Ferret Breeding on Watership Down

Article by   June 2006

Teaching history is probably one of the more depressing activities in which one can engage in the current climate. At an academic level, the discipline has been in self-destruct mode for some time, losing itself in a morass of hyperspecialised narratives, nihilistic epistemologies and general narcissistic "numptiness," to borrow an appropriate Scottish phrase. At a general cultural level, the crazy consumerism of advanced Western capitalism, with its craven idolatry of the new and the novel and its contemptuous dismissal of the old and the traditional, has made sure that the utilitarian disrespect for history has continued which was first established by the rise of the industrial and scientific ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All of this has served to make teaching history about as welcome a calling as that of ferret breeding on Watership Down.

The church, of course, should be able to rise above the cultural consensus; but such is sadly not the case. At the level of church practice, the abandonment of traditional hymns, services, and patterns of preaching speaks volumes about how the past is regarded by many as simply not connecting to the present, not being relevant to the needs of today. Now, as will become clear, I am far from suggesting that the way church was done in the past is to be arbitrarily absolutised as if ours is the first generation in history to have been shaped by its historical context; but I do want to raise the question as to whether the changes we see in church practice as all driven by a conscious desire to be faithful to the Bible or simply by the unconscious aping of wider cultural trends which we have internalized and naturalized to the point where they are assumed to be as natural as gravity. For example, in seminaries and schools of theological learning, church history now often occupies less space on the curriculum than other disciplines, while the massive growth of areas such as counseling raises questions about the critical relationship between curricular emphases, historic precedents and contemporary cultural concerns which are rarely addressed in any reflective manner. In terms of biblical scholarship, too, the often uncritical acceptance of the latest scholarly consensus - however, one might add, one chooses to construct that "consensus," itself a knotty critical problem - and the all-too-eager dismissal of any exegesis or theological formulation which happens to predate the current trendy watershed, be it Kant, Freud, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or whatever, is eloquent testimony both to the power of the wider culture to shape reality and the childish fascination with anything that irritates the older generation. Today, there is nothing that more conforms to the mentality of the cultural establishment than the rebel without a cause. Again, the analogy with ferret breeding on Watership Down comes to mind.

But even outside of the self-consciously trendy ranks of the postmodern church pundits and the avant-garde of academia, traditional evangelicalism itself contains powerful antihistorical forces. Evangelicals, after all, are those who just have their Bible, who draw their inspiration not from tradition but from Scripture itself. In some circles, this is often simply the unreflective default position; for others, the perception that the Reformation was a revolt against the authority of tradition is carte blanche for rejecting any reflection upon anything other than the bare text of Scripture. Ironically, the latter group often has a high view of historical movements and figures - indeed, the fact that it takes its cue from the Reformation indicates something of a historical bent; but this is often little more than hagiography. History is about spotting the good guys (and they generally are all guys, the odd covenanter martyr notwithstanding) and the bad guys (perhaps a few more of these might be gals, Mary I, Mary of Guise etc); and about assuming that the former simply acted out of pure fidelity to scripture, the latter out of the basest conscious motives. In other words, there is no critical engagement with history, simply the extraction from history of pure biblical practices and ideas uncontaminated by the times in which they occurred or, one might ominously add, by the innate depravity of the agents themselves. Ferret breeding anyone?

Yet history remains important, especially for evangelicals. Whatever the popular evangelical mythology might claim, the Reformation was not a wholesale rejection of church tradition in favour of the Bible. It was rather a critical evaluation of church tradition in the light of Scripture which led to the rejection of some parts of that tradition, the modification of others, and the acceptance as scriptural of the rest. Anyone who has spent any time looking at the attitude of Luther, Calvin and company on the creeds of the early church, and the traditional language for expressing theology, knows that the phrase "no creed but the Bible" can only be applied to these men in the qualified sense that Scripture is the sole ultimate authoritative epistemological source and criterion for theology, not that there is nothing of use to be found in the church's tradition of creedal statement, theological formulation and doctrinal discussion.

