Saturday, October 31, 2020

Why Church History Matters: Why Tradition Still Matters

Book Review: Why Church History Matters

            Why Church History Matters by Robert F. Rea is a description of the value of church history and the tradition it generates from various perspectives, breaking down tradition historically, tradition today, tradition applied to Christian identity, and tradition as a help to the church today. The book is broken up into three parts which describe how Christians ought to understand tradition, what Rea describes as expanding circles of inquiry, and tradition in service to the church.

            Rea begins by defining history as “the study of the past in order to understand the present and to improve the future” (Rea, 2014, p. 23).  But Rea makes it clear that understanding history is not about merely collecting and assembling information. Instead he indicates that history is meant to provide accountability to the present. So, he says that Christian history ought to be understood as an examination of the church’s past in order to understand the church’s present (Rea, 2014, p. 24).  Rea defines tradition as applied in his book as a synonym for Christian history, encompassing important historical events and persons, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrinal views, historic teachings and doctrines that Christians tend to agree on, and historic Christian practices that are tied to cultural practices (Rea, 2014, p. 28-29).  He then contends that these various expressions of tradition are fundamentally good, in regard to the fact that they exist, but indicates that certain particular traditions can be good or bad (Rea, 2014, p. 33).  Rea’s depictions of Christian tradition are well thought out, encompassing the various important movements, and addresses the varying perspectives in balanced ways, while also remaining firmly within the realm of biblical Christianity. 

            Rea then catalogues the various ways in which the church has understood tradition, from the early church, through the middle ages and the reformation, and into more recent perspectives of Christian tradition. Then Rea addresses tradition in the present from two perspectives, faith groups that affirm apostolic succession and those that reject apostolic succession. Apostolic succession refers to the concept that authority to decree biblical truth was passed on from Jesus to Peter, and through the bishops and popes to the modern era.  Major faith groups that affirm apostolic succession include the Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans.  Those that do not affirm apostolic succession include Bible-focused Protestants, and Liberal Protestants. Once again, Rea’s catalogue of the various positions on tradition, whether viewed as one in the same with scriptural authority, or viewed as irrelevant, or viewed as historically useful, I can’t fault Rea’s descriptions, they are balanced and well thought out. 

            In part two Rea deals with Christian tradition as it impacts Christian identity. This is where the author really comes to life and shares his passion for the power of Christian tradition to bring about powerful understanding, wisdom, and continuity of individual and corporate Christian identity.  He expresses the power of Christian tradition as a form of study, for Christians seeking to understand their identity and the questions they have, and reflects on the power of studying tradition to help Christians understand who they are.

            Christians gain understanding of their identity through various spheres of influence (Rea, 2014, p. 87-91).  The author indicates key areas include closest friends first of all, the congregation which they attend, the larger denomination of which they are a part, then shared theological viewpoints, contrasting theological viewpoints, and other cultures (Rea, 2014, p. 88-89).  When Christians study historic tradition this becomes a part of this process, as Christians gain knowledge of Christian tradition across the centuries into the past (Rea, 2014, p. 89).  Rea addresses the importance of understanding and being enriched by the perspectives of other Christian faith movements to developer a more authentic Christian experience as well.

            Rea’s descriptions of the various spheres of influence for Christians is a solid model, but from my perspective leaves out the reality of influence by the family of origin, and could’ve gone into more detail about that influence, as well as the influence of our spouse, if they came from a different tradition.  Additionally, I would’ve cited God or the Holy Spirit as the most inner circle of the influence for Christians.  God must work through tradition to speak to Christians about who they are, in my view.  

            In part three Rea addresses how Christian history can be a blessing to Christian ministry (Rea, 2014, p. 133).  Rea begins by discussing how Christians have historically interpreted the Old and New testaments, beginning with the early church, through the middle ages, the reformation, and after the reformation.  Rea tends to point to the value of historic tradition as a way to better understand scripture and therefore practice better bible study individually and corporately.

            According to Rea (2014) “We study Christian history for ministry. We learn historical theology to serve the church” (p. 166).  Once again we see Rea’s passion and excitement for the value of tradition to inform present day practices of Christian ministry.  Rea writes about the value of studying historic Christian leaders for the practices of preaching, teaching, worship, spiritual growth, systematic theology, missions, ethics, compassionate ministry, unity, and cultural engagement. He considers for ministers preparing for sermon preaching, that when these individuals study historic tradition of the church they are joined by the great minds of the historic church and given wisdom about how to preach is more meaningful ways (Rea, 2014, p. 167).

            To conclude Rea (2014) writes, “Why does church history matter? Those ready to explore this question stand at the door of fascination and fulfillment, questions and answers, foes and friends. This doorway opens to a whole new word- a world daring us to enter, offering us an invitation to love and learn from our past. When we cross the threshold, we will never be the same” (p. 191).  These words properly sum up the purpose for which Rea writes Why Church History Matters, to encourage present day Christians to explore the rich history of Christian tradition and be transformed in their faith walk, their understanding, their identity, and their practice of Christian ministry.

Why History Matters to my Own Life

            Now we consider from my perspective the question, “Why is studying the past important?”  I find a massive amount of value in studying the past. This regard for studying the past seems to only grow more and more valuable to me as I learn tidbits and insights from human history, and church history. 

            My own fascination with history began with studying the American revolution in junior high and high school. I always found the subject of past wars and revolutions as incredibly fascinating.  One of my first recognitions in writing was a history day report I did on the Vietnam war in 8th grade. 

            In any case, studying history is like Rea said, of immense value to the present.  The reasons for many of the problems in modern society can almost always be traced to the past.  In fact, so many of the mistakes made by post-modern western thinkers can be traced to the past, from media bias, to the surge in appreciation for the ideology of socialism. History is so important because it constantly influences the present.  Even in the present day election debates, we see that the main issue between the two sides is in regard to how to historically view the United States.  Is the United States a history of imperfect leaders enshrining good values that then progressed along a journey to live out those values to the best of their ability, the 1776 vision of America; Or is the United States a fundamentally racist, evil, white supremacist nation founded on slavery and violence, that is irredeemable and must be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up, the 1619 vision of America? History and how we understand history impacts all of this to a huge extent.

            I was raised in the Roman Catholic vein of Christianity, but largely rejected in when I became a teen. Many years later, I joined a Baptist evangelical church. Tradition did not play a huge role in the teachings of the church, though you could see the influence of modern Christianity, from the contemporary Christian rock music, to the format of the service, the use of technology, and the practice of the sacraments.  But once I became a part of The Salvation Army church after beginning to work for TSA, I began to study the history of the movement. I found myself astonished by the stories of William Booth walking to the bar each day to preach in the bar.  And how day after day he failed, and almost gave up hope, until one man got saved, and he influenced the community toward Booth, and pretty soon a massive movement formed that was spreading to different nations around the world.  It informed my own faith in so many ways to read these stories, and I soon began reading such historic accounts from other heroes of the Christian faith.  Early on I was enchanted by The Apologies of Justin Martyr and the story of his death.  I was deeply moved by reading Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand. It informed my theology, my understanding of Christian suffering, and how I should view it in my own life.  I study the lives of people like George Washington and his denial of ultimate power, the story of Corrie Ten Boom and the power of forgiving those who hurt us.  I read Ravi Zacharias’ biography and how he got saved after a suicide attempt.  All of this deeply influenced and continues to deeply influence my understanding of Christianity. I can’t say enough about how much I love human history and church history, and how deeply it impacts my ministry life.




Rea, R. F. (2014). Why church history matters: An invitation to love and learn from our past. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.