The Nature and Significance of the Study of Church History -Rev. H. SCHOLTEN (1913-1982)
I want to tell you something tonight* about the subject which I teach at the College, namely the subject of church history. You will understand that I cannot go into a great many details in discussing this topic; neither the time nor the occasion make that possible. All I plan to do is to touch upon some of the major principles. My intention is twofold. First of all I want to give you some idea of the manner in which this subject is being taught, and in the second place I hope to show what is the importance of the study of church history for future ministers.
And before all things it must be clear that we take our own stand in the teaching of this subject. It has been said, and it has even been declared the highest wisdom, that a teacher, as also a writer of church history, has already fulfilled his task when he succeeds in registering accurately and truthfully all the events and happenings in the life of the church. All sources, archives and documents are to be studied carefully, but the teacher is not to pass judgment upon the material presented. He has to be "objective", "neutral"
The fact that we give the instruction at our own College implies already that we do not agree with this philosophy of history. It is not enough that we possess some knowledge of a number of facts, dates and persons, but we are called upon to consider the events and occurrences in the light of the Scriptures. We shall have to judge relationships and principles and so take our stand. Some may call this subjectivism, others presumptuousness. In fact, it is honouring the Scriptures, which tell us that in all things in the history of the church we meet the hand of God. What does this mean for our subject?
The nature of church history.
Before we can answer the question just asked we must know what we are dealing with in the study of church history. The word itself tells us already that our concern is not with the history of one nation, or of a variety of nations, but with the history of God's people, which the Bible calls the church. This means that our whole view of church history is determined by what we confess about the church. If that is not quite clear to us then we may mention a great many things about the history of the church, but we do not give instruction in that history.
Before this audience it is not necessary to speak at great length about the question what we mean when speaking of the church, the people of God. Our confession, in dealing with the church and its history, describes it so beautifully when it states that Christ, the Son of God, gathers and preserves His church from the beginning of the world to the end thereof. In our instruction - which at the College does not deal with the Old Testament beginnings but starts with the origin of the New Testament church - we therefore have to place all emphasis upon the work of the exalted King, who works out the programme which the Father gave Him. That is the reason why we are not satisfied when we can give a mere recital of events and dates and similar "historical facts". We have to realize that we are confronted with the deeds of our exalted King, Who is gathering and preserving His church and leading it to its destination.
Its own treatment.
Yet at the same time we should not forget that Christ works also indirectly, that is, by means of the Word which He has given to His church in order that the church should preach and maintain it. Who does not think here, for example, of the offices which to this end were given to the church? It means, therefore, that we are dealing with men, responsible men, and we must never forget this human factor in the history of the church. But at the same time we must remember that we have to consider them as instruments used by Christ in order to proclaim His Word. It is by that Word that Christ Himself overcomes the powers of darkness, and gathers unto Himself a people which wants to be bound by His Word, and His Word only. I want to stress this. The church of God is the church of the Word. The book of Acts - and that is the book which describes the acts of the exalted King of the Church, Jesus Christ - says, very characteristically, not only that the number of the disciples increased, but that the Word of God increased. That is a beautiful indication of how we have to look at church history and deal with it. We must see it as the history of Christ's continual dominion, through His Word (and Spirit), for the gathering, preservation and perfection of the people given to Him by the Father. And when giving instruction in church history we shall, when dealing with actions of men and attacks by the enemy, give our attention to the victorious course of the Word.
Word-increase and Confession.
Having thus characterized the nature of the subject as taught by us, I can indicate in a few lines the topics which we deal with in our study of the church's progress and development since the day of Pentecost. We will have to begin by giving our attention to the increase of the Word in breadth. We mean by this the progress of Christ's work by means of missionary activity, through which the church is expanded to include people of all tongues, nations and generations. We see Christ conquer all parts of the world by the power of His Word. The fact that we are here is due to that work. It was not accomplished without a stream of blood and tears, yet in all this the victory belongs to our Lord and King. To realize that the increase of the church is His work should increase our love of the Lord of the church and of the church itself, which He planted.
We also have to give a great deal of our attention to the increase of the Word in depth. Due to the tremendous opposition of Satan, the great antagonist of Christ, the growing church was time and again confronted with attacks upon its doctrine, which it had to meet with reference to the Scriptures. Various heresies arose, and the church had to define its position over against them. Thanks to the Lord, the church has done so, and the result has been that in a tremendous struggle against every kind of unbelief and error, the truths of the Scriptures were formulated and laid down in the creeds and confessions of the church. Thus the church has expressed itself, for example, on the doctrine of the Trinity, the mediatory work of the Son of God, on justification by faith, and on the character of the church itself. And thus Christ has fulfilled His promise that He will lead His church in all truth and preserve it by the truth.
The history of the controversies, divisions and sects, and over against it the powerful progress in the understanding of the truth, is therefore a significant part of church history for which I ask attention. Not in order to deal at great length with the confessions - that is the task entrusted to another instructor - but in order to show how Christ has caused the church to stand firmly on the one foundation of the apostles and prophets. The fruit of such a study may and should be an increasing love for the confessions of the church, which are so often attacked in our time. And the future minister, knowing the history of these errors, will be able to recognize them.
For the old heresies are still alive, and the church still has to confront them. We speak today about Arminianism, which also on this continent is very influential. But is was already at the Synod of Dort that our fathers attacked this heresy and defended the Scriptural truth. We can even go farther back and notice that the origins of Arminiansim can already be found in the teachings of Pelagius in the beginning of the fifth century. Another of many examples concerns the teaching of the so-called "sleep of the soul". That heresy also was not unknown in earlier ages. It was taught, for example, by Anabaptists in the sixteenth century, and John Calvin was among those who fought the doctrine. He who knows the history of the church knows that in this regard there is nothing new under the sun; that which is, has already been. And a knowledge of church history will not only enable future ministers to recognize these errors, it can also give them the weapons with which to combat and resist the false doctrines and philosophies. By warning, admonishing, instructing and comforting, they can, through God's grace, be a good instrument to keep the churches they serve in the truth of God's Word.
Word-increase and church government.
The progress of the Word is also shown in the insight the church gained in the functioning of its offices. After the time of the apostles the church fell very soon under the dominion of a hierarchy that ended in the lordship of the pope. In the time of the great Reformation, however, the church, led by Word and Spirit, learned once again to acknowledge the dominion of its only Bishop, Jesus Christ, and of His Word in the government of the church, and, through many battles, it was given the grace to persevere in it.
When dealing with church history we give our attention also to this progress, and to the struggles, conflicts and divisions connected with it. That is especially done in connection with the subject that has also been entrusted to me, namely church polity and church government. When discussing the church order, we give attention to the opinions and systems contrary to the Scriptures; the scriptural principles are explained, with their application in the churches and in the confederacy of our churches. This also is an essential part of the instruction of future ministers, who must know about the place of the offices in the church, and about the relation between the churches. The main principle here is that no office bearer shall lord it over other office bearers, and no church over other churches. The Word alone is to have dominion in the church of Christ.
Our own identity.
One further point should be mentioned. The time available for instruction makes it impossible for us to cover the entire field of church history. We have to limit ourselves and concentrate upon the material that is of the most immediate concern to us.
For us, as Canadian Reformed Churches, one of these concerns is the history of the church groups and sects on this continent. However, although God has given us our place here, we do not neglect the fact that we are Canadian Reformed Churches.
We are not Anglican churches which have their roots in England, nor Presbyterian churches which find their origin in Scotland, but we are Reformed churches, whose beginnings were in the Low Countries by the sea. Those churches are our parents' churches, which, in turn, owe their existence to the work of God in the time of the great Reformation. This is our identity, and we therefore give special attention to the history of those churches. That means that we study the great Reformation, and especially the work of John Calvin and his influence in the European countries, as well as the great deeds of the Lord in gathering His churches in the Netherlands. We further study the developments that led to the convocation of the great Synod of Dort and the history of that Synod itself in its struggle with the Arminians. From there we draw the line further to Christ's works as they were shown in the days of "Afscheiding" and "Doleantie" and, in the present history, in the history of the Liberation, which we ourselves or our parents experienced.
It is not necessary to explain at length how important it is for our future ministers to know the identity of our churches. They can give an answer to the question why they serve the Canadian Reformed Churches. With their knowledge they can serve these churches themselves, and especially the young people in their midst, who often have so many questions on this point. And so they can teach God's people the song of praise for God's wonderful grace and faithfulness in the gathering and preservation of His church, and serve as His instruments in helping to save the church from apostasy and to lead it in the way of truth.
Church history is the history of the triumphal march of our King and Saviour, and it witnesses to the truth of the Word that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. Here we want to praise Him, in order that once we may praise Him when the end of the world's history is there, and the people that were bought, redeemed, gathered and preserved by God, shall sing the song of Moses and the Lamb.