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Reading History While on the Lookout for God

By Professor Emerita Ellen L. Babinsky
Instructor for “Introduction to the History of the Church”

In the New Revised Standard Version, verse 3 of Psalm 5 declares, “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.” I like the French version in La Bible de Jérusalem: “Au matin tu écoutes ma voix; au matin je me prépare pour toi et je reste aux aguets.” “In the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare myself for you and I remain on the lookout” [my translation]. As I study history, I imagine myself in the role of the psalmist, lurking behind some kind of camouflage, or hiding in some underbrush, on the lookout for where God might be at work. Approaching the study of history as a spiritual enterprise requires the image of lurking, of being on the lookout for God. The study of the history of Christianity is not an obvious source of spiritual formation. It is not always immediately apparent to students how God is at work in the twists and turns of historical narratives; therefore, I see it as important to be a spiritual “sleuth” to lurk around the pages of history to see if I can catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of God at work in the unfolding of the story of believers’ struggle to be faithful. It is not only easy to miss seeing where God is at work; it is also easy to decide that God is not at work in one story or another. Our assumptions can get in the way, if not to blind us, then at least to cloud our vision. In the context of the metaphor of sleuthing for God, I want to highlight several claims that I make during the fall semester introductory course.

The first claim is that part of the Apostles’ Creed that we utter with ease and probably with inattention: “I believe in the communion of saints.” To believe in the communion of saints is to claim their story as my own. Believers and their communities struggled to be faithful in ways that give me courage, that affirm me in my own struggle to be faithful to God who is ever faithful. At the same time, it is not always obvious that God is at work in historical developments. For instance, Marcion was a second century believer, the son of a bishop. He attempted to make sense of the Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In Marcion’s view, the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures absolutely contradicted the teachings of the Gospel. In order to resolve the contradiction, Marcion declared that there were two gods. The God of the Old Testament was a God of wrath and vengeance, and therefore was not the Father of Jesus Christ. Instead, Marcion claimed, the God of the New Testament was the God of mercy and grace and peace, and only this God was the Father of Jesus Christ. With this claim in mind, Marcion made a list of what for him ought to be the authoritative scriptures for Christians; in effect, he created the first canon of Scripture. Church leaders saw that this development needed correction and worked to develop an authoritative canon which included writings from both the Old and New Testaments. While the leadership indeed condemned Marcion’s views, his effort at trying to make sense of the Christian message offered an opportunity for other Christian leaders to make the necessary corrections. And so I include Marcion, along with many, many others, among the communion of saints.

The second claim is that the church is of God and belongs to God. We are stewards of the mysteries of God, not owners, and certainly not managers of these mysteries. A number of times during the course of study I reflect that God preserves the church, not the flawed church leaders. Imperfect human leaders, always overly certain about how the truth shall unfold, almost always botch the job. The emperor Theodosius, having declared a doctrine to be orthodox that had earlier been declared heretical, went out hunting. For some reason his horse bolted and threw him; Theodosius died from the fall. His sister Pulcheria and her husband, Marcian, ascended the imperial throne, corrected Theodosius’s error, and the Nicene Creed was preserved for us today.

The last claim is that as multiple expressions of Christianity have emerged, I believe that the possibilities for praise of God have grown. Diverse ways of being faithful have increased the polyphony of thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This diversity of praise and thanksgiving is not a denial of the prayer of Jesus that we all be one. Rather the diversity of praise declares that we stand firm in the multiplicity of our traditions as we affirm Christ’s claim on each other. The Waldensians emerged in the late-twelfth century, claiming that Scripture alone was their authority, not the pope and not the emperor. In the sixteenth century Martin Luther and then John Calvin made similar assertions, and included secular rulers in their plans for the reform of the church. Anabaptists around the same time insisted that the church must be purely separate from surrounding society, and that the secular ruler had no authority over their congregations. More than once I have declared that the drive toward uniformity is by definition divisive and violent. Such a drive is divisive because unity is not achieved; what emerges is an ethos of violence where those of differing views must somehow be silenced, usually with death.

Being on the lookout for God is a tough undertaking. Lurking around the stories of our Christian forbears to see where God is at work can move us to the margins of our assumptions and of our understanding. Such spiritual sleuthing forces us to ask difficult questions, and when we least expect it, we find ourselves praising and glorifying our great God who leads us on . . . and on.   

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