What use is history?

December 03, 2020

What use is history?

Mike Thompson

Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the question, what use is history? This is not because I have doubts about its use. On the contrary, its importance has never seemed so plain. Like theology, there is no option for having no history, just better and worse ones. Where there’s a vacuum, poor substitutes will always rise to fill it. 

In the present deluge of misinformation and alt-right talking points—sadly being lauded by many evangelicals on social media—what can church leaders do? And what training could evangelical colleges provide to inform the guidance leaders can give?

A vigorous ‘Bible alone’ stance won’t suffice. For that very biblicism can either operate in parallel with, or be taken captive and deployed (knowingly or not) as reinforcement of the seeming validity of an ideological framework. Wrong-footed biblicism has a devastating power for self-deception. History shows it.

As both a historian trained in the university system and a recent student and lecturer in the Bible college system, I have witnessed the presence and absence of certain kinds of history in the training of pastors. At both curriculum and research levels in evangelical theological colleges, the difference in scale of investment in the history of modern Christianity versus that in biblical studies and theology is staggeringly vast. Most students will be exposed merely to an introductory survey of two millennia of mainly Western Christianity done in one year (which makes depth of study of the last 200 years of global Christianity perforce near impossible). If one is lucky, a deep dive into the Reformation and a study of denominational development will also be included. Little to no infrastructure exists to serve the training of students in the modern history of Christianity at postgraduate degree level.

The response might come that one doesn’t need history for missions, or for good sermon writing. One does need Greek. While I can sympathise with the pragmatism behind this, such a view does not hold up. History is an important part not only of the faithful discipleship and witness of the church, but of the pastor’s orientation to the world.

And this is not a matter of mere quantity. Evangelicals have loved some kinds of histories more than others. 

One favourite is a retrieval model. This means crossing back in time to find the insights of a past figure or group for the value of the present. Such retrieval might orient around ‘hotspots’ such as the first century, the European Reformations, and other later revivalists like John Wesley or Jonathan Edwards. There is much value in this. But the real task is to encompass the messier bits of history, not just the high points.

One danger of the retrieval model is reconstructing a past figure as someone who might implicitly endorse Christianity as practised by one’s own group today—as ‘one of us’. That shaping of a notion of ‘us’ has profound implications beyond the scope of this column.

Although it has subtle scholarly forms, popular variants of retrieval can end up in selective political invocation. ‘Look, they were a Christian too; they’re on our side.’ Or ‘that political figure was Christian, they must believe in the cause of [my vision of] Christian America.’

Other times, and more grievously, it can flatten out a criticism of the injustices that modern Christianity has been party to, ironically suffocating the very prophetic insights of those we commemorate.

We might find solace in invoking the Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr—a figure almost everybody lauds. But how many white evangelical commemorations of King recall his many speeches against ‘the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation?’

The same applies in Australia. My church recently played a video mentioning that 1930s Aboriginal rights activist, William Cooper, ‘was a Christian’. What the video did not mention were his extensive and still unheeded Christian criticisms of the very regimes of dispossession, theft and murder that British-Australian ‘Christians’ (the scare quotes are his) seemed to tolerate in colonisation.

It is hard not to be reminded of Jesus’ lament over the commemorative history around him:

Hypocrites! ...you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. (Matthew 23:29 NLT)


Dr Mike Thompson is Lecturer in History at the Australian Catholic University.

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