In Hebrews 11, the writer details an impressive list of the heroes of faith. These worthies, named and unnamed, throughout history are singled out as exemplars of the life of faith. The list makes for stirring, if humbling, reading.
And it is the writer’s intention to stir us. In Hebrews 12:1 he highlights the practical implications of the example of “so great a cloud of witnesses” for the way in which we live our lives. But he also takes pains to ensure that we give the examples of the past a proper place in our thought, as he exhorts us to look off “unto Jesus, the author and finisher of faith.”
That priority is worth restating as we come to the final article in this series. As we have looked back over the centuries of church testimony, there is much to challenge and stir us. But these articles will have failed in their purpose if they have not emphasized for us the necessity to look off beyond man, to look to God and His Word as the only sufficient and reliable guide for our life and testimony. History holds many valuable lessons for us, but we should be careful to keep it in its place. We should be especially cautious about appealing to historical precedent to justify doctrine or practice. Whether we appeal to the “early fathers” or to the “early brethren,” we are alike on uncertain ground. “What saith the Scriptures?” (Rom 4:3) must be our inveterate question. God’s Word must be our first, our last, our only court of appeal.
Our consideration of history should enhance, and not hamper, our activity in the present. It is easy to allow a preoccupation with the past – recent or distant – to paralyze us. The apostle Paul, in his personal experience, found it necessary to forget that which was behind, in order that he might “press forward.” We should not forget history, but we should seek to maintain the character of Dan Crawford, the idiosyncratic African missionary: “Hats off to the past, coats off to the future.”
These considerations notwithstanding, we do have much to learn from history, and a people that forgets its past is impoverished indeed. Tracing the faithfulness of God and the power of His Word, should fit us better for worship and for work.
This series has provided an overview of some important themes and moments in church history. It has drawn on some of the sources mentioned below, and they are a useful place from which to embark on a more detailed study. Providing lists of this sort is always a risky exercise, and the inclusion of a book is not an endorsement of every detail of its content. Writing history requires two components – facts and interpretation. We can value a work for its presentation of fact, even while disagreeing – wholly or in part – with the author’s interpretation.
Covering two millennia in a work of reasonable size is difficult. Nonetheless, there are a number of useful overviews of church history. Iain D. Campbell’s Heroes and Heretics devotes one brief chapter to each century, and provides a readable, though sketchy, account. Also useful is E. H. Broadbent’s classic work The Pilgrim Church. Broadbent attempts to tell the story of the non-institutional church, of companies of believers who were often subject to severe persecution by the Roman Catholic church, and by the national churches of the Reformation. His accounts often differ markedly from the received view of the groups that he describes. It is unfortunate, therefore, that editions currently available do not provide adequate documentation of the sources used. In spite of this, it is fascinating reading, and a valuable reminder that there are at least two sides to every story.
More detailed coverage of the early centuries of church history is provided by F. F. Bruce’s The Spreading Flame. The story of Christianity from the apostolic period through to the Reformation is told with admirable clarity by Nick R. Needham in his three volume work, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power. Each volume stands on its own, and is especially useful for the inclusion of relevant primary sources at the end of each chapter. Volume 3, “Renaissance and Reformation” is especially useful, and covers not only the magisterial Reformation, but also the story of the Anabaptists. The opening chapters of David Bebbington’s Baptists through the Centuries are also useful in this context, especially for their summary of the debate about the scale of Anabaptist influence on English nonconformity.
David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain is the standard introduction to the emergence and growth of the evangelical movement in Britain. That subject can also be approached by way of biographies of the main figures involved. John Pollock’s biographies of John Wesley, George Whitefield, William Wilberforce, and D. L. Moody are readable and stimulating.
The stories of the recovery of dispensational truth, and the truth of gathering in assembly capacity are closely intertwined. Timothy Stunt’s From Awakening to Secession is a meticulously detailed account that describes the background to these events in some detail, and provides unparalleled coverage of the ministry of Darby and others in Ireland, the UK, and Europe. Grayson Carter’s Evangelical Secessions from the Via Media, c.1800-1850 is also useful in this context. In light of John Nelson Darby’s importance to both these stories, it is worth consulting Max Weremchuk’s John Nelson Darby: A Biography and, in a less scholarly vein, Marion Field’s John Nelson Darby: Prophetic Pioneer. For all his importance, Darby was only one of God’s servants, and the stories of two other giants are told in Edwin Cross’s The Irish Saint and Scholar – A biography of William Kelly and his Life and Times of C.H. Mackintosh.
The early story of those believers who are identified – often against their wishes – as “the Brethren,” is told by David J. Beattie in The Brethren: the Story of a Great Recovery and in Harold H. Rowden’s The Origins of the Brethren 1825-1850.
History contains much to sadden. Human failure is writ large in every age of history, not least in our own. But history has its greatest value for us when it reminds us of the faithfulness of God, His power to preserve testimony and the provision that He has made for the unique needs of every generation in His holy Word.