Nunc Super Tunc: Does History Matter?
- Monday, March 09, 2009
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.
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