Great words from Gerald Sittser, a theologian at Whitworth University and a leading scholar of Christian spirituality:
History can be a valuable resource for us, especially in the spiritual life, for it provides examples of how believers who lived in other times and places understood what is means to seek, know and experience God, which captures the essential meaning of “spirituality.” As different as they are from us, these believers can teach us truths about the Christian faith that we have not yet learned or do not consider important. It could be that returning to the old ways will enable us to live a new way for God, a way characterized by deeper knowledge, richer experience and greater faithfulness to the gospel. It could be that discovering old truths will enable us to live as new people, a people devoted to serving God’s kingdom. It could be that by looking back we will be able to look ahead and set a new course for our lives. History will show us that there is more to the Christian faith than what we think and have experienced. It will teach us truths that our contemporary religious blind spots prevent us from seeing, challenge us to read Scripture with new eyes, beckon us to practice spiritual disciplines we never tried before, and enable us to view our own time and place from a fresh perspective. The Holy Spirit will use the knowledge of history to send us on a journey that could lead us into the depths of God.
One of the perennial debates among believing historians is the nature of Christian history. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree in history and first contemplating eventually pursuing a PhD, I began to wrestle with this question. Would I become a church historian and teach in a seminary or Christian college or a historian of Christianity who teaches in a secular school? How would my confessional commitments affect my historical interpretation? What subjects would I choose to write about, and why? Over the years, I’ve answered some of these questions for myself. Others … not so much.
This discussion has recently flared up again on account of a recent collection of essays titled Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), edited by John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller. The volume has provoked considerable discussion among historians, including symposia at scholarly meetings and several published responses in a recent issue of the journal Fides et Historia. Recently, several historians have been discussing Confessing History on various websites, including the widely read blog Religion in American History. Tommy Kidd, blogging at The Anxious Bench, provides a helpful round-up of the various posts on the topic around the historical blogosphere.
My friend Jason Duesing has been writing an excellent series of posts for the B&H Academic Blog on the topic Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History. The posts comprise what Jason calls a “theological biography series.” The posts are also being published concurrently at Theological Matters, the faculty blog at Southwestern Seminary.
So far, Jason has published four posts in the series.
Future posts are planned for Balthasar Hubmaier, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, and Carl F.H. Henry. Perhaps Jason will get brave and expand his list of historical summits to twelve. I want to read Duesing on Irenaeus, Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, John Bunyan, and Karl Barth. And for that matter, what about Origen and Anselm and John Owen and Andrew Fuller and Pilgram Marpeck and Ulrich Zwingli and John Wesley and George Whitefield and Charles Finney and John Stott and Billy Graham? Perhaps if Jason becomes a professional blogger, we can read his keen insights on all the peaks of church history.
In all seriousness, I would highly encourage you to check out Jason’s posts and keep on the watch for his forthcoming contributions to the series.
On Tuesday, I gave a public lecture on the topic “Does God Care How I Vote? The Relationship between Faith and Politics” at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. You can listen to that lecture on the Providence College Ministry website. I tried to make a distinction between a “Christian vote” and “voting Christianly.”
I also wrote two posts at Between the Times this week. In the first post, I suggested an argument for the salvation of infants based upon my reading of a couple of texts in Revelation. My post was intended to complement an article by Danny Akin and Al Mohler arguing for the salvation of infants, which we had published the previous day. In my second post, I weighed in on a recent controversy over the puritans and slavery.
Baptist Press published several articles on Wednesday to commemorate the bicentennial of Adoniram Judson’s missions to Burma. See the first six articles on this webpage (the sixth was actually written by my friend Jason Duesing back in February, but the others are from this week). Next week, I plan to blog about a new book, edited by Duesing, titled Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary (B&H Academic, 2012). I contributed a biographical chapter to the book recounting Judson’s years as a missionary in Burma.
My friend Michael Haykin read a paper at last year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society titled “The Church Historian as Spiritual Mentor.” That paper has been published as a feature article in the Spring 2012 issue of The Andrew Fuller Review (see subscription details). In the article, Haykin outlines four ways in which church historians serve the church as spiritual mentors.
The church historian thus informs God’s people about their predecessors in the faith, those who have helped shape their Christian communities and thus make them what they are. As such, he or she serves as a spiritual mentor who builds humility into lives and so exercises a sanctifying influence (p. 17).
As a spiritual mentor, the church historian is also ideally suited to help Christians fulfill Paul’s command in Romans 12:2 that they “not be conformed to this world,” for the study of church history helps to liberate a person from what C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) called “the idols of our marketplace” (p. 19).
The church historian further functions as a spiritual mentor when he puts his or her hearers in touch with the wisdom of the past (p. 20).
In making available to the church the lives of Christians from the past, the church historian is engaged in a task somewhat similar to the writer of Hebrews, who, in Hebrews 11, uses the history of God’s faithful people in the old covenant to encourage his readers to run the “foot-race” of faith (p. 21).
Haykin certainly summarizes many of the reasons why this Baptist preacher decided to earn a PhD so he could teach church history to seminary students. For the full article, see Michael A.G. Haykin, “The Church Historian as Spiritual Mentor,” The Andrew Fuller Review (Spring 2012): 16-23.