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Learning from the past

September 2005 | by Phil Arthur

History has always been one of the great loves of my life. It is something I learned from my father while I was still very small. His passion to understand his own roots, and his conviction that the people of the past were worth getting to know, communicated itself to me.

Tramping with him through Northumbrian castles and along Hadrian’s Wall, and exploring the ancient heart of my home-town of Sunderland, have left indelible memories. In addition, studying the Reformation at University marked a turning point in my Christian life.

I admired the tough-minded, disciplined piety of the Reformers and saw in them a generation of Christian men who combined rugged courage with a profound conviction that an intellect that is not used to promote the glory of God is wasted.

I feel a real sense of loss when I meet people who have no time for the study of history. Do they know what they are missing? It troubles me even more when Christians, of all people, convince themselves that the past has nothing useful to say to the present.

This attitude is often second cousin to what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ — the arrogant idea that the latest thing is always the best thing, and that sophisticated 21st century people have little to learn from the denizens of less enlightened times!

The Bible’s doctrine of history

The apostle Paul told the believers in Corinth to pay close attention to the historical record of the Old Testament: ‘Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come’ (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Surely, if first-century Christians could profit from the examples of those who served God (or failed to do so!) in earlier generations, so can we. And there is an even more compelling reason for cultivating an appetite for the past.

When the Hebrews were about to enter the promised land, Joshua built a pillar of twelve stones taken from the Jordan river bed. He then told the people:

‘When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, “What are these stones?” then you shall let your children know, saying, “Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land”; for the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up before us until we had crossed over, that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God for ever’ (Joshua 4:21-24).

God’s mighty acts did not cease with Acts 28. If we close our minds to church history we say, in effect, that the story of what God has done since that time means nothing to us.

Pitfalls

Nevertheless, we must proceed with caution. It is possible to learn the

wronglessons from the past. It is fatally easy to develop uncritical admiration, thinking that our heroes are beyond criticism. The biblical record never conceals the faults of God’s servants. For example, our respect for all that King David achieved is tempered by our knowledge of his adultery with Bathsheba.

Our assessment of great Christians of the past must be sane. Some evangelical biographies come perilously close to hagiography — as adulatory as some medieval lives of the ‘saints’. Yet even the best of men are only men at best, and we do well to remember it.

Even as we seek to imitate their consecrated courage and unremitting labours, we must recognise and avoid their mistakes.

For the same reason, the doctrinal legacy of an earlier generation of Christian teachers should never be swallowed whole. Luther recovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone — but the great German Reformer also clung to the idea that Christ’s physical body was, in some sense, present in the bread eaten at the Lord’s Table.

We are grateful for Augustine’s contribution to succeeding generations of Christian teachers — yet his arguments for compelling the Donatists to conform lent credibility to later Roman Catholic arguments in favour of persecuting heretics, including Protestants.

Giants and pygmies

Surely, the vital thing is to cultivate the Berean spirit (Acts 17:11) — ready to hear patiently the teachers of the past while scrutinising all that they said in the light of God’s Word. In other words, we should apply to the teachers of the past the same test that we use for teachers we admire today. Only Scripture is infallible.

Incidentally, it is possible to err in the opposite direction — to conclude that the sins and failings of yesterday’s spiritual giants mean not only that they had feet of clay but were nothing but clay from head to toe!

Perhaps in some respects we see further than they did, but a pygmy sitting on the shoulders of a giant may well see further than the colossus who supports him. Even so, we all know which is the giant and which the pygmy.

A rapid writer, working ten hours a day, would need a lifetime to transcribe what Martin Luther wrote in 25 years. Fifty-five volumes (by no means his total output) have been translated into English. When we who have achieved so little venture to criticise men who have dared and done so much, we do well to couch our opinions in modest language.

Assumptions

It has to be said that some like to escape into the past because they find it more congenial than the present. For people of a certain temperament, historical study can become a way of evading their duty to their own generation.

Spend too much time reflecting on the way that Whitefield spread the gospel and you may never get round to spreading it yourself. A rigorous critique of the evangelists of a bygone era certainly has its value, but if the dead could speak, would they not challenge our generation as follows: ‘I prefer the way that I did it to the way that you don’t do it’?

We also need to be alive to the danger of assuming that because God worked in certain ways in the past, we can reproduce the results by copying the approach — right down to matters of detail.

When Jonathan Edwards preached his great sermon ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ the results were astounding. But we cannot guarantee similar results by reading the same sermon today — any more than we can contrive a second Pentecost by reading Acts 2 in the presence of 3,000 people!

Lawyers may be bound by precedent, but God is not. The past teaches us that great things happen when God sees fit to honour preaching and prayer. It is unwise to press the point further than that.

It is also wise to recognise that we do not need eighteenth-century Christians today, but

modernChristians of eighteenth-century calibre. Rather than pray for another Spurgeon we should ask the Lord to raise up gifted and consecrated preachers who will speak to our day with the same effectiveness that he spoke to Victorian London.

Modern spectacles

There is an equal and opposite error to avoid, namely, the tendency to look at the men and movements of the past through modern spectacles. It is all too easy to look at some of the protest movements of the Middle Ages and read our own church life back into them.

Are we so sensitive to Rome’s claim that ‘Apostolic Succession’ gives her unbroken institutional continuity with the past, that we feel it necessary to create an Apostolic Succession of our own? Does it necessarily follow that because certain historic movements were persecuted by the Church of Rome they were therefore orthodox forerunners of Evangelical churches today?

Finally, there is a danger of concentrating so much on the people, movements and events themselves, that we fail to see the hand of God at work. The Bible historian who penned Psalm 44 could never be accused of that: ‘For they did not get possession of the land by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them, but it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your countenance, because you favoured them’ (Psalm 44:3).

The great deeds of Luther, Whitefield or Spurgeon aren’t worth studying if we forget to identify the mighty acts of Christ through these men!

When I was cutting my teeth as an inexperienced preacher, I was given superb advice from one of my mentors, Rev. Tom Johnson of Hartlepool: ‘Remember to put the crown on the right head’. We can do nothing better as we look into the story of the church. The most compelling reason to pick up a Christian biography is to marvel at what God has done in Christ.

Next month we shall consider some of the benefits to be gained from a study of church history.

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Historical