Christians, We Need the Past

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[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”

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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

In Case You Missed It

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Each Friday at Between the Times we point you to some of this week’s blogposts we think worth your time. Some are written by Southeastern faculty, alumni, or students. Some are from others outside Southeastern who have something to say. Either way, we want to keep you updated in case you missed it.

1) Ed Stetzer discusses (and links to) the panel discussion on salvation and mission at SBC 2014. Well worth your time (also features David Platt, Trevin Wax, and Frank Page). 

2) First Things contributor and Princeton law professor, Robert P. George, has created an online plea for the victims in Iraq. Sign the plea here.

3) Does God view the Spirit wrought good works of Christians as “filthy rags”? Michael J. Kruger says No at TGC.

4) Russell Moore, President of the ERLC, addresses the violence in Ferguson, Missouri and the quest for racial justice.

5) SEBTS PhD student and managing editor of Lifeway’s Gospel Project, Trevin Wax, also discusses Ferguson, ripping the bandages off our racial wounds.

6) Chuck Lawless, Dean of Graduate Studies at SEBTS, gives 10 reasons why bi-vocational ministry matters at thomrainer.com.