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Beginner’s Guide to Church History

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For many modern protestants, church history (if they think about it at all) begins with those famous theses being nailed to a door, as if the 1500 previous years of Christianity (let alone the entire Old Testament church) don’t really count.

It saddens and astonishes me to hear how many of my protestant peers cannot easily name any pre-Reformation church heroes.  I was incredibly blessed to grow up in a family that read about and discussed leaders like Athanasius, Polycarp, Vibia Perpetua, Irenaeus, Augustine, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Basil, and others alongside more modern theologians like Calvin, Bucer, Knox, Owen, Edwards, and Machen.  We delighted in the Reformed Protestant tradition, while simultaneously valuing our place in the larger story of church history.  Our family seeks to do the same today with our own children.

We need a return to the study of church history

I am beginning to see how rare such exposure to church history, especially in childhood, is in the modern church.  A recent discussion on social media brought this to my attention again.

Many leave their childhood church experiences desperate for more because they realize they have been denied a huge swath of their spiritual heritage.  Unfortunately, the “more” my contemporaries often find is sometimes a vague spiritualism, sometimes a poor theology for the sake of feeling connected to something larger, and sometimes (tragically) a complete rejection of Christianity altogether.

The Protestant Reformers did not see themselves as creating something new, or separating themselves from the ancient church.  My brother, Zachary Simmons, shared these helpful insights in a recent conversation:

“The Reformers saw themselves as the true heirs of the ancient church, recovering and preserving the best of the early church fathers (and even the best of medieval theology)…That’s why I think it’s important for Protestants (and Reformed Christians in particular) to see the ancient church as really ours, not theirs–that we’re not on the outside looking in at some richer historical tradition that we’ve somehow given up in order to be biblical, but that we’re the true heirs of that rich history; our confessions are the embodiment of and an advancement upon that historical foundation, not a substitution for it. This can also guard us against inadvertently denigrating Reformation history in our enthusiasm for earlier church history, and can help us to avoid reading church history backwards (as though the ancient church were somehow a better time that we’ve now somehow lost in the church’s descent into Protestantism).”

Learning Church History leads to Humility

Studying and being connected to church history helps protect us from “creative” ideas that mostly were already condemned as heresy hundreds of years ago.  Church history gives us perspective.  It reminds us that God has always used flawed men and women, because the church has always been made up of sinners redeemed by grace alone.  No leader has been without fault, and the greatest of them have been most cognizant of that fact.  Church history humbles us.  Our modern age is not really that different from those in the past, and our struggles are not really that unique.

Church history also inspires us to see our place in a spiritual family tree, to look back to our spiritual fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, and to look forward to the day when we all will worship at the feet of Jesus together for eternity.  Church history demonstrates the beautiful connectedness arising from our union with Christ that links us to an eternal throng of other sinners saved by grace.

Learning Church History leads to Doxology

Above all, the study of the history of the church is, or ought to be, a glorying in the beauty of the Triune God Himself.  The beauty of Christ…the glory of the Father…the work of the Spirit…these are to be our central focus.

It is no surprise that most of the early church councils dealt with various aspects of the person, work, and nature of Jesus: He is the “stone of stumbling” and the “rock of offense.”  His people are “living stone[s] rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious … like living stones … being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  (I Peter 2)

The history of the church is the story of God gathering together a collection of living stones, building a glorious spiritual house in which His glory shines.  Thus, let us not become so entranced with the fascinating details of the story of the church in history that we forget the Author of the story and the beauty of the Gospel!

It’s not as hard to study church history as you might think

If you have desired to learn more about church history or if you have longed to feel connected to the church throughout the ages, this post is for you!  If you have felt overwhelmed at the thought of where to start your own studies, let alone how to pass on a delight-filled understanding of their place in church history to your children, I hope this post provides a helpful place to start.

A Beginner's Guide to Church History

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Beginner Guide to Church History

What better place to begin than with picture books, regardless of your age?!  Many of these are family favorites.

