Church history is the most extensive, and, including the sacred history of the Old and New Testaments, the most important branch of theology. It is the backbone of theology or which it rests, and the storehouse from which it derives its supplies. It is the best commentary of Christianity itself, under all its aspects and in all its bearings. The fulness of the stream is the glory of the fountain from which it flows.
Church history has, in the first place, a general interest for every cultivated mind, as showing the moral and religious development of our race, and the gradual execution of the divine plan of redemption.
It has special value for the theologian and minister of the gospel, as the key to the present condition of Christendom and the guide to successful labor in her cause. The present is the fruit of the past, and the germ of the future. No work can stand unless it grow out of the real wants of the age and strike firm root in the soil of history. No one who tramples on the rights of a past generation can claim the regard of its posterity. Church history is no mere curiosity shop. Its facts are not dry bones, but embody living realities, the general principles and laws for our own guidance and action. Who studies church history studies Christianity itself in all its phases, and human nature under the influence of Christianity as it now is, and will be to the end of time.
Finally, the history of the church has practical value for every Christian, as a storehouse of warning and encouragement, of consolation and counsel. It is the philosophy of facts, Christianity in living examples. If history in general be, as Cicero describes it, |testis temporum, lux veritatis, et magistra vitae,| or, as Diodorus calls it, |the handmaid of providence, the priestess of truth, and the mother of wisdom,| the history of the kingdom of heaven is all these in the highest degree. Next to the holy scriptures, which are themselves a history and depository of divine revelation, there is no stronger proof of the continual presence of Christ with his people, no more thorough vindication of Christianity, no richer source of spiritual wisdom and experience, no deeper incentive to virtue and piety, than the history of Christ's kingdom. Every age has a message from God to man, which it is of the greatest importance for man to understand.
The Epistle to the Hebrews describes, in stirring eloquence, the cloud of witnesses from the old dispensation for the encouragement of the Christians. Why should not the greater cloud of apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, fathers, reformers, and saints of every age and tongue, since the coming of Christ, be held up for the same purpose? They were the heroes of Christian faith and love, the living epistles of Christ, the salt of the earth, the benefactors and glory of our race; and it is impossible rightly to study their thoughts and deeds, their lives and deaths, without being elevated, edified, comforted, and encouraged to follow their holy example, that we at last, by the grace of God, be received into their fellowship, to spend with them a blessed eternity in the praise and enjoyment of the same God and Saviour.