By Nathan A. Finn
Historians are often asked to be prophets. In my classes at Southeastern Seminary, hardly a week goes by that one or more students don’t ask me to speculate about how the past might influence the future. This phenomenon is even more pronounced when I teach on church history in local churches. It is most common, both in class and in the church, when I teach on Baptist history. Many folks suppose that being relatively learned in Baptist history means that one is able to discern what will happen in the future. That might be true of Michael Haykin or Lloyd Harsch or Jason Duesing or Jim Patterson, but not this historian.
Recently, I was reading George Nash’s fine book Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism (ISI Books, 2009). Nash has spent his career studying the conservative intellectual movement in modern America (see his landmark monograph on this topic). Apparently, historians of conservative intellectual history are similar to historians of Christian thought when it comes to requests for one don the prophetic mantle. I like what Nash writes in the introduction to Reappraising the Right.
“Historians are not necessarily good prognosticators, but by deliberately taking a longer view we can try to liberate our readers from the provincialism of the present” (p. xviii).
Now we’re talking. I have no idea if the Cooperative Program will go the way of the buffalo, if the SBC will divide on account of soteriological debates, if the Convention will become less southern and southwestern in its cultural ethos over the next generation, or who will be the next president of such-and-such theological seminary or mission board or other denominational agency (to mention but a few of the questions about which I’m regularly asked to prophesy). I’m a historian, not a prophet.
However, I do know that history reminds us to take the long view on each of these issues. The Cooperative Program has only been around for about half of Southern Baptist history and took a generation to catch on after its inception. Though critically important and worthy of our generous support, the CP is not intrinsic to our identity. The relative center of Southern Baptist soteriology has shifted over time because of a variety of factors, some of them non-theological in nature. Besides, its rather difficult to tell to what degree grassroots Southern Baptists have been in step with the relatively small handful of SBC leaders writing on soteriology at any given point in SBC history. The contemporary SBC is far less southern and southwestern (and Caucasian) than it was two generations ago, even if this isn’t entirely clear at the SBC Annual Meeting. But then the Convention is also more age diverse than is evident at the SBC Annual Meeting. As for denominational ministry presidents and other leaders, you simply never know when someone might retire (or not) and who will arise as a good candidate in such kairos moments. Nobody would have guessed in 1975 that Paige Patterson would become the president of not one but two SBC seminaries, to give but one example.
Historians aren’t prophets, and they shouldn’t pretend to be. But historians have something to offer our students and ministry colleagues as we ponder the great questions of our day. That something isn’t some infallible or even possible future, but rather historical perspective. And maybe, just maybe, if we inject a bit more historical perspective into our discussions of said great questions, such conversations might prove to be more profitable (though not prophet-able) than they so often are.
Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.