“WHY AS CHRISTIANS DO WE NEED THE PAST?”

I hope you didn’t grow tired of my bombarding you with posts about Thanksgiving last month.  Now that the holiday is behind us, I want to share some posts that I was consciously postponing in favor of my 24/7 All-Thanksgiving-All-the-Time format.

The question “Why as Christians do we need the past?” is one that I have addressed more than once in this blog.  (If you are interested, the best summary of my own answer is here.)  At the end of October Christian historian Nathan Hatch spoke in chapel here at Wheaton, and I was privileged to be in the audience as he offered his own answer to this vital question.

Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University

Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University

Here’s some background on Hatch, in case his name is new to you.  He’s an alumnus of Wheaton (class of 1968) who has gone on to an extremely distinguished academic career.  After earning a Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis, he joined the faculty at Notre Dame, where he labored first in the History Department before moving into administration, serving as associate dean and then provost.  In 2005 he left Notre Dame to become president of Wake Forest University, a post he still holds.

Before going into administration, Hatch established himself as a prominent evangelical intellectual and one of the leading Christian historians of his generation.  His book The Democratization of American Christianity is widely viewed as one of the most important books ever written on the topic of U. S. Christianity.  His book The Search for Christian America (co-authored with Mark Noll and George Marsden) is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the place of Christian belief in the founding of this country.  He’s a top-notch scholar.

Hatch titled his chapel talk “Engaging History: The Redemptive Power of the Past.”  (You can watch it here.)  It’s only about seventeen minutes long, and you would do better to view it in its entirety than rely on my brief summary, but let me whet your appetite:

Hatch begins by observing that we evangelicals have long been suspicious of the past.  We pride ourselves on grounding our religious beliefs wholly on the Bible, not on human tradition, and that tends to make us skeptical of the past as a source of wisdom for our lives today.  As American evangelicals, we are doubly skeptical, inasmuch as we have been affected by a national culture that is relentlessly present-minded.

Hatch then explains why he finds this regretable, but he does so in a novel way.  He shares brief vignettes of two of his classmates in Wheaton’s class of ’68: John Piper and Mark Noll.  Both went on to great distinction after leaving Wheaton–Piper became a nationally-recognized evangelical pastor and writer, while Noll developed into arguably the most distinguished and prolific Christian historian of the last century.

When Piper and Noll were in their twenties, Hatch relates, both experienced a religious awakening by delving into the past.  Each story is fascinating, but I won’t spoil them by sharing too much of the specifics.  Building on these examples, Hatch identifies two general benefits to the Christian who, like Piper and Noll, chooses to delve into the past.  First, serious study of the past can “expand our view of God and His work in the world.”  Second, it can do much to improve our understanding of our own times.   Both benefits are invaluable.

Hatch concluded by challenging the student body with the memorable words of C. S. Lewis, namely to steel themselves against the errors and blindspots of our age by keeping “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer.

5 responses to ““WHY AS CHRISTIANS DO WE NEED THE PAST?”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with Ken & Jack….but, I just finished your ‘Final…final post’ of Feb 2013. I must confess that I was waiting for a ‘Second final, final post on Thanksgiving.’
    Actually you’ve awakened the desire to get back to things historical. As I read your posts on Thanksgiving, it dawned on me, that studying history for the truths it contains requires the same hermeneutic as Bible study requires. As a result I went back to the beginning of your archives in 2012. As you’ve probably guessed, I just finished your ‘Final, final’ post. I was very
    taken by your distinction between ‘Moral Outrage’ and ‘Moral Reflection’
    (Judging others/Judging oneself) by the same standard …..biblically in the previous posts. I have to confess, that of all the prayers found in the scriptures, David’s in Psalm 139 is the most difficult; I know what God says of my heart in Jeremiah 17:9, and if it is true of my heart, then it most certainly is true of those who founded our nation as well. I wonder how some ‘Reflection’ would have changed the Ferguson mess?
    Regarding your question in the title of this post, one answer is to put God and His word directly in the center of all events as Daniel did in Daniel 4:25.
    In one of your posts on Obama’s second inaugural address, you mentioned that no President ever mentioned Jesus specifically, all references to God were somewhat generic. For the Christian who takes the scripture seriously, in particular a Christian historian who has set the bar as high as you have, Jesus and the Bible must be at the very center of all of creation, including history (space/time). The Bible is devastating to the adulation ploy used by politicians as you mentioned. Mentioning Jesus directly, would of necessity eventually bring His purpose for coming to light. Adulation rhetoric
    would then lose it’s ‘smooze’ effect in vote getting. I don’t know if you realize it or not, but you have not just put a generic mention of God back into our nation’s history, but Jesus Himself. And just as importantly, a Judeo/Christian understanding of scripture. A case in point is the meaning of the word pilgrim. The Puritans would have understood it in that Judeo/Christian sense. They likely had the Geneva Study Bible as their primary translation. Some of the notes were written by Calvin, along with major Protestant theologians of the day. I don’t know that they were Five Point Calvinists, but the Puritans had no illusions about the ‘Goodness of man’, including kings. As you also pointed out, they probably wouldn’t have had much of a ‘Manifest Destiny’ notion of nation building either. At any rate, keep posting as the Lord leads, as Jonathan said to his armor bearer,
    ‘ God can deliver by many or by few.’
    God Bless

  2. I echo Ken’s comments – keep it up. I did send one of your Thanksgiving posts to our adult children and to my brothers in the hopes that they will see fit to tune in now and then. Of course I am always relating your posts to the field of education and how we desperately need to educate our young people to think historically and consider the perspective history gives us on the events that impact our lives. Without this perspective we tend to rush to judgment without much careful analysis and we tend to miss the nuances of meaning. For instance, I am struck by the way in which our society manages to criminalize so much behavior greatly multiplying the opportunity (and the necessity) for the use of force. We tend to think that if there is a problem, pass a law and create a criminal penalty. The lessons from the prohibition experiment do not seem to have been learned. Or, we have learned the wrong lessons! However it has happened we manage to jail a larger percentage of our population than any other modern state.

  3. I deeply appreciate your bombardment of posts about Thanksgiving, and deeply appreciate the work you are doing for the Body of Christ. I wonder if at times you feel like a voice crying in the wilderness. Please keep it up – we are listening and thinking.

  4. I needed this today. Thanks.

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