Fruytier Scholengemeenschap in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands.
Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1999). Authentic Christianity : Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 1, Acts 1-3. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.
Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (2001). Knowing the Times. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.
Williams, G. J. (2013). Silent Witnesses : Lessons on Theology, Life, and the Church from Christians of the Past. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.