[This is from a forthcoming "blog interview, but I like what I wrote, so I thought I'd post it here.]
I tell my students that if I am simply there to give them names, dates, and places, then we are utterly wasting our time—that is not what history is about and that is not what I am there to do. (I always stop and say that because many of them will face ordination exams during which the only thing the examiner knows to test them on are names, dates, and places, I have to make sure they know them as well.) Rather, the reason we have church history in the theological curriculum is to help them understand issues related to Christian identity: indeed, church history is the story about how Christians are.
In order to get at issues of identity, one must investigate beliefs, practices, and stories (and I talk about this in my book, On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories ). Most students come into my class convinced that the only period that is truly important for their Christian identity—for the beliefs, practices, and stories which shape them Christianly—is their own moment in time (and maybe, possibly, the generation prior). The Kool-aid I sell them to drink is that their identity is tied to the beliefs and practices of people who lived thousands of years before—what Ignatius or Polycarp or Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin wrote, taught, lived, and practiced shapes their Christian identity today.
The image I use to get this across is the family album. Each of us has family albums with pictures of aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins once removed on my mother’s side. There are stories about these peoples that embed beliefs and practices and that help them make sense. Some of these stories may be suppressed, or painful, or even forgotten, but they still shape us more than we know—they represent deep-seated ways of viewing the world that have impacted us in positive or negative ways. In order to ferret some of this out, we must investigate those pictures, find out those stories, check out those beliefs and practices—and in so doing, we learn a little bit better who we are and what God has for us to do in this moment and in our places today.
However, it is not simply possible to do what our ancestors before us did; to drive the car that Uncle Jim drove or view the world the way Aunt Maybelle did. For one thing, the movement of history doesn’t work that way; it is not possible to jump back upstream to a purer or more golden age, whether the 19th or 17th or 1st century. For another, we are in our own cultural moment or system in which our beliefs, practices, and stories are mixed up with our educational backgrounds, class differences, racial history, gender realities, geography, and much more. It is in our particular systems, in this moment, that the Word is to be enfleshed; and God has called us to do this, even with all the “limiting” factors of our particularity.
Sometimes there will be things that we do that contradict our glorious beliefs (one thinks here of proslavery defenses by orthodox Old School Presbyterian theologians); I call these “cultural blind spots.” Part of the reason we study history is to see these cultural blind spots in others or to have historical figures shine their light on our blind spots—either way, we see ourselves a little more clearly, see our flaws and our possibilities more realistically. And the result of historical thinking—the cash value, if you will, for the student—is wisdom and insight for life and ministry.
Above all, we come to learn that every time and every human being is flawed, broken, sinful—except for one: Jesus is the only hero. As a result, we can look at historical figures sympathetically (because they are sinful humans like us) and critically (because they are sinful humans like us); the good they teach ultimately is a reflection of Christ himself. And we can have some measure of hope—because if Jesus can use messed-up people and churches from the past, then he can certainly use us today. To me, this is a major value for teaching church history to future ministers—to gain wisdom and insight into the present, yes; but above all, to have hope: the same God who has shown himself in mighty deeds through broken clay pots in the past can and will do it again in the present in the future.