Nunc Super Tunc

The title is Latin for “Now is superior to then.”1 It is a shorthand way of getting at an attitude that is widespread among American Christians—that whatever we think and do, now is necessarily superior to anything that was thought and done in the past.

I am a historian, or at least I am trying to become a historian. As such, I have become increasingly conscious of the strong presumption among American Christians in favor of the present over the past. It is hard to know how often, in the midst of a discussion where I appeal to the past, my American conversation partner will say, “That’s all well and good, but what does the Bible say?” The implication of this question is that the only argument that really matters in any discussion is a biblical argument.

For such folk it does not even really matter that the saints to whom a historian might appeal as precedent were also reading the Bible. For many American Christians, it is as if the past never happened. In that respect, we are like my (late) cat. She seemed to think that if she could not see me, then I could not see her. She was a four-footed, furry narcissist. She believed the world revolved around her—she was a cat. She believed that I worked for her, that I existed to satisfy her needs.

We American Christians tend to regard the past the way my cat used to regard me. We cover our eyes and pretend the past did not exist. We think the world revolves around us. We are like the child who puts his fingers in his ears and says, “Nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you,” when being told something he will not hear. When someone brings up the past in conversation with American Christians, the response is to cover the eyes and plug the ears. We seem to have decided that there is no past. Every moment is a new creation of reality. We are acting de novo and in nihilum.

Of course, this is the great privilege of being an American: the first Americans (and successive waves of immigrants) came to this country to escape the past. We tend to regard the past as corrupt and corrupting. In a way, it is. The past (or knowledge of the past) tends to marginalize the present, to dirty up our shiny toy. Christians, however, cannot afford to be purely “American” in their Christianity. We may live in America, but as Christians, we are citizens of a heavenly city (Phil 3:20). We are a people of history. We are a people of the past. Read the Psalms. How often do the psalmists remind God’s people that Yahweh delivered them out of Egypt, on dry ground (e.g., Psalm 78)? Sometimes the psalmist recites the entire history of redemption in one psalm!

The Christian faith is grounded in history in other ways. We confess, believe, preach, and teach that our redemption was accomplished in history. God the Son became incarnate, in time, and in space. He was not raised in our hearts, but in history. There was a real, historical, literal tomb that was found to be empty by real, historical people. The apostle Paul frequently reminded congregations of “the gospel” he had preached to them (e.g., 1 Cor 15:1–8). The gospels are histories of the saving acts of God in Christ. The book of Acts is a history of the saving acts of the ascended Christ through the Holy Spirit. Great portions of the Hebrew Scriptures are historical narratives of the sinful rebellion of the church and the saving grace of God.

Whether we, like cats or kids, refuse to accept it, we are the product of that history. The church has a history after the apostolic period. We are inescapably a part of that history. It conditions who we are, what we think, and how we read the Bible. We read the Bible under the influence of the past. Thus, it serves us well to know and understand it so that we can be aware, as much as is possible in this life, of those things that tend to influence our reading of Scripture.

If simply reading the Bible was all that is necessary for Christian faith and maturity, then there would never be corruption. The historical fact is that the church has been reading the Bible continuously since the apostolic period. Not only that, but the church has been commenting on Holy Scripture almost without ceasing. Nevertheless, despite that fact, there have been periods when reformation was necessary. Why? Because people read the Bible under the influence of bad, unbiblical, and unnecessary assumptions, which kept them from seeing what Scripture intends to say, taken on its own terms.

Thus, the Protestant Reformation was necessary because, according to confessional Protestant lights, the church was misreading the Bible. But why? How did it come to be that the medieval church came to see things as it did? How can we avoid making the same mistakes? That is the job of the historian. We historians are useful after all! History not only can tell us how the medieval church came to misread the Bible; it can also put our own Bible reading into a historical context.

American Christians have a lot of virtues, but historical mindedness is not one of them. As Americans we like to think we are the first to do most things. But history demonstrates that to be false. We are not the first Christians. We are part of an ancient and widespread family. For those who identify with the Reformed tradition and confession, we are part of a particular branch of that family and we have our own history, our own theology, piety, and practice. It is a mixed history, but we cannot possibly know who we are or why we think and act as we do if we do not know that history. As in any case, it is imperative that, in order to understand oneself, one must understand one’s family history. So it is with us. We did not invent the Reformed faith. Indeed, in many important ways it created us. Before we go about re-creating the faith in our own image, let us learn our family history and heritage so we can read the Bible with the family, and so we can work intelligently and thoughtfully with the inheritance we have received.

Notes

  1. As far as I can tell, this is a new expression. The very idea of a new Latin expression this late in the game makes me suspicious that I have made a mistake, because it is hard to believe that no one ever thought of this expression before. If it is correct, and if it is new, then it is mine. Nunc super tunc ©2009 R. Scott Clark. If it is not correct, then I apologize. I am aware that, ironically, if it is new, it might be taken as a counter argument against my thesis. I am not arguing, however, that we cannot add anything to the tradition, only that we need to engage the history of the family house before we go about rebuilding it from scratch.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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13 comments

  1. The same is largely true of American approaches to the law. The leading contemporary school of legal thought, law and economics, sees the role of law and courts as promoting welfare maximization. “Justice” is thus simply a fancy word for the most economically efficient result, and efficiency is getting more of what I want, thus segueing into support for autonomy theories of Constitutional interpretation.

  2. Scott,
    Hopefully you’re the first to coin this term. If so, can we expect a Heidelblog tee-shirt in the Heidel-Store with that phrase under the HB logo?

    The Heidelblog
    Nunc super tunc

    C.S. Lewis would certainlyagree with your observations… I think he coined the term ‘chronological snobbery’-
    “the uncritical assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them” (Surprised by Joy, pp. 207-208).

    • When Lewis was right, he was right. