Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson


We are so much into the present, as well as the future. We are inspired by talks that project trends. We are like those in a Disneyland line waiting to get into Tomorrowland. In the educational world, we find ourselves wondering where online education is taking us. What does a shift from print to oral/digital learning look like in a future classroom? In the church world, leaders are asking how ministries can stay competitive and have a compelling vision. How can we avoid becoming irrelevant? What will tomorrow’s church look like?

But if we are not careful, we will ignore and sacrifice the past–which will end up wrecking our future. The truth is, we are paying less and less attention to history. Rare is a church that has any classes in church history, or sermons which make much reference to the past. And this is becoming more and more so in seminaries. History has become an elective, a “soft” subject. And in the process, we are missing a core truth–that the best visionaries are often the best historians. It’s called the Janus effect–the longer you look backwards, the further out you can see into the future.

Because Churchill was schooled in history, he could see patterns, the arc of events–where things were portending. It enabled him to be ahead of his time. Nixon, for all of his flaws, was a great strategist. He could envision the long view because he also steeped himself in history. David Gergen, who has studied past presidents, calls this “the priceless asset of a leader.”

I was reminded of all of this while reading the most recent The Atlantic. Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson write an article entitled, “Don’t Know Much About History.” They lament that we as a nation have become “the United States of Amnesia.” It helps explain why our foreign policies, especially in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, have been so inept. We have not taken the time to study the history of events, the origin of religions and tribes, or the lives that have gone before us.

Allison and Graham argue for more applied historians who are skilled in taking current predicaments and identifying analogues in the past. A wise President would institute a Council of Historical Advisors. After reading Black Flags, The Rise of Isis, I couldn’t help but think how much pain could have prevented if policy makers took the time to study the past. Imagine how much better we would be at investing if we paid more attention to previous economic bubbles, how they build and how they pop. But we tend to keep repeating the past–because we ignore it.

What the article does not ask, but we in the church must ask, is this–What if we encouraged more applied historians to have a voice in the church? Here’s a short list of what might happen-

-our worship might be far richer because we took the time to learn how Calvin viewed the Lord’s Supper and what could/should happen in that moment–or discovered what the earliest Puritans understood about giving

-pastors might become more substantive if they began to realize the earliest church fathers were both pastors and theologians

-our definition of “gospel” would go way beyond the “plan of salvation” because we began to realize how Jesus and the early church defined the good news

-our hesitancy to take risks might be radically altered because we were made aware of our story–how those earliest membersof our church gathered in some living room and imagined the impossible

-our propensity to obsess on sexual issues might be corrected as we came back to what historic churches focused on–things more important like the gospel and authority of Scripture

-our tendency to get caught up in politics might change because we recognized what historically happens when the church becomes enamored with political power–it loses its influence

-our church might be a picture of the future–because we have overcome our amnesia and come to know and respect and learn from the past.


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