It’s fascinating to read church history and learn about what God has done in the past. But how important is it for us Christians to be aware of church history? Is it just an interesting thing we can read about on the side, or does an awareness of church history actually help guard us from error and live godly lives in the present time?
In this episode of the CCL podcast, Mark Earngey, Head of Church History at Moore College, shows us that it is important, and that if we ignore church history, we can open ourselves up to all sorts of problems.
Links referred to:
- Previous podcast episodes with Mark Earngey:
- Books on church history:
- Our 2024 events:
- Embrace AI and lose your soul? How to think about AI as a Christian with Akos Balogh (13 Mar)
- Casual sex or sacred sexuality? Our bodies and relationships under God with Chase Kuhn (Wed 22 May)
- Affluent and Christian? Material goods, the King and the kingdom with Michael Jensen (Wed 21 Aug)
- Who am I? The search for identity with Rory Shiner (Wed 23 Oct)
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 27:53 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Peter Orr: It’s fascinating to read church history and learn about what God has done in the past. But how important is it actually for us as Christians to be aware of church history? Is it just an interesting thing that we can read about on the side? Or does an awareness of church history actually help guard us from error and live godly lives in the present time?
In this episode of the CCL podcast, Mark Earngey, Head of Church History at Moore College, will show us that it is important and that if we ignore church history, we can open ourselves up to all sorts of problems.
Enjoy the episode!
PO: Hello everyone! Welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I’m Peter Orr. Today I’m joined on the show by my friend Mark Earngey, Head of Church History at Moore College and, I have to say, the most Australian person I know.
Mark, welcome to the show. Can you just tell us a little bit about your family and how you became a Christian?
Mark Earngey: G’day Pete. Fantastic to be on the CCL podcast again. Always a joy! I’m married to the lovely Tanya and we’ve been married for 13 years. We’ve got four children: three are at primary school and one is at preschool.
I grew up in Sydney. Wonderful Christian parents raised me in the faith, taught me about grace and Jesus, and to my shame, I turned the other way when I was in high school and thought I could run my life better than God could, which is always a mistake of a decision. I spent a few years in the wilderness before the Lord drew me back to himself at a church. At the end of a service, there was a song and some of the words were, “You are my child”. The Lord brought to my mind the story of the prodigal son returning (Luke 15:11-32), and I gave my life to Christ. He’s done a wonderful work ever since! I move a few steps forward and a couple of steps back from time to time. But over the course of the time since my conversion, I’ve enjoyed growing in the faith.
PO: Wonderful to hear that!
Why bother with church history?
PO: On today’s episode, we’re talking about church history. You lecture in church history. You’re the Head of Church History at Moore College. Why church history? We’ve got the Bible. Surely the Bible is enough. Why do we need to bother with church history?
ME: That is an excellent question, Pete! I’ve got a few answers to that question. At one level, the Bible is sufficient for salvation. That’s really important to say from the outset. That’s what the Reformers (who I’ve got an interest in and we can talk about that a little bit later) really doubled down on. The Bible has all the saving truths we need to know in it.
So why bother with church history? Good question. I find it really interesting that in the Bible itself, one of the most common verbs used is “to remember”. It’s kind of a reflex act of God’s people in the Old Testament and the New. In the Old Testament, they were to remember these mighty acts of salvation out of Egypt, and hold festivals and Passovers and do different kinds of physical actions to help them remember what God has done. In the New Testament, Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), and the Apostle Paul says, “Remember this. This is my gospel” (2 Tim 2:8). Remembering God’s mighty acts of salvation is an important Christian reflex.
But the history of the church after the writing of the Scriptures is an important thing to remember too, because it’s God’s people remembering Jesus. That’s important, I think. I was recently reading a little bit of Job: in chapter 8, Bildad—and some of what he says is helpful and some of it is unhelpful—but in 8:8-10, he says,
“Ask the former generation
and find out what their ancestors learned,
for we were born only yesterday and know nothing,
and our days on earth are but a shadow.
Will they not instruct you and tell you?
Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?
(Job 8:8-10 NIV)
I think there’s something to that. We’ve just come along recently. There’s a lot of Christian remembering that’s been done in the past. We’d be crazy not to gain wisdom from that.
