Why Study History?

Why Study History?

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.  Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)


Paul gives the church in Corinth a history lesson here. His point is that the past should make them humble. That lesson is every bit as valuable for us as it was for the Corinthians: let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. We can and should learn from the story of God’s people in bygone days. Scripture is, in fact, the story of God’s revelation in history, reaching its climax in Jesus Christ. Without that story, that history, it is impossible to know God and enter into a relationship with him.


Yet, unfortunately, we are relatively ignorant of our own history in churches of Christ. How many reading this know who Alexander Campbell was? Or Barton W. Stone? How familiar are we with the Restoration Movement?


A quote from an article by Jay Lockhart sums up our problem well: “We honor and respect men like [Barton W.] Stone and [Alexander] Campbell, but we do not trace our roots to them. Rather, we are making the same plea that they made, namely, to speak where the Bible speaks, to be united upon the basis of the New Testament, to restore the church of the New Testament in beliefs and practices, and to be Christians only.” (Jay Lockhart, “Let Us Remember Who We Are,” The Spiritual Sword Vol 47, No 2, Jan 2016, p. 42) This is correct, insofar as we are not “Campbellites;” neither Stone nor Campbell nor anyone but Jesus died for us, nor did they set out to found a new sect.


But I respectfully disagree with the thrust of the comment. Even in saying that we make the same plea, we acknowledge that we do, in fact, trace our roots to them in some sense. To deny that is, at best, naïve; at worst, it is dangerous. You see, we have an ambivalent relationship with history. We want to be the church of the first century, making everything thereafter irrelevant except as evidence of decline. That impulse, to take the beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians as normative, to go back to what the NT says and use it as our guide, is a good one. In that sense, we can trace our existence to the 1st century.


But we do not exist in a historical vacuum. As much as we might look to the 1st century church, we are not the 1st century church. All that we know has been passed down to us by earlier generations; we would not even have the Bible if it weren’t for later believers! There seems to be a fear that we might undercut our plea by acknowledging those human roots. But as Paul’s statement points out, studying the history of God’s people is a good thing. It helps us to understand the struggles of others along the way. We can evaluate how the church was affected at times more by culture than by Scripture, and perhaps be warned ourselves away from such pitfalls. We can see how others have interpreted – or misinterpreted – the Bible and gain some perspective.


Confronting our history is not easy for anyone. In churches of Christ in particular, we want to be nothing more or less than NT churches. As Stone put it, “The past is to be consigned to the rubbish heap upon which Christ died.” Church history since the apostles was so corrupt that we must make our way back to the source itself. That call to Scripture was powerful and much-needed.


But the trap here is that it can lead to thinking we can somehow escape our own history. For one thing, that can lead to arrogance, overlooking our own weaknesses – the very sort of thing Paul was warning about. We are human beings, shaped by time and culture like everyone else. Beyond that, in abandoning tradition for the Bible alone, we are – ironically – part of a tradition: Stone, the Campbells, Walter Scott, and going back further to the Baptists, the Puritans, the Anabaptists. There is a great tradition of those who claim to have no tradition. And the danger of not realizing that is that we can be unconsciously shaped by it, thinking ourselves to be objective. Tradition is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it is essential! But it becomes a problem when it is traditionalism. We must always be subject ultimately to the authority of Scripture (in fact, that conviction is one of our greatest traditions!).


So we want to spend some time in a series of articles talking a bit about the history of the Restoration Movement. We don’t want to mistake the judgements of men with those of Scripture, equating our traditions with the Law like the Pharisees. On the other hand, we do not want to just slough off what is good for whatever the latest fad is, or, worse, make the mistake the other direction, and call doctrine tradition. We all need to be better students of the Bible and ourselves; history helps us accomplish that.


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