If you are looking for an excellent resource on church history, you might consider Tony Lane’s Concise History of Christian Thought. The work is divided into five parts: Church Fathers to 500, the Eastern Tradition from 500, the Medieval West from 500-1500, the Reformation period to 1800 and the modern period from 1800 to 1999. In each of these five parts, Lane covers the major thinkers, writings, confessions and creeds, and intellectual trends associated with their respective time periods.
Lane’s perspective on the significance and relevance of history is very helpful. In his introduction (1), he writes,
How should we view the past? There are two ways to approach history. Some people treat history as a mirror, in which they admire their own faces. By studying only selected periods and people they recreate the past in their own image in order to glorify themselves. But we see our own ugly mugs in the past only by turning history into a distorting mirror. The proper approach is to treat history like a window. A window is there to look outside, to see something different. We can learn from history, because like foreign travel it shows us that ours is not the only way to do things. If we are humble we will not claim, as Job’s friends did, that “we are the people and wisdom will die with us” (Job 12.2).
Karl Barth observed that the correct attitude to our theological forebears is summarized in the iffith commandment: honour your father and mother. This command remains binding on children even when they have left home. But for an adult to honour his parents is not always to obey them. There are times when we should say, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5.29). We should listen with respect to the voice of the past, but we are not bound by it. The teaching of the past must be tested: not by our prejudices; not by its applicability to our situation today (for which it was not written); but by the word of God, the Scriptures.
Lane’s statement here is eminently appropriate. History is not a mine from which we draw useful facts to buttress our own opinions and commitments. The people of the past, no matter how great or how right they may have been, were not always right neither were they always great. The past, and those who inhabit the past, are evaluated by an objective standard, which ultimately is the Bible. Still, a knowledge of the past is necessary if we are to understand the events, trends, and people of our own day.