A Well Trodden Path
In 1901, the poem, This is my Father’s World, was discovered by Katherine Babcock, the grieving spouse of the deceased Maltbie D. Babcock. Maltbie had died at the young age of 42, and the poem was among a collection of his writings entitled, Thoughts for Everyday Living. Often as Maltbie would go outside into nature, he would say to his wife upon leaving, “I am going to see my Father’s world.” The poem was put to music 14 years later and would be become one of the most well-known hymns of the 20th century in western society. This song would go on to give lasting hope, peace, and joy in the sovereign reign of God not only to Katherine in her grief but to millions. The last line of the poem is fitting for our brief introduction into the history of the Christian church, and it goes as follows,
This is my Father’s world
O let me ne’er forgot
That though the wrongs seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world
Why should my heart be sad
The Lord is King, let the Heaven’s ring
God reigns, let the Earth be glad!
What hope is to be found at the wellspring of the enduring reign of Christ! All of history bends irresistibly to his will, and the plans of man bow down before his rule. This is the first and foremost lesson to be learned from the history of his beloved bride. God is building his Church in beauty and splendor, and the gates hell will not prevail against it.
Our historical moment is somewhat of a paradox in that we, like never before, constrain the fastest and most direct access to the pages of history while at the same time are one of the most ignorant to its riches. It was Edmund Burke who famously said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
While wading into the annals of history we do not find it to be our savior in and of itself, but we will certainly find it be a companion and an ever-present source of humility. For, in the pages of history and, in particular, the history of God’s people, we see in their lives and circumstances things that we are familiar with. We are also privileged to see how the ideas of men and the Word of God endure and affect those who hold to them. Along with that, we see that humanity’s need is so great that the supplements of information, money, position and power will never save us. What we need is a deliverer.
The writer of Ecclesiastes was familiar with this when he said, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9). The treasure to be found in the history of the church is not new ideas, but rather the eternal realities of God. For those of us engrossed in the current cultural idea that what is “new” is what wins the day, we are helped as we see ‘new’ ideas come and go in history. We are also aided by the saint’s ability to see something that has been hidden to us, and to see things that were hidden to them. The history of the Church shows us what is true must win our hearts, not the newest idea. For, time tests the worthiness of an idea.
This rich heritage serves us in the present day church in three significant ways.
First, and most importantly, the history of the Church serves as a bold declaration of God’s faithfulness. One has only to think of the early Church’s preservation under severe persecution from the Roman Emperor or see God’s hand at work in boldness of saints who died in flames singing the Psalms. Consider the rise of gospel proclamation during the sixteenth-century Reformation or the astounding work of the underground church of China during the mid eighteen hundreds. This list is by no means sufficient to detail the steady hand of God at the helm of his Kingdom.
Secondly, we can protect ourselves from error in doctrine, and misinterpreting the work and person of Jesus Christ. Being familiar with the creeds and confessions of the church such as the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed or the Westminster Confession help guard us against heresies that were proclaimed instead of the truth. Not only that, but much can be gleaned from the spiritual practices and disciplines of those gone before us as they worked to put to use (orthopraxy) what they knew of God (orthodoxy). We drive on a highway because others have blazed a trail. A certain liberty can be given to a pioneer who is the first to venture somewhere because they have no one to follow, and therefore less is expected of them. We, however, have started where they finished, and we have the responsibility to keep to the path that has been well travelled by the faithful behind us. We can guard ourselves against the foolish errors of pioneers because we have seen the results and impact of their work. The history of the Church is not only about the good that has been done but also the ill.
Thirdly, through the study of Church history, we are drawn to our knees in desperate need for God’s grace to carry us forward. For the story we read is the one we are a part of, and we are in need of strength to persevere in it. God is faithful, and as we consider the “Great cloud of witness,” we are met by God’s Spirit to “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so close and run with endurance the race set before us.”
In the upcoming months, we will look behind us and see that the Spirit of God has not been on vacation for two thousand years but that indeed He has been at work, is at work, and will continue eternally to be. So with the Psalmist, I urge you to “come behold the works of God...” and take some time and look back. Be a spectator in the theatre of God and see his glory on display. My deepest hope is that it captures your heart, draws you in, and transforms you.