Here’s the short answer to your great question: remembering the past helps you in the present and in the future. It helps you in the present because you can work out a little bit of where we’ve come from. It helps you in the future because you can think about how to apply the wisdom from the past moving forward. I think in all of that, as you’re remembering, it just helps you to praise God.
PO: Wonderful. That’s so helpful.
Why should all Christians be interested in church history?
PO: We’re going to talk about some examples later. But just big picture now: obviously church history is part of the curriculum at Moore College. Is church history something that should be of interest to all Christians, or is it something that you should be giving attention to when you come to college?
ME: Yeah, that’s a great question. Most certainly for Christian ministers and ministry, it’s really important to have done Church History: you’ve got to see how people read the Bible before you to see if you’ve got any blind spots, or if you can learn and see things better, or if there’s theological things that people have fought big battles over in the past that would prevent you from slipping into mistakes. We can talk about examples in due course.
But if you’re not going into ministry in a church life sense—if you’re a Christian and you love coming to church—why is church history important for you? I think it helps you because it’s an encouragement to keep going. When you look at the lives of people in the past who are kind of like us (in that they’re sinners, saved by grace; they get some stuff right and they get some stuff wrong) and you say, “Wow, God has upheld his church and he’s carried his saints through thick and thin—through really hard times and through easy times,” and you look at your own life and say, “Well, God’s the same today, and he helps his people through hard times and through easy times.”
When I pick up a biography of, say, John Newtown or Lady Jane Grey, or someone like that in the past, I think, “Wow, what a life! God can do that in my life too.” So I think church history provides a wonderful encouragement for our Christian endurance.
PO: It’s interesting that just in the general public, there’s a lot of interest in history at the moment. There are podcasts on history. There are lots of books on history. I guess it would be a shame if, as Christians, we didn’t reflect on our own history.
As you say, you’ve pointed to the Scriptures—like Hebrews 11, that great hall of fame—and the Scriptures encourage us to look back and, as you say, learn from those in the past.
How can church history help us be clear on what we believe?
PO: Let’s think of some details and talk about some specific examples where church history can help us in our faith, in our understanding and in our theology. We’ll talk about practice in a few moments. How can church history actually help us with being clear on what we should believe.?
ME: I’ve got a real interest in the period that we call the Reformation, which is 500 years ago, when people like Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer and others were raised up by God. In that process of being raised up, at the heart of that was turning to the Bible. As these men and women turned to the Bible, they discovered afresh truths. I love this, because when I read the Reformers on, say, how we’re accepted by God through faith and faith alone (we call that justification), I think to myself, “Wow! There are some really important truths here we have to hold fast to.”
Sometimes church history reinforces ideas that we already know and believe. That’s really helpful. Sometimes it checks our blind spots. Another example would be the Lord’s Supper: when I look at the Reformers and how central that was to a lot of their theological work, I think, “Actually, there’s stuff there that they discovered in the Bible that maybe we can learn from.” Maybe there are windows of opportunities—blind spots—that we’ve got today that we can learn from.
I think in some ways, when I look at, say, the Reformers’ belief in Scripture alone or in Christ alone or faith alone, that reinforces for me some truths I already hold dear. Then when I look at other things in the period of the Reformation—say, the Lord’s Supper, baptism—whatever the case is, I think, “Wow! I can learn from that and there are windows of opportunity that we can improve on in our ministry today.”
I think there’s reinforcement of Christian truths and there’s also learning about Christian truths that I find when I look at that period that we call the Reformation.
What blind spots would benefit from a look at church history?
PO: Could you say a little bit more about blind spots, this idea that attending to church history helps us see things that, maybe, because our own contexts, we overlook or we underemphasise, or we neglect? Can you think of any examples in that area?
ME: Yeah. Let’s just turn to normal church life stuff. I can think of some examples quite easily. Prayer: that was a huge thing—not just for the Reformers, but for Christians throughout history, and it is for us today too. But when I look at, say, the way that the Reformers prayed in their churches, it makes me think, “We can improve in that in our churches too.” The wide of variety of things that they prayed for in their church life. The way they prayed: they regularly prayed confession of sins, and the ministers looked people in the eye and declared to them that they were forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ finished work. Those kind of moments of prayer, which is asking, and then confession, and then declaration of forgiveness of sins—I look at that and I think, “Oh, that could be a bit of a blind spot for some of us in our church practices.”
