Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Ahistorical Fallacy: American Evangelicalism, Baptist Successionism, And Lutheranism

There is a minority theory (largely discredited these days) in Baptist circles known as "Baptist Successionism".  Very generally speaking, this view holds that the first Christians all the way back to the apostles held to a theology we could define as "Baptist" in modern terms that that there has been an unbroken line of tiny, oppressed Baptists from the time of the apostles to the present day.

This ahistorical fallacy allows the Baptists who hold to it to just "skip over" thousands of years of Christian history as aberrant and ignore theological developments and debates as part of the aberrant majority.  In practice, what this does (in my view) is disconnect modern Baptists from the larger part of Christian history.

You see the ahistorical fallacy again in generic American Evangelicalism.  Not only are many modern Christian protestants in America ignorant of ancient church history, they also do not truly know or appreciate their Puritan roots, the influence of the Enlightenment, the First and Second Great Awakenings, and the "new measures" introduced by Charles Fenny.

I grew up under both of these impressions and was completely ignorant of how the beliefs that I held so dear actually came about.  I did not understand that the overwhelming majority of Christians living and dead disagreed with what I believed and did not even know that I owed more to people like Finney, Wesley, and the Deists of the 1700s than the historic church.  This meant that I was unexposed to differing views and did not truly understand Christian theologies that disagreed with my own.  The lack of historical knowledge lead me to a kind of xenophobic proof texting that did not help me or the people that I encountered.

There are many ways in which theology is studied and expressed.  You have exegetical approaches, systematic approaches, historical approaches just to name a few.  I am not against emphasis, but I think that a well-rounded approach is best no matter your level of knowledge and anyone who tries to tackle theological questions and disputes from only one direction really cheats themselves.

To a much lesser extent, large parts of American Lutheranism suffers from the ahistorical fallacy and rely on the two legs of systematics and exegesis to support their beliefs.  I think this is probably not the best approach and become more and more convinced as I grow and encounter more Lutherans of various flavors and opinions.

Many Lutherans that I encounter have a 150+ year gap in their historical memory.  Their knowledge of the history of the church effectively begins and ends one generation from Luther himself.  If they have any historical knowledge beyond the Book of Concord, it is spotty at best.  It is a rare thing to hear anything about Lutheranism between the 1580s and the 1970s, it doesn't pick up until almost after the American Civil War with Lutheran and Reformed influences like Krauth, Walther, Sasse, Barth, Moltmann, etc.  By then, many significant differences and debates had already occurred.

There are large gaps in Lutheran history that are largely unknown on the popular level because Lutheran historical books are too academic to be accessible and Historical Theologians among the Lutherans are so few and far between.

Three added challenges make the Lutheran task more difficult.  Unlike many in the Reformed and Puritan traditions, large parts of the source material for Lutheran history exist in foreign languages (German, Sweedish, Finnish, etc) that fewer and fewer American Lutherans can just pick up and read.  This makes English translations time consuming and expensive to produce.  Add to the small number of Lutheran historians.  Add to those problems the fact that Lutheran History is often a very politically difficult challenge to approach impartially as these divisions and debates are the foundational differences that effect the various Lutheran synods and denominations today.

This ahistorical gap that exists in Lutheranism effects Lutheran understandings in the same way that the other two examples I have sited effect general American Protestantism to a greater degree.  This causes the same thing in my view: xenophobic proof-texting between various Lutheran circles that hampers dialogue and keeps various Lutherans from understanding each other.

This handicaps our understanding of how the various contemporary Lutheran beliefs (of which there are many) came to be.  Rather than protecting sound doctrine, I believe that this lack of context insulates others from its spread and undermines the foundations of it.  Why are the conservative churches and the liberal churches so different?  Why does a book by someone like Carl Braaten teach such a significantly different "Lutheranism" from Robert Preus?

Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it... and I think that skipping the history of the Lutheran church and relying on our dogmatics to do the heavy lifting has made our confessional movement weaker.

No doubt this makes me a "moderate" or an "ecumenical nut" in the mind of some.  But I think that there is no more danger in knowing about the unbiased history of a Lutheran branch that we disagree with and trying to at least understand their point of view than learning about the views of anyone else with which we disagree.

Perhaps what I am driving at is that there is not "one right approach" to theology.  I am of the opinion that sound theology is a holistic discipline that is simultaneously exegetical, systematic, historical, pastoral, and practical.

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