All history is modern history," said Wallace Stevens. That is, whatever happens today is built upon yesterday; so the better we understand the past the better we shall understand the present, and the more effectively we will be able to shape the future. Ignorance of history is lamentable, and obliges people to walk the same dark paths their ancestors have trod, like prisoners going around in a treadmill. Christian people especially should know something about the background to their faith, otherwise we shall not only repeat the follies of our fathers but also make their sufferings vain. The importance of history is endorsed by God; the Holy Spirit is himself an historian. Consider how much of the Spirit-inspired scriptures are history! In particular, the Spirit is a church-historian, composing the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Apocalypse (history in advance). We ignore biblical history and church history at our peril!"
There are four major periods in church history:
- the First Millennium (to the 11th century)
- the Middle Ages (to the 16th century)
- the Reformation (to the 18th century)
- the Modern Church to the present day).
The following chapters deal with the most amazing of those periods, the first 1000 years, with some intrusions into the second period, followed by a brief survey of the following millennium. I have chosen to concentrate on the first ten centuries, (a) because most people are almost totally ignorant of what happened during those years; and (b) because the story they tell must surely be the world's most dramatic tale. The adventures of the new church ran the gamut of human experience, rising and falling between lofty nobility and squalid ignominy. Here we see a people collapsing from grandeur into disgrace, or rising from basest cowardice to incredible bravery. Here we find chronicles of love and hate, laughter and tears, triumph and defeat, vice and virtue, greed and generosity, failure and success. The finest and the foulest of human behaviour lie in the annals of the church; but in the end love and grace prevail, and Christ gains honour from his people. The word of the apostle is fulfilled -
- "Unto God be glory in the church and in Jesus Christ, throughout every generation, and for ever and ever! Amen!" (Ep 3:21).
Bill Vasilakis offers the following reasons –
- it is fascinating: the story is exciting in its own right, with endless action, incredible exploits, marvellous heroes, unspeakable villains, and all the drama and amazement that do indeed make truth stranger than fiction
- it is satisfying: for it fulfils our deep need to understand our origins, and therefore what the present means, and what destination we shall reach as we journey toward tomorrow. Indeed, can anyone have any true sense of where they are going if they have no sense of where they have come from?
- it provides knowledge: the doctrines that are now widely believed in all branches of the church are based nearly as much upon historical developments as they are upon scripture alone. And history has had more influence than scripture in creating the various Christian denominations. We cannot possibly understand why Christendom is so divided if we have no knowledge of the events of the past.
- it brings strength: how terrible, how insuperable, how strong, were the enemies the first Christians faced as they set themselves to fulfil the Great commission. Yet they overcame even the most awful barriers, until Christianity finally became the only lawful religion in the Roman Empire. Seeing how the church overcame impossible obstacles in previous centuries greatly encourages us to believe that it will overcome those of our time.
- it creates sympathy: knowing the facts of the past, we can better understand the problems confronting some churches in the present, which may make us a little less critical of others, and more aware of our own shortcomings.
- it imposes responsibility: gazing at the heroism, seeing the tears and toil, trembling before the bloodshed and anguish of those who preceded us, and knowing the debt we owe them, should make us more careful to pass on a good inheritance to those who will follow on our steps.
- it brings instruction: the successes and failures of the past provide examples for our guidance today. We can learn from our forefathers. We are the beneficiaries of their triumphs; we bear the burden of their defeats. Their story shows us how to serve God better, and how to crush Satan utterly. But if you don't know, how can you learn?
Any reader of these pages may be well pleased if the end result proves to be a deeper sympathy for other Christians, and for the historical processes that have brought each of us to our present place. As I have already suggested, the study of history should shape us into citizens of the world, like the chivalrous Sir Thomas Browne. He dared to call himself "Christian" because he was free of the prejudices and animosities that so bitterly overshadowed much of the religious world in his 17th century –
"I dare without usurpation assume the honourable Style of a Christian. Not that I merely owe this title to the Font, my Education, or the clime wherein I was born ... but having in my riper years and confirmed Judgment seen and examined all, I find myself obliged by the Principles of Grace, and the Law of mine own Reason, to embrace no other Name but this. Neither doth herein my zeal so far make me forget the general Charity I owe unto Humanity, as rather to hate than pity Turks, Infidels, and (what is worse) Jews; rather contenting my self to enjoy that happy Style, than maligning those who refuse so glorious a Title."
A similar magnanimity should mark all who name the name of Christ.