“I don’t really deal much with the history of things. I just focus on the needs of right now.” Only recently I was told this. And I was grieved to hear it as it seems to strike at the very core of the kind of sound judgment so desperately needed by our generation. The thing is that to hear such nihilistic things from godless men and women should come as no surprise. I was especially grieved to hear these confessions, though, because they fell from the lips of a white-headed, old preacher who sat lamenting the sad condition of the Church of our day and speaking of how he is trying to make a difference. It is so frustrating, he says, to see how people have no interest in teaching. It is so sad, he says, to go to church week after week and the people that gather seem thoroughly dead to the wonder of God – unable to be impressed with what God has done in Christ and with what Christ expects of them. These are the problems of today, he says. May I say, I could not agree more with the old brother’s assessment of the modern Church!
These are the problems of today. But they are the fruits of yesterday! These are the problems of today, but they are not the fruit of today. Do the needs of the peach exist in isolation from the needs of the tree? How can the orchardist understand the fruit on the branch today apart from an understanding of the tree planted yesterday? The old preacher, while his heart for the needs of the church seemed to be in the right place, his judgment on addressing the needs was shockingly short-sighted. And yet he expressed the view of many modern Christians.
When confronted, they are often able to lament this or that problem with the modern church. But their answers to the issues are always drawn from the moment in which they lament! How did we become so narrow minded? Is it not a function of our arrogance to suppose that we can address the ills of today while completely ignoring the matters of yesterday? The answer, we think, must be something we can produce all on our own, today, because we are in this moment. And we, after all, are the pinnacle of human history. So goes our conceit.
Baptists pride themselves on being “people of the Book.” But who will deny that the Bible is a book of history? Given that fact, it is logically impossible to be a person of the Book and be unwilling to be a student of history. I said it is logically impossible. It is practically possible; that is, it is possible in practice to be unwilling to study the history of things outside of the words in the Bible. But such a person has settled for irrationality. They profess to love the God of history while refusing to study the history of God. This is irrational.
How could we possibly in this context set out all that the Bible has to say about remembering and looking back and memorializing and learning from the faithfulness and failings of those before us? We cannot. Would we start with the ordaining of six real days to mark a weekly cycle and a sun and moon to mark a day by which God officially sanctioned the assessment of the passage of time, for all of time? Would we go to Psalms 78 and hear the Lord tell His people to teach the children history? Or would we just go to the final book when the Lord will, as it were, close the world with one last history lesson, looking over His shoulder at all that men have done? (Rev. 20:12)
We simply must be students of history or we will be fools in it. To my old preacher friend, I would say: Tomorrow’s hope lay in reaching back to yesterday, today! Take a deep breath of the Word of God and wade into history. You will begin to understand what you see now. By God’s grace, you will begin to see the way forward.
“There is no standard by which to measure the future except the past. Past failures and successes warn and instruct, and the devotion and heroism of those who have gone before are for our inspiration. Understandingly to study the past is to gain wisdom and enthusiasm to serve the future ... It is hardly possible to believe that it [the Baptist denomination] may serve the present and face the future with requisite wisdom and efficiency, except as our people learn to plant their feet solidly on the lessons of the past. How shall they be able to do this without knowing what manner of past it was?” (Baptist Missions in the South, Victor Masters)
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