Tuesday, October 17, 2006
History Lesson 101
When I was a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., I used to think of myself as "living in history." As I got older, I learned to enjoy history, thanks to a top teacher in high school. After earning a masters degree in history, I thought I would be able to say "I know history," but graduate work gets narrower the farther you go and so I could/can only say "I know some history." Well, now I'm old enough to say "I am history!" - though technically I'm not history until I'm totally past tense. I like history - most of the time. I like it as a category in Trivial Pursuit. I like reading about wars and visiting old battle fields. I enjoy learning from history and using it in my preaching and teaching. I don't feel compelled to say it because I'm a preacher, it's just true - I especially enjoy biblical history. I wish the History Channel had more programs about that and less about UFO's. Historical research is a lot more complicated than most people realize. One of the great mistakes historians tend to make is reaching conclusions based on too little evidence. It's also difficult to understand what evidence you have in it's proper context. For instance, a thousand years from now, some historian is going to conclude that 21st Century Americans were squeezing toilet paper, obsessed with a secret that someone named Victoria had, and went to restaurants that specialized in owls. Context is what gives meaning to past events. I'm relating this because I've been thinking about all the times doctrinal conclusions have be substantiated by extra-biblical accounts and other historical research. The argument usually sounds like this, "This was written by a second century church leader, who being that close to the original New Testament period - surely had a handle on what the first Christians did." The conclusion being that the pattern was in place and our job is to follow it. This is a critical argument in discussions about the Lord's Supper, music, the Lord's day, worship, and other things we tend to argue about. Two thoughts come to mind. First, how reliable is it to use what one group of Christians did nineteen hundred years ago as a conclusive example, when there were hundreds, even thousands of congregations all over the world by then? Can we call that an established pattern? And the other thought I keep having is, how do we know from looking at these Church Fathers writings what was "their tradition" and what was the continuation of a binding New Testament church pattern? The argument that they are so close is ludicrous. It takes only months sometimes to establish a tradition. In a couple of years, people start believing they've always done it. These writers are decades away from the first Christian churches. Just look how difficult it would be to have any sweeping conclusions about the Churches of Christ in 2006 when no two congregations do things the same way - let alone agree on anything! Yet for some reason we read what one second or third century church leader says and see that as validation for binding a practice or a conclusion. Hey - Corinth had some wrong traditions within a couple years of Paul starting the church there. Don't you love history? I do.