Here’s another really interesting example: one of the brilliant truths of the Reformation was sending the word of God loose in churches, letting the word do the work and actually believing that the Bible has power: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12 ESV). A lot of the church services at the time of the Reformation were just saturated in Scripture: they loved good preaching, but the services weren’t all about the sermon. They were really about the word—the word read, the word sung, the word prayed, the word preached, the word enjoyed in the sacrament. I think that’s maybe a little bit of a blind spot for some of us as well, where we have a really little, short Bible reading and a big long sermon. It doesn’t have to, but I think that can tend to give the impression that you need a special, paid expert to mediate the word of God to you. That’s a bit of a pre-Reformational principle, because the Reformers said, “No, no, no. You don’t need a special mediatoral class of priests to mediate salvation. The word does the work.” In fact, they called the Bible readings in their churches “lessons”, because they didn’t need an interpreter.
I think we can learn from that. There might be a bit of a blind spot. I call blind spots “windows of opportunity”, Pete [Laughter], and I think we can see these are windows of opportunity to learn from the past for the present.
How does church history help us become more interested in theology?
PO: What about some of the basic aspects of the Christian faith? Thinking about the Apostles’ Creed and thinking about the Trinity, sometimes I feel like we assume these things. We don’t think about them. We don’t reflect on them. They don’t loom on our horizon in the way that when you look in different periods of church history, people were interested in them. As we look at church history, is that something that helps us to become more interested in theology—more interested in that part of our faith?
ME: I think that’s right, Pete. Sometimes people ask me, “Mark, why do we need creeds?” I say, “How long have you got?” After I say that, I say, “Well, why don’t you try writing a short summary of the Christian faith that’s going to last a couple of millennia?” Then I think I make my point!
When I say the creeds, primarily I mean the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, and you could throw in the Athanasian Creed too if you want. These creeds are these great little pithy statements of the faith that we stand for. Like a national anthem, we would stand and declare “This is our thing. This is what we believe”.
The creeds are like these guard rails, theologically. They’ve been hammered out by top theologians in the crucible of reading the Bible under pressure, and they’ve come up with these statements that encapsulate the guts of the Christian faith, and they’ve lasted for so long.
One of the things about the creeds is they’re like guard rails: you don’t want to go beyond the creeds. They’re not Scripture; they’re fallible. But they’ve stood the test of time. They hold a lot of weight. So if you start to think things and say things that are somewhat outside the creeds—if you start to think, “Well, maybe there aren’t three persons and one God”, as people have done in the past accidentally, and wrongly transgress those credal boundaries—the creeds serve as these little guard rails to make you go, “Hang on: maybe I don’t want to go off the edge there. Hang on! Think about it. Let’s go back to the Bible. Let’s see what people have said in the past. Maybe you don’t want to do that.”
I’ll tell you why this is relevant: in recent weeks, there’s been an appointment of a bishop somewhere in Australia. That bishop, years ago, made an offhand comment that we could do without the creeds. We all turned around and said, “Hang on! No you can’t. You can’t do that!” But it’s worth us asking in our own churches, “Do we put that into practice?” Are we passing on to the next generation these guard rails of the faith?
When you think about your children, you think, “When they grow up, as a parent, I want to give them guard rails for life.” Why would you not want to give them guard rails for their Christian life?” That’s what I think creeds are really important for.
PO: As we take a break from today’s episode, I want to tell you about the events that are coming up in 2024. Our theme for 2024 is “Culture creep”—the way in which the culture can affect our thinking as Christians and as churches. Paul writes in Romans 12:2, telling the Roman Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2a ESV).
We have four events across 2024 that are aimed at helping us to do that—to not be conformed to the world—to resist culture creep—and to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.
On 13 March, Akos Balogh will be talking to us about artificial intelligence and how we should think about that as Christian people. Artificial intelligence is a relatively new technology, and yet its quick and widespread use means that it is something that we need to be very clear in our thinking about as Christians.
On 22 May, Chase Kuhn will be speaking on the topic of “Casual sex or sacred sexuality?” Sex and sexuality obviously are a real way in which we can express our difference from the world as we live according to God’s word. But it is an area also where we are very susceptible to living like the world. Chase will be helping us to think through how we consider our bodies and our relationships under God.
On 21 August, Michael Jensen will be helping us to think through how we live as Christians in a very wealthy world. The title of his talk will be “Affluent and Christian?” and he’ll help us to think through how we should use our material goods in service of the King and the kingdom.
