Why Study Church History?
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Over the next 6-8 months, we are going to have articles examining Christian history in the second century AD. These articles will help us understand our need to study Church history.
In the second century AD, events took place that had a tremendous impact on Christianity. There was a sudden flood of influence from Roman culture, Greek philosophy, and other religions. People tried to mix these different viewpoints with the Bible. They would then try to label this mixture as true or pure Christianity.
Among the false teachings that appeared during this time are as follows: the belief that Jesus came to destroy the “God of the Jews”; the belief that an inferior god created physical matter and a superior God made spiritual things; the belief that the Sabbath belonged to another deity; and many other strange views. The teachers of this time tried to mix known writings of the New Testament with their own ideas to form a new, hybrid canon of Scripture.
In this same period, we find a number of writers who tried to combat these heresies. One of their greatest tools in this battle was their knowledge of history!
As we undergo this months-long study, we will learn that there are three main reasons to study Church history.
The first reason that we need to have at least a general understanding of Church History/Roman history is that it will help you to identify teachings that are not compatible with the Bible. Let’s look at a few examples.
One of the main heretics in the second century was a man named Marcion. Hippolytus, who opposed him, wrote that Marcion copied the teachings of an ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles, who lived in the 400s BC [Refutation of All Heresies, bk 7, ch 17-20]). He refuted Marcion’s claim that his teachings came from the first Apostles by appealing to the similarity of teachings between Marcion and Empedocles.
It became mainstream to syncretize Christianity with Greek philosophies, including Plato. Clement of Alexandria justified the concept of an eight-day week from Plato and the number eight (Stromata, 5:14). The eight-day week does not exist in the Bible (it was a Roman practice). Besides, Plato was a heathen philosopher. Why would we use him to explain any practice?
Many of the second-century heretics tried to claim that they were in a line of apostolic succession from the very beginning. To counter this assertion, the writer Tertullian appealed to the historical record of bishops in every city to show that these heretics had no such connection (Tertullian, Against Heresy, chapter 32). Tertullian referred to documents that existed in his day.
A second reason to study Church history is that such knowledge can help us avoid mistakes of the past or to repeat successes. Let me give you a great example.
At certain points in history, Christians have tried to predict when Jesus was coming back. This goes back as far as the 1500s (and possibly earlier). Hans Hut thought the Kingdom of God would come in 1528. The Millerites thought Jesus would come back in the 1840s. There have been other such predictions (such as those in the 1900s).
What is the valuable lesson we can learn here?
We don’t need to make predictions about when Jesus will come back. It will only cause humiliation and loss. In fact, Jesus said, “no man knows the day or the hour” (Matt. 24:36).
The common thread from these historical examples is that we need to avoid extra Biblical beliefs. In the second century, some people tried to exchange the Bible for Greek philosophy. In the case of predictions, they just ignored Scripture altogether.
Third, our knowledge of history will enhance our understanding of certain Scriptures that are taken out of context.
When we know our history – where we came from and what we have been through – we can better direct our advancement of the gospel and protect ourselves from false teachings.
In the months to come, we will bring each of these items to life in our series on the second-century Church. It was the century that had the greatest influence on modern Christianity and explains the rise of people who desire to return to the first century church.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President www.biblesabbath.org