Friday, August 5, 2011

How to Read Church History as a Christian

When I think about church history, the first thing that comes to my mind is dust. Why dust, you ask? Well, I think of the many old books I need to dust off my shelf. I am not ashamed to say I have actually done a little bit of dusting this summer. I had the privilege of studying the life and story of my favorite ancient Christian, renowned African bishop St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), famous for defending the Trinity and orthodox Christianity in the midst of growing heresy and a declining Roman Empire which would eventually fall to the barbarians in 476. You may have heard of Augustine. His most famous work is by far The City of God, an apologetic work aimed to disprove the claim that Christianity was to blame for the sack of Rome in 410. However, over the past few weeks, I have pored over Augustine's most personal work, the Confessions, an autobiography of his life and journey to Christianity. It is only a 350 page book, but it literally took me over a month to read because I wanted to digest it, to empathize with it, and to truly understand it. This is how I think we should study all books (especially the Bible!). Now there are many wonderful things I could tell you about the Confessions, but for the sake of time I have chosen to write only about what I think would benefit us all. I want to write about what Augustine in the Confessions has to say about reading books as Christians. Now this is a topic very near and dear to my heart, since I would love to spend the rest of my life teaching the history of the church as a Christian.

Augustine wanted us reading his works as Christians, not as unbelievers. When unbelievers read Augustine, I do not think they can truly empathize with him because they praise not God but Augustine--his own intelligence and talents as a great "philosopher," so they say. But when we Christians read Augustine, we praise the greatness of the glory of God for giving such gifts to men. Augustine wrote, "My books...were written to serve you [God]" (Confessions IX.II.VII). He did not want his works replacing or adding to the Scriptures. He wrote, "Let those ask you, [God], for understanding who are capable of it. 'Why should they rely on me,' as if I could 'give light to anyone coming into this world?'" (Confessions XIII.II.XI). Augustine's concern was for nothing but the glory of God, for he made this motto his very own: "[Christ] must increase, I must decrease" (John 3:30). Therefore, if we want to understand Augustine or any other dusty old church history book properly, we must read as Christians, not as unbelievers. We will never properly understand the Bible or any old church history book unless we read as Christians. We need three things if we want to read as Christians in our studies:

A) The right motives
B) The right attitude (self-examination)
C) The right convictions

A) We must have the right motives. James wrote of those who have the wrong motives for prayer, "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your [selfish] pleasures" (James 4:1). I have had to struggle a lot with this one, because my motives in studying church history are not always right. I know they should be for the glory of God, but sometimes they are for my own advantage, for my own pleasures in scholarship. However, selfishness should be as far as the east is from the west when we study the Bible or church history as Christians. In other words, if you read the Bible or church history with the wrong motives, you are not reading as a Christian, and you should not expect to receive from the Lord. Augustine writes, "But what is their motive [for reading my works]? Would they share my joy when they hear how close, by your gift, I am lifted up to you, and share my prayer when they hear how far, by own own dead weight, I fall off from you? If so, to such I will open myself (Confessions X.I.V). Augustine wanted his readers to have the right motives. We too must be empathetic Christians who read great works of faith with the right motives. The glory of God must be our primary motive for studying the things of God.

B) We must have the right attitude.This one is very similar to having the right motive, only motive is why we do something, and attitude is the manner in which we do it. We must take Paul's advice and examine our attitude and approach to the study of history (2 Cor. 13:15). We must have a spirit of self-examination, not a spirit of condemnation. Augustine illustrates the point beautifully: "People want a transgressive knowledge of others' lives, but are blissfully ignorant of what might change their own. Why, anyway, should they care to hear from me about my own condition if they will not hear from you [God] about theirs? If they hear me describing myself, how can they know whether I am telling the truth...but if they are listening to you [God] about their own condition, what can they say--that the Lord is lying to them? Is there, in fact, any way they can learn about themselves except by listening to you? Whoever calls what he learns from you a lie is lying to himself" (Confessions X.I.III). By all means do not read Augustine because you want to gossip about his life. Have the right attitude, and examine your own life before examining Augustine's. See in Augustine's confessions of his own sins the way in which you must confess your own sins; you may compare your own life to his, but only in empathy and self-examination, not to exalt yourself above Augustine by thinking you are better or below Augustine by thinking you are worse. Do not compare yourself to another man. Compare yourself to God, and you will see your true shortcomings as God sees them. Examine yourself when you read and you will have the right attitude.

C) We must have the right convictions. We must interpret church history through the lens of the Scriptures as our highest authority. We must hold the Scriptures over and above every work ever written, no matter how great, whether by Augustine or even greater extra-biblical literature. We must hold to the Scriptures as the only inerrant, "God-breathed" books which are in their fullness "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Augustine wrote, "No other writings, we know, can so conquer pride, so conquer 'the foe who excuses,' the man who will not make peace with you but excuses his sins. I myself have found no other words so cleansing, to make me testify to you, to supple my stiff neck to your yoke, to make me worship you freely. May I grasp those words, my favoring Father, may I shelter under the strong canopy you provide for those sheltering under it" (Confessions XIII. V. XVII). The supremacy of the Scriptures over and above all other history books must be our firm conviction, or we will inevitably stray and neglect our own personal study of the Scriptures to our own detriment (believe me, I know this from experience and I still struggle with it).

So there you have it! Have the right motive, hold to the right attitude, and stick to the right convictions, and you are already on your way to becoming an exceptional Christian scholar. I hope you realize that none of these three are possible without a firm and steady relationship with God; you need to grow in knowledge, you need lots and lots of prayer, and you need strong support from your local Christian community. Nevertheless, if you hold to these three tenets, you will never fail.


  1. I like this sentence: "Why, anyway, should they care to hear from me about my own condition if they will not hear from you [God] about theirs?"

    Isaiah 2:22 Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?

    I have seen too many human beings put themselves on the throne, (including myself) and becoming puffed up with knowledge. I agree with you about the three things needed, but most of all, that we decrease and Jesus Christ increases.

    Praise God you do have a secure, grounded, and God-fearing family (Church), and I will continue to pray for your growth and reliance on God for your life.

    (Because if you become puffed up, I'll smack you. Be warned.)

  2. By all means smack me if I become puffed up with knowledge. Just come up to me with a random smack when I least suspect it. Yeah, that's it! That would get me thinking! Ha, Ha, Ha. In all seriousness, thank you for the thoughtful response Rebel!