Finally, on 23 October, Rory Shiner will be helping us to think about our identity. The search for identity in different ways, the question of identity and who we are is such a powerful question that our world is asking. Again, it is very easy for us as Christians to follow the world’s lead, rather than have our thinking on this important topic shaped by God’s word.
That’s an overview of the events that are coming up in 2024. You’ll find more details on the CCL website and you’ll be able to register for the events. Hopefully we’ll see you at some or all the events.
Now we’ll return to our program.
What’s so good about catechisms and catechising?
PO: You’ve just written an article on catechising. Could you say a little bit about that?
ME: Yeah, sure, Pete. The word “catechising” or “catechism” might feel like a bit of a foreign or archaic word to many of us today. But it just comes straight from one of the words of the New Testament that means “teach”—“to teach”—a particular form of teaching.
The way that Christians have thought about that is they’ve turned to Deuteronomy 6 and looked at the way God encourages his people when they’re walking along with their kids to chat to them about the faith and to bind truths around their heads and on their door posts, and tell them these things about the nature of God—that he’s our Lord, that he’s one—and to love him.
The New Testament picks this up as well and has these little memory hooks along the way. In the Christian church over the years, they’ve used this word “catechising” to mean “teaching people the basics of the faith”. That’s what the word means. It’s basically verbal teaching of the basics of the faith.
I love catechisms. We use them with our kids. We’ve used a little one called First Catechism: we’ve used it since they were nappies and we teach them little questions. The first question is “Who made you?” and the answer is “God”. The second question is, “What else did God make?” and the answer is “Everything”. The third question is, “Why did God make you and all things?” and the answer is “For his own glory”. It goes on and teaches our kids the basics of the faith.
We’ve loved that, because over time, we’ve been able to expand on that with the children as they’ve grown, and we’ve been able, as we’ve been driving along or walking along somewhere, or having our family devotional time in the evening, just as we’re talking about things, to weave in these little questions and answers to reinforce truths.
That’s really important for children, but it’s also important for adults too. If you think about the way we learn, you get a word—let’s take the word “Trinity”—and it takes a bit of time to work out what that means. At Moore College, you spend four years trying to work out what that means. In a sense, that’s catechising. So we do that as grown-ups: we take these words and we fill them up with content as we grow and read the Bible. That’s the same process with little ones too: we give them a word or a concept, and over time, we teach them the Bible and we fill that concept up, so we can learn about how good Jesus is, how to live for God, and how to be obedient.
That’s the concept of catechising. I’m all for it, and I’d love to encourage people to think about doing that in their own family life—and even work out ways of encouraging church life to embrace that important thing too.
PO: This is all very helpful.
Can you get too obsessed with church history?
PO: I’m going to ask a question from a different angle just to get your thoughts on it: do you think there’s a possibility that you can put too much weight, or become too obsessed with church history?
ME: Yeah. I think it’s possible for any discipline, really, to become so interested in other materials and in remembering other materials that that interest and excitement about other materials becomes more dominant than an interest and an excitement about Jesus. I think that’s true. You do New Testament: it would like if someone got really interested in chiasms or some sort of interesting technique, and you think, “Well, that’s okay. But why aren’t you more interested in the point of that—which is Jesus—and learning from the Bible about Jesus?”
I think it’s the same with church history: I love the Reformation and I read lots about the Reformation. It gets me very excited. But it would be a real shame if my excitement for that didn’t draw me to Jesus and actually get me more excited about Jesus and living for Jesus. I think that’s the thing: like any discipline, it’s got to be a servant to the master, who is Jesus.
PO: That’s really helpful. Everything you’re saying is underlining how helpful church history and reflection from theologians over the years can help us in our Christian lives, in our churches and in our families.
Who was John Ponet and why should we care?
PO: I know you’ve done a little bit of study on a Reformer who I’m guessing that many of our listeners wouldn’t have heard of. Maybe if Tanya’s listening, she’ll have heard of this person: John Ponet. This is a free hit for Mark to give us a little bit of a deep dive into one of his heroes. John Ponet: you spent three year studying John Ponet. Why?
ME: What a great question! [Laughter] Well, where do I begin, Pete? Where do I begin? The answer is sometimes with church history, we can take a Great Man theory of church history, where we think the only people who matter were John Calvin, Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer, and they got everything right. That would be a problematic way to do history.
