Reading Church History

Excerpted From 

The Shape of Christian History 

By Scott W. Sunquist

Reading Church History

Recently I taught a course on Asian Christianity. Most of the students were Asian or Asian American. The final paper was a research paper on an Asian Christian leader. My purpose in this assignment was to help the students see the importance of some of these early Asian Christian leaders and to show how Christianity develops differently in different contexts. 

After the papers were turned in, I had each student take ten to fifteen minutes to tell the rest of the class why we should know about their person. It was remarkable. Most of the students could have given an hour’s impassioned lecture after completing their papers. They were excited about what they discovered. One student’s presentation still stands out in my mind. She is a Chinese American, and she did her paper on the great Japanese Christian author, pastor, evangelist, labor organizer, and pacifist Kagawa Toyohiko (1888–1960). As she began to talk about his life chronologically, she quickly moved into a more impassioned mode: “And do you know what else he did?” Then she talked about his moving into the slum in Kobe, writing books and even novels to motivate others to care for the poor. And she concluded, “Why have I not heard of him before? He was so famous in his time, and his life was so Christian that he influenced many people. He had no division between bringing about social change and being an evangelist.” By the time she was done, the class was motivated to learn from Kagawa.

My point is not that such hagiographical readings of history are good. Good history recognizes the shortcomings of all people, even our heroes of the faith. However, we need to allow history to teach us, to guide us, and to make us better people. There is no such thing as neutral or benign history. History at its core is about people, and so biography is the basic building block of story. We as people connect with people more than with institutions or movements. When we read biography, we read not merely as rational beings but as fully human beings with will, emotions, and mind entering into the human story.

There was a time, beginning with the Enlightenment, that it was thought that history was a matter of getting the facts right. If we got the facts right, we had an accurate history. Objectivity, facts, accuracy, and great people were the stuff of history. Of course this is still true, but that is not enough. As we have seen, history writing has gone through several transformations, especially in the past century. There are many lenses we can look through as we study history—psychological and sociological studies, power dynamics, gender studies, and so on. However, the argument here is that all of these are mere tools that may help to uncover motives or explain what has happened by focusing on causality. People act based on their own perceptions, habits, values, goals, hopes, and fears.

All of the various tools of historical analysis and scholarship must be used to make sense of Christian history as we have it here. Christian history is not neutral, but it is and must be written as a narrative that is pedagogical. Christian history, in all of its suffering and glory, must instruct us. If we do not allow it to instruct us, we have wasted our time on a pedantic and even frivolous activity. Merely studying events, documents, writings, sermons, and institutions without a lens or telos is often devoid of meaning. History means something; it has value as the retelling of a story of the past with both purpose and passion. I use the word passion intentionally, knowing that learning takes place when the mind and emotions are engaged. Good teaching does not neglect the emotions, but neither does good teaching misuse the emotions. Both rational thought and emotions can be manipulated. That is no reason to avoid using either the mind or heart in teaching and writing. My point is simply that at the end of the day, good historical writing is to be more than informative. It should also be transformative. There is value for individuals and society in the good and engaging writing and teaching of Christian history.

A simple illustration will illumine my point. For many people, especially school-aged children, the topic of history is boring. Biology, the study of dinosaurs, science fiction, and sports are engaging for young people. History? Few children say they love to study history. However, they may say they like to read biographies or short stories about people. Parents want children to read about heroes of the past. Today parents want to encourage their young daughters to read about famous women in history. If you ask someone why we study history, we usually get one of two answers. “I don’t know why we study history. It’s boring.” Or, “I guess so we can learn from the past so we don’t make the same mistakes.” And that is the point. History should inspire us and humble us. History can make us better people.

The carefully researched study of Christian history has a purpose beyond merely knowing what happened. Embedded in every chapter, episode, and life are lessons for us, for our churches, and for society. This is closely related to, or is even an extension of, our study of the Bible. Christian history begins with creation, follows through the patriarchs, the early history of Israel, the teachings of the prophets, the incarnation and life of Jesus, the early missionary work of the apostles, and the writings of the apostolic fathers, and continues through the persecutions of the early church, the development of Christian empires, and the persecutions under other religious nations all the way up to last week’s sermon or my morning devotions. Christian history is continuous. And, like the Bible itself, there are some sections that are more instructive and universally important than others. We should not feel guilty for valuing genealogical lists less than Psalm 23 or Matthew 11:28-30. The same is true of Christian history. Some people and events and writings are far more valuable and important and should be studied more carefully. Every event and life does not have the same value for us.

This book is about how to make these decisions understanding the essence of Christianity as a historical religion. We want to lift up and study the great examples of little glories that were brought about through much suffering. These are key themes to look for since Christian history points to the center of all of history.

Excerpted from The Shape of Christian History by Scott W. Sunquist. Copyright (c) 2022 by Scott W. Sunquist. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.