Volume 34 - Issue 3
Lest We ForgetBy Carl Trueman
Memory is singularly important. At the personal level, it is a large part of what makes us who we are. Pardon the cheesy wordplay, but who can forget the closing scenes of Bladerunner when Harrison Ford discovers that his memories have all been manufactured and that he himself, a bladerunner, is actually a replicant, a robot? It is what makes the film so disturbing: if even our memories are false, then we cannot even know who we are.
Memory is also a significant biblical category. I am at the moment preaching a series on the Book of Judges for the church where my family worships and whose pulpit is currently vacant. What is striking is how the children of Israel forgot the Lord and all of the acts that he had performed for them in Egypt, in the wilderness years, and in the initial invasion of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and the elders who served under him. This forgetfulness served as the context for their depravity, for their worship of other gods and for a cultural assimilation to the ways of Canaan which involved at points both human sacrifice and gang rape.
In this context—and, again, forgive the turn of phrase—it is all too easy for us to forget that the act of forgetting is not an act of will. There was an old joke I heard years ago that people used to run away to join the French Foreign Legion in order to forget, but that, after six months, they had forgotten why they had joined and wanted out. Of course, memory does not really work like that. Forgetfulness is a function of neglect or not caring or, on occasion, ill-health; it is not something which one can willfully engineer. I can want to forget certain miserable obligations which I have to fulfill, but, ironically, the more I dread fulfilling them, the less likely I am to forget them. It is really only those things to which we are indifferent, and which can thus shove to the very peripheries of our minds as irrelevant, which we are able to forget.
What is interesting to me is that the means God appointed to help the children of Israel were to remember what was important. In his dealings with Moses, God had established a set of repetitive processes by which the Israelites would be constantly reminded of all that God had done for them. Thus, for example, in Exodus 12, God establishes the Passover Feast, the performance of which is designed in part to provoke later generations to ask the question of why this is done. This will then require parents to tell their children about God’s great act of saving grace in bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt even as this was by means of an awesome and terrifying judgment against the Egyptians.
The Passover is just one example of many rituals outlined in the Torah which functioned on one level as reminders of who God was, who the Israelites were, and how they related to each other. Thus, when we come in to the Promised Land and we find the Israelites suffering persistent recurrences of amnesia, it does not take a genius to assume that part of the immediate cause of this was their abject neglect of the means which God had established for keeping his name and his acts fresh in their minds.
What this kind of amnesia tells us is that we need constant reminders of who God is and what he has done if we are to stay on the straight and narrow; and that these are provided by the routines and rituals which God specifies in Scripture. For the Christian, under the terms of the NT age, these are the Word of God, read and preached and heard, and the sacraments, or, if you are a Baptist, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These things are given to remind us of who God is; and the neglect of them will only help to accelerate any proclivities towards forgetfulness that our instinctive rebellion of God encourages.
The temptation for a theological student at this point, of course, is to make the obvious answer to this: well, I study the things of God all day long; I am hardly likely to forget about God, who he is and what he has done, am I? Well, there is forgetting and there is forgetting. Remembering that there is a train that leaves the local station every evening at five o’clock is one thing; remembering that I need to be on it to return home to be there for my wife’s surprise birthday party is quite another. It is all too easy for the theological student to end up remembering God as an object of knowledge; it is quite another thing to remember him as the all-surpassing subject of existence.
This is why church is vitally important. OK, long-standing readers of Themelios know what is coming next: Trueman’s pitch for seeing the local church as the necessary context for the Christian life, not least for those called to study theology at the highest level. Well, here it comes; and just because I have said it before does not make it any less true or any less necessary to say it again. After all, some of you may—ahem—have forgotten the speech. As noted above, that’s what the Bible itself indicates as happening when predictable but important routines are abandoned or their content taken for granted.
Much modern theological scholarship, particularly—though not exclusively—in the areas of Old and New Testament studies is predicated on a culture of amnesia. What the church has said about the Bible between the close of the apostolic era and the present day can be, by and large, dismissed. These people did not have access to the documents we now have, they did not understand Judaism as we now do, some were simply naïve in how they looked at the world and how they read texts. These are the kind of arguments which pervade this culture.
Now, for the student studying for an MA or MDiv or PhD, these are not insignificant points; they have to be addressed if the student is to avoid being an obscurantist. But the student should also be aware that the framework out of which these kinds of arguments arise is not a value-neutral one; nor does it actually reflect a particularly biblical view either of the value of the past or the importance of the church as the Body of Christ in biblical interpretation, systematic doctrinal synthesis, or application. Thus, it is vitally important that such students make sure that they place themselves within a local church and under the sound preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments/ordinances on a regular basis. Why? Because otherwise their memories of who God is and what he has done over the years will slowly fade or distort as they simply accommodate to sinful, human expectations of who God is and how he acts.
To the research student, and even perhaps the one studying theology for a first degree, this all sounds terribly boring. To spend the week voyaging at the far reaches of intellectual seas of scholarship, and then the weekends listening to some person standing in a pulpit and simply expounding the text or serving bread and wine? What is the value in that? One can imagine the Israelites in the Book of Judges raising similar questions. Do we need to do that Passover thing again? Do we not all know what it means? Do we really need the law read to us so often? Surely once we know what it says, we can move beyond it? The net result in Judges is, of course, that the values of Sodom come to flourish within the very boundaries of the Promised Land and within the very practices of the Lord’s people, with fatal consequences for at least one young woman. Neglect of the boring, day-to-day routines led to absolute disaster.
It is the same today. I have yet to come across a student who struggled with, or even abandoned, the faith, who did not, at some early point in their struggle, abandon the mundane routines of the Christian life: regular attendance at the preaching of the word, prayer, etc. etc. Boring they may be, but they are God’s means of preventing amnesia; and we forget them at our peril.
Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Other Articles in this Issue
Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38–42by David VanDrunen
Among the many biblical passages that provoke controversial questions about Christian non-violence and cooperation with the sword-bearing state, perhaps none presses the issue as sharply as Matt 5:38–42...