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 Center for Faith and Culture and Oxford

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Every Tuesday morning at Between the Times we highlight the work of Southeastern’s Center for Faith and Culture (CFC). Directed by Dr. Ken Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern, the Center seeks to bring the Christian faith to bear upon all areas of life through helping others to think and to act Christianly in both private and public discourse. To this end, the Center hosts numerous conferences, guest lectures, debates and study tours throughout the year. Recently, Dr. Keathley and others completed the annual Oxford Study Tour. Here is the first of several posts on their time in England. 

Regents Park is a Baptist college in the Oxford University system. This year Dr Malcolm Yarnell (Professor of Theology at SWBTS, and my very good friend) and I have taken a study group from Southwestern Seminary and Southeastern Seminary on a 18-day tour of England and Scotland. Regents Park has been gracious enough to let us once again stay with them. They have welcomed Southern Baptist students every summer for more than two decades, and they are wonderful hosts. We challenged their hospitality by bringing a group of over 70 students, faculty, and others. They rose to the task above and beyond expectations. David Harper, the college’s bursar, has moved heaven and earth to provide us with excellent accommodations. Some of us are staying at St. Johns College which is across the street from Regents Park.

Regent's ParkOxford has more history per square inch than any other place I know. Want to see where Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake for the sake of the Gospel? That’s about a quarter of mile from where we’re staying. Want to buy something from the candy store where Alice (as in the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) used to get her candy? About a mile from here. In between St. John’s and Regents Park is a pub called The Eagle and the Child. For decades a literary group call The Inklings met there. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were members. On Thursdays Tolkien would read to C. S. Lewis and the other attendees portions of a little tale he was writing called Lord of the Rings.

Michael Travers is teaching on the apologetics of C. S. Lewis, David Allen on British Preaching, and Nathan Finn and Malcolm Yarnell are team-teaching on Baptist History. What’s not to love?

For Dr. Keathley’s full series of posts on the tour, and more on the CFC, check out his blog here

SEBTS’s Michael Travers Joins Paul Fiddes and Others for New Book on C. S. Lewis

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For those readers with an admiration for C. S. Lewis, Michael Travers’s commentary on Lewis’s writings provides rich and sumptuous fare. Travers’s most recent contribution is an essay in the forthcoming volume, C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra: Reshaping the Image of the Cosmos (Kent State University Press; July 2013). This work brings together a world-class group of literary and theological scholars and Lewis specialists that includes Paul S. Fiddes, Monika B. Hilder, Sanford Schwartz, Michael Travers, and Michael Ward. 

For those of BtT’s readers who are uninitiated, Lewis’s Perelandra is a theologically ambitious piece of imaginative science fiction writing. The Kent State volume emphasizes its theological nature and shows how the novel synthesizes cosmology, mythology, and Christianity. The first selection of essays treats cosmology, while the second selection treats morality and meaning. For those interested in Lewis, sci-fi, literature, and theology (and all combined), pick up a copy of this new volume here.

We invite you to attend The College at Southeastern or Southeastern Seminary, where you can study C. S. Lewis under Dr. Travers’ tutelage.

Dr. Travers (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is Professor of English at The College at Southeastern, where he also serves as Associate Vice President and Senior Fellow of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. He is the author of The Devotional Experience in the Poetry of John Milton (Edwin Mellen), Encountering God in the Psalms (Kregel), and co-author with Richard D. Patterson of Face to Face With God: Human Images of God in the Bible (Biblical Studies Press), and has published articles in Bibliotheca Sacra, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Baker), Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, and Westminster Theological Journal. Dr. Travers is known as a master teacher, a mentor to young faculty, and a fine writer.

For more info on Dr. Travers and our other professors visit our website (http://www.sebts.edu/ or http://www.sebts.edu/college/) and check out the Admissions and Academics links.