The importance of history is, of course, central to Scripture itself, which is above all one extended history, where God, humanity, sin and grace all have their meanings revealed in the drama of fall and redemption which unfolds between the Garden and the City. Yet, I would here beg the reader's indulgence by provoking reflection on the importance of history not by going to Scripture but by going to the thought of two men not usually considered by many Christians as having anything worthwhile to say to the church. The first is the German philosopher, historian and economist, Karl Marx. Writing in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he declares:

Men make their own history; but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.[1]

Men make history, but they do not make the history that they choose: Marx's point is that everyone lives at a particular time in a particular place; and that context imposes limits upon them: geographical, economic, conceptual, linguistic etc. This is as true of the coal miner or factory owner in nineteenth century England as it is of the evangelical at the start of the twenty-first century. To pretend therefore that we somehow stand outside of history, that we just have our Bibles and somehow manage to transcend our specific location in time and space when we read it, is thus hopelessly naïve; but until we acknowledge that this is the case, we can ironically do nothing to help us transcend our own time. A critical approach to ourselves and to the tradition in which we stand is only possible once we acknowledge Marx"s point and accept that we are deeply indebted to the generations of all those who have gone before. This is bitter medicine for those who think history is all about good guys and bad guys, and who think that God"s will can be read in a simple and straightforward manner off the surface of events and actions. But even a brief reflection on our theology tells us that this is a woefully naïve position. For example, until we realize that the word `Trinity" does not occur in the Bible and grapple with how and why it came to be used in the way we use it, then the first time we encounter someone, say a Jehovah's Witness doing the rounds, who states the obvious - that we evangelicals say we believe in the sole sufficiency and authority of Scripture but then proceed to use extra-biblical terms - we are likely to find ourselves in something of a quandary. Further, unless we acknowledge the potential difference between our received tradition and the teaching of Scripture, we are incapable of critiquing that tradition. One more point: if we do not have a good grasp of the history of our theology, we will be ill-prepared to defend that tradition both from its enemies and from its well-meaning but ill-informed allies. All three potential problems can be mitigated somewhat by acknowledging how history has shaped our churches and thereby ourselves; and until we gain that knowledge of history, we are unlikely to see any improvement when faced with these issues.

If Marx's comment brings home to us how the uncritical identification of our chosen history with God's revealed will makes it necessary to grasp how we are shaped by the contexts into which we are placed by circumstances beyond our control, my second thinker highlights the importance of a knowledge of history as something which gives us a place to stand and resist those forces which would bend us to their will as if we had no choice. Milan Kundera, the Czech writer and Nobel Laureate, makes the following provocative comment:

"[T]he struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."[2]

Kundera is writing against the background of post-Prague Spring Soviet oppression in his homeland when politicians who fell foul of Moscow were, literally and metaphorically, airbrushed from history and out of the memories of their people. His point is that the rewriting of history, even in extreme cases the deliberate falsification of history to suit the agendas of the present does nothing other than disempower those whose history is being thus disemboweled. It is not just the Soviet bloc that does this, of course. One can think of the veritable industry of Holocaust denial that occupies the darker recesses of the Web, or the way in which the narrative of American frontier expansion has often been told without reference to the dispossession of Native Americans. Or, to bring the point closer to home, one might reflect upon the way the free market is often extolled in contemporary Western political narratives where its undoubted benefits are extolled but with no reference to the sweatshops, illegal immigration, and various acts of selective exploitation upon which the system depends. In each case, the work of historians who are willing to pay attention to the sources, question the unquestioned assumptions, and on occasion take the flack for speaking out, can bring immeasurable benefits to those prepared to listen.

