The Difference Between Historic and Old
“Newer is better” is the drumbeat that drives America. We have built an economic juggernaut on the assumption that a 10-year-old car, a four-year-old computer, or 2-year-old cell phone is unacceptable. Innovation, progress, novelty—these ingredients are not the meat and potatoes of our culture, but the stock itself. Our capacity for developing new things is remarkable and has produced an appetite for innovation we have yet to satisfy. The values of innovation, progress and novelty are absorbed into everything that simmers in our culture.
Creating something new gives birth to something old; without the new there could be no old. If “the new” is celebrated in contemporary American culture, then “the old” is scorned and rejected. Some things become “old” when their purpose is no longer relevant: typewriter repair shops or the Yellow Pages. Other things earn the label “old” when new things supersede their effectiveness. A generation of inventions instantly becomes “old” with a new generation—pay phones, floppy disks, VCRs, film developing were all dumped in the “old” bin the day their replacements hit the markets. Still others are considered old when they are no longer fashionable. The transition from “new” to “old” seems to be unrelated to the age of the object.
This celebration of “the new” is understandable; there is no outcry for older modes of transportation or anesthesia. New methods of filing tax returns, paying bills, booking flights, tracking medical histories, finding sports results all seem better than the prior methods. While this may hold true when examining each individual method, we still have not decided whether, taken together, these innovations have led to better lives. The unprecedented interconnectivity our smart phones provide has led to the most lonely and disconnected society in recorded history; The American economic juggernaut has transformed our sense of justice to serve its economic and not our moral interests; the miracles of modern pharmacology came alongside the epidemic of opioid abuse. A bird’s eye view of our situation complicates the narrative of progress and innovation.
This technological Jeremiad has rung forth from pulpits, editorials, and philosophy lectures for generations; it is nothing new. However, this discussion takes on a particular importance for the church. The church has promoted a faith that is old—ancient even—if we were to measure it chronologically. Various renewal movements in history have attempted to cast the Christian faith as old and archaic; a relic from another age that has outlived its usefulness. Thoughtful Christians in each age have sought to articulate their faith within their culture without ever despising its ancient character. Medieval renewal movements, 16th century reformers, and Enlightenment thinkers have found value in maintaining a connection with those Christians that have come before. This connection seems to be disappearing amidst our drive towards innovation, progress, and novelty.
The contemporary American church has made little room for its ancient traditions. This is not a commentary on modes of worship, our reliance on technology, or churches that resemble Wal-Mart more than houses of worship. It is a commentary on the marginalization of the core beliefs and purposes for which the Apostles died. Beliefs like the Trinity are treated like intellectual prerequisites to which a believer is expected to assent before shelving it like an old bowling trophy. Consequently, sermons on marriage sound more like group therapy sessions without a reference to the Trinitarian God our marriages were designed to reflect. The dual nature of Christ is considered an academic and not a pastoral issue; now our congregations know it is important to pray, but don’t know the God to which we pray. We have confused the idea of a “basic” belief with a simple one.
Our sermons have replaced the “old” expositions rooted in Scripture for the “new” model where practicality is the organizing principle. A brief survey of pastoral job descriptions will reveal a widespread expectation that a pastor be able to make the Word of God “relevant” in his preaching—as if it were not already relevant. We traded the “old” model of the pastor as one who equips and exposits for a corporate caricature of a pastor. This “new” pastor spends more time in the realm of demographics and measuring efficiency than the old pastor who spent most of his time studying and teaching the Word. This dangerous privileging of the “new” over the “old” suffers from an unnecessary dichotomy; there is a third option.
Something earns the label “old” when it is replaced by something more effective, when it becomes unfashionable, or when it is rendered obsolete. There are many things in this world that are ancient yet have not lost their relevance or effectiveness. We call these things “historic.” Our Christian faith as presented by the Apostles is an historic faith that never loses its effectiveness or relevance. The belief that something is irrelevant simply because it is ancient assumes that something is either new and relevant or old and not. The practice of communion, the doctrine of Christ, and the vision for a pastor may find many different cultural expressions, but remain historic anchors of our faith.
There are several advantages to recognizing an historic faith. First, it roots our community of faith in something far bigger than our little world. We reflect a connection with an eternal and transcendent God, a God we cannot completely understand who is big enough to handle any problem on earth. Many have migrated from contemporary evangelical churches to more traditional faiths like Catholicism or Anglicanism. Some suppose this is because their use of the liturgy, but liturgy alone cannot explain this migration. The liturgy is simply a function of their historic character. An historic faith connects us to a God that has been at work for a very long time and will continue to work after our short time here is gone.
An historic Christian faith connects us with a community of believers far beyond the walls of our unadorned sanctuaries. The evangelical church does a good job at connecting us globally through mission networks and technology. However, we have lost the connection with the believers of ages past that the writer of Hebrews seems to highly value. Chapter 11 begins by listing examples of faithfulness reaching back into the patriarchal era of Biblical history. The author continues in chapter 12 by conjuring the image of a track meet where those who have completed their race are in the stands cheering on those of us currently struggling through the race. This historic view becomes explicit when the author commands us in chapter 13 to “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (v. 7). This command to “remember” is not a call to uncritical veneration, but a helpful guide to navigating a sinful world, following the same God, wrestling with the same Scriptures (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1). We have an historic faith because it is rooted in an historic God: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).
Finally, an historic faith may be articulated within a changing culture, but it always maintains just enough distance so that we can critique our culture. When we organize our faith around the principles of our culture, we lose an ability to notice the flaws of our culture. C.S. Lewis made a compelling case for reading ancient books in his introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. He claimed that old books can serve as a corrective to the flaws of our culture; while every culture is flawed, they are not flawed in the same way. The historic connection provides an opportunity to step outside our culture and see it from an outsider’s perspective. When we do, we may notice there are many things we may hold as values that may be dangerous to the faith. A church that uses practicality, relevance, innovation, and progress as its values severs itself from an historic faith that might reveal the dangers of practicality, relevance, innovation, and progress.
Bakerstown Alliance church will intentionally pursue the historic faith that came to us through the incarnation of Christ and communicated by His Apostles. We will always search for creative ways to articulate this historic faith, but we will not allow our culture to dictate the content or character of this faith. To this end, we are going to use the historic nature of our building and our congregation as a means of cultivating the timelessness of Christ’s message in our community. We will not be enslaved by the tyranny of “progress” nor will we allow ourselves to become “old” and obsolete. Instead, we will strive to be “historic,” to reflect the eternal relevance of the Christian faith. Our community is comprised of a gathering of individuals which begs the question, “are you New, Old, or Historic?” Do you value innovations simply because they are new and different? Do you cling to the past simply because it is the past—comfortable yet obsolete? We want to forge a middle ground that incorporates “the new” insofar as it is helpful in promoting that which is historic—rooted in the faith passed down by the disciples. In so doing, we pray for an eternal relevance in our community.