Sinclair Ferguson’s Heroes of the Faith series

Polycarp of Smyrna

Irenaeus of Lyons

Ignatius of Antioch

Simonetta Carr’s Christian Biographies for Young Readers

Irenaeus

Augustine of Hippo

Anselm of Canterbury

Athanasius

Other titles in this series include biographies of Martin Luther, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Knox, John Calvin, Marie Durand, Lady Jane Grey, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, and John Newton.

Grab your FREE textbook-free history planning pages here.

Banner Board Books by Rebecca VanDoodeward

The Doctor Who Became a Preacher

The Woman Who Helped a Reformer

The Woman Who Loved to Give Books

The Man Who Preached Outside

Other church history titles for children and their grownups

Church History ABCs: Augustine and 25 Other Heroes of the Faith

God’s Timeline: The Big Book of Church History

History Lives: Chronicles of the Church

Reformation Heroes

Trial and Triumph

I also highly recommend the 5 Minutes in Church History Podcast, a simple introduction to various people and events of church history that our whole family enjoys.

Overview of Church History for Teens and Adults

I’m sharing several options.  Not only will availability of titles vary in local communities, but it is also extremely valuable to read the same topics discussed from slightly different perspectives.  Each author will bring their own unique emphasis to the overview of history, since by definition a survey cannot include every detail.  I encourage you to read at least 2 different church history surveys!  The multi-volume works by Schaff are for the individual who wants to invest more time and depth in their studies.

Church History 101 Sinclair Ferguson, Joel Beeke, Michael Haykin

Sketches from Church History, S. M. Houghton and Iain Murray

Introduction to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley

The Church in History, B. K. Kuiper

Christianity Through the Centuries, Earle Cairns

History of the Christian Church (8 volumes), Philip Schaff

You can get this in a lovely 8 volume set (an investment that looks great on my bookshelf, even though I haven’t read it in its entirety #realtalk) or in a simple kindle edition.

Creeds of Christendom (3 volumes), Philip Schaff

Also available on kindle.  Studying the church councils and creeds is an essential part of every Christian’s church history education.

The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison

I found this book to provide extremely helpful insights.  Although the modern evangelical church often espouses a “Scripture Only” principle, the historic reformed doctrine of “Scripture Alone” is quite different.  If you’ve worried that a creedal or confessional approach to theology takes away from the authority of Scripture, this book may clarify things.

Audio and Video Church History

I again highly recommend the 5 Minutes in Church History Podcast, a simple introduction to various people and events of church history that our whole family enjoys.  It is not chronological, so you could easily skim through the archives to find topics that pique your interest.

You can also investigate some of the lecture series and video series on church history available for free here.

Original Sources from Early Church History

If you really want to dive into studying the early church in particular, what could be better than going to the original sources and writings?  Here are a few ideas to get you started.

The Christian Classics Ethereal Library is on online source of many primary sources from church history.

On the Incarnation, Athanasius

Confessions and City of God, Augustine

History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Eusebius

There are also numerous compilations available of the writings of the early church.  I enjoy this copy on my bookshelf because it is fun to pretend I can read the Greek while actually just reading the English translation.  It’s a #booknerd thing, I guess.

Are you ready to begin?

I hope this kindles a yearning in your heart to learn more about the oft-neglected, vital, beautiful study of Church History.  I would love to hear what other resources your own family has enjoyed; we are always delighted to expand our library!

Let us continue to embrace and delight in the work of Christ and the spread of the gospel throughout time…from the Old Testament to the life of Christ, on to the Apostolic era, continuing through the church of the middle Ages, into the Reformation, currently worshiping in Modern Times, and spreading into the future until Christ comes again!

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Amy Sloan and her husband, John, are second-generation homeschoolers by grace alone to 5 children ages 4, 7, 9, 12, and 14. Their educational philosophy is one of humility and doxology, and follows primarily a classical approach. Amy loves coffee, and starts getting nervous if the stack of to-be-read library books beside her bed is less than 2 feet tall. Get her started on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Homer, or Hamilton the Musical and it might be hard to get her to stop. Mostly, though, she gets really excited about the Gospel. The Sloan family adventures in North Carolina.

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