In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones discusses the following benefits of studying church history:
Church History Guards Us Against Error
Most of the theological discussions that people have today, as well as most heresies that exist today, were already discussed, debated and settled within the first 500 years of Christian history. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are basically neo-arians, and their view of Jesus is the same one which led to the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed. The modern heresies of today are really just rebranding and recycling older ideas which the church has already spent a lot of time addressing.
For more on Arius and Arianism, check out: Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?
Lloyd-Jones says this:
The way to safeguard yourself…is to learn something about heresies—how they arose in the past generally through very good and conscientious men. History shows how subtle it all is, and how many a man lacking balance, or by failing to maintain the proportion of faith, and the interrelationship of the various parts of the whole message, has been pressed by the devil to put too much emphasis on one particular aspect, and eventually pressed so far as to be in a position in which he is really contradicting the Truth and has become a heretic. So Church history is invaluable… It is not the preserve of the academics. I would say that Church history is one of the most essential studies for the [believer] were it merely to show him this terrible danger of slipping into heresy, or into error, without realising that anything has happened to him.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (pp. 128-129).
Church History is a Source of Encouragement
Some people think about studying church history as being kind of like a visit to a sausage factory: the finished product might be great, but the way it was made wasn’t pretty. On the contrary, I would say that church history should cause us to be filled with wonder and amazement that in spite of human folly, errors, and mistakes, God has providentially guided and protected His Bride, because He loves her and is devoted to her.
Lloyd-Jones says this:
I know of nothing, in my own experience, that has been more exhilarating and helpful, and that has acted more frequently as a tonic to me, than the history of Revivals.
Take the time we are living in. What discouraging days they are, so discouraging that even a man with an open Bible which he believes, and with the Spirit in him, may at times be discouraged and cast down almost to the depths of despair. There is no better tonic in such a condition than to familiarise yourselves with previous eras in the history of the Church which have been similar, and how God has dealt with them.
The French novelist Anatole France used to say, whenever he felt tired and jaded with a tendency to be depressed and downcast, ‘I never go into the country for a change of air and a holiday, I always go instead into the eighteenth century.’ I have often said exactly the same thing, but not in the same sense in which he meant it, of course. When I get discouraged and over-tired and weary I also invariably go to the eighteenth century. I have never found George Whitefield to fail me. Go to the eighteenth century! In other words read the stories of the great tides and movements of the Spirit experienced in that century. It is the most exhilarating experience, the finest tonic you will ever know.
For a preacher it is absolutely invaluable; there is nothing to compare with it. The more he learns in this way about the history of the Church the better preacher he will be. At the same time let him, of course, during this training become familiar with the stories of the great men of the past, the great saints and preachers. It will not only act as a wonderful tonic to him in times of depression, it will keep him humble when tempted to pride and a spirit of elation.
Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Preaching and Preachers (p. 129).
Where to Begin?
There are a lot of really great books on church history. If you know a good one, please feel free to post it in the comments section.
I think a great place to start, with a book that is accessible, substantial, and enjoyable to read, is From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya by Ruth Tucker.
Also check out this great free online lecture series on church history from David Guzik at Enduring Word.
Another great resource is Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath, which doesn’t sound like a church history book by the title, but approaches theology by looking at it through the development of Christian beliefs over the course of history.
We also offer a class at White Fields on church history. Check out our School of Ministry page, and if you’re interested in the class, shoot us an email at the address listed on that page, and we’ll keep you posted on when we will be hosting that class again.