What Is Church History? Meaning, Origins, and Importance

What is Church history? Where do I find resources on Church History? Why should I study history to begin with? This series aims to answer these questions. Before we delve into the historical events surrounding the growth and development of the Church, I want to shed light on the benefits we can reap from learning church history.

Church history is the study of past events, councils, and crises pertaining to the Church. We learn about historical events from multiple resources and perspectives. For example, we learn about the birth of the early Church from the book of Acts. We can learn about the persecuted Church from Roman records – the writings of historians such as Josephus as well as the writings of early Church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch. We can learn about the liturgical life of the Church from individuals such as Justin the Martyr. We can also learn about the way in which the Church defended her faith from Apostolic times and in the ensuing centuries from writings like Irenaeus of Lyons’ Against the Heresies and the Ecclesial History of the Church by Eusebius. We can learn about the Councils of the Church using their recorded minutes or the writings of the Fathers who participated in these councils like Gregory the Theologian who wrote about his experience at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Many other resources can be used to explore Church history which will be included in this series..

You might still be pondering why you should study Church history. The study of Church history gives us a sense of how the Church handled the controversies and crises she was confronted with throughout the centuries. These events have implications for what the Church can learn to emulate and avoid moving forward. For example, we can learn to imitate Paul and Barnabas who despite having a conflict did not quit service but rather continued their separate routes and brought the Gospel to different locations. We can learn to avoid entangling the Church with politics when we read about the Council of Chalcedon where the tussle for power wore a theological mask and left the Church in schism. And the list goes on. Studying history can help you identify the cultural elements as opposed to the dogmatic elements of one’s expression of Orthodoxy. For instance, the fathers of the Church were able to utilize the language of their culture to formulate doctrines such as that of the Trinity, Christology, or Soteriology. In doing so, they were able to use the culture of the time without conforming to the vices associated with paganism. This can be a lesson on how we can operate and navigate within our own cultural landscapes, whether western or eastern. Gregory of Nyssa, in his book “Life of Moses”, likely influenced by Origen of Alexandria, tells his readers that the Israelites plundered the Egyptians in as much as they took gold and silver from them to use later on for the building of God’s tabernacle. Likewise, Christians can and have used secular philosophical language to formulate their Orthodox theology. By studying how the fathers spoke the language of their time to spread and elucidate the Gospel, we might be able to further spread the gospel using the very same strategy.

Having established the reasons for studying history we can begin looking at the history of the inception of the Church in the earliest centuries.