Studying the liturgical history of the Christian faith paints a necessary picture of what Christians have truly believed throughout history, perhaps in some cases more so than studying their creeds. This history helps us obey God’s command given in Job 8:8–10:
For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out. For we are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you and utter words out of their understanding?
If for no other reason than God’s command, we should be willing to study how the Christian faith has evolved over time, particularly its worship. But God does not command this without reason. As the passage explains, “inquiring” of “bygone ages” will teach us. We are, as the passage say, “but of yesterday and know nothing.” The study of what has come before us teaches us what we would not otherwise understand if we limited our focus to the present time only, and it can teach us in at least three ways.
First, it can help us to recognize error and understand how it develops. Once reason Christians may resist studying the history of Christian worship is the immediately apparent errors that crept into Christian worship very early in its development. This fact may cause some to wonder about the value of such study. Yet the study of error is always valuable since it helps us to avoid those same errors today. Edmund Burkes’s oft-repeated axiom, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” is as true for worship as it is for any other sphere. Studying where people have gone wrong will help us prevent those same mistakes.
Another way we are taught through the study of history is by recognizing the common successes that we should emulate. God’s people have certainly made many mistakes in their understanding and practice of worship along the way, but they have often succeeded as well. By studying those successes, we can learn observe how God-pleasing worship has formed God-pleasing Christians so that we can achieve the same purpose with our worship today.
It is common for well-meaning Christians to piously proclaim that in order to worship God rightly, all they need is to study the Bible’s principles and apply them to contemporary settings. Yet this perspective is dangerously naïve. Yes, our primary focus is the ministry of worship today, but the study of what happened yesterday is profoundly important for us to be able to understand today. The prophet Isaiah recognized this when he said, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug” (Isa 51:11). Where we are today is not by random chance; the problems we face in worship, as well as the good that we see, find deep roots in what has happened between the early church and today. If we want to understand where we are today, we must “look to the rock from which [we] were hewn.”
Finally, the study of the development of worship through history will help us understand and prepare for tomorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:9 observes, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” What is the best way for us to prepare for the years ahead when we have no idea what new philosophical, cultural, sociological, and ecclesiastical problems will arise? The best way is to study what has happened before, because it is sure to happen again.