2. Learning church history will curb the arrogance of our present.
Some evangelicals could very well define “church history” as “the study of how everybody misinterpreted the Bible until we came along.” In fact, on several occasions I’ve heard people actually say, “I don’t care if I’m the first person in history to read the Bible this way. If that’s what Scripture says, then I’m going to accept it.” We should admire this confidence in Scripture, but that statement places a lot of unquestioned confidence in one’s own abilities to properly interpret the Bible. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, but I don’t believe in the sufficiency of self. The kind of arrogance that makes a person completely abandon the contributions from the past is what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” which he defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.” (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life [San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955], 207–8)
Grown men often look back over their lives and reflect on how far they’ve come and the progress they’ve made throughout. But poet Thomas S. Jones presents the opposite perspective: what if the younger version of me were to peer forward and see what kind of person I have become? He mused:
Across the fields of yesterday
He sometimes comes to me,
A little lad just back from play—
The lad I used to be.
And yet he smiles so wistfully
Once he has crept within,
I wonder he still hopes to see
The man I might have been.
Those words haunt me. I often wonder what the bygone generations of Christianity might think if they could peer “across the fields of yesterday” and see what had become of the faith for which they lived and died. I constantly ask myself, “If the church fathers or Protestant Reformers were to show up at my church, would they worship . . . or run?” Sometimes I see such a pitch of “chronological snobbery” in many of our avant-garde churches that I wonder if we would purposely drive them off . . . then brag about having done so!
Studying church history will help evangelicals understand their place in church history. It will help them see that their particular church tradition—with all its idiosyncrasies—is a flawed but valid part of something much bigger than themselves. They will realize that their present form of Christianity is itself a period that will one day be left in the distant past. They will be humbled by the moving testimonies, passionate ministries, and sacrificial devotion of the saints of old. The result? Church history will curb the arrogance of our present.