For many, the very mention of studying or reading history conjures sleep-inducing lists of names, dates, places, and events. Why do relatively few people love to study or even think about the past? Could it be chronological snobbery, as C. S. Lewis suggested? No doubt that’s part of it. Perhaps it’s also because many teachers have approached history with the fervor of an iceberg. 

Nathan Finn believes engaging those who have gone before us is vital, and he teaches and writes about history with care and passion. After serving several years as professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, Finn was recently elected dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University in Tennessee.

I corresponded with Finn to discuss the art of teaching history, the place of providence in the work of the historian, the role of the past in recovering the evangelical mind, and more.

Your new book, History: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2016), is part of a series on reclaiming the Christian intellectual tradition. What role does learning history play in recovering the evangelical mind? 

One of the besetting sins of evangelicalism is a mostly ahistorical approach to theology and praxis, often at the popular level, but also among many pastors, scholars, and other ministry leaders. As evangelicals, we appeal to the supreme authority of Scripture, and rightly so. But we don’t read our Bibles in a vacuum. Too often our reading of Scripture is informed more by pragmatic considerations, cultural sensibilities, and personal preferences than by the best of the Christian intellectual tradition. We will be a healthier evangelical movement to the degree we root our faith and practice in the best thinking of those who have gone before us.

To be clear, the Christian intellectual tradition should never play a magisterial role in evangelical thinking. Scripture alone is our only infallible authority for faith and practice. Nevertheless, tradition should play a ministerial role in our thought, helping refine our theology, spirituality, worship, and mission in dialogue with our forebears in the faith.

Sometimes I get the feeling people don’t like to study history because it hasn’t been taught well. How should (church) history be taught and written so it’s lively and compelling, not ho-hum and off-putting to people in the pews?

I think you’re right. In the book I write:

Many history teachers focus almost exclusively on rehearsing the past, forcing students to learn about names, dates, and key events. Lazy engagement with the past is the reason many students do not care much for history; they have never been properly introduced.

Good historians teach the past as the story we’re all part of—for better or worse. Students need to feel we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. And for Christian students, we need to be reminded that we live “between the times” and that our individual stories only make sense when seen as part of the larger story beginning with creation and ending with consummation. And for those of us who are historians, we must teach and write like the past really matters—because it does!

To what degree should the Christian historian factor in God’s providence when assessing history? Some argue providence warrants no consideration even in Christian history-writing. How do you respond?

This is the $64,000 question for Christian historians. In fact, I devote all of chapter three to this important and controversial topic. I believe we must avoid two extremes, both of which we find among historians who profess faith in Christ.

The first extreme is what I call a “providentialist” approach to interpretation, in which history is treated as theology, and historical teaching and writing is approached like a sermon. This forces historians to act like prophets, making religious pronouncements concerning matters about which we don’t have absolute knowledge. It also causes us to use history as an apologetic for our theological presuppositions. This approach to the past is quite common at the popular level, especially among political activists like David Barton who argue America was established as an explicitly Christian nation.

The second extreme, far more common in the academy, is a “secularist” approach that virtually precludes the existence of providence. Historians who teach or write in a secularist vein assume an anti-supernatural worldview—even if they personally believe in the supernatural. Many observers criticized Christian historian Harry Stout for going too far in this direction in his controversial 1991 book The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism.

I believe Christian historians should interpret the past such that religious ideas are taken seriously and “space” is left for the supernatural that can’t be explained through archival research. As I explain in the book:

Unlike the providentialist or secularist, Christian historians in particular ought to own this truth and abandon the futile quest for permanent, complete, unassailable interpretations. Historians never glimpse the complete picture. Intuitively, I think we know this to be true. For example, in our own personal experiences we understand there is much information we are not privy to, whether the innermost thoughts of other people, events happening in other places, or the invisible, spiritual realm around us. This is even more so the case when we study the past.

When you are preparing to preach, how much weight do you give to historical theology and the history of interpretation?  

Like any good pastor, I check my own exegetical work against solid commentaries written by biblical scholars and sometimes theologians. However, I also engage with practitioners of what the late David Steinmetz called pre-critical exegesis, as well as with historic creeds, confessions, catechisms, and hymns. I’m a fan of the Ancient Christian Commentary Series and Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series, both published by InterVarsity. Because I’m a Baptist, I also often consult historic Baptist confessions to see how my exegesis lines up with the best of the Baptist confessional tradition.

On a related note, nearly every sermon I preach includes at least one illustration from church history. My exegetical “conversations” with the past aren’t always evidenced in my preaching. Historical illustrations are a key way to help congregations enter into the story of God’s people from creation to new creation and see all of Christian history as their own family history.

You are a devoted churchman who has served for many years as an elder. How can a pastor best commend reading history to his congregation?

My previous church was unusual in that we had two elders who had earned a PhD in church history: the senior pastor and myself. Beyond that, nearly all our pastors had a deep sense of how church history can be formative for contemporary ministry. We encouraged the reading of history in at least three different ways. First, as noted above, there were regular historical illustrations in our preaching and teaching. Our members were aware of many of the most important figures in Christian history. Second, we regularly commended historical works—especially good biographies—to our people. There were always church members reading Bainton on Luther, or Marsden on Edwards, or Dallimore on Whitfield, or Anderson on Judson.

Finally—and I can’t stress how important this is—we intentionally taught our people church history. Our senior pastor taught biographical studies of important figures and led group studies through classic works by Reformers, Puritans, and early evangelical theologians. Several church readings groups worked through Christian classics as well. I taught a Sunday school class each year that surveyed Christian history over 12 weeks, and I also taught occasional stand-alone lessons on topics such as Southern Baptist history and the history of particular doctrines.

If a person were just starting to learn about church history, where would you suggest they begin?

The best one-volume narrative survey of church history is Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. I’ve recommended it to loads of people over the years. The best book for a reading group or Sunday School class is Timothy Paul Jones’s Christian History Made Easy. Bryan Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction and Steve Nichols’s The Reformation: How a Monk and Mallet Changed the World are both excellent popular introductions to their respective eras. For biographies, in addition to the ones I mentioned above, folks should check out the Bitesize Biography series published by Christian Focus. I also highly recommend my good friend Jason Duesing's new book, Seven Summits in Church History, which provides short biographical introductions to seven key leaders from Christian history.