|A reproduction of Jean-Léon Gérôme's oil on canvas|
"The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer" (1883)
“We live in the present and think about the future, why care about the past?” some argue. “Besides, Paul told the Philippians to forget about what lies behind.”
“God is ‘I AM,’ not, ‘I WAS,’” others claim.
As followers of Christ, why should we care about history? I can think of several reasons.
First, God tells us to. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord repeatedly told the Israelites to remember Him and the works He had accomplished. That was one reason why they built altars and later “Ebeneezers,” or stones of remembrance, lest they fall back into old patterns of chasing other gods. The same principle holds true for us today. When we remember what God has done in the lives of His followers throughout history, including our own, it encourages and reminds us that He is at work.
Second, knowing our Christian heritage helps us wisely discern claims that others make. Consider Dan Brown’s best-selling book The Da Vinci Code. Brown’s characters claim that the Council of Nicea convened in A.D. 325 to make Jesus Christ divine. An understanding of church history tells us that this is false.
We can dispute The DaVinci Code’s claim by looking to the writings of our early church fathers. These writings, called “patristic writings,” date from A.D. 100 to 450. Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202), Bishop of Lyons (present-day France), wrote Against Heresies to refute the pervasive Gnosticism. His book predates the Council of Nicea by more than a hundred years, and affirms the Deity of Jesus Christ. In addition, theologians note that the New Testament can be reconstructed from quotes in early church fathers’ writings, including those affirming Christ’s Deity.
What really happened at the Council of Nicea? Emperor Constantine gathered together bishops in A.D. 325, primarily to discuss Arianism—a belief espousing Jesus as a created being who had not existed since eternity past. Arianism was condemned as a heresy, yet remnants lingered for centuries, causing great division.
Why care about history? You just read my reasons. What about yours? Begin your own journey through history by reading the writings of early church fathers. For adults, Eusebius’ Church History is a classic book, providing a history of the early church during its first centuries after Christ’s Ascension. Dr. Paul Maier’s translation is well done. For children, I recommend the picture books offered through VOM for 6- to 9-year-olds. For 9- to 14-year-olds, there’s Volume One of Mindy and Brandon Withrow’s chapter book called Peril and Peace: Chronicles of the Ancient Church. If you would like other book recommendations, email VOM at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, the “Christian Martyrs” column that appears in VOM’s monthly newsletter provides an understanding of persecution throughout church history. You can subscribe here.
Persecution isn’t something confined to yesterday’s Roman Coliseum or today’s afflictions. The centuries flanking these eras contain rich stories of courage in the face of opposition for one’s Christian witness. Understanding what believers faced helps us see that God’s grace is available to us as well.