In this edition of Exploring Hope, Keith Whitfield speaks with Nathan Finn, now the Dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University, about the importance of history for Christianity.
[Editor’s Note: In the following post Southeastern Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies, and already well-known BtT blogger extraordinaire, Nathan Finn, guides us through the corridors of God’s economy as he explains why we need the past.]
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
The words quoted above are taken from an address C. S. Lewis first gave in 1949. As most readers of Between the Times will know, Lewis was a renowned scholar of medieval literature, a popular Christian apologist, and the author of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s books. Though he was not a professional historian by training, as both a scholar and a Christian, Lewis understood the importance of the past. The past takes us places. The past provides needed perspective. The past keeps us humble. Lewis prized the past so much that he famously suggested that the reading of old books is preferable to the reading of new books. “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher,” Lewis writes, “to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” Any historian worth his or her salt would agree.
Unfortunately, not everyone would agree that knowledge of the past is valuable (or at least interesting). I have taught history courses for almost a decade to thousands of undergraduate students, seminary students, and research doctoral students. More than a few have informed me that they are not really that “in” to history—even Christian history. A few have even nodded off in class—doubtless a reflection of their lack of sleep rather than my abilities as a teacher! Truth be told, I can remember a season in my life when history seemed less-than-appealing. Though that changed my junior year of high school in an advanced placement United States History course taught by Coach Joe Haluski. At best, many people have a utilitarian view of history; they care to the degree they find history useful for the stuff that really matters in life. Almost everyone can quote at least a paraphrase of George Santayana’s famous quip, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As a church historian, I see myself as promoting three key themes among my students. First, I need to persuade them that how we interpret the past should arise in part from the Christian worldview and the best of the Christian intellectual tradition. History should matter for us because it matters in God’s economy. Second, I need to convince them that all of Christian history is our history—even the parts that are less appealing or seem remote from our contemporary experiences. This can be a hard sell sometimes. After all, the past is so . . . different. Finally, I need to model for them how to apply insights from church history in such a way that it builds up the body of Christ, strengthens our spiritual walks with Christ, and helpfully informs our ministries. Church history has a pastoral function; to miss this in a seminary class would be a tragedy.
To be sure, not every student will find church history to be as scintillating as I do. I can live with that. Even for many students who do come to find the topic at least marginally interesting, their church history courses will not be their favorite classes. That’s okay, too. However, I hope students walk away from our church history courses at Southeastern Seminary understanding that the past matters—it matters for their spiritual lives, their churches, and their present and future ministries. C. S. Lewis was right: we need intimate knowledge of the past. This is especially true of the Christian past. In our current context, far too many Southern Baptists and other evangelicals unknowingly bow before the idol of the new and the novel, often forgetting the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Church history can be a means of grace in mortifying this particular idolatry and taking the long view of how God works among all his people in every time and every place to bring about his glorious purposes.
 C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 58–59.
 C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 200. This essay was originally published in 1944 as Lewis’s introduction to a new edition of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word.
 George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Or the Phases of Human Progress (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), 284.
Not at Southeastern Seminary, mind you, but at Ithaca College. That’s where they have a Beer’n’History club. So writes Michael B. Smith in a recent edition of The Chronicle Review (Dec 14, 2012). In the article, Smith tells the story of a small group of faculty members who get together regularly to dialogue about history, writing, and life. As Smith tells it:
Having ranged in size from four to six members, the Chapter House writing group—aka Beer’n’History—has helped midwife 10 books and nearly a score of articles and book chapters, a powerful testament that we have succeeded in our purpose. As publishing has become an ever more significant part of the reward system in academe, Beer’n’History has been indispensable to all of us, both for encouraging our scholarly productivity and for celebrating the craft of writing. But above all we value our gatherings for the way they embody what too often seems to be missing from academe: trust, honesty, and the absence of hierarchy.
Smith goes on to delineate the benefits of this small community of scholars. First on the list is the vigorous and rigorous exchange of ideas; the conversations are sometimes heated and often humorous as everyone at the table engages fully and honestly with the ideas being set forth. But equally significant is the friendships they’ve built that go far beyond the campus borders. “The camaraderie and trust forged around those tables,” he writes, “have not only enriched our lives as academics but also led to collaborations on home renovations and soccer fields, to an annual intergenerational family football game the day after Thanksgiving each year, to canoe trips to the Adirondacks.”
Smith is “spot on” about the value of a close circle of peers doing their scholarship and writing together and at the same time building friendships that go beyond their scholarship. The first time I remember reflecting upon the value of such friendships was years ago during my M. Div. studies when philosopher L. Russ Bush told the story of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ famous friendship, of the walks they took together, the hours they shared at The Eagle & Child, and the countless discussions and debates which sharpened them both. The second time I was forced to reflect upon this was during my Ph. D. dissertation stage, sitting in Stanley Hauerwas’ office. Dr. Hauerwas was my external dissertation adviser, and he graciously gave me upwards of 15 hours helping me with my dissertation. During that time, he mentioned several times how much he had benefited (personally and professionally) from the friendships he had built over the several preceding decades.
Since then, I’ve increasingly become convinced of the value of community for theology and scholarship. A sound theology puts our feet on this sort of path. First, God created humans to be relational beings. Second, our human propensity towards idolatry has deleterious noetic effects which can be lessened because of the positive influence of community. Third, God saved us for relationship with him and his church (universal and local). God created us to be thoroughly social and communal beings, and this need for relationships remains and is even enhanced in the aftermath of the Fall.
What does “theology in community” look like in practice? Each person’s situation differs, but for me, there are several ways this works out. First, I have chosen to co-author or co-edit many of my writing projects, including the manuscripts I am working on right now. If a book or essay is co-authored well, it might take more time to write than if one writes alone. The authors discuss, debate, write, re-write, and then discuss and debate some more. I am a far better theologian (or perhaps a “less deficient” theologian) because of the influence of friends such as Heath Thomas, Keith Whitfield, Craig Bartholomew, and J. D. Greear. Second, I’ve been blessed to hold informal “theology and coffee” or “theology and mission” discussion groups with students. Most semesters, this lasts from 6:30 a.m. until 8:00 or so, as we read through a book, discuss the ideas, and pray together. The lively exchanges we’ve had have benefited both student and professor.
Third, I am enjoying a Tuesday lunch appointment with 8-10 colleagues in which we discuss theology and life, and share more than a little laughter. Similarly, we have impromptu Earl-Grey-and-Chat meetings during some late afternoons in my office. Fourth, I thoroughly enjoy doing theology in my local church context. God’s church is in fact the primary context for receiving the word of God, and I remain profoundly grateful to my church and to certain friends in particular for sustaining me theologically. Fifth, I am grateful to global Christians (Asian, African, Middle Eastern) who teach me much about the gospel. Finally, I cannot fail to mention the great theologians of yesteryear who provide substantive and sumptuous theological fare for our benefit, and who help point out blind spots in our 21st century theologies.
So, if you’re a Baptist friend, I heartily recommend that you find a group similar to Smith’s Beer’n’History club. Maybe you can call it Milk’n’History. Or Cheerwine’n’Theology.