BreakPoint: A Faith Grounded in History

If our church history begins with Billy Graham, we’ve probably forgotten something important.

In his new book, “The American Spirit,” David McCullough observes, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate.”  And in her Wall Street Journal review of the book, Peggy Noonan recounts McCullough’s description of “a bright Missouri college student who thanked him for coming to the campus, because, she said, ‘until now I never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.’”

While it’s tempting to laugh at the state of history education, and it is really abysmal among most Americans, we should first look in the mirror. And by we, I mean Christians, those of us who follow a historical figure, who actually lived in history, who was born as part of the story of a nation that played a central role in human history, and who lived and died and rose again, in obedience to God the Father who, from all indications in Scripture, is a God concerned with time and place.

In particular, we evangelicals need to take history more seriously. As Mark Noll wrote in his book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” “American evangelicals display many virtues and do many things well,” he writes, “but built-in barriers to careful and constructive thinking remain substantial.”

Now what barriers is he talking about? Some are obvious when we look carefully at our own history. As many, including Noll, have described, evangelicalism began as a tiny reform movement away from larger institutions such as the state-supported Catholic and Anglican churches. Early evangelical leaders stressed things like individual conversion, small groups, and the evangelizing of young people, Native Americans, and slaves. And Evangelicalism innovated means to grow in faith that were outside of established, traditional channels.

“In general throughout the 18th and on to the 19th century,” Noll explained in an interview with Christian History, “the whole of the English-speaking world [was] moving away from traditional religion defined by respect for authority, respect for the past, respect for the tradition, and moving toward a more individualistic, pragmatic, and practical practice of Christianity.”

What all this means is that the greatest strength of evangelicalism—the emphasis on the personal aspect of faith—may also have become a weakness. In our personal zeal for Jesus, Noll suggests that we’ve neglected deeper, more historically rooted education in the Christian faith and the development of a public theology that can speak broadly to the culture.

All of this suggests that we do, in fact, have much to learn from our Christian forebears. A robust study of church history will not only ground us in the rich story of our faith, it will allow us to learn from those who have gone before. After all, we didn’t invent the gospel or the church. And the Bible is not a collection of moral maxims or principles isolated from history. No, it contains the overarching story of God’s interaction with humanity. And God’s concern with time and place means He has historically situated His people, while breaking into history in such a way as to bring about its conclusion and consummation.

And though we find in Scripture saints and heroes, we shouldn’t stop at the end of the New Testament. Two-thousand years of church history has given us believers like Polycarp, Augustine, Francis, Teresa, Carey, Wilberforce, Chesterton, Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Ten Boom, and my friend and hero, Chuck Colson, all of whom modeled the Christian life and left records of their journey.

So come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary. I’ve asked my BreakPoint colleagues to suggest great history books that will better ground readers in the faith delivered once for all—by remembering those who have delivered the faith to us.

 

A Faith Grounded in History

Fight against evangelical illiteracy! Dig deeper into the history of the Christian faith by checking out the list of books recommended by BreakPoint colleagues, linked here and also available at the online bookstore.

Find a BreakPoint radio station in your area–Click here.

Resources

Know Your Christian History
  • book list | BreakPoint
Why History Will Repay Your Love
  • Peggy Noonan | Wall Street Journal | May 25, 2017
The Rise of the Evangelicals
  • Christian History | Christianity Today | 2005
The Evangelical Mind Today
  • Mark Noll | First Things | October 2004

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  • jason taylor

    One is Liberty and Freedom by David Hackett Fischer. It is not about theology, but one can see it indirectly helping understand the faith, and a lot of other things. What it is about is the different patriotic icons of different American subcultures and what it tells about what we think as a nation. But by coincidence, and sometimes not so coincidently it tells about what we think in general.

  • R.E.A.L Human Rights

    I would not believe any Christian periodical would so glibly and irresponsibly use the word “Alzheimer’s” Disease in a title on faith, in your article “The Scandal of Evangelical Alzheimer’s.” I buried my mother a few months ago who died after Stage 7 AD. She may have suffered from her disease, but she never forgot her Christian faith, even when she could barely speak, even when the few words she could say were twisted by Aphasia, even when to most all hope would have been gone. But her faith was strong, as was her mercy and love, which was the basis of her Christianity. I am so ashamed of you with this title of “Alzheimers” as a slogan, when so many millions have seen how it has ravaged their lives. I am even more ashamed that you are not ashamed of yourselves on this. It is unacceptable. Know that some Alzheimer’s Disease caregiver activists will not take it anymore. It must STOP.

  • Jane

    In your list of those who influenced history over the last 2,000 years, I was surprised not to see Martin Luther, as 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.