Book Review: Why Church History Matters (Rea)

“Every Christian follows tradition. Whether we affirm the canon of Scripture, Trinitarian explanation or even denominational distinctive, we embrace tradition. This is true whether we call it ‘tradition’ or prefer softer terms such as ‘precedent,’ ‘custom’, or ‘common practice.’”

Why Church History MattersAs interest in history dwindles in our intensely technological age, reasons for studying the past are increasingly in need of explanation. This is especially true when it comes to the history of Christianity, where the intersection of emphasis on contemporary relevance and Protestant theologies which are summarily uninterested in the past have combined to produce generations of Christians who are illiterate when it comes to the faith of earlier Christians. In response to this growing trend, Robert F. Rea advocates the importance of studying Church History in Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).

In this masterful outline of why Christians should engage the history of Christianity, Rea asks penetrating questions about how the past shapes the present (and future), providing readers with an outline not only of why Church History is important but also what that historical project entails on an intellectual and practical level. Although written for a Christian audience, Why Church History Matters also makes a compelling case concerning the importance of including the study of the Christian past in all forms of robust education. Not interested in forms of Christian faith which are mere reflections of cultural mores or conventional theologies of stagnation, Rea calls for Christians of all walks to seriously and faithfully encounter the lives, writings, and beliefs of nearly two-thousand years of Christ-followers. For Rea, in short, Church History matters because every Christian (regardless of background or denomination) can learn from the Church’s great tradition and because understanding the consensus of the faithful–the consensus fidelium–assists in formulating authentic contemporary Christian doctrine and practice.

Robert F. Rea
Robert F. Rea

Why Church History Matters is divided into three sections: How We Should Understand the Tradition, Expanding Circles of Inquiry, and Tradition Serving the Church. Each section opens with an overview of what Rea hopes to accomplish in the following chapters and closes with a summary section which helpfully encapsulates the central points of Rea’s message. The first chapter attempts to define tradition, considering the parameters of history (and church history) and the differing forms of tradition. Rea delves into the provocative question of whether tradition is good or bad, taking a balanced approach which finds that Christian traditions are neither necessarily good or bad, but must be weighed theologically and historically. Chapter two looks at how tradition has been understood historically, offering an outline of how scripture and tradition have interacted throughout the history of the church. Rea does an especially fine job summarizing the major contours of scripture and tradition throughout history and his section on the development of scripture and specifically Christian tradition in early Church is particularly insightful. The third chapter examines contemporary approaches to the relationship between scripture and tradition. Especially helpful is the overview of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican conceptions of tradition, as is the general survey of general Protestant approaches to scripture and tradition.

The second section focuses on the importance of expanding interactions with theological perspectives and ideas, calling readers to become transcultural, global, and transtemporal in their worldview. The chapters in this section engage Christian identity formation and corporate communities, the possibility of theological accountability across time and space, and the importance of finding historical voices which broaden theological horizons and supplement current understandings of the past. The third section of Why Church History Matters details the practical ways in which the study of history serves the Church. Chapter eight offers a detailed assessment of Christian exegesis throughout the ages, again offering a useful periodization and overview of the general shape of how Christians conceived of and interpreted scripture. In this chapter, Rea emphasizes how historical understanding allows for better bible study, balanced exegesis, textual engagement, and translation. The final chapter dwells on the relationship between tradition and ministry, outlining a number of practical suggestions for integrating history with preaching, teaching, systematics, spirituality, worship, mission, ethics, compassion, unity, and social engagement. Rea then supplements these highly practical suggestions with a very helpful appendix of “Recommended Resources for Ministry”, which contains an excellent bibliography for further reading on historically issues.

Church-HistoryThroughout this book, Rea does an excellent job presenting the importance of a balanced perspective in the study of Church History. He (rightly) notes that the ideal readers of this work are students who come from “Bible focused” backgrounds—Christians who are from broadly evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox communities. While the contents of this book are most clearly geared toward this type of background, there is plenty of value for students of a variety of backgrounds and academic levels. This will be especially valuable for seminary students and graduate-level courses on church history/historical theology and its role in contemporary theological training. Affirmation of truth and cautious humility, proper integration of scripture and tradition, reliance on the great thinkers of the Christian tradition, and the plethora of practical advice are just some of the reasons that this treatment of why Church History matters stands apart from other introductions to this field. Rea’s methodological reflections, engaging examples, personal narrative, and useful academic insights further assist in making Why Church History Matters a “must read” for those teaching and studying the History of Christianity.

Overall, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn From Our Past comes highly recommended for anyone unsure of why they should study the history of Christianity. Rea’s treatment is concise and convincing, and the insights of this book will certainly be integrated into my classroom, lectures, and syllabi. The numerous occasions for reflection on important historical and theological issues and perspectives will encourage Christians engage history, better understand why Christianity is the way that it is, and stimulate conversations for years to come.

I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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