Stephen J. Nichols is a firm believer that every Christian should read church history, and he writes books toward that end. Works such as The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Crossway), Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (P&R), The Church History ABCs: Augustine and Twenty-Five Other Heroes of the Faith (Crossway) are aimed at delivering church history to the person in the pew.
Nichols is using his significant research and writing gifts for the sake of the church. After spending several years as church history professor at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Nichols took on a new role earlier this year when he was elected president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, both in Orlando, Florida, where he works directly with author, theologian, and pastor R. C. Sproul, founder of Ligonier.
I asked Nichols about the future of church history, his work with R. C. Sproul, and the necessity of all believers studying the rich heritage of evangelical Christianity.
You write church history so that the average person in the pew can understand and engage it. Why is it important that ordinary Christians understand something about our past?
Church history really belongs to the church, to the laity. I’m thankful for fellow church historians who write for church historians; there is certainly a place for that. But my passion is to write church history for the church. These [heroes from church history] become for us a model of how to live out our discipleship as followers of Christ, to help show us how the Bible is worked out in our own lives.
How would you encourage pastors to study church history and to incorporate it into their own teaching and preaching ministries?
One of the best entry points into church history is through sermons. For one thing, they are shorter, so pastors can read sermons easily, and there are many sermons that are readily available, even back to the church fathers. So, rather than try to tackle some great treatise like Edwards’s Religious Affections or Luther’s Bondage of the Will, which are going to require some time commitment on your part, give up a half hour to work through a sermon. We forget sometimes that a lot of these great figures from church history were pastors; Calvin was a pastor, Edwards was a pastor. We tend to think of them as these great theologians, but they were pastors. Their main job was studying for and preaching sermons. Their big ideas come out of sermons.
If the Lord tarries and history books are written about our generation, do you think it will remember men like John Piper and your boss, R. C. Sproul, as giants on the landscape of this present church age? How might history remember our generation in terms of men and movements?
I think it will remember these men in this way. I think in terms of Dr. Sproul and some of the other modern leaders that is certainly true. I think one of the key moments that will be remembered is the development of the Chicago Statement (on Biblical Inerrancy) of 1978. That statement really sustained a generation at a time when biblical inspiration and authority was being seriously compromised.
There has been revitalization of interest in church history and a revitalization of interest in historical figures such as Jonathan Edwards. When I travel and speak on Edwards in churches, I realize about five minutes into a lot of conversations that the entry point of interest in Edwards was John Piper. So I think we are among some great men who will be remembered as having a massive influence on the church.
A few years ago, Time magazine referred to the rising interest in Reformed theology among young evangelicals as one of the most influential movements in our country. Do you think we are in the midst of a new time of reformation among younger evangelicals in America?
I do. This is very encouraging. You could say that every generation of the church needs a reformation. A few years back there were voices calling for a recovery of the doctrines of grace in the church, but I think largely because of this young, restless, reformed, new Calvinism generation, it’s no longer a wasteland. I see it in the students we have at Reformation Bible College, I see it in students at Boyce College in Louisville and other colleges and seminaries where thousands of students are being trained in sound doctrine. I am very hopeful, very optimistic.
How do we work carefully so that this new reformation has a deep and lasting effect on the church and doesn’t wind up being merely some kind of trendy, faddish movement in the church like some we’ve seen before? How can models from church history speak into our lives?
We have great models from the past, but also from the present. Look at the folks who are the leaders, the fathers and grandfathers of the movement, if you will, the John Pipers, the R. C. Sprouls, they are all devout churchmen who believe in the centrality of consistent preaching of the Word and sitting under the means of grace. We think of them as skilled authors and great conference speakers, and they are, but they are most fundamentally devoted churchmen. The same thing is true from those great figures from the past. The one institution God promises to bless is the church. It is the agency that emerges out of the New Testament. So the church and pulpit are going to sustain it, faithfulness in both over a long period of time.
R. C. Sproul is a personal hero to many of us and a towering figure among Reformed evangelicals. What has it been like to work daily with Dr. Sproul?
Very intimidating! I understand what Paul meant when he said, “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” I think of that every day as I go to work. It’s a remarkable time to be around him as he has had such a huge influence on the previous generation and is thinking about influencing the next generation with the gospel in founding a college. It’s very much like John Calvin, who founded a college. . . . He is kind of a 21st-century Luther, swashbuckling his way through life. It is a tremendous pleasure to get to work with him and learn from him.
Are you going to write the Sproul biography?
That’s off the record! (laughs)
What are a handful of books or authors from history that every Christian should read?
I’m a big fan of Pilgrim’s Progress. There was a time when every Christian home had a Bible and a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. A Christian of any age should read Pilgrim’s Progress. I mentioned earlier that I think a good entry point into the leading figures of church history is through sermons. I would recommend one of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons from early on in his ministry, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” to acquaint one with him. A great and profitable document is the Heidelberg Catechism, The Confessions of St. Augustine is another that I would recommend. It is one of those books that I dip into consistently. One book that is I think is as important in our day as it was when it was first published in the early 20th century (1923) is Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. I read that book and think of some issues going on in our own day—the challenges to the doctrine of justification, the challenges to the doctrine of God, the challenges to the role of the church, challenges to scriptural authority—were issues facing that era, and Machen spoke forcefully to all of those issues.