What’s really interesting is when you do history and you discover things that have been dormant and we haven’t noticed their significance in the past. As I did a lot of my research on Thomas Cranmer, I came to realise that he had a theological advisor and chaplain who was instrumental to his Reforming work in England during the Reformation. I sort of stumbled onto this man called John Ponet, the bishop of Rochester and Winchester, and I got really interested in him. I realised he was so significant and I didn’t know anything about him, to my shame.
Who was he? He was born in 1516, died in 1556. He was probably one of the leading Greek professors in Cambridge during the time of the Reformation. He was probably one of the strongest evangelicals during the English Reformation. He was really important for Thomas Cranmer’s Reforming efforts. He was involved in lots of the committees that drew up the basic foundational documents of what we call Anglicanism today. He wrote this big catechism of a couple of hundred pages—kind of like a modern systematic theology that covered all the heads of doctrine. Appended to that was the 42 Articles of Religion, which became 39.
That was really interesting to me. I thought, “We often think about the Articles of Religion, but we forget that they were just a mere appendix to this bigger document, which actually serves as the best commentary on the Articles. That’s very interesting.
Then Ponet, like a lot of the English Reformers, went on the backfoot because after King Edward VI died (the boy king), Queen Mary came to the throne. She’s known as “Bloody Mary” because she persecuted lots of the evangelicals. John Ponet went on to the Continent: he went to Strasbourg and there, he looked after a lot of the exiles. He died there. But before he died, he wrote this really important treatise of political theology—probably one of the most important treatises of political theology in the history of Christian political thought. It features in lots of the seminal texts on Christian political theology: it’s called A Short Treatise of Political Power.
It’s a really interesting thing in and of itself, but why it’s also interesting is that it was reprinted numerous times on the eve of the English civil war, and John Adams, co-author of The Declaration of Independence in the US, said that “all the essential principles of liberty that were afterwards dilated upon by Sidney and [John] Locke” were first to be found in John Ponet’s short treatise.1 That’s really significant!
It’s particularly interesting because it’s a resistance theory: how do you obey, but what happens when you’re living in a time when Christians are being persecuted? Should you obey? How should you obey? Should you resist? How should you resist? It’s quite a timely document that speaks into tyranny. These are really relevant issues today as Christians grapple with how do we be Christian where there might be laws that are quite against Christian beliefs? What do Christians do about that? That got me additionally interested in John Ponet.
He was a bit of a polymath, a Greek expert, a theologian. He was important for the English Reformation and important for thinking as a Christian about living as a Christian in the world today. Great guy!
PO: Brilliant! Thanks, Mark. Listeners should know that occasionally in our office area at Moore College, there will be a photocopy of some obscure Greek text up in the coffee area, with Mark writing, “Can anyone help translate this line?” It’s good to see that you’re continuing to work on John Ponet.
What resources can help us learn about church history?
PO: Just as we close, Mark, could you suggest some resources that listeners might read that could give people an introduction to church history, and then maybe suggest some specific books? Is there a good book on Lady Jane Grey, for example? What are your thoughts on that?
ME: Thanks! That’s another free hit. Thanks Pete! A really good book on the overview of church history—2,000 years of Christian history—is a book called Turning Points by Mark Noll. It’s a really accessible book and it covers lots of big turning points in church history. That’s a good one to go to if you want to have a nibble away at Christian history.
I’ve written some little popular-level books on people like Lady Jane Grey and Hugh Latimer. I’m doing one on Nicholas Ridley this year. If you email Pete, I’m sure he would be able to source you a copy of those.
If you’re up for some longer reads that are really accessible and interesting, can I just put a plug in for an author called Bruce Gordon: he’s a great church historian of the Reformation, and he’s written probably the best biography of John Calvin. Just a couple of years ago, he wrote a great biography about Huldrych Zwingli. If you like the Reformation and you want to go a little bit deeper, Bruce Gordon’s biographies of Calvin and Zwingli are fantastic.
PO: Thanks, Mark! Thanks for coming on. You’ve been really helpful and a real encouragement for us to use the resources that the Lord has given us and to be thankful for those who have gone before us and stood firm in Christ. Thank you!
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
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1 John Adams, Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787).
Where noted, Bible quotations are also from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.
Where noted, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.