Youâ€™re all familiar with the adage, â€œThose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,â€ originally uttered by the Spanish poet-philosopher, George Santayana. We all know that history is important for this reason. But what about unrepeatable history? What about one-time events that have shaped the way we think today? If we forget them, are we bound to repeat the unrepeatable?
I think for the Christian there is another reason why we should study history. It is simply that God manifested himself in history. Although God is outside of time and space, he invaded it, ultimately, decisively, and magnificently, in the person of Jesus Christ. The life Christ lived cannot be repeated. So, what if we forget about him? Are we bound to repeat his story?
No, itâ€™s not the repetition of history that is at stake in this instance. Rather, the neglect of history—or rather, the subordination of history to theological concerns—is what can condemn us. All too often, Christians take at face value that the Gospels are true, that the Old Testament stories are true, that everything in the Bible, in fact, is true. Santayanaâ€™s adage is replaced by our own Christian subcultural one: â€œThe Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.â€ Frankly, Iâ€™m not so sure this is a very healthy approach to the Bible. It may be fine for baby Christians, but in the long haul a different attitude must prevail if we are to grow.
The truly remarkable thing about Christianity is that its holy book, the Bible, is the only sacred scripture of any major religion that intentionally grounds itself in history. It is vulnerable to historical inquiry. Jesus performs miracles in Bethsaida; he heals a man on the Sabbath; he speaks to crowds in the north shore of the sea of Galilee. He had a dozen men who were close to him, who witnessed what he was like. And there were scores of other followers who were almost as close and who witnessed many of his deeds and words. The Gospels are filled with information about times and places—and witnesses. They essentially are saying, â€œTest to see if this is true.â€
In our Christian subculture today, however, we frequently decide that examination of the data is wrong, almost blasphemous. Evangelicals especially are tempted by the lure of an easy path that says, â€œDonâ€™t test this; just trust it.â€ I have seen serious students in seminaries ask professors about the historical reliability of a particular biblical story, and the professors tell students that such questions are inappropriate. They say, â€œI believe this because I believe the Bible is inerrant. Thatâ€™s good enough for me!â€ The problem that this posture creates is threefold: first, it does nothing to convince the person who doubts inerrancy; second, itâ€™s an easy cop-out, a lazy excuse, for not studying the historical probability of a reported event; third, it creates a doctrinal taxonomy which elevates bibliology above Christology.
I should explain my third point a bit more. Whenever we hide behind the excuse of inerrancy and use that as a shield to protect us from studying the text, from investigating historically what happened, we dishonor Christ. Why? Because the incarnation demands that we study the Bible historically. God did not become man so that we could simply believe or disbelieve. He became man so that we could investigate and learn for ourselves. Often, inerrancy is a paper-thin protection from thinking, propped up by a person who tries to believe by simply believing. This is not biblical Christianity. A biblical faith is one that questions, one that investigates, one that pursues truth at all costs. A genuine Christian should never be afraid to pursue the truth. We of all people should devote our lives to this with reckless abandon.
When Paul wrote that over 500 believers saw the risen Christ at one time, he added an important little note: â€œmost of whom are still aliveâ€ (1 Cor 15.6). Why did he add that note? Because the eyewitness testimony was important to him. Why was the stone rolled away on Easter morning—to let Christ out? Hardly. It was to let the disciples in, so that they could see with their own eyes that it was empty.
When Paul preached in Berea, Luke tells us, â€œThese Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and menâ€ (Acts 17.11-12 [NET]). The Bereans were both critical and receptive. They listened to Paul with open minds, but they examined the scriptures to see if what he said about the Messiah was grounded in the Old Testament. They werenâ€™t patsies for quick-fix evangelism. The word for â€˜open-mindedâ€™ is the adjective eugenesteroi, an adjective that the standard Greek lexicon for New Testament Greek defines as â€œpert[aining] to having the type of attitude ordinarily associated with well-bred persons, noble-minded, open-minded.â€ Lukeâ€™s assessment of a closed-minded person seems to be that such a person is not noble, is not well-bred.
The problem is that we can be closed-minded either by not believing at all, or by punting and using the magic wand of inerrancy to absolve us from having to do any research or any thinking. The really dangerous person is the one who is both closed-minded and is a teacher of others. Their students will either pick up the habit of their mentor and remain closed-minded, or else they will turn on their teacher and assume that they have been fed a line of bull because the professor was afraid to pursue the truth. The fact that the great majority of theological liberals come out of a theologically conservative environment is a sad narrative on how ineffective this simple fideism is at producing the next generation of faithful Christian leaders.