The Christian Quest For A Usable Past -- By: Richard V. Pierard

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 29:1 (Mar 1986)
Article: The Christian Quest For A Usable Past
Author: Richard V. Pierard

The Christian Quest For A Usable Past

Richard V. Pierard*

Every Christian who is sensitive to the claims of Christ on his or her life wrestles with relating one’s faith and vocation. For me as an academic historian this enterprise takes several forms: the manner in which I approach my discipline, the kinds of material I select for my courses and lectures, the interpretations I give to this material, the topics on which I do research, the quest to be as objective as possible in my studies and at the same time exercise tolerance and empathy for the views of professional colleagues with whom I differ, and of course the way I deal with students. People in my field also talk about the “uses” of history, and in my work as a practicing historian I often think about how I may provide fellow believers with a “usable past,” one that encourages and edifies them in their daily walk and gives them the understanding that enables them to live confidently in today’s confused and uncertain world.

One way to do this is to study the experiences of those who have gone before us, look at their achievements and failures, and draw practical lessons from these for our own lives. The occasion of an important anniversary often serves as the stimulus for such an endeavor. At such times we as evangelicals are given opportunities to reflect on the struggles of faithful servants of God and to seek wisdom from their experiences and role models for our own lives.

The year 1985 was especially favorable for this, and it was marked by an abundance of conferences, symposia, commemorative publications, and even festivals that observed various anniversaries. Among these were the deaths of Methodius (c. 815–885), the Byzantine missionary who with his brother Cyril carried the Christian faith to the southern Slavs and through their Bible translation work provided them with the Cyrillic alphabet that is still used today in some countries; Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), the lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII who was executed for refusing to countenance the an-nulment of the latter’s marriage and renounce the authority of the pope; John Fletcher (1729–85), the prominent English Methodist preacher and theologian who was Wesley’s close associate and designated successor; and Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1801–85), the most influential evangelical social reformer of the nineteenth century. This is also the four-hundredth anniversary of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing dispersal of French Calvinists throughout Europe and overseas, the two-hundredth anniversary of James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, one of the most significant documents in the development of re-

*Richard Pierard, prof...

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