2011 Academy Conference - Session 2 - Stephen Nichols
After Friday night’s “Theology in Dialogue” roundtable discussion and question-and-answer session, the speaker addresses for the 2011 Ligonier Academy Conference are on tap today. The conference theme is “Pillars of Christian Orthodoxy: History, Truth, Faith,” with each of the three speakers addressing one of the pillars during the day.
The day’s first session, “History,” featured Dr. Stephen J. Nichols, research professor of Christianity and culture and chair of the biblical division at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School in Lancaster, Pa. Dr. Nichols is the author of a number of books, including The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, and Jesus Made in America.
Dr. Nichols opened by quoting from J. Gresham Machen’s inaugural address as an assistant professor at Princeton Theological Seminary on May 3, 1915, in which he declared, “The modern church is impatient of history.” Almost a century later, these words remain relevant, but the postmodern church is not only impatient of history, it is disdainful of history. Our age believes new is better. However, we are a people with a past, and when the church marches on in ignorance of its history, it is in great peril.
To stress the importance of history, Dr. Nichols discussed three points:
First, our faith is a historical faith. The apostle Paul said the gospel is that Jesus lived, died, was buried, and rose again, all in space and time. Our faith is not a faith of metaphors. These events really happened.
Second, our church is a historical church. In some circles, tradition is a bad word. But Martin Luther said tradition is valuable. He did not write of fifteen hundred years of church history in his opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. His fight for sola Scriptura was all about authority.
Recognizing the value of tradition gives us perspective. We must not think so highly of what the Holy Spirit teaches us that we neglect what the Holy Spirit has taught others through the centuries.
Recognizing the value of tradition also gives us humility. We realize that we are not the first to wrestle with the biblical text. The saints of the past can instruct us.
Third, our God is the God of history. Dr. Nichols devoted the bulk of his lecture to this point. He began by noting that prior to Augustine, most philosophies of history were cyclical, but Augustine set forth a linear philosophy, saying that time had a beginning and will have an end, and in the middle, God is governing His universe by His providence.
This philosophy teaches us that God is sovereign over all things. Augustine said that God’s dominion is sometimes manifest, sometimes hidden but always just, and that means it is good. A linear philosophy also teaches us that history is ultimately eschatology. It is being driven toward God’s decreed end. This means that the life that is worth living is the life lived for the kingdom of God.
Edward Taylor, a Puritan pastor in Westfield, Mass., from 1671 to 1729, and an accomplished poet, saw himself as “a crumb of dust” in comparison to God. But he recognized that even “a crumb of dust” was designed to glorify God. In between creation and consummation, we live to glorify God.
This was Paul’s perspective. In Romans 9:17, he notes that God raised up Pharaoh to show His power and so that His name might be proclaimed. As God’s covenant people, we have the same purpose. Our task is to let God’s glory show forth.
Thus, in the time between creation and consummation, we live to glorify God, always keeping our eyes on the end.
Jonathan Edwards once preached a series of thirty sermons titled “The History of the Work of Redemption.” In it, Edwards likened history to a river. If we stand beside a river, we may wonder how it will ever reach the ocean. If we are given a bird’s-eye view, we see only more obstacles. But God intends all streams to “disgorge” themselves at the end. Not one of all the streams shall fail, as God governs history to its decreed end.