29 Mar 2007

Do Roots Matter?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Kingdom, Preaching, Restoration History, Unity

Do Roots Matter?

This Life, therefore, is not righteousness
but growth in righteousness, not health
but healing, not being but becoming, not
rest but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be but we
are growing toward it, the process is not
yet finished but it is going on, this is
not the end but it is the road. All
does not yet gleam in glory
but all is being
— Martin Luther

Why Study Our Roots?

By a triple birthright American Evangelicals (of which Restorationists are a part) bring a healthy skepticism to the past — even their own history.

First, as children of the Reformation we cling to sola scriptura rather than Tradition for authority.

Second, as Americans of the “first New Nation” we tend to dislike granting one generation wisdom over another.  We cherish our own commitments rather than those handed down to us.

Third, as heirs of Fundamentalism we bristle at the suggestion that the historical process, rather than divine revelation has shaped us. We often go to the extreme of denying that history has had any impact on us at all.

Restoration groups are especially susceptible to ignoring history. We have a “tradition” of having “no tradition!” There is a long line of groups from well into the Medieval period that claim to have “No Tradition.” This sense of historylessness is very seductive and can be very hazardous to ones health . . . Even more so because we tend to be unaware of it.

C. S. Lewis spoke to the need of the living to be open to the past (speaking to the second item above). In his essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” he says we need to open our windows to the “clean sea-breeze of the centuries.”History helps us to overcome, as Lewis says, our “chronological snobbery.”

Christians without history are like a fish out of water.God has chosen to reveal himself to Humankind in and through history. The authors of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua – Kings), Chronicles, Luke-Acts, etc were Spirit led historians. For this reason alone we Christians should be students of history.

History not only allows but promotes “fellowship” across generations that can inspire, warn, instruct, and broaden and deepen our vision. By instruction I mean history delivers us from the tyranny of our own time and limited experience. The conceit that I am somehow wiser or more honest and dedicated than those who have gone before.

Examples: from Ignatius we learn of total dedication, from Minucius Felix we learn of being truly “aliens” in this world, from Augustine we learn of the power of sin and the glory of grace, from Anselm we gain insight into the cross, from John of the Cross we learn of fervent prayer, from Martin Luther we learn about the righteousness of God, from John Calvin about the sovereignty of God, from Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell we learn of a passion for freedom and unity. These are worthy of our time and effort to learn. Plus there are thousands of women that we learn the same traits from.

But perhaps most of all history teaches us about the assumptions of our own age. Those assumptions that you and I unconsciously have built into our worldview. They shape the way we see everything . . . Including the Bible. In fact they can seriously distort the way we see the Bible. Thus history can function much like a good or bad pair of glasses that filters information before it reaches the eye.

The Tragedy of A Man Without Memory (i.e. History)

Imagine, if you will, what life would be like if you could not remember the past (and memory is nothing but “history”). Oliver Sacks in a book called, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, provides a vivid account of what happens when a human cannot remember.

Sacks tells the story of a 50 year old man named Jimmy. Jimmy, as the result of alcoholism, suffered from sustained memory loss. Jimmy can remember his life up to the age of 20, but after that there is nothing. More devastating is the fact that when anything happens to him, he can only remember it for a few seconds.

Imagine. He meets you and talks excitedly with you Yet in a few seconds you are a total stranger that he had never seen before . . . Again! Every morning he wakes up, looks in the mirror and is surprised to see a stranger looking back. Everyday he gets lost in the halls of the sanitarium where he lives. He cannot play most games or follow the plot of a comic book. Every few seconds Jimmy’s life and world begin all over again.

Behind his friendly, childlike eagerness there lies infinite sadness and the haunting loneliness of a man lost in time. Jimmy had lost his past. And that loss has emptied his Present of any real meaning and has clouded his future. Indeed he can never envision a future.

The same is true of Christian identity.Without that memory of our origins, of the perils, the triumphs along the way, and of the people who have shaped our faith we, like Jimmy, wander aimlessly, unsure of who we are or where we hope to go.

Hopefully this will be the beginning of a glad and delightful journey for my readers. It is a hopeful and even delightful exercise. But we too have a few skeletons in our closets we might discover which will serve to remind us that we are saved by God’s grace and not because we have any and all patterns figured out.

Historian Leonard Allen points out that we are selective in our memories. I call this selective amnesia. This disease strikes in the most dreaded of ways. Sometimes if we just “remember” we can avoid severe heartaches – like schisms and splits.As we journey into the 21st century it will pay rich dividends to explore our family tree.

