When I was young I was pretty good at math. I never liked it, but I was pretty good at it. There was one problem: I was never good at showing my work. I’d come up with the right answer, but not follow the steps. That never bothered me when I was young, because all I cared about was the right answer. It wasn’t until much later that I realized why my teachers told me to show my work: if I can’t explain how I got the answer, I’ll never be able to figure out where I went wrong when I don’t get the right answer. I’ll never be able to reproduce those right answers with unfamiliar variables because I’m not following the right process. Showing my work makes my conclusions reproducible. It allows me to to take instruction and critique. It even allows me to correct my process by comparing it to that of others. In other words, just because it’s the answer I came up with doesn’t mean it’s right. If I’m getting answers on on my own, I’m liable to get off track without even knowing.
There are few verses in scripture that provide as stark a revelation of God’s character than Exodus chapter three. In it Moses asks a simple question: If I’m supposed to go and tell the Israelites God is setting them free, who do I tell them sent me? God’s response is two-fold and completely flooring. First, he says “I AM that I AM. Tell Them I AM sent you.” Now if this seems like an intimidatingly vague and unsettling statement from the almighty, that’s because it is. “I Am that I Am” is basically God saying “I’m God. I’m more than you could ever understand. I’m beyond you. I AM what I AM.” It is a statement that stretches beyond time and dimensions to point out a God that is beyond comprehension. The theological implications here are daunting to say the least. God is beyond what we can comprehend. If the statement had closed here we would have good reason to be happy in our ignorance and settle for worshipping an unknowable mystery, but it doesn’t. Verse 15 says this:
“God also said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites,
‘The Lord, the God of your fathers— the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob— has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.”
God, acknowledging his own vast incomprehensibility, frames himself in a lineage to be understood. He tells Moses that he is the God of his fathers. The one Abraham knew, and Isaac knew, and Jacob knew. The one who will be known from generation to generation as he has been known in generations past.
Here’s the kicker: God chooses to reveal himself in progression from person to person, generation to generation. In other words, looking to the past is essential to understanding who God is. Just as Moses could take comfort and gain understanding through the lens of his forefathers, I can do the same. Moses looked to Abraham. We can look to Moses. We can also look to the story of scripture and see that if we stop with Moses and leave out Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament, we will only have a partial understanding of who God is. He revealed himself in the lineage of his people.
During the reformation period of church history, when protestantism officially broke from the Roman Catholic Church, an oft touted phrase was sola scriptura, or “scripture alone.” The idea was that we know God through scripture. Just because my pastor or priest says it doesn’t make it true. Scripture is the final authority on understanding truths about God. This phrase has experienced a resurgence in recent years and often comes with a basic sentiment along the lines of “I just need to read the Bible. That’s all. I can take or leave theological writings, historical opinions, church traditions, etc. I just need the Bible.” The problem with that way of thinking is that even the reformers who originally claimed sola scriptura accepted that the Bible is best understood through a lineage (Rea, 2014). They knew that when we study scripture on our own we can easily get way off track. Just because it’s the answer we came up with doesn’t mean it’s the right one. We need the works of those men and women who have gone before to shed their insight into scripture just like we need to show our work in algebra. Yes, scripture is the ultimate test of truth and if a close study of scripture diverges from the opinions of any theologian we should choose scripture. But throughout the generations of the church we have looked to those around us and before us to shed insight into tough questions, difficult passages, and confusing life circumstances.
Here are two simple examples of how we could do that today:
1. Paul doesn’t write too much about racial tension and inequality outside of the religious requirements of Judaism and its implications for gentiles. Jesus makes some strong statements about Samaritans and Jews, but it can be difficult to apply those statements into the context of racial tension in modern America. But I can look to early American abolitionist theologians like Rev Adam Crooks or Orange Scott and see someone who wrestled directly with issues of race in a volatile context through the lens of scripture. The conclusions they came to can give me insight into theological implications on race for my own circumstances.
2. I might not know how to answer questions about gender identity or sexuality when it seems like scripture remains arguably vague on those issues. But I could look to the works of someone like Beth Felker Jones or Pope John Paul II and see that I’m not the first one to ask those questions. I don’t have to answer those questions on my own.
Studying what current and past believers have to say about practical issues or big questions doesn’t mean that I take their opinions without question. It doesn’t mean that I can’t come to good conclusions just through prayerful reading of the word. It does mean that I am taking advantage of the lineage of God’s people. I’m building my understanding on the foundation of generations of believers. It also means that I gain the value of perspectives I don’t have, questions I might not ask, or information I might not know. As Christians we don’t follow Christ alone. We follow him in community. We follow him in a lineage. We follow him together with those who’ve gone before us and those who come after.
If you’re interested in starting to study God through his lineage, I’d recommend Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. It’s a great place to start.
I recently finished Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton. It was inspiring and helped me better understand how the Christian faith is the most logical worldview. What are you reading that’s shaping your faith? How does that perspective expand yours?
Rea, R. F. (2014). Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn From Our Past. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.