“We see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young.” 

These words from Bram Stoker’s Dracula are spoken by Professor Abraham van Helsing in an attempt to help one of his colleagues understand the ancient evil they faced. Unlike the other characters, van Helsing was not blinded by the modern presuppositions that prevented them from identifying their enemy. While they couldn’t believe a vampire was the cause of their trouble (because of their presuppositions), he marshaled the wisdom of the past to inform the conflict of the present.  

In one sense, this is also the task of historical theology. We are not the first Christians to think through theological issues, and we shouldn’t act like we are. There is a wealth of wisdom in the church’s past readily available for us today. While there are many reasons to plunder this wisdom, I would like to argue for just three here.

Accepting Christ’s Gift 

The first reason we should study historical theology is that it recognizes Christ’s work in His church throughout history. Timothy George says practicing historical theology “involves an enlargement of our understanding of the church . . . the Body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space.”1 The point here is that Christ has given gifts to the church for its own benefit throughout time. Historical theology simply presupposes the usefulness of Christ’s previous work in His church. 

Ephesians 4:11–14 teaches us that Christ has given the gift of teachers to the church for edification. Paul writes,  

And [Christ] gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.

While this passage does not explicitly prescribe historical theology as a discipline, it does establish an important principle: Christ has given skilled teachers to the church throughout her storied history. To reject the contribution of skilled teachers in the church’s past is to reject Christ’s gifts to the church—the means He has given for edification. 

Calvin anticipates those who will say they have no need of such teachers, whether contemporary or historical. He comments on these verses, “That those who neglect this instrument [i.e., God’s ministers] should hope to become perfect in Christ is utter madness. Yet such are the fanatics, on the one hand, who pretend to be favored with secret revelations of the Spirit,—and proud men, on the other, who imagine that to them the private reading of the Scriptures is enough, and that they have no need of the ordinary ministry of the church.” Shortly after this he adds, “Those who neglect or despise this order choose to be wiser than Christ. Woe to the pride of such men!” Historical theology helps us humbly learn from the gifts Christ has given to the church in the past for our edification in the present. 

Theological Self-Consciousness 

A second reason to study historical theology is that it provides us with theological self-consciousness. I am adapting the idea of “self-consciousness” from Richard Muller, who writes that historical theology is necessary for “one’s own theological self-understanding.”2 Theological self-consciousness involves acknowledging that we borrow terminology from the past and determining to use it correctly. 

This is important because we all use borrowed and traditional language, from “inerrancy” and “sufficiency” in our bibliology to “person” (hypostasis) and “nature” (ousía) in our theology proper. If we want to use historic theological language with integrity, we must have knowledge of what that language actually means. Historical theology helps us recover that meaning in the various theological terms we assume.  

Again Richard Muller explains, “The right use of theological language always presupposes an understanding of the framework of meaning out of which language arises, the alteration and elaboration of meaning as the language is taken up into service in new and different contexts, and the limits imposed on meaning by that historical framework of meaning and usage.”3 In short, affirming doctrinal formulations from history is not sufficient. The original intention of those formulations must also be understood—and historical theology can provide us with the original intention. 

A classic example of the importance of theological self-consciousness is the doctrine of the Trinity. The language of “person” and “nature” was settled in a particular context, and that context cannot be ignored if the original intention behind this language is to be preserved. The term “person,” for instance, bears a different meaning in modern English usage than it does in its historical sense. Richard Muller summarizes the issue: 

"Person," in contemporary usage indicates not merely "a particular individual" but "the real self of a human being," an "I" capable of standing over against a "Thou," an independent center of consciousness, intellect, and will. If this meaning of the term is placed into the trinitarian context and the persons of the Godhead interpreted as independent centers of consciousness, intellect, and will standing over against one another, then the Christian faith will have to relinquish the God of the Bible and become unabashedly tritheistic.4  

If modern Christians affirm that there are three divine “persons” in the Trinity but lack theological self-consciousness, they may unintentionally affirm a variety of heresies. Historical theology helps us understand the original intention of the term and, therefore, affirm with greater integrity the doctrine we previously assumed. The same can be said for nearly all extra-biblical terminology (consubstantial, Trinity, sola Scriptura, etc.). Therefore, if the church wants to appropriate these terms and their doctrinal import in the present, it must understand the context from which they came and how they developed historically. 

Heresy Never Dies 

A third reason to study historical theology is the cyclical nature of theological error. Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” This is as true of theological error as it is of anything else. R.C Sproul expresses this fact plainly, “The old maxim—whether it’s church history or other history—is that those who refuse to study history are doomed to repeat it. And virtually every heresy that we face every day today is a rehash of some heresy that the church had to deal with in the history of the church.” 

Historical theology informs us of the many theological pitfalls that came before us. With this knowledge, we can be prepared to face them when they reappear. Peter’s warning could be repeated in every generation, “False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). Pelagianism, Socinianism, and Arianism may not appear in your church by those names, but they will show up eventually. As Professor van Helsing said in the beginning, “We see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new; and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young.” 

This use of historical theology is especially helpful for pastors. Titus 1:9 says that one requirement of elders is that they are able “to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Knowledge of the many theological errors of the past, as well as how the church refuted them, is invaluable in this task.  

Passing the Torch 

To ignore godly teachers of the past is to ignore the very means Christ has given for the edification of the church (Eph. 4:11–16). As we humbly receive the wisdom of those who carried the torch of doctrinal fidelity before us, we can live in greater understanding of the theological language we use today, becoming theologically self-conscious and better equipped to face the rehashed heresies of our modern age. For these reasons, we should be invested in studying historical theology.  

Stephen Nichols summarizes this sentiment well, “As Deuteronomy 6:11–11 vividly portrays for us, we drink at wells we did not dig, we eat from vineyards we did not plant, and we live in cities we did not build. We need that dose of humility that reminds us how dependent we are on the past and how thankful we need to be for those who have gone before us and dug the wells, planted the vineyards, and built the cities.” 


[1] Timothy George, “Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church” in  
Review & Expositor 4 (Fall 1987), 697. 

[2] Richard A. Muller, “The Role of Church History in the Study of Systematic Theology” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, eds. John D. Woodbridge and Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 91. 

[3] Muller, “The Role of Church History in the Study of Systematic Theology,” 81–82. 

[4] Muller, “The Role of Church History in the Study of Systematic Theology,” 85.  

[5] Stephen J. Nichols, 5 Minutes in Church History (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2019), 5. 

Suggested Resources 

  1. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Greg R. Allison 
  2. Phil Johnson’s teaching series “A Survey of Heresies”