Bobby Valentine

19 Responses to “Do Roots Matter?”

  1. benoverby Says:

    Like the man with no memory, those who deny their history can’t recognize their own siblings–their brothers and sisters in the “other” denominations. What a dreadful disease! Thanks, Bobby.

  2. Bob Bliss Says:

    Bobby, interesting perspective. I wonder if this attitude toward tradition has created a certain mind set toward the Old Testament. Although I don’t think we actually teach this but it appears to me that we look at the OT only in terms of providing predictions about Jesus. We don’t see the OT saints as our brothers and sisters. We also don’t see the patterns (more than just typology) of God’s grace being exhibited in history. As in Brian Nicklaus’ recent post we also tend to see a different god in the OT.

    Also the same is true of our attitudes toward the early church fathers. We tend to pull out the ideas that agree with us and forget that they were real human beings with a 3D life (good and bad ideas, and good and bad behavior just like us).

    I like Oden’s Systematic Theology because of his emphasis on what the church has taught through the ages. Also Oden’s Ancient Christian Commentary series where he pulls out what the church fathers said about various passages.

    As a way of recommendation for overcoming such attitudes (besides Oden’s work) the movie 50 First Dates offers a different perspective from the book you mentioned. This is not a criticism of the book only that the movie’s perspective looks at the solutions offered to overcome such a loss of memory (Also I realize that some reading this might wonder why I would watch such a movie, what can I say but that I’m not perfect – I saw the cleaned up version first on TV). A young woman is involved in a car accident that leaves her remembering only what happened before the accident. She loses the memory of the previous day and therefore doesn’t retain anything since the accident. The young man in love with her is willing to do what it takes to help orient her each day. At first he prepares a book (with pictures and text) that she reads each morning. Then he prepares a video that she wakes up to. By the end of the movie she must take in each morning the fact that she fell in love with this man, dated him, married him, and now is pregnant by him. What a lot to take in each day! His persistence is what connects her to the actual present and not the present she remembers.

    In my own preaching I preach a lot from the Old Testament. It helps to connect my congregation to the history of God’s working in the world before Jesus. The OT is more than just predictions about Jesus. I haven’t incorporated enough of the early church fathers to give them the same perspective. Maybe one of these days.

  3. Alan Says:

    Hi Bobby,

    > …we tend to dislike granting one
    > generation wisdom over another.

    We even do that toward the generations that are still with us. If the 20, 30, 40 year-olds among us don’t respect the 60, 70, 80 year-olds who are with us, why would they respect the ones who died long ago?

    An 80 year old person has learned from his own successes and failures over the years. But those who learn from history can benefit from the cumulative effect of many generations. The wisdom passed down from each generation can build on what came before. When we don’t learn from history, we are like a culture that has to re-invent the wheel and rediscover fire every generation. We never receive the cumulative benefit enabling us to have indoor plumbing, cars, electricity… A culture can remain primitive because it will not learn from the ones who came before.

  4. Milton Stanley Says:

    Excellent post, BV. I’ve saved it for future reference. By the way, I wrote something similar today (though much shorter) at Milton’s Daily Dose ( http://miltonsdailydose.blogspot.com )on interpreting the Bible. Peace.

    BTW, when we have no sense of history, we may think the Foy Wallace Jr. school of biblical interpretation is the way the church has always done it.

  5. Steve Puckett Says:

    I like Richard Hughes’ comments here from Reviving the Ancient Faith:

    “The material I present in this book substantiates the assertion a colleague and I have made elsewhere that churches that root their identity in efforts to restore ancient Christianity are susceptible to the illusion that they have escaped the influence of history and culture altogether.”

    Hughes calls this unique self-understanding a “institutional identity out of a denial of institutional identity.”

    I find that when I speak to the “roots” of restoration movement churches most are totally unaware of those roots.

    What I used to find most distressing were those charts in Churches of Christ literature and tracts that showed the origin of every denominational movement but failed to include Churches of Christ in their chart, asserting that Churches of Christ had their origin in AD 33.

    I think discovering your “roots” when you thought you had no roots would be a bit like discovering you are adopted when you didn’t know you were. You would be elated in some ways, but very disappointed in others. I think Churches of Christ want to find their identity in “the perfect church” when in fact no such animal exist, only a perfect Savior.

    I like Richard Beck’s assertion that Churches of Christ find their distinct identity more in their ecclesiology (the nature and structure of their churches) than in their theology.

    On the positive side I believe knowing your roots is like knowing your medical history. You accept what you cannot change (your genetic code) and you do everything you can to change what will help you grow into a healthy human being (eat right, exercise regularly, get regular doctor’s checkups).

