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Learning from the past

October 2005 | by Phil Arthur

Benefit from history!

Car-maker Henry Ford is famous for his off-the-cuff remark that ‘history is bunk’. Sometimes I come across Evangelical Christians who share his dismissive attitude towards learning from the past.

But I prefer the perspective of the historian, who called his record of the first colonists in New England

The mighty acts of Christ in America. Is there anything to be learned from what God has done? Of course there is. Consider some of the benefits we can derive from studying church history.

The footsteps of God

Firstly, we can learn respect for the achievements of our spiritual ancestors and a degree of humility about our own. Compared with ourselves, they achieved so much with so little.

When Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in only two years, he had none of the linguistic tools available to the modern translator. William Tyndale, who first translated the Bible into English from the original Greek, did so as a fugitive. Not for him the calm seclusion of a well-equipped library. He produced a literary and spiritual masterpiece while on the run from men who wanted him dead.

This ought to give us a new admiration for the theological achievements of the Reformers and Puritans. Facilities that academics in the West now take for granted were denied these men. But who could read a page or two from Calvin’s

Institutesor one of his commentaries, without recognising that here was a man with a rare insight into the Word of God.

Recognising error

Secondly, history also teaches us that no error is new. The truths of Christianity can only be attacked at certain key points. Heresy is predictable. The false teachings we encounter today are recycled versions of centuries-old errors. For example, Roman Catholicism is a highly developed form of the first-century Galatian heresy (‘Christ plus works and ceremonies’).

This insight can save us a lot of hard work. When we meet a new cult, we will often find that an earlier generation has already worked out a biblical response to something very similar. There is no need to reinvent the wheel!

New Age critiques of Christianity (like Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel,

The Da Vinci Code) actually repeat the worn-out arguments advanced by the Gnostics in the second century. In the same way, Athanasius’ fourth-century answer to the Arian heresy makes it unnecessary to work out some new defence against modern Arians like Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Long perspectives

A third advantage is that history gives us long perspectives. During my lifetime Evangelical Christianity in Britain has been dominated by two pervasive influences. The first was the high-profile ‘crusade evangelism’ imported from North America in the 1950s. The second has been the Charismatic movement.

Pentecostalism came to Britain as recently as 1905, but its ‘Charismatic’ development came even more recently, during my boyhood in the 1960s. How easy it would be for anyone born in the present century to assume that the ‘evangelical Christianity’ they see today has always been the norm.

When I first came under pressure from Charismatics who wanted me to buy into their second-blessing theology and the resultant gifts, I was able to use the past to throw light on the present. Men of God like Whitefield and Spurgeon lived out their days long before these emphases became fashionable, yet knew far more of the power of God on their ministries than most moderns.

Tolerance

Fourthly, a journey through the past can teach us a valuable lesson in tolerance. How large are our sympathies? Congregationalists may not like the fact that Adoniram Judson became a Baptist on his way to serve the Lord in Burma (now Myanmar). They nevertheless have to admit that it did not mean the end of him as a useful servant of the gospel!

Baptists like myself also have to acknowledge that until the 19th century, the overwhelming majority of those Christian leaders we revere practised infant baptism. And God used them too!

A good test for a British Calvinist is whether he has a place in his heart for that zealous Arminian, John Wesley. Why should we be surprised that God greatly used him? We cherish the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Is a sovereign Lord not free to bless and use whomever he pleases?

And even if we can learn nothing about the atonement from a John Wesley, he may have a thing or two to teach us about fervour and love for Christ!

Paying a high price

For a British Christian, one especially poignant dimension to all this is that we are not worthy of our fathers. We find ourselves echoing the words of the Psalmist: ‘We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work you did in their days, in the times of old’ (Psalm 44:1).

One annual conference today attracts about four hundred Reformed ministers. In 1662, by contrast, 2,000 ministers refused to compromise their biblical principles and were ejected from the National Church.

Given that the population of England was much smaller then, an equivalent number today would be something in the region of 30,000. The moral and spiritual life in our country would be vastly different if there were that many servants of the gospel willing to pay a high price for their obedience to Christ in our generation.

And yet, in its way, this perspective is healthy. Only a few years ago, during the height of the ‘Toronto blessing’, some Charismatics claimed that we were living in a period of revival. (To be fair, others recognised that such triumphalism was sadly misplaced.) Facing the fact that our country lies in a deep spiritual trough may not be comfortable, but realism will make our prayers all the more urgent.

At home in a strange land

According to L. P. Hartley, ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’. When we try to understand the past, our first impression is often astonishment at the sheer strangeness of it all.

Different clothes, different social customs and different notions about what constitutes the good life, can make the time-traveller from the 21st century feel distinctly odd. Yet we have one point of contact with

believersfrom previous ages that outweighs all the sense of strangeness — they were Christians like ourselves!

This one thing makes us feel at home. As we travel back through time, we find ourselves among people whose heart-concerns were the same as ours. Even though the Protestant Reformers of Northern Europe lived four centuries away, and are not your sort of people, you can warm to them as men who had the same experience of saving grace; who loved the Jesus that you love; and who sought to serve him as earnestly as you do.

Look at them in this way and you might even feel they have something to offer — as experienced older brothers!

In the modern West, the prevailing spiritual culture is superficial. For myself, I have always turned with some relief to the Reformers and Puritans because they valued a tough-minded, rational, disciplined piety which is light-years away from the slipshod ethos of contemporary evangelicalism.

Meeting heroes

I feel sorry for anyone who cannot be motivated by the stories of the great saints of earlier periods. Does your pulse not quicken as you think of William Carey — who went to India in 1792 and had no fellowship with a Christian of his own race apart from his wife for six years?

He never returned to England, but during his forty-two years in India he translated parts of the Bible into 36 languages, including six whole Bibles. When asked to explain the secret of his immense labours he replied, ‘I can plod!’

I have not met many heroes in the flesh, but I have in the books I have read. It has done my soul good to stand alongside Luther as he defied the Emperor of Germany; to pray with warm-hearted Samuel Rutherford; and to sit among Spurgeon’s congregation in the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

What a spur to wholehearted Christianity these men can be! In this life you will never meet John Newton — converted slave-trader and author of ‘Amazing Grace’. But read his biography and you will be amazed at what God can do in the life of just one man.

Walking with giants

Why not take a walk in the company of giants? If you then go on to read some of Newton’s own works, you will find yourself getting closer to the heartbeat of the man himself, and begin to enjoy fellowship with a Christian who has been in glory for two centuries.

Church history can be thrilling, especially when our own experience is very much an uphill struggle. How good to remind ourselves what God can do, whether in the life of a single person or in a short period of time.

The story of Christianity often displays the church at its lowest ebb while, out of sight, God was preparing a man or group of men who would turn everything round in a few years. No desert is so bleak that God cannot make it blossom

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Historical