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Home Arts & Culture Beckwith highlights importance of church history as identity of a Christian

By Josiah Horvath


“It is important that we remember who we are”, Dr. Carl Beckwith, of the Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., said at a lecture on campus that focused on church history as the identity of the Christian, which he sees as the history of what God has done for us.

“If you go to a Thanksgiving dinner or a Christmas dinner,” Beckwith said, “and if you see relatives you haven’t seen in a while – or maybe you have cousins or siblings you haven’t seen in a while—at some point, people always start doing the same thing: they start telling stories.”

“When you look around a room and see people you know, how do you know them?” he asked.

“You know them because you have a shared history of some sort with them”, Beckwith went on. “You know something about them and they know something about you. There’s a relation between the two of you that depends on history itself. That history, that shared history, is part of your identity and how you think of yourself.”

Beckwith quoted British novelist L.P. Hartley.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” Hartley wrote. “The present is a foreign country without the past.”

He pointed out that everything familiar to us is only familiar to us because of the history we have with those familiar things, otherwise, they would be strange to us.

Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and amnesia, he said, are terrifying, precisely because they take away that history that is key to a person’s identity.

“They start to lose that shared history and their own identity,” he said.

“History matters,” he said. “But in order to understand yourself, the world you live in, the gift that God has given you, you have to remember who you are.”

It is not just that the Lord is our God, but also what the Lord has done for us, which is our history with Him.

“Remember who you are,” he said. “You are to remember daily that you are a baptized child of God, you are to remember daily that God has delivered you from pharaoh, that He has taken you through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, guiding you by cloud and fire, feeding you with manna, [and] bringing you through the waters of the Jordan.”

And just as we are to remember God and our history with Him, we ask Him to remember us, Beckwith said, pointing to Divine Service settings one and two in the [Lutheran Service Book], where it says, “Lord, remember us in your kingdom, teach us to pray…,” and then to the thief on the cross, who said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” as examples.

“We have to remember who we are in light of who God is and what He has done for us,” Beckwith said. “God loves Church History. He’s the author of that history. He’s active in that history.”

Beckwith said if people forget who God is and the things He’s done, they end up forgetting themselves and how to make their way in the world where God has placed them. The present becomes a foreign country.

Beckwith said that he read the church fathers because he cared about the Bible, and people like Martin Luther read the church fathers because they cared about the Bible. “You read the church fathers because you want to see how they were wrestling with scripture, how they were clarifying and defending what scripture says,” he said.

He admitted that Luther and the church fathers, such as Augustine, were in their own contexts wrestling with scripture, and that these contexts are fundamentally alien to our own. But he said that despite the differences, there is something very recognizable about Luther and the church fathers.

“They have a shared history, and that shared history is scripture – it’s God, and the things that He has done,” he said.

Beckwith said that doctrine is in scripture, not from the history of the church. The history of the church clarifies doctrine.”

“What we get from the history of the church are faithful men and women who have confronted their particular culture by confessing the truth of scripture, and then needing to clarify that in the midst of whatever is happening,” he said. “That’s the importance of the history of the church. We don’t need it for doctrine. We have that in scripture. What we do need though is the careful thinking through of how to rightly confess, speak forth, share, clarify, and defend.”

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