Thursday, March 31, 2011

John Vest and dynamic history

John Vest has written two interesting posts. One is “Historical Myopia,” the other is “Change.” They fit together and deal with what Vest sees as reluctance by conservative Christians to accept change as well as what he views as their misunderstanding of church history, which he views as dynamic. Vest gives his broad view of religious history in general, going beyond the history of the Israelites, but then he ties church history to it as a part of the dynamic flow.

History has its historians. By that I mean there are historians who write about the history of writing history. Historiography is a fascinating subject. And what many do not understand is that there have been various ways of writing and understanding history. They all, however, have problems.

For instance the rather romantic idea that history can be written by looking at the lives of great men leaves out everyone but great men. A modern mode of history writing called the annales school began by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, is basically concerned with empirical evidence such as records and statistics. It often fails to find a unifying theme around which to write history. And often it is very dry reading.

One type of history observes the movements of nations, cultures, and institutions seeing history in dynamic movements, and often seeing such movements as progressive. But the problem with such a history is that everything is viewed not by solid structures or ideas but instead by dynamism. The movement is the thing. When this plays out in either philosophy or religion it can make havoc with any kind of reality.

Hegel and his Introduction to the Philosophy of History is an example of this kind of history. Of course he is extreme. History is the movement of spirit working out the ultimate ideal and the players, whether nations or individuals, are simply a means to that end. One can mix religion with historical dynamism. But the results will divorce the past from the future. And events will simply be stair steps toward some religious ideal. To see Christian history or even Christian theology this way is unthinkable.

Vest concludes his last posting with these words:

First, the subsequent 2000 years of dynamic history demonstrates that we have not been in a holding pattern at all. But more importantly, the nature of God to be discerned from this history suggests that this continuing change is deeply rooted in the presence of God in our midst.

In the same way that we must correct our historical myopia, we must remove the blinders that prevent us from recognizing the dynamic nature of our religion, a faith that responds to a dynamic God.

By viewing church history this way one is able to eliminate any solid foundations because there are no events worthy of permanence. Not only are creeds, such as Nicene, and confessions such as Barmen tossed aside, even Scripture is lost. The lives of past Christians become meaningless except as agents of change. The same is true of church councils and reform movements.

Church history is either the history of Christ building his church, which includes the fellowship of brothers and sisters who love Jesus, the Lordship of Jesus and adherence to apostolic teaching, or it is a dynamic progressive movement that constantly leaves all else behind.


Walter L. Taylor said...

Thanks. John Vest is simply a symptom of the reason the PC(USA) is and will be in such decline. Like him, many recent graduates of PC(USA) seminaries simply do not have the ability to think thelogically, biblically, or confessionally. And at the end of the day it truly is whether we shall have an external standard by which to measured ourselves (and ultimately to be measured), or whether we are free to go with our id.

Walter L. Taylor
Oak Island, NC

will spotts said...

Teleological views of this kind fail becuase they offer no guidance for individual actions - they are *always* reduced to vague eulogies of progress. One cannot know the ultimate goal.

These also always fail because they negate the individual - again always. The dynamism occurs in group changes. The individual has no weight.

Historic Christianity has an opposite emphasis. We look back - the incarnation was a once for all event. It is not platonic in the sense that it is not quite like the forms, but it is looking to a reality outside of time that has been revealed to us in a specific time and place. Does history in this Christian framework move in a particular direction? Of course. Is God in control of that direction? Of course. The thing is, there are fixed points - God's revelation of Himself is eternal - IT does not change as we "progress".

God working in history does not imply moral approval of the movements of humanity. Not even the church. God is working to accomplish His purposes - and if we rebel against God, we still accomplish His purposes.

It might be that this dynamism observed and applauded is merely that. Sometimes Christians (or the people of God more generally) have done what God approved. Sometimes these have not. Both are clearly presented in the Bible. Both are clearly seen in history. What is to make the true believer in progress know which is which? Since all values in the scheme are being progressively revealed - what makes the one you happen to like not one that is scheduled to become obsolete? Until the completion of the process, one cannot see its end - one can only hope to align oneself with the more 'progressive'.

Will Spotts
North East, MD

Mike said...


Thanks for your insights. I responded at length on Vest's "Historical Myopia" blog by pointing out that there is an opposite malady - "presbyopia" (appropriate for our denomination, for sure) where folks get so focused on some distant object or vision of the future that they cannot see clearly what is directly in front of them. If conservatives are sometimes a bit myopic and look at the past through rose-colored glasses, our progressive friends are certainly unable to focus on biblical or theological truth that has been delivered to us by previous generations. Scripture is the lens or spectacles that corrects all our false visions and holds our focus on life and teachings of Jesus.

Mike Armistead
Hilton Head Island, SC

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Walter, Will and Mike.

Your comments are all helpful in this discussion including Jim Berkley's over at Vest's Blog.

Will, I wanted to say more about how Vest's and all dynamic history theories leave aside the individual. But I was afraid that my post would be too long. I am glad you wrote about it. When Christianity upholds the incarnation the individual cannot be ignored. Humanity stands above angels then, the individual has meaning because of Jesus Christ. God’s plans are about the eternal Son and those made righteous in him