Christians, We Need the Past

[Editor's Note: In the following post Southeastern Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies, and already well-known BtT blogger extraordinaire, Nathan Finn, guides us through the corridors of God's economy as he explains why we need the past.] 

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.[1]

The words quoted above are taken from an address C. S. Lewis first gave in 1949. As most readers of Between the Times will know, Lewis was a renowned scholar of medieval literature, a popular Christian apologist, and the author of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s books. Though he was not a professional historian by training, as both a scholar and a Christian, Lewis understood the importance of the past. The past takes us places. The past provides needed perspective. The past keeps us humble. Lewis prized the past so much that he famously suggested that the reading of old books is preferable to the reading of new books. “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher,” Lewis writes, “to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”[2] Any historian worth his or her salt would agree.

Unfortunately, not everyone would agree that knowledge of the past is valuable (or at least interesting). I have taught history courses for almost a decade to thousands of undergraduate students, seminary students, and research doctoral students. More than a few have informed me that they are not really that “in” to history—even Christian history. A few have even nodded off in class—doubtless a reflection of their lack of sleep rather than my abilities as a teacher! Truth be told, I can remember a season in my life when history seemed less-than-appealing. Though that changed my junior year of high school in an advanced placement United States History course taught by Coach Joe Haluski. At best, many people have a utilitarian view of history; they care to the degree they find history useful for the stuff that really matters in life. Almost everyone can quote at least a paraphrase of George Santayana’s famous quip, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[3]

As a church historian, I see myself as promoting three key themes among my students. First, I need to persuade them that how we interpret the past should arise in part from the Christian worldview and the best of the Christian intellectual tradition. History should matter for us because it matters in God’s economy. Second, I need to convince them that all of Christian history is our history—even the parts that are less appealing or seem remote from our contemporary experiences. This can be a hard sell sometimes. After all, the past is so . . . different. Finally, I need to model for them how to apply insights from church history in such a way that it builds up the body of Christ, strengthens our spiritual walks with Christ, and helpfully informs our ministries. Church history has a pastoral function; to miss this in a seminary class would be a tragedy.

To be sure, not every student will find church history to be as scintillating as I do. I can live with that. Even for many students who do come to find the topic at least marginally interesting, their church history courses will not be their favorite classes. That’s okay, too. However, I hope students walk away from our church history courses at Southeastern Seminary understanding that the past matters—it matters for their spiritual lives, their churches, and their present and future ministries. C. S. Lewis was right: we need intimate knowledge of the past. This is especially true of the Christian past. In our current context, far too many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals unknowingly bow before the idol of the new and the novel, often forgetting the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Church history can be a means of grace in mortifying this particular idolatry and taking the long view of how God works among all his people in every time and every place to bring about his glorious purposes.

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[1] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 58–59.

[2] C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 200. This essay was originally published in 1944 as Lewis’s introduction to a new edition of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word.

[3] George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Or the Phases of Human Progress (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), 284.

The Mystery of God and the “Unknown Unknowns”

When thinking about the mystery of God–whether contemplating His nature, His character, or the facets of His will–one quickly finds himself muttering Rumsfeldian quotes. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, talking about military intelligence, (in)famously observed,

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

God is not completely unknown to us. He has revealed Himself to us in nature, in the human conscience, in history, through the Scriptures, and ultimately in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet God remains a mystery–there are “unknown unknowns”. Part of the problem with saying that God is mysterious is the ambiguous meaning of the word “mystery” in the English language. In The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable, Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall give a very helpful and nuanced discussion of the word.Boyer, Mystery Boyer, Mystery They distinguish between five different meanings of the word “mystery”:

1. An intriguing puzzle: this is the type of mystery that we attempt to solve. In fiction, detectives such as Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes solve mysterious crimes. In the real world, scientists and other researchers attack these types of puzzling mysteries on a regular basis.

2. An unknown plan: this is the type of mystery that is revealed. The biblical authors typically had this meaning in mind when they spoke of mystery. In Matthew 13, Jesus uses parables to teach about the “mysteries of the Kingdom”. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul declares, “Behold I show you a mystery” as he taught about the instantaneous translation of the saints at our Lord’s return. Both instances are examples of unknown truths–mysteries–now being unveiled by divine revelation.

3. An overwhelming reality: this is the type of mystery by which one is awed. Boyer and Hall call this “quantitative inexhaustibility.” In this situation we suffer not from a lack of information, but from an excess of information. For example, we affirm that God is infinite–that His power and wisdom are limitless. But we quickly must admit that we have said more than we understand.

4. A bewildering dilemma: this is the type of mystery that does not lend itself to rational thought, much less explanation. Consider the mystery of suffering, or the inexplicable, incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust. This type of mystery appears irrational or non-rational, and leaves us bewildered.

5. Boyer and Hall finally present a fifth type of mystery–”unclassifiable superabundance.” This type of mystery goes beyond an overwhelming reality (Definition 3). We can grasp an overwhelming mystery, but we cannot comprehend it. A superabundant mystery cannot even be grasped. We simply do not have the intellectual ability to begin. The cognitive capacity is not there. When we contemplate the mystery of God (in this sense), we are dealing with unknown unknowns.

