Rev. Spronk is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan. This is the edited text of the speech Rev. Spronk gave at the annual meeting of the RFPA on September 25, 2014. First article was in the November 15, 2014 issue, p. 89.
We have to know church history because it is required by God (see the previous article). We also want to know church history because of the rich benefits the knowledge of this history affords us. Of the numerous benefits of knowing church history I have chosen to highlight four in this article.
First, knowledge of church history gives us the opportunity to see the grace of God at work in the salvation of His people. We are able to say with the psalmist in Psalm 40:5, “Many, O Lord my God, are thy wonderful works which thou hast done, and thy thoughts which are to usward: they cannot be reckoned up in order unto thee: if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered.” Certainly we see God’s wonderful works when we study Scripture, but we also see them when we study the history of His church.
Who raised up Athanasius to develop and defend the church’s confession of the doctrine of the Trinity against the heresy of Arius? God did! Who raised up Augustine to develop and defend the doctrines of grace against the hellish teachings of Pelagius? God did! Who raised up Luther to deliver the church from all of the evils of the Roman Catholic Church and rediscover the truth of justification by faith alone? God did! And who raised up John Calvin to bring about a more thorough Reformation of doctrine and worship? God did! What do we see in the Reformation of the church known as the Afscheiding in 1834? What do we see when we study the PRC history of 1924 and 1953? We see God at work preserving and purifying His church.
A second benefit of the knowledge of church history is that it can help protect us from errors. There are important lessons to learn from church history when it comes to maintaining and defending the truth. Just as the truth develops in every age, so too does the lie. If we study how the church rejected false doctrine in the past, it will enable us to reject false doctrine today. Take the Federal Vision (FV), for example. The FV is a development of the Arminian heresy rejected by the Canons of Dordt. Arminianism teaches conditional salvation. The FV teaches a conditional covenant. Arminianism denies the five points of Calvinism. The FV in a more subtle way also denies the five points of Calvinism. As Protestant Reformed Churches we have been able to use our understanding of how the doctrines of grace refute the conditional theology of Arminianism to see that these same doctrines of grace refute the FV’s conditional covenant theology.
But the study of church history does more than help the church fight against old heresies that come in new clothing today; it teaches the church about other pitfalls to avoid. The study of church history warns the church not to neglect the exercise of Christian discipline. The disastrous consequences of neglecting discipline are recorded repeatedly on the pages of church history. Throughout history, evil spread in the church when discipline was neglected. Sadly, many churches today have not learned about the importance of discipline. That is one reason we are seeing the spread of great evils in the church. The theory of evolution has spread throughout many denominations. Many have approved women’s ordination. And homosexuality is on the way to gaining widespread approval in churches. Why? In part, because the people who promote such ungodliness are not disciplined.
The study of church history also warns against false church unity, that is, unity at the expense of the truth of the gospel. Today, for the sake of unity, emphasis is placed on areas of agreement rather than on differences. So now evangelicals are willing to seek unity with the Roman Catholic Church. They will stand with Rome to fight against abortion. They will stand with Rome to fight against homosexual marriage. But they will not fight against Rome’s false gospel. The doctrines that distinguish evangelicals from Rome are viewed as unimportant and are being lost. For example, many evangelicals seem to be willing to compromise even the doctrine of justification by faith alone. If evangelicals would study and embrace the history of the Reformation, they would never make any doctrinal compromise with Rome.
A third benefit of knowing church history is that it gives us strength and courage to be convicted of the truth. The church needs more conviction today—the knowledge of the truth, but also the willingness to stand up and say what the truth is and not be moved from it. We live in a post-modern age in which the attitude is that there is no propositional truth. This thinking influences the church today. Theologians admonish church members not to be convinced that what they believe is true and what others believe is false. It is valid to believe God created the cosmos in six 24-hour days, but they say, you should be open to other opinions. We are told as Protestant Reformed Churches that it is all right to reject common grace but we should not make it a matter of conviction. We should not allow the issue to become a reason for division.
In this day of doctrinal spinelessness the church needs to learn from men of conviction who stood up for the truth in the past. We need to learn of the conviction of Athanasius who stood, it is often said, “against the world.” We need to learn the conviction of Luther, Calvin, De Cock, Hoeksema, and others who were willing to endure harsh consequences for standing for the truth. Conviction is not an indication of evil pride. Conviction is godly zeal for the truth of God that has characterized His people through the ages!
And I believe that studying church history as an encouragement to be convicted of the truth is especially important for the Protestant Reformed Churches. We are a small denomination. Not many people today agree with the articles of the Christian faith as taught in our churches, especially when it comes to confessing sovereign particular grace and rejecting common grace. This can be unsettling. It may even cause us to waver in our conviction. But if we study church history and see that what we believe is the same as the saints who have gone before us, then we know that we stand with generations of believers who confessed the same thing. We do not stand alone. We stand with the church of all ages!
A fourth benefit of studying church history is that it enables us to see more of the beauty of the truth of God’s Word. The church must not simply try to cling to the past. That is done sometimes today. Some people think that the development of the truth ended with the Reformation. I am convinced that this is why the charge is often lodged against the Protestant Reformed Churches that our teachings are extra-confessional.
That charge is really a compliment. It means that we have been blessed with growth in our knowledge of the truth. Nothing we teach is contrary to the confessions. I am convinced of that. But it is true that some of what we teach is not fully explained in the confessions. For example, our confessions do not have a full explanation of our doctrine of the covenant of grace. That is because the truth of the covenant was not understood as fully at the time our confessions were written as we understand it today. Having studied the confessions carefully, we have been able to grow in our understanding of the covenant and see more of its beauty than previous generations could.
Church history provides many examples of how the church uses the knowledge of the past to continue to grow in the knowledge of the truth. The church’s confession of the Apostles’ Creed, which is Trinitarian in structure, later led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which more fully explains the truth of the Trinity. If the church had neglected the Apostles’ Creed, she would never have been able to come to a deeper understanding of the truth to write the Nicene Creed. The Canons of Dordt more fully explain the doctrines of grace taught in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. The Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession are the stem of TULIP (five points of Calvinism) and the Canons of Dordt is the beautiful flower that the healthy stem produced. If our church fathers did not know and consciously build on the past, we would not have our beautiful Canons of Dordt!
Think of how privileged we are to be part of the church today. We have the privilege of seeing more fully the beauty of the blossoming of the Reformed truth than the saints did in the past. John Calvin never knew the Canons of Dordt. And although he taught the doctrines of grace, he did not know or understand God’s sovereign particular grace as we do today because of our history of battling against common grace. And although we can trace our covenant doctrine back to Calvin, he did not understand the covenant of grace as clearly as we do today. Standing on the shoulders of the saints who went before us, we are able to see the beautiful truth that the covenant is an unconditional and unbreakable bond of friendship that God establishes with His people in Jesus Christ.
The opportunity to grow in our understanding of the truth makes the study of church history exciting! If you study church history you will not only have the pleasure of seeing the beauty of the truth as it was confessed in the past, but maybe the Spirit of truth will enable you to see some beautiful aspect of the truth you never saw before.
I hope you are convinced that it is not only an obligation but a joy to study and know the history of the church.