    I cannot change the genetic code of my church heritage, but I can do everything within my ability to grow into a healthy Christian or churches do everything they can to grow into healthy churches. I think we are still working out what helps grow healthy Christians in Churches of Christ and what a healthy church means and within a certain range these items will vary.


  6. Gardner Says:

    Our challenge is to accept that “we” have been influenced by men and women of the past: Luther, Zwingli, Campbell, Lipscomb, our parents, etc. even as we identify spiritually only with Christ. To deny the influence of such people and the fact that they may have shaped to some extent our thinking and prejudices is obviously naive.

    However, to identify too closely with them leads to sectarianism – “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am Cephas, I am of Stone, I am of Campbell,” etc. (I would add “Stoned-Campbell disciple” to that if it weren´t such an obviously tongue-in-cheek designation.)

    So, it is true that “we” have been influenced by a host of godly people. But we should be OF only One. May God help us to avoid both the naïvité of the one extreme and the sectarianism of the other.

  7. Darin Says:

    That is a great post Bobby. History is an invaluable marker in helping us understand. Understand ourselves and this faith we share.

    Great post.

  8. Paula Harrington Says:

    Don’t you agree that where we’ve been isn’t nearly as important as where we’re going?

  9. Neva Says:

    Denying our roots is futile. They are evidenced in much that we do and the way we justify what we do. However, we must always remember that our real roots are in Christ. Rooted in Him, without Him, neither the future, the present or the past matter.
    Good post

  10. Falantedios Says:


    Great post! Very thought-provoking, and you’ve gotten some really good comments as well.

    Isn’t Marcion the early leader that basically threw out the whole OT as well as anything not written by Luke or Paul? I believe that mindset toward history, as pointed out by Bro. Bliss, is extremely prevalent in Christian thought today.

    Even though it only brushes it tangentially, NT Wright’s “Judas and the Gospel of Jesus” is POWERFULLY convicting about that mindset, and its roots in 2nd century Gnosticism.

    I believe that the Restoration plea inherently affirms the effects of history, BUT that it paints with too broad a brush. The Restoration plea commonly lumps all historical influence on Christianity as negative, and that is simply false.

    I believe that where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going cannot be valued separately. They are too intrinsically linked, and ignorance of any one of them damages the whole of the spiritual life. Where we’re GOING depends greatly upon where we ARE (where we and God together have placed us), and we only got where we ARE through where we’ve BEEN.

    I’m reminded of a seed. Once planted, its life sets out in two directions. Upward, toward the light of life, and downward, towards the water of life. The zoe dwelling within that seed cannot burst forth gloriously without struggling through the fertile soil of its surroundings. For us, our surroundings include history.

    “Test ALL THINGS, hold fast what is good.”

    in HIS love,

  11. Bob from Tucson Says:

    Bobby, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” fantasy offers a context in which the History of one’s ancestors can become yours as well thru the taking of “the spice”. I’ve often wondered how much different we would see each other, indeed, each denomination if we could have at our command the thoughts and memories of those who’ve “gone before us”.I believe our arrogance would disappear and our sense of being timeless and history-less would be a quaint fantasy. I guess we do. We just have to READ them. Bob

  12. Danny Says:

    Another thought-provoking post my friend.

    I hope we are listening. History is not something many like to consider and as you have noted that is unhealthy.

    What is that old saying? If we forget the past we are destined to repeat it.

  13. DJG Says:

    Great post. We do get into a snobbery of sorts when we think we are the ones that have it all figured out…..we are just traveling the same road at a later date, why not glean some secrets from those who have gone before? It might cut down on the time we spend in the ditch!

  14. Jim Says:

    Bobby—a good post. What you are saying regarding memory and history is very true.

  15. Vonnie Says:

    Looking forward to more posts like this one.

  16. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Whoa, Bobby, what a fine post! I’m going to print this off for digestion.

  17. Patrick Says:

    About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].
    Peace Be With You

  18. Josh Says:

    I think it’s good to cherish our foundation. Changes are fine, but it’s also good to know where we’ve come from.

  19. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Bobby, I finally got the chance to read this again, along with the previous comments.

    “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” sounds like a must-read. But for people like me who don’t have the umph, maybe the film “Memento” will do.

    I think that movie works so well at so many levels. It might be the best movie mirror for Churches of Christ.

    The Old Testament has been mentioned. But it’s been neglected in a different way, and for different reasons than Christian history. Neglect of the OT is also a little more serious. I mean, it’s one thing to deny that the Holy Spirit left any tracks between 100 and 1800. It’s another thing to downplay the very oracles of God.

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