Interview: Church History Is a Beautiful Melody Imperfectly Performed

How the message of Christ resonated through the centuries, even at moments when his followers failed to keep the tune.

When it comes to church history, there are two common but misguided approaches: Some celebrate an unbroken series of triumphs by God’s people, while others decry a record of immoral acts carried out by hypocrites. The true story, however, is much more complex, with Christians sometimes conforming to Christ’s teachings and sometimes falling far short, as historian John Dickson documents in Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History. Christopher Reese, freelance writer and editor of The Worldview Bulletin, spoke with Dickson about coming to terms with the wrongs of church history while also answering skeptics who deny the church’s many accomplishments over the past two millennia.

How do Christians today benefit from learning about church history?

Learning about any kind of history has multiple benefits. For one thing, it can lead to humility. Knowing more about epoch-changing figures of the past puts our own achievements and self-importance into perspective. And the shameful deeds of the past, especially the Christian past, should cause us to wonder what blind spots future generations will see in us. The more I study history, the less judgmental I am about our forebears—not because the wrongs they committed were not wrong, but because I fear I cannot see my own evil.

The other great thing about learning history is that it invites us to draw from a much deeper well of human experience and wisdom. It’s like taking the ultimate democratic opinion poll. We hear the best ideas not just of our moment but of ages past. And we see how the whole Christian family wrestled with God’s wisdom in very different contexts.

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