This does not mean that the mysterious aspects of God (Definition 5) contradict or conflict with what has been revealed about His nature, character, and will. We do not have to abandon rational discourse about God nor do we have to settle for a vague mysticism that reduces to a non-rational spirituality. The mystery of God transcends rational discourse but does not invalidate it. We will have to acknowledge our limitations with humility.

Despite the mystery of God–His “unclassifiable superabundance”–we still have reason to hope. God is not silent. He has spoken with the intent that we would know Him, love Him, and have a relationship with Him. Boyer and Hall put it this way:

“[E]very faculty [reason, emotion, and will] may approach God. But every faculty must approach God as God–and this means that every faculty should expect to be overwhelmed and undone by a supremacy that cannot be mastered….Reason, too, comes before the mystery legitimately, but she comes as a petitioner seeking her Lord’s bounty, not as a judge demanding a satisfactory explanation.” (14)

God may have unknown unknowns, but He is not unknown to us.

This blog is cross posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com

Chuck Quarles: The Value of Christian Education to Churches

[Editor's Note: Dr. Charles Quarles is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern, author of numerous scholarly and popular level books on the NT, and a member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti SocietasHe is also an experienced pastor, missionary, and theological educator, and so an able guide on the topic of Christian education. The following is part 2 of two parts on the true value of Christian education.]

In a previous post, I discussed the value of Christian education for students and parents. Churches often invest in Christian education, too. Southern Baptists contribute through the Cooperative Program to support Baptist colleges and seminaries. Increasingly churches are asking whether this is a wise investment. How much does Christian education really contribute to the mission of the church? Should churches consider decreasing or even dropping contributions to educational institutions in order to have more for local ministries or international missions?

I would argue that Christian education is a very wise investment for local churches. Christian education is of enormous value for the kingdom of God and the mission of the church. Students who attend public universities are four times more likely to stop attending church than those who attend authentic Christian colleges. Students who attend public universities are seven times more likely to stop praying consistently than students who attend authentic Christian colleges. Churches that do not encourage their youth to attend Christian colleges will likely suffer the heartbreak of seeing a sharp decline in the numbers of educated young adults that participate in church ministries.

Even if such young adults remain in the church, they may ultimately have a negative impact on the church’s health. A March 29, 2005 Washington Post article revealed that 72% of college professors view themselves as “liberal,” 84% support abortion, and 67% view homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. (Consider how much these numbers may have increased in nine years.) One rarely sits at the feet of such instructors for four years or more without being influenced by their ideologies in overt or subtle ways. Unless the church strongly promotes Christian education, the young adults who receive this dangerous tutelage will form the primary pool of future spiritual leaders for our churches. These young adults will carry the intellectual and philosophical influences of their educational background into their Sunday school classrooms, the deacons’ meeting, and committee discussions and potentially infect others with non-Christian views.

Students who attend authentic Christian colleges typically grow in their Christian commitment at five times the rate of students who attend other schools. They have a Christian worldview and a good foundation of biblical knowledge that equips them to serve Christ through their churches as well as through their professions. One can hardly estimate the sweeping impact that a Christian physician, attorney, public school teacher, journalist, or businessman may have on the kingdom of God in a local community when these influential believers view their profession as a divine calling and mission.

One of the great concerns related to the future of several of our Southern states is the notorious “brain drain” on our population. Bright educated young professionals are abandoning struggling states in unprecedented numbers as they seek higher salaries and greater potential for advancement in other states. However, the feared brain drain can also have a devastating effect on local churches. If Christian parents and churches entrust our best and brightest students to secular universities and they are schooled in unbiblical ideologies, the church risks losing its rich intellectual tradition. The church will be poorly equipped to offer a rational defense of the Christian faith to a culture that is increasingly hostile toward our deeply cherished Christian convictions.

It may surprise many to discover that education is such a vital part of our Baptist heritage that one entire article of the Baptist Faith and Message is actually devoted to discussing the importance of this endeavor. Article XII. Education states:

Christianity is the faith of enlightenment and intelligence. In Jesus Christ abide all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. All sound learning is, therefore, a part of our Christian heritage. . . . [T]he cause of education in the Kingdom of Christ is co-ordinate with the causes of missions and general benevolence.

Christian schools prepare outstanding Christian leaders for a variety of professions in which they have unique opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Who better to share the gospel with a teacher or attorney than a respected colleague who views his vocation as his calling and seeks to use it to glorify Christ at every opportunity? Christian education is thus a helpful strategy for assisting the church in fulfilling the Great Commission. That’s why our confession insists that just as the church supports the causes of local and international missions, education “should receive along with these the liberal support of the churches.”

When our churches affirm this historic Baptist confession, we are also acknowledging the value of Christian education and pledging our commitment to support this cause with generous gifts and fervent prayers. The need has never been greater and the ministry more strategic than now.

The College at Southeastern seeks to provide the sort of high-quality Christian education about which Dr. Quarles writes. For more info on the programs, faculty, and tuition costs for The College, check out the website and/or contact admissions