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.mobil online game

St. Patrick and the Great Commission

St. Patrick IconWhen most Americans think of St. Patrick’s Day, they probably either think of the legend of Patrick driving out all the snakes from Ireland or they think about all the drinking and partying that takes place on this day. This is likely just as true for Christians as for non-Christians. As a church historian and an American of partly Irish descent, I think this is a shame. When believers think about Patrick of Ireland (389–461), they should think about gospel advance. Early Celtic Christianity was a Great Commission movement.

The story of Patrick’s life is the stuff of legends, except most of it is almost certainly true. He was born in a Christian family in the Roman province of Britain, captured by Irish pirates as a teenager, and sold into slavery in Ireland. He worked as a pig farmer for six years, living a mostly isolated existence among the swine. Patrick was converted as he meditated on Scripture verses he had learned as a child. He became convinced God was leading him to flee his captivity, so he escaped to France and became a monk. He was eventually reunited with his parents in Britain.

If this were where Patrick’s story ended, it would be remarkable enough. However, he received a vision of an Irishman asking Patrick to return to the land of his former captivity to proclaim Christ. Patrick referred to this as his “Macedonian call,” referencing Paul’s vision in Acts 16:9. After a time of preparation in a British monastery, Patrick returned to Ireland in 432. Though already an older man according to the customs of his era, Patrick spent the next three decades making disciples on the Emerald Isle.

Fifth-century Ireland was dominated by druidism, a pagan religion that affirmed a strange combination of mysticism, a belief in magic, and an emphasis on intellectual pursuit. In countering druidism, Patrick’s approach to evangelism included many facets. First, he sought to prove God was greater than the druid deities by performing miracles that authenticated the gospel message. (Many modern Christians are nervous when they hear about miracles, but many of the most famous missionaries in the early church were also miracle-workers.) The druids responded by persecuting Patrick fiercely; he claims that he was nearly killed on twelve different occasions.

Patrick also attempted to build bridges with leading figures in Irish culture. He shared the gospel with an Irish chieftain, and though the chieftain did not convert, Patrick persuaded him to grant religious toleration for Christians. This brought an end to most of the persecution against Patrick and his converts. When Patrick entered a new region, he would attempt to convert local leaders to the faith in hopes that the prestige of their position would convince commoners to convert as well.

Every historian and missionary knows that this sort of strategy has often opened the door to nominal conversions and semi-pagan church members. This is exactly what was happening in much of continental Europe during this same period, as entire Germanic tribes were converting to Catholicism due to conquest or out of a sense of loyalty to their newly Christian leaders. But the final facet of Patrick’s evangelism strategy went a long way toward softening the threat of nominal conversions: Patrick emphasized rigorous discipleship of all converts.

Patrick’s converts were required to learn the Scriptures and were instructed in Christian doctrine and morality. They were taught to share their faith with unbelievers, often as part of teams that formed the nuclei of new church plants. They were expected to embrace a pious lifestyle or be disciplined by the church. In fact, Patrick pioneered a new practice to encourage believers to mortify their sins and pursue godliness: private confession to a priest. The medieval Roman Catholic Church later adopted this practice in the thirteenth century. Patrick’s methods proved successful; over a thirty-year period Patrick and his protégés evangelized most of Ireland, planted 200 churches and baptized 100,000 new converts.

Patrick was a monk, so it should not be surprising that he established monasteries all over Ireland. One of the disciplines practiced by the monks in Irish monasteries was to copy the writings of classical antiquity. Because the Germanic “barbarians” never conquered Ireland during this medieval era, the Irish collections of ancient Greek and Christian writings played a crucial role in the preservation of Western culture. This fascinating story is told by Thomas Cahill in his bestselling book How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, 1995).

Like their famous founder, the Irish monasteries also focused upon spreading the gospel. In fact, Irish monasteries were mission-training centers that equipped monks to evangelize, plant churches, and establish new monasteries. Numerous missionary monks were commissioned to spread the gospel to other lands, most famously Columba (521–597), who established a monastery on the island of Iona and evangelized Scotland. Because of Columba’s influence, early Scottish Christianity shared a common Great Commission DNA with Irish Christianity.

Patrick and the Celtic Christian movement he launched have much to teach modern evangelicals. Their emphasis was on making disciples rather than merely winning converts. Celtic Christians emphasized personal holiness and equipped every believer to share his or her faith. They valued the importance of Christ-centered education and ministry training. Much like contemporary missional evangelicals, Celtic priests understood their culture to be a mission field and churches (and monasteries) to be centers of missional activity. Patrick and his followers were Great Commission Christians.

As North America and the rest of the West becomes increasingly post-Christian and even anti-Christian, early Celtic Christianity serves as a key historical role model for us as we seek to proclaim Christ in our own context. On this St. Patrick’s Day, do not think first of four-leaf clovers, parades celebrating Irish-American heritage, or pinching your friends who are not wearing green. Think of a slave-turned-missionary who longed to make disciples of all people—including those who had once enslaved him.

If you want to read more about Patrick’s approach to evangelism, check out George Hunter’s Celtic Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again (Abingdon, 1990). Also, be sure to check out the forthcoming popular biography of Patrick by my friend Michael Haykin, titled Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus, 2014).

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On the Merits of a PhD in Church History or Historical Theology

Author’s note: This blog essay is revised from a two-part series first published in October 2011 at my personal website, Christian Thought & Tradition. I have updated it because I continue to receive emails from folks all over the world who are prayerfully considering research doctoral studies in church history and related fields. I hope some of you find it helpful.

Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman have written a very helpful article for the American Historical Association titled “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” They note that fewer schools are offering tenure-track positions for historians, a trend that has been in the making for at least a generation. They also lament the fact that most graduate programs in history urge doctoral students to aim for the academy, as if teaching and scholarship are the only legitimate vocations for someone with a Ph.D. in history. Grafton and Grossman suggest that graduate programs consider finding ways to equip students for other vocational opportunities besides the academy, but without reducing the historical rigor of doctoral programs in history.

The situation in the fields of church history and historical theology is very similar to that of our secular counterparts. Many graduate students in church history (and other theological disciplines) want to teach in colleges or seminaries, but the reality is that there are relative few jobs available. There are several reasons for this situation. It’s partly the result of a market flooded with Ph.D.’s, which is true pretty much across virtually every academic discipline. It’s also due in part to the current economic situation–many schools are replacing permanent faculty positions with adjunctive professors. Yet another factor is the reality that church history is understandably seen as less foundational to theological education than biblical studies and theology. In smaller schools especially, there is a tendency to reserve most of the full-time positions for scholars in the latter disciplines, perhaps tasking a theologian with teaching a church history survey course or two.

I’ve struggled with these questions during my own vocational pilgrimage. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree in history, I wrestled for a time with what I wanted to do for graduate school. One part of me wanted to pursue the M.A. and Ph.D. in history and teach in a college or university setting, and I was encouraged by one of my professors to follow that path. Another part of me wanted to pursue the M.Div. and Ph.D. in church history and either pastor a local church or teach in a seminary or Christian college setting; a couple of other professors nudged me in that direction. In addition to talking with my professors, I emailed several evangelical scholars working in both types of contexts to seek their input. Several were gracious enough to reply, which was very encouraging.

I continued wrestling with the decision, honestly believing that either were good options. By this juncture in my life, I had already served on the staff of a number of local Baptist churches and would soon be ordained to the gospel ministry. When all was said and done, I opted for the second course of study because I thought it better reflected my calling and ministry aspirations. I earned the M.Div., taking all of my electives in historical and systematic theology. My Ph.D. is in “Theological Studies,” with emphasis in church history. I pursued these degrees because I believe they symbolized that I am first and foremost a gospel minister, though one who is currently teaching church history and historical theology in a denominational seminary because of certain gifts and opportunities. I’ve never regretted taking this path, though again, I think the other is just as valid for a Christian with my type of gifts and interests.

As I counsel students considering research doctoral studies in church history and historical theology, I try to make sure they understand what they’ll be getting into. There aren’t many jobs out there, and most schools with open positions need a scholar with a Ph.D. in Old Testament much more than they need a chap with a Ph.D. in church history. When a job does come open, many candidates will likely be competing for it. I personally know sharp brothers with doctoral degrees from solid programs that are still looking for a teaching job five to seven years after they graduated; some of them have even published their dissertation, written journal articles, and/or delivered papers at scholarly society meetings. For these reasons and more, I want prospective students to know that earning a Ph.D. in church history or historical theology, even from a prestigious university, doesn’t guarantee employment in an academic setting.

I ask students four questions as I counsel them about the possibility of pursuing doctoral studies in church history:

1. Do you have the gifts to be able to pursue advanced graduate work in church history or historical theology? This is a nuts-and-bolts kind of thing, because if a student doesn’t like to read a lot and write a lot, then research doctoral work in any field is probably not a good idea. A student with a 2.8 GPA who hates technical reading and academic writing can serve the Lord in countless ways, but he needs to do so without a Ph.D.

2. Do you care enough about an area of church history that you want to spend at least the next five or ten years reading countless books and articles and writing hundreds of pages about that topic? This is another nuts-and-bolts issue. If you are the type of person who wants to read whatever you want and write about whatever you want, then a Ph.D. in church history may not be the best thing for you, unless you want to use it to cultivate skills in research and writing that you can use on the other side of the degree.

3. Do you have a personal situation conducive to spending between three and seven more years in school? Can you manage it financially, especially if you don’t receive any financial aid? If you are married, what does your spouse think? Do you have children, and if so, how old are they? There some students who are gifted enough to earn the degree and interested enough in church history, but personal circumstances mitigate against them pursuing a Ph.D. I have some pastor friends who are in exactly this situation.

4. Can you envision yourself being happy if you earn a Ph.D., but serve as a pastor, missionary, parachuch worker, or denominational servant and never teach a single course or write a single book? I’m 100% in favor of individuals in these types of ministries earning research doctoral degrees in church history or related fields, if the Lord leads them to do so. (Here’s looking at you, Mark Dever, Sean Lucas, Bart Barber, Matt McCullough, and Jeff Robinson.) But if a student can’t envision spending all that time and money to do, well, exactly what he theoretically could have done had he not earned a Ph.D., then he probably doesn’t need to pursue research doctoral studies unless he has a clear sense from the Lord otherwise.

If you are considering a Ph.D. in church history (or just about any other field), I hope these questions are helpful to you. Doctoral studies in church history aren’t for the vast majority of people–even among those very interested in the history of Christianity. Many who earn a Ph.D. in church history or historical theology need to be prepared to serve in pastoral ministry or some other non-academic ministry context, bringing their research and writing skills to bear in whatever ways the Lord allows. There are many things you can do with a Ph.D. in church history, some of which are more important (and many of which pay more!) than teaching in a Christian college, seminary, or even a university religion department.

By the way, if your answer is “yes” to the above four questions and you think you might be interested in pursuing doctoral studies in church history or historical theology at Southeastern Seminary, shoot me an email (nfinn@sebts.edu). You can also check out the website for our Ph.D. program at SEBTS. We have a faculty of historians and theologians that can supervise students interested in topics such as Patristic history and theology, Reformation theology, British evangelical history, fundamentalism and evangelicalism, religion in the American South, the history of revival and spiritual awakenings, Baptist Studies, and 20th century evangelical theology.