March 9, 2009
The title is Latin for “Now is superior to then.”1 It’s a shorthand way of getting at an attitude that is widespread among American Christians that whatever we think and do now is necessarily superior to anything that was thought and done in the past.
I am a historian--or at least I’m trying to become a historian--and as such I’ve become increasingly conscious of the strong presumption among American Christians in favor of the present over the past. It’s hard to know how often, in the midst of discussion, when I appeal to the past, one's American conversation partner will say, “That’s all well and good, but what does the Bible say?” The implication of this question is that the only argument that really matters in any discussion is a biblical argument.
For such folk it doesn’t even really matter that the saints to whom a historian might appeal as precedent were also reading the Bible. For many American Christians it is as if the past never happened. In that respect, we are like my (late) cat. She seemed to think that if she couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see her. She was a four-footed, furry narcissist. She believed that the world revolved around her--she was a cat. She believed that I worked for her, that I existed to satisfy her needs.
We American Christians tend to regard the past the way my cat used to regard me. We cover our eyes and pretend the past did not exist. We think the world revolves around us. We’re like the child who puts his fingers in his ears and says, “Nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you” when being told something he will not hear. When someone brings up the past in conversation with American Christians the response is to cover the eyes and plug the ears. We seem to have decided there is no past. Every moment is a new creation of reality. We are acting de novo and in nihilum.
Of course this is the great privilege of being an American: the first Americans (and successive waves of immigrants) came to this country to escape the past. We tend to regard the past as corrupt and corrupting. In a way it is. The past (or knowledge of the past) tends to marginalize the present, to dirty up our shiny toy. Christians, however, cannot afford to be purely “American” in their Christianity. We may live in America but, as Christians, we are citizens of a heavenly city (cf. Phil. 3:20). We are a people of history. We are a people of the past. Read the Psalms. How often do the psalmists remind God’s people that Yahweh delivered them out of Egypt, on dry ground? (See, for example, Psalm 78). Sometimes the psalmist recites the entire history of redemption in one Psalm!
The Christian faith is grounded in history in other ways. We confess, believe, preach, and teach that our redemption was accomplished in history. God the Son became incarnate, in time, and in space. He wasn’t raised in our hearts but in history. There was a real, historical, literal tomb that was found to be empty by real, historical people. The Apostle Paul frequently reminded congregations of “the gospel” he had preached to them (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1-8). The gospels are histories of the saving acts of God in Christ. The book of Acts is a history of the saving acts of the ascended Christ through the Holy Spirit. Great portions of the Hebrew Scriptures are historical narratives of the sinful rebellion of the church and the saving grace of God.
Whether we, like cats or kids, refuse to accept it, we are the product of that history. The church has a history after the apostolic period. We’re inescapably a part of that history. It conditions who we are, what we think, and how we read the bible. We read the bible under the influence of the past and thus it serves us well to know and understand it so that we can be aware, as much as is possible in this life, of those things that tend to influence our reading of Scripture.
If simply reading the bible were all that is necessary for Christian faith and maturity then there would never be corruption. The historical fact is that the church has been reading the Bible continuously since the apostolic period. Not only that but the church has been commenting on Holy Scripture almost without ceasing. Nevertheless, despite that fact, there have been periods when reformation was necessary. Why? Because people read the Bible under the influence of bad, unbiblical, and unnecessary assumptions which keep them from seeing what Scripture intends to say, taken on its own terms.
Thus, the Protestant Reformation was necessary because, according to confessional Protestant lights, the church was misreading the Bible. But why? How did it come about that the medieval church came to see things as it did? How can we avoid making the same mistakes? That’s the job of the historian. We historians are useful after all! History can not only tell us how the medieval church came to misread the Bible but it can also put or own Bible reading into a historical context.
American Christians have a lot of virtues but historical mindedness isn’t one of them. As Americans we like to think that we’re the first to do most things but history demonstrates that to be false. We’re not the first Christians. We’re part of an ancient and widespread family. For those who identify with the Reformed tradition and confession, we are part of a particular branch of that family and we have our own history, our own theology, piety, and practice. It is a mixed history but we cannot possibly know who we are or why we think and act as we do if we do not know that history. As in any case, it is imperative that, in order to understand oneself, one must understand one’s family history. So it is with us. We did not invent the Reformed faith. Indeed, in many important ways it created us. Before we go about re-creating the faith in our own image, let us learn our family history and heritage so we can read the Bible with the family and we can work intelligently and thoughtfully with the inheritance we’ve received.
1As far as I can tell, this is a new expression. The very idea of a new Latin expression this late in the game makes me suspicious that I’ve made a mistake because it’s hard to believe that no one ever thought of this expression before. If it is correct, and if it is new, then it’s mine. Nunc super tunc ©2009 R. Scott Clark. If it’s not correct, then I apologize. I’m aware that, ironically, if it is new, then it might be taken as a counter argument against my thesis. I’m not arguing, however, that we cannot add anything to the tradition only that we need to engage the history of the family house before we go about rebuilding it from scratch.
R. Scott Clark is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Dr. Clark has published widely and blogs regularly at Heidelblog. His most recent book, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice, can be purchased here.