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.
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.