A good reason for reading church history is that it gives one hope, helping one navigate the stormy waters of yesterday’s news with a calm hand on the tiller. And not only does it put present turmoil into perspective, but it helps one realize that things have often been bad, but despite all the death sentences pronounced on Christians and Christianity, the church has survived…
“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” If Blessed John Henry Newman were to have a Twitter account he might well have used that as his signature tweet. Plunging into the writings of the apostolic fathers was certainly one of the factors that brought that most famous convert to the threshold of the Catholic Church, and the path he forged has been well trod by many others over the years, including myself.
However, no matter what your Christian, or non-Christian allegiance, reading history is beneficial and enjoyable. Why church history over any other history? Because church history, no matter how objective the historian aims to be, is history with a viewpoint. An overview of church history is written as pearls threaded on a string. There is a logical connection. The chronology develops. One can see a meta narrative—an overarching story line, and even the most skeptical critic will see a development even if he does not see a providential plan.
A good volume of church history not only relates the story of the Christian church, but it connects the theological and ecclesiastical struggles with the political and ideological struggles of every age. Just as the Christian Scriptures are set in a particular political, geographical, and cultural milieu, so church history develops within a constantly shifting cultural, political, and ideological climate. The conflicts that emerge are spiced up with the very human frailties of both the church and secular leaders. The temptations to prosperity, power, and pleasure haunt the palaces of princes as well as the palaces of the prelates. Those dark urges of the mind, the heart, and the groin add the drama to the eternal struggle.
A good review of church history helps ground one’s contemplation of the current conflicts in society and church. It helps one navigate the stormy waters of yesterday’s news with a calm hand on the tiller. Is the Vatican soiled with financial skulduggery and sordid sexuality? Check out the ninth century. Are church leaders dancing with political power brokers? It has ever been so. Are church leaders narcissistic, insecure, petty, incompetent, and criminal? Alas, this is nothing new. Are the people angry, frustrated, and on the verge of rebellion and schism? Are they ready to form holier-than-thou sects? This is as old as the Hebrews rebelling against Moses in the wilderness.
A good read of church history not only leads one through the politics and power plays down the ages, it also leads one through the theological disputes, helps one understand the major heresies and why they developed, and thereby serves to instruct one in the faith. Best of all, a good church history text will chronicle the mileposts of the Holy Spirit—the plot points where some great saint or religious movement surged through the church to change the course of human history for the better.
This is high drama indeed, and in my opinion every good Christian should have a book of church history or biography on the go at all times. We should dig deep into history for our own faith’s sake and for the stability of our families, schools, parishes, and nation.
Overviews of church history are a good foundation. Steve Wiedenkopf teaches church history at Christendom College. His new book Timeless—A History of the Catholic Church has just been published by Our Sunday Visitor. It is an eminently readable textbook which delves deeply enough and points the way to further study. James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium is another excellent overview, while Eamon Duffy’s Saints and Sinners takes the reader on the same journey focusing on the papacy. Thomas Bokenkotter’s A Concise History of the Catholic Church is now rather dated, but is also a quick and punchy read. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity is not only full of pictures, but is comprised of a series of chapters by a range of scholars rather than a single author overview. It also attempts a global and ecumenical reach.
For those who wish to listen rather than read, my own podcast series Triumphs and Tragedies is a twenty-three part series with roughly one episode per century. I don’t pretend to be either a theologian or a historian, but it was an attempt to share my enthusiasm for church history with an audience who may not have the time to read a big book. Other podcasts on church history consist of my reading of an abridged version of Hilaire Belloc’s Characters of the Reformation. You will also find History of the Early Church Podcast for a more scholarly approach. For those who want in-depth listening, Monsignor John Witt’s lectures on church history are found here. There are forty-six lectures on the first six centuries alone and another forty up through the Middle Ages.
The final reason for reading church history is that it gives one hope. Not only does it put present turmoil into perspective, but it helps one realize that things have often been bad, but despite all the death sentences pronounced on Christians and Christianity, the church has survived. One of Walker Percy’s characters is obsessed with the idea that the strangest thing in history is the survival of the Jews. I’d put the survival of the Christian Church right up there in the same category.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul” (c. 1465), by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.