Last year, I asked “Why Church History?”, and my answer was to point to the spiritual fellowship that we share across time. We look back, and we see a great crowd all bearing witness to one great Savior. This time, I want to take another angle on how our belief in this transcendent Communion of Saints should inspire our interest in church history.
Christ’s Church is one fellowship across time, space, and cultures. This truth is one reason to point to a distinction between the visible and invisible church. The eternal, unmixed, and universal fellowship is an invisible one, tied together in unity as adoptees of one Father, joint heirs with the same Lord Jesus Christ, and enlivened by one Holy Spirit. The visible church is intersection of that eternal invisible fellowship with the visible, fallen world of our age. It is what we can see now, out in the realm of human events. It has a discernible history, but it is divided by eras and shifts in cultural and intellectual fashions.
In the visible church, we see all the wrinkles and blemishes and ailments of the Bride of Christ during the time of her engagement. Her full glory is yet to come, just as the final glory of her members is yet to come. We see the faults of those who came before, but at most a foretaste of their perfection in Christ.
But this distinction of visible and invisible is not some eternal Platonic divide. It is temporary. On the Last Day, when Christ returns, the dead are raised, and the Judgment is complete, the visible church and the invisible church will be one and the same.
So why study church history? For the Christian, it is to gain an acquaintance with our future contemporaries. In the visible realm, they are our forebears in the faith. Their ways are often foreign to us, and their lives seem often remote and strange. Their virtues can seem either hollow or unreachable, and their faults glaring and incomprehensible. But in the greater reality, for now invisible, we are all immediate family. In Christ, the Church is only one generation.
And that is one reason why the doings, the customs, and the teachings of past Christians should interest us. If they are in Christ, and we are in Christ, we are not ultimately foreign to each other. We received the faith from them across time, and we will enjoy future sight together as peers. In the eternal kingdom on Earth, we will be together far longer than we were ever separated. And in the present time, that should also relativize the distinctions and divides between generations, classes, nations, and ethnicities.
So, in an odd way, we Christians should study the past so as to better understand our eschatological future.