The history rant

By Derek Olsen

Whenever I teach a class, whether it’s at a seminary or in a church, I typically begin with a bit about how the past and the present play into one another in the construction of theological meaning. I’ve done it enough that it’s achieved a fairly fixed form and as I look over lecture notes for things I’ve taught it’s not uncommon to see a line near the top reading “insert history rant here”.

Because—well—that’s probably the best way to describe it: “the history rant” …and here’s a version of it…

We are not called to be part of the Christian Historical Society. We are called to be part of the Christian Church. We don’t do things because they’re old; we do them because they proclaim the Gospel.

Now, the Gospel—the Good News of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—does not change. It is the same yesterday, today, and forever. How we communicate this Good News, however, must be constantly renewed. Because while the Good News of Jesus does not change, cultures and the people who live in them change constantly. In order for people to actually hear the Gospel, we have to be sure that what we’re saying is communicating that Good News. Because we’re limited, fallible, sinful people our proclamations will inevitable distort the Gospel. That is, we will inevitably accent some parts and tone down other parts and over time any static means of proclaiming the Gospel will end up proclaiming a Gospel-like substance that is not, in fact, the real thing.

Generally by this point, I’ll be able to pick up some readings from the group I’m working with. Some of the progressive-types will likely be smiling and nodding; some of the traditional-types will be watching me warily to see where I’m going with all of this. And so I continue…:

So—because we’re humans we will inevitably screw this thing up. Thankfully, God’s well aware of this and to that end, we’ve got the Holy Spirit to help keep us on track. Now—this is where it gets complicated.

The great Protestant disease is amnesia. Some even act like we’re the first Christians on the face of the earth and try and make everything up from scratch. If we take the Scriptures seriously, if we take the Creeds seriously, then we as Christians must believe that the Spirit has been continually at work guiding and directing from the time of the patriarchs, through the time of Jesus, through the times of the Church. The Spirit didn’t somehow go away at the end of the Book of Acts and show up again just for you. For Christians, history can never be “one damn thing after another”—instead it’s a storehouse of the footprints of the Spirit: how it has led and directed us, and how we’ve listened (or not). So when we start renewing our proclamation of the Gospel the surest and best place to start is looking back to see how the Spirit has spoken, how we have responded and what means were used then that can help us speak the word of life now. We must be grounded in our Tradition—not so we can simply replicate it, but so that we can draw on it the best we’re able.

By this point I often see a flip-flop. The progressive-types are looking wary and the traditionalist-types are looking pleased…meaning it’s time to shake things up again.

By the way, I’ve discovered that the way most people in the Church define “Tradition” is: “the way things were done when I was a kid.” Let me warn you that the tradition is far broader, deeper, and more complicated than that.

At this point most everybody is looking a bit wary—which is the way I like it. And so I wrap it up:

We are the Church—and we have to address the situations, cultures and people we find here and now—not those from a hundred or five hundred years ago. We’re not the Christian Historical Society—but history is where we find time-tested methods that will help us proclaim the Gospel here and now. The key to the process, though, is neither to start making things up off the top of our heads nor to go for the books with the most dust on them—it’s to listen to the Spirit. That’s the whole point of this exercise after all: to listen and discern so that we can truly communicate the Good News.

I do this “history rant” for a number of different reasons. One reason really is to shake people up and to get them to think beyond the simplistic dichotomies where we often find one another. It’s also to dig into the purpose of why we talk about these things; history for history’s sake is a valid endeavor—it’s just not why the Church does it. We have to be listening for the voice of the Spirit, investigating when and where we listened, or refused to listen.

It’s also a reminder for me personally not to give into my temptation to park myself in the tenth century…

Despite the traps we church people fall into, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what pigeon-hole we fit ourselves into. What matters is that we realize that we are caught up in an endeavor much greater and grander than our own projects–that we have the opportunity to be part of the great communication between God and humanity, to speak and spread the word of life, liberation, and redemption that we have received in Jesus. And to do that best, I believe, means locating ourselves within that conversation. Knowing what has been said and done in the past, and keeping our heart and eyes attentive to what God is saying and doing now.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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