“Of all the means of estimating American character . . . the pursuit of religious history is the most complete.”
Why would the pursuit of religious history estimate American character so well? And what can be gained by studying church history in the first place?
People are defined by what they believe. What one says they are and how they live proclaims their character. A study of how someone views God and religion and how that has translated out in how they worship says volumes.
To define anything means having an established foundation to base one’s definition upon. It is important to know what you believe, and that belief must rest in something unchanging, such as the Word of God. How history has answered to the very premise of the Bible is astounding. Put no determination on life without allowing the Bible to define how you will live.
Phillip Schaff said:
“The pleasures of reading history are manifold; it exercises the imagination and furnishes it, discloses the nuances of the familiar with the unfamiliar, brings out the heroic in mankind side by side with the vile, tempers absolute partisanship by showing how few monsters of error there have been, and in all these ways induces a relative serenity.”
When one sees ideologies that have for the most part faded away with the newness of our culture, they realize that they are on an ever-expanding timeline that is manifestly kingdom-like. Thus they have the enjoyment of knowing that they are filling our space on this expansive vision that God is fully in control of.
To see the failings of the past along with the victories gives us a benchmark as to where one needs to go and what needs to be changed so their success can be further guaranteed. It was David Carlin Jr. who said:
“Ironically, the best way to develop an attitude of responsibility toward the future is to cultivate a sense of responsibility toward the past. . . . We are born into a world that we didn’t make, and it is only fair that we should be grateful to those who did make it. Such gratitude carries with it the imperative that we preserve and at least slightly improve the world that has been given us before passing it on to subsequent generations. We stand in the midst of many generations. If we are indifferent to those who went before us and actually existed, how can we expect to be concerned for the well-being of those who come after us and only potentially exist?”
Since people are born into a world they did not create, nor did they create their present cultural standards, they need a benchmark to look to in order to know how they should live. The mistakes made in the past by individuals within the church are mistakes not to be taken lightly. The victories likewise need to be studied to know how to better navigate the murky waters of an age that believes it is “enlightened.” But is this enlightenment really based on historical Christianity?
“How should we then live” as put forth by Francis Schaffer, is often best answered by how have godly men and women lived in the past. The best way to really understand this is through a study of Church history.