Memory of the past—whether corporate or individual—can wield a powerful influence not only in how people engage the present but also in how they face the future. As a matter of fact, it is not surprising that for some people, memory is thought of as a heavy burden that connects them to the abuses, traumas, and failures of their past. For others, however, memory can provide deep encouragement about where they have been and what experiences and relationships have formed them into who they are today.
In Scripture, memory has a similar formative power. The Bible depicts believers as being formed by their response to the revelation of God, and the divine Creator and Redeemer exhibits His holy character by His faithful remembering of the people whom He has created and promised to redeem. As a result, the whole of redemptive history can be understood from the perspective of a developing redemptive memory by which the people of God meditate upon the progression of His divine works and respond in thanksgiving and praise. For His part, God remembers His people and the promises that He has made to them so that He might draw them into His glory forever.
Human Memory and Covenant
Faithful memory is covenantal memory. In His good pleasure, God chooses to relate to humanity by means of the special binding arrangement known as covenant. Though the idea of covenant is developed throughout the Bible, elements of this relationship are found as early as the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Even at this early point, memory becomes an issue of utmost importance. When the serpent tempts Eve to eat of the fruit, he does so by calling her memory of God’s commandment into question: “Did God actually say . . . ?” (Gen. 3:1). Some commentators argue that Eve’s memory is awed, since she adds “touching” to God’s actual prohibition of only “eating” (v. 3). In any case, even if she correctly remembers God’s command, she is not convinced of it.
In other words, memory, or the lack thereof, was operative in the fall of humanity, and memory will also play an important role in the redemption of humanity from sin. God remembers Noah in the flood (Gen. 8:1), He remembers Abraham and saves Lot (19:29), and He remembers Rachel and gives her a child (30:22). The preeminent act of redemption in the Old Testament, the exodus, is predicated on God’s remembering His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 2:24).
After their deliverance, the Israelites are called to remember God’s creative work by modeling their week after creation—work for six days, rest for one (Ex. 20:8–10). In Deuteronomy, the rationale for the same command is expanded to explain why the servants of the Israelites should also enjoy weekly rest. The sons and daughters of Israel must show mercy to those who serve in their households just as they themselves were delivered from oppressive work conditions while they were enslaved in Egypt (Deut. 5:15).
Such redemptive memory is actually encoded in the biblical covenants themselves. Covenantal documents throughout the ancient Near East typically begin with an account of the benevolence shown by the greater party to the lesser party of the covenant. The same is true of biblical covenants. Deuteronomy—itself an exemplary covenant document—begins with a retelling of God’s faithfulness to Israel during its wandering in the wilderness, a benevolence made all the more extraordinary by Israel’s nearly unmitigated rebellion (1:1–4:43). The implication is hard to miss: because of God’s past faithfulness, Israel should respond with love and obedience (6:4–9).
In the best of cases, covenantal memory would become a righteous habit of the mind. The young David showed that he was fit to serve as Israel’s covenantally faithful king when his memory of the Lord’s past blessings inspired him to confront Goliath near the Valley of Elah. Unlike the failed potentate Saul, who huddled in his tent away from the battle, the young shepherd boy sprinted out to the conflict, emboldened by his recollection of God’s past faithfulness to him when he confronted lions and bears that had threatened his flock (1 Sam. 17:34–37). David’s covenantal logic was unassailable, and the victory was sure.
Later, as the precipice of the national exile drew near, the role of the biblical prophets evolved into one of accountability, calling the leadership and people to remember the promises and demands of the Lord, promises to show mercy and demands to show justice. Prophets often served as covenant reminders, drawing the people’s attention back to the identity of the Lord and the claims He had made on their lives. Isaiah is exemplary in this way: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isa. 40:28). Of course, they had “known” this to be true of the Lord, but they had chosen to forget it as a formative truth in their lives; they had opted for selective amnesia, and exile would prove to be a powerful reminder.
Remembering the Apostolic Faith
The New Testament is often presented as the Christian part of the Bible, a new piece of revelation that supplants the teaching of the Old Testament. However, this conception misses the organic relationship between the two testaments. In reality, the New Testament is a collection of writings about memory. At its core, the Apostolic teaching in the New Testament is an inspired remembrance and understanding of the teaching of the Old Testament in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Every time we find a statement about the Old Testament being fulfilled in Jesus or a statement that gives some explanation of an Old Testament text in light of Jesus, we are experiencing an example of memory that is at once covenantal and Apostolic.
Because we are the recipients of the Word of God, we are called by the Apostles to remember God’s mighty works of creation and redemption as revealed to us throughout the course of redemptive history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Every time we proclaim Jesus as Messiah, High Priest, true vine (a reference to His identity as true Israel), atoning sacrifice, Immanuel, Creator, Redeemer, and so on, we are committing the sacred act of Apostolic covenant remembering.
To be sure, we have a multitude of distractions that compete for our attention, distractions that would confuse our knowledge of the Lord of our salvation. That is why we must nurture our knowledge of the Lord through corporate and individual remembering. That is why it is so crucial for us to remember what we believe about God and His designs for us when we gather together as a worshiping church.
One way that we remember is by reciting the Apostles’ Creed or a similar confession of faith. While any corporate proclamation of Christianity involves remembering, the recital of a historic creed of the church improves upon our confession by reminding us of our solidarity with the communion of saints. Similarly, as a covenant people, we receive the Word from the pulpit with hearts inclined to the way in which God has revealed Himself. The faithful preacher prioritizes the clear exposition of God’s Word in a way that fortifies the congregation’s knowledge and love of the Lord.
Covenant memory also finds expression in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The former admonishes parents and new believers to remember the promises made to members of the covenant community, while the latter explicitly marks our collective memory of Jesus Christ’s giving Himself on the cross and of His blood shed as the blood of the new covenant. Lest we miss the point, Jesus Himself explicitly commands us to participate in such regular remembering during Christian worship: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24).
Finally, let us not forget the critical covenant remembering that occurs in the personal, day-to-day practice of meditating upon God’s Word and applying it to our lives as believers. In this way, human consciousness becomes shaped by the story of salvation so that individual believers begin to understand their own biographies as part of the history of the covenant people of God.
Remembering the Future
Covenantal memory is never about merely recollecting past events, dwelling on a supposed golden age, or nurturing a spirit of sentimentality. It is a stance toward life, toward one’s past and present, and ultimately, as with young David, a foundation for confidence in the future.
In His good pleasure, God chose to reveal elements of His redemptive plan for human history. We have procured through the Scriptures that image of new creation, which includes imperishable bodies, a truly just and equitable society, and unmediated communion with God. This knowledge is rehearsed in the heart of every believer, a “remembered future” that draws us forward in a salvation that is at once accomplished, applied, and awaiting fulfillment.
In the Bible, memory is an act of faithfulness to God. It is an appraisal of the past that understands history as the outworking of God’s providence in the world. Such a stance has a way of transforming how we understand the rest of our lives. If history is the outworking of God’s providence in our lives, we cannot help but begin to see our present and future in the same way.