In each of the admittedly few church history courses I have taught, not a few students have entered the classroom with the familiar face of dread. Beginning students of church history, it seems, expect the history of the faith to lack interest, importance, and contemporary relevance. Thankfully, it is for precisely this audience that Robert F. Rea, professor of church history and historical theology at Lincoln Christian University, has written Why Church History Matters.
Rea specifically intends to address “Bible-focused” Christians, those who “hold the Bible dear and study it in order to know God and God’s truth” (p. 17). This group, among whom Rea counts himself a member, feels a particular tug towards dismissing church history in favor of more Bible-centered disciplines. Rea writes to convince his tribe that not only can church history be interesting, but in fact it is essential to rightly interpret the text and applying it in the contemporary context. He provides a “call to Christians who love the Bible to study historic Christians and their wisdom and experiences throughout the ages—to understand the Bible and theology better and to experience a fuller Christian life” (p. 15).
Rea lays out his case in three well-defined sections. Part One focuses on defining and explaining terms. This discussion centers around the idea of “tradition”—what it means and how various strains of the Church have understood and applied tradition. Rea identifies the misunderstanding and misappropriation of tradition as one of the main reasons many Bible-focused Christians, and particularly evangelical Protestants, have ignored or downplayed the importance of church history. Combatting this tendency, Rea argues that Christianity is necessarily “dependent upon and explicitly concerned with tradition, because the entirety of Christian identity depends upon real events in history” (p. 30). The passing on of the faith through generations and contexts is the continuation of that true historical story, and therefore the continuation of that tradition. Thus, “tradition is both necessary and inevitable,” and by paying attention to it, Christians will be more equipped to study Scripture, understand theology, and communicate their faith in their own context (p. 34).
Rea argues in Part Two, the strongest and most important section of the work, that the Christian life is practiced in dialogue with “expanding circles of inquiry,” meaning we are shaped and informed most immediately by those closest to us in time, space, worldview, etc., but we are likewise shaped by those farther out, including Christians from other denominations, other cultures, and other centuries. The Christian life is enhanced by careful attention to these expanding circles of inquiry, including great tradition of Christian history. Thus, church history helps shape our personal and corporate identity (chapter 4), as we discover that our own beliefs about the Bible and the essence of true Christianity line up with those of men from centuries past. Church history also provides fellowship and community, allowing Christians to commune with those from centuries past by hearing their stories and learning from their successes and failures (chapter 5). Studying past theologians opens believers up to greater theological accountability, exposing our blind spots even as we learn from theirs (chapter 6). Finally, church history gives us teachers who can broaden our perspective on certain topics and fill in gaps in our theology by raising questions we tend to neglect (chapter 7).
Rea concludes in Part Three with some concrete examples of how the study of church history can serve the Church today. Specifically, he provides for Bible-focused Christians an historical survey of biblical hermeneutics and suggests a model for how we might use such knowledge in contemporary Bible study (chapter 8). Then, he concludes with brief examples of how the history of Christianity can be used in ordinary church ministry, including preaching, theology, ethics, and cultural engagement (chapter 9).
Rea’s work excels in a few areas that will help achieve his overall goal of persuading Bible-focused Christians to study, value, and appropriate their Christian heritage. First, he ably demystifies on a simple level the tricky subject of tradition, and helps beginning students see how various Christian groups have related to tradition in their theology and practice. Second, Rea’s personal anecdotes remind the reader that church history can and should actually enhance our faith and spirituality. Sharing his own journey into the study of church history, Rea invites readers to find their own mentors from the past who will both teach and challenge them in their faith journey. Finally, Rea correctly assesses the climate of contemporary evangelicalism when showing how church history speaks to their context. In other words, he knows his audience. He knows he is speaking to mostly evangelical Christians, many of whom remain suspicious of tradition, and he carefully shows them that church history offers more than dogmatic, impersonal authority. In fact, it offers much of what most Christians today long for, namely authentic community and theological confidence.
A main area of weakness has to do with the lack of brevity. Part One is foundational, but Part Two provides the meat of his argument, and some readers will undoubtedly get lost in the tedium of historical understandings of tradition. Likewise, the eighth chapter on Bible interpretation suffers from trying to do too much. There Rea surveys historical exegesis, critiques the historical-critical myopia he sees in modern exegesis, introduces text-criticism and translation, and provides a brief exegetical model. Though this purports to be one of the “practical” chapters, one wonders how much students will be able to incorporate into their own Bible study.
Despite this weakness, Rea provides an accessible and compelling case for why and how the study of church history can actually serve the faith of Bible-focused Christians. Therefore, it would serve as an excellent textbook in a Christian college or seminary survey class, when many students are only beginning to taste the riches our historic faith has to offer.