This is a useful thing to bear in mind when approaching evangelical history. It is sad but true that there are those whose use of history is part of an agenda which allows them to manipulate the church in the present. This is particularly the case when it comes to doctrinal and moral issues. Claims, for example, that the penal substitutionary view of the atonement or justification by imputation or the inerrancy of Scripture are late innovations, and/or tied to outmoded social or philosophical paradigms, sound like very plausible and persuasive bases for "rethinking" or "revisioning" these ideas, terms which are usually euphemisms for "abandoning" or "dispatching to the theological dustbin." A careful study of the doctrinal history can at least demonstrate the erroneous nature of such claims. The same applies to those who claim that it is a legitimate, value-neutral move to build a Christology without reference to John's Gospel. When one takes seriously both the historical way in which the church developed the canon and then the historical context in which the synoptic gospels came to be separated from that of John through the development of critical history, the apparent innocence of the scholarly move is exposed as manipulative, philosophically loaded, and highly specious. Then, there are those who attempt to reintroduce old heresies as if they were new biblical insights: one thinks, for example, of those recent theologians who deny or radically limit God's knowledge of the future. Even a cursory glance at seventeenth century theological history will reveal that this has been done before by the Socinians; that their modern-day disciples seem so hesitant to make the obvious historical connection may have more than a little to do with the fact that Socinianism was beyond the Pale in the seventeenth century (and that in substantial part because of the Socinian view of God"s foreknowledge). It may also be that a comparison of the incredibly sophisticated arguments of the seventeenth century Socinians proves somewhat unflattering to their somewhat less rigorous descendants. Indeed, given all this, advertising your evangelical seminary as having representatives of Socinianism Lite on faculty is scarcely likely to boost your fundraising ventures. Far better it seems to airbrush history and present yesterday's tired old heresy as today's creative evangelicalism.

Such manipulation is scarcely the preserve of those who want out from under traditional theological doctrines and approaches; however, there is a great tendency among many who seem, on the surface, to have a great regard for the Christian past, to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) write history in a way that can produce little more than self-serving partisan propaganda.[3] This can take many forms. There are those who can write thousands of words on a man like Martyn Lloyd Jones with scarcely a word of criticism. Yet one assumes the Doctor, for all of his great achievements, was still totally depraved like the rest of us; one assumes therefore that he did many things that were at least ambiguous in their impact and effects; and one might reasonably expect anyone writing on him, even his staunchest allies, to reflect this basic theological fact.[4] Indeed, a study of him, warts and all, might well be more useful than a hagiography which leaves the reader either crushed ("I can never be like Lloyd Jones"), depressed ("If only the church had another Lloyd Jones everything would be alright...."), manipulative ("Well, the Doctor would have agreed with me...."), or positively dangerous ("Hey, maybe I should simply ignore the doctrine of the church as well!"). That the last few sentences almost certainly guarantee me splenetic hate mail merely proves my point. C.S. Lewis is another example: why is it that evangelicals have to make him into an evangelical in order to feel comfortable learning from him? He was not an evangelical, would have repudiated the designation, and is often useful to evangelical readers precisely because of his differences with the broad evangelical tradition. To have to make him - or any other great of the past - into something which conforms to that with which we are comfortable is both thoroughly patronizing towards Lewis and an act of narcissism which insulates us from allowing his thought to critique us.

It should go without saying that history, and the dramatic recollection of history, lies at the heart of the Bible. The whole point of the Passover was that it provided both a dramatic link with the past and an opportunity for parents to tell their children the story of the Lord's deliverance of his people from Egypt. In the New Testament, baptism and the Lord's Supper serve similar purposes, connecting the present with the narratives and actions of God in the past, present, and future. Yet evangelicals in our anti-historical mode seem prone to one of the two tendencies noted above: an idolatry of the new and the novel, with the concomitant disrespect for anything traditional; or a nostalgia for the past which is little more than an idolatry of the old and the traditional. Both are disempowering: the first leaves the church as a free-floating, anarchic entity which is doomed to reinvent Christianity anew every Sunday, and prone to being subverted and taken over by any charismatic (in the non-theological sense!) leader or group which cares to flex its muscle; the second leaves the church bound to the past as its leaders care to write that past and thus unable to engage critically with her own tradition. Humble and critical engagement with history is thus imperative for the Christian: humble, because God has worked through history, and we would be arrogant simply to ignore the past as irrelevant; critical because history has been made by sinful, fallen, and deeply fallible human beings, and thus is no pure and straightforward revelation of God. It is this balance of humility and criticism that we must strike if we are to truly benefit from history.

As noted above, evangelicals have generally exhibited a deep suspicion of any talk of tradition as having any kind of authority within the church. This is self-evidently a reaction - and, on one level, a very good and proper reaction - to the kind of exaggerated claims made for tradition by the Roman Catholic Church. Yet we must remember that the Roman Catholic view of tradition is only one possible way in which it could be regarded as having authority or influence. Herman Bavinck, the Dutch theologian, notes a most useful distinction between the church as magisterial and the church as ministerial.[5] In the latter case, tradition is not presented by the church as the final absolute authority, but nonetheless the church here has a certain authority in helping believers to think clearly about Scripture, and in avoiding the absurdity of having to reinvent Christianity every Sunday. The church can err; its tradition can err; each individual stands or falls before his or her own master; but this does not render tradition of no account; it merely relativises it somewhat. God has, after all, made specific promises to the gathering of saints with regard to the guiding presence of his Holy Spirit which should mean that the church's teaching is given some considerable weight in theological discussions -- certainly, as a general rule, more weight than the musings of any individual or self-appointed theologian. Given that the church is a spiritual, theological entity, listening to her creeds and confessions, and dialoguing with her greatest minds is not some optional extra, or a surreptitious retreat to pre-Reformation Catholicism; it should rather be a delight and a privilege, something which reminds us of our own relative insignificance in the grand sweep of church history.[6]

Being a historian may not be the most welcome profession today, given our disdain for the past, but when you see how the historically ignorant can wreak havoc with evangelical theology, the ruthless application of the study of history can be a welcome antidote to the lightweight, the idolatrous, and the heretical. Historians have tragically all too often been co-opted as propagandists for whatever cause is current in their day and age. Yet, ironically, in an age which lives in self-conscious repudiation of the past, no profession is more suited to offering prophetic critique than that of the historian. In the complacent world of the perpetual present, to look to the past, with neither naïve nostalgia nor cynical contempt, is to exhibit dangerously disruptive behaviour. After all, to return to Watership Down: rabbits may be cute and cuddly; but they can also be diseased and flea-ridden; and let them breed too much and they destroy crops and damage the environment. Ferret breeding may not be a very popular profession, but it is sometimes necessary, even - or perhaps especially - on Watership Down where there are times when the only good rabbit is a dead rabbit.

 

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[1] Robert C Tucker (ed), The Marx-Engels Reader, Second Edition (New York: Norton, 1978), 595.

[2] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, trans. Michael Henry Heim (London: Penguin, 1981).

[3] Of course, history is not identical with the past; it is a representation, in both senses of the word, of the past; it is selective; it constructs a narrative which may not have been obvious to the various historical agents being studied; it is thus in part at least a reflection of the historian him or herself. Yet I for one still believe that some historical narratives are more true than others, that, say, those who deny the genocidal use of the gas chambers at Auschwitz are wrong and are writing bad history in a way that a historian who takes the opposite stance is not. The latter person is without doubt having to be selective and limited in the way the history is written, but the narrative makes more sense of the evidence than does Holocaust denial.

[4] Strange to tell, Christian history is most often thought of by friend and foe alike as indulging either in hagiography or a tendentious providentialism. It is surely suggestive that total depravity is only used as a key for understanding the actions of those with whom we disagree, whereas it is surely even more relevant to apply it to the actions of our heroes if we are to avoid naïve hero-worship.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics I: Prolegomena, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 481.

[6] Given the promises made to the church in scripture, It is clear that the role given to history and tradition by any Christian group will be intimately connected to its understanding of the church; that evangelicals have, on the whole, tended to downplay the doctrine of the church as part of playing up the significance of inter-denominational parachurch organizations also helps to fuel an anti-traditional/historical ethos.

 

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