Why History Matters to the Christian
This is the first of a two-part series that is comprised of a plea from the Dean of the 1517 Academy, and college professor, Dr. Dan van Voorhis, to think historically and read broadly. You can catch his daily historical podcast, the Christian History Almanac, wherever you download your podcasts.
“The historians, therefore, are the most useful people and the best teachers, so that no one can ever honor, praise, and thank them enough” -Martin Luther.
“Historians are the most powerful and dangerous members of any society. They must be watched carefully, they can spoil everything” -Nikita Khruschev, Soviet Premier.
These quotes are surely self-serving and exaggerating to make a point, but the message is taken: how we handle the past has a profound effect on the present.
As a history professor, I spend an excessive amount of time trying to justify my discipline and trying to convince students to sign up for the major or at least a few elective courses. I believe history, as a discipline, has an important perspective for modern problems, but I digress. I am not writing this to suggest that you all become history majors, enthusiasts, or even buffs. Rather, I’d like to suggest that the Christian faith is particularly historical, and thus, thinking historically is not an elective activity for the Christian.
Because the Christian faith is peculiarly historical, Christians do well to read history, think in terms of dates and timelines, and always follow the historians cry, “ad fontes!” or, “back to the original sources!” When the church has gone astray, it has been the responsible (not slavish) approach to history that has helped correct the course. This happened in 1439 when the so-called Donation of Constantine from the 4th century was discovered to be a forgery. This document purported to cede authority in Rome from the Emperor to the Pope, and it was only a close historical examination of this text that revealed it could not have been written until the 8th century at least. Later, it was men such as Erasmus and Luther, who used the best historical sources to translate the Bible in this same spirit of ad fontes that helped spark the Reformation.
We see the earliest disciples noting the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ in history, an actual time and place. The Gospel of Matthew starts with the equivalent of a 1st-century Jewish version of 23andme: “Who is this man, and where did he come from?” is the first question implied. While Matthew’s narrative might be tedious to read, it’s length is intentional in order to place the whole story firmly in a particular historical time and place.
Luke begins his Gospel account and the Acts narrative by laying out a historical method of sorts. Luke writes to Theophilus:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus (Acts 1:1-3, RSV).
Luke also recounts the story of Paul, called before the council to give an account to King Agrippa for his preaching and actions, when he is interrupted by Porcius Festus, the procurator of Jerusalem:
And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him, I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” (Acts 26:24-26, RSV).
The law and the prophets were given to a people in history: a specific time and place so that they would be stewards of the story to pass down to all the saints. Paul writes in the 4th chapter of Galatians that Christ came in history, in the fullness of time - that is, to enter time and space at a particular point on the calendar and the globe. And of course, we Christians were baptized in history, washed in the water and the word by regular hands on a specific day.
A note to the yet unconvinced: Let me take an objection straight-on. As much as we might be called to be academically minded, it seems too often the case that academics are pompous, and/or socially awkward, and/or condescending towards those who don’t remember trivia for a living. This is not a call to an “intellectually superior” faith, to be grasped only by the privileged who have been formally educated. Nor is this a gnostic call to a more (usually secret) knowledge that results in better faith.
St. Paul reminds us that God decided to reveal himself to neither the wise nor the learned in order to emphasize the call of God in Christ to the last and least of us (1 Cor. 1:26-29). The scribes, sophists, and even historians might have a word to a pressing problem in the world, but the power of God comes in the “foolishness” of the cross, such that none can boast.
We needn’t all be professional historians, but a Christian armed with a knowledge of both the sacred and secular past is capable of understanding more fully the history of salvation, as well as the history of the church.
Next week I will suggest a few practical tips for reading broadly and how anyone can jump into the disciplines often thought to only be in the domain of the “experts.”