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.