Church History as Family History (part 2)

Today I’ll continue my recap of the series of talks I gave last weekend for Salem Covenant Church‘s annual “family camp,” held up at Covenant Pines, outside McGregor, MN. They concerned the topic, “The Family History That Most Christians Don’t Know, But Can’t Ignore: Three Biblical Tools for Understanding Church History.”

In the first part of this talk, I urged the members of Salem Covenant to regard church history not as some academic field closed off to all but PhD-holding professors, but as something that’s significant for all Christians to understand. To help de-professionalize church history a bit, I suggested a parallel to family history, which is a kind of approach to the study of the past that’s taken up by millions of Americans with enormous passion and little training (past self-taught skills). Given the way the language of family is often used to describe the people of God in the Old and New Testaments, it seemed like an appropriate way to recast church history.

I then proposed three biblical tools (or models, or maybe best, postures) for approaching the study of the past: here too, I tried to pick themes that would be familiar (they’re all rooted in Scripture), avoid scholarly jargon, and have some resonance with the study of family history. First, we looked at the Hebrews 12:1 image of the “great cloud of witnesses,” and suggested (as we do often at Bethel in our general education curriculum and in the History Department itself) that the cloud has continued to expand as time has elapsed and other witnesses — some famous, most anonymous —  have entered it.

For the most part, I think that this is an approach to church history that many Christians already practice, even if they don’t think of it as “church history.” We tell stories of the people that helped bring us to faith (often family members), who served as models of Christian living. I framed this as Christians being INSPIRED by the past.

But next I suggested that Christians are also GOVERNED by the past. Or, to use a word that always makes Protestants nervous… Tradition.

Boulogne, St. Paul Writing His Epistles
Valentin de Boulogne, St. Paul Writing His Epistles (ca. 1620) – Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

We descendants of the Reformation, of course, like to insist that we are a “Scripture alone” people, not ruled by extrabiblical customs. So when we read the following instruction from the apostle Paul to the church in Thessalonika…

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thess 2:15, NIV)

…we prefer to use the NIV than the NRSV or ESV, which render “teachings” as the more literal “traditions.”

Not that Protestants don’t believe they need to “hold fast” to the “apostolic tradition” that Paul was passing on, but they see that tradition as being enshrined in the New Testament itself, while Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians expand that tradition to include commentary on those texts, the wisdom of centuries of Christian thought, prayer, and imagination brought to bear on understanding them.

So long as it continues to bend the knee to the authority of Scripture, this kind of tradition is enormously rich, a resource that we would be foolish to ignore. (Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers certainly didn’t.) As Catholic philosopher Gary Gutting recently argued, even a biblical term so basic as “love” in a text so significant as the Sermon on the Mount is hard to understand if read in isolation:

Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.  To profit from its wisdom we need to understand it through traditions of thought and practice within or informed by Christianity.  This does not require membership in any particular church, but it does require immersion in the culture and history of the Christian world.

In any case, I didn’t want to bog us down in old Catholic-Protestant debates about tradition vs. Scripture, but I did want us to recognize that, one way or another, Christians of all stripes are governed by their history. They all seek to “hold fast” to traditions that go back to the roots of the Church. Whether to documents written in the 1st century AD and adopted as canon in a process ending in the mid-4th century, or to those documents and an accumulating tradition of interpretation, we give considerable authority to the past over what we do and think.

We continued on by thinking about other kinds of tradition that pop up regularly at churches like Salem, asking:

  • Why do we conduct our 8:30 and 9:50 worship services (what we call our, ahem, “Traditional” services) or our 11:00 service (called “Contemporary,” but just traditional of a more recent vintage) in the ways that we do? With those orders of worship, and those types of instrumentation for music? For all their differences, why do each center on the preaching of a sermon? Why do we have Communion once a month (which, to other Christians, may seem far too rare or far too often, depending on their tradition)? Why do pastors wear robes, or not wear robes?
  • Why do we “confirm” adolescents around age 14, as we’ll do in a week and a half? Why do they read words written nearly five centuries ago, the same words that many of their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents read?
  • Why do we hold a Smorgasbord the same time of year (early December) and serve the same Swedish foods year in and year out?

I shudder to imagine the collective uproar that would ensue if we decided to break with the past too radically on any of those — especially Smorgasbord!

That’s not to say that such traditions are bad. One of the reasons I became a member of Salem is that it’s the too-rare church that embraces its history.

Jaroslav Pelikan
Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) – Wikimedia

But, in the famous words of the great Lutheran-turned-Orthodox historian Jaroslav Pelikan, we ought to beware the enervating effects of “traditionalism” even as we continue to draw strength from “tradition”:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. (from a 1989 interview)

Finally, I asked participants to consider tradition within the context of their family. And I’d invite comments on these questions from readers:

How do you “live in conversation with the past”? What customs does your family engage in (religious or otherwise)? Do you think they’ve deeply shaped you and your family in any way? Do you think that you’ve governed by such traditions to any extent?

<<Read the previous post in this series               Read the final post in this series>>

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