Robert F. Rea, a professor of church history, wrote Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past to fill a void he had in providing (primarily Bible and seminary) students with a resource that both explains the necessity of studying church history and instills a practical and encouraging desire to want to study it. I, too, have been hoping to find such a resource for students, so I was excited when I stumbled upon this one. After reading, I was hoping this book would be accessible to a broader audience than that for which the author intended. Granted, IVP Academic published it, but one can still hope, right?
The nature of the text makes me wonder for whom the book is really written. It seems as though it may be most helpful if taken before a history course, although without some knowledge of history one may be lost on some of the references. It’s rare that a Bible/seminary student would follow a strictly prescribed course schedule, so I’m not sure when this would be read—in some introductory course for the program, in another non-history course, or within the first week or two of a specific history course that may or may not be taken as the student’s first? Some people (like me) enjoy reading academic literature outside of educational institutions, but I don’t think this is one that’s going to be picked up by the average churchgoer who really needs something like this. So, when, where and by whom is it really going to be read? I don’t know.
The book’s sections and chapters are as follows:
Part One: How We Understand the Tradition
- What Is the Tradition?
- How Have We Understood Tradition Historically?
- How Do We Understand the Tradition Today?
Part Two: Expanding Circles of Inquiry
- Who Am I? Christian History and Christian Identity
- A Great Cloud of Witnesses: Christian Community Across the Centuries
- Accountability Partners: Sharing Accountability with Historic Christians
- Mentors and Friends: Historic Christians Broaden Our Horizons and Fill Gaps in Our Understanding
Part Three: Tradition Serving the Church
- Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
- Tradition and Ministry
“Part One” is fantastic and especially helpful in defining “tradition, traditions, traditioning, and Tradition” as they are used and understood among different Christian spheres, including why some people like and others oppose them. This is the most unbiased and informative section in the book, and that which I highly recommend to anyone.
“Part Two” begins with a helpful description of our spheres of influence and why it is important to become more aware of others, which should helpful increase our own spheres without being one who simply buys into anything and everything. However, the author’s particular beliefs in what is right and wrong about Christian history via specific examples begins to come out, though he never explicitly states the tradition from which he writes, perhaps distancing some readers and himself demonstrating why it is important to study church history—if one has read a good bit of history and understands more of the politicking involved in some faith decisions among some traditions he or she may see that there is more involved than just the Holy Spirit, and that power grabs sometimes win the debate, leading some to come to a different conclusion about the specific examples Rea uses.
“Part Three” takes an even more practical approach to the title’s question with an ever-increasing bias from the author’s own tradition.
If one is able to recognize the author’s biases and take them in stride, I believe this book can be quite helpful (again, if nothing else, especially “Part One”). However, as it is, the audience has been unnecessarily limited to students of particulars strains of evangelicalism, which is quite ironic given the broad spheres of past and present influence from which the author desires we pull in our understanding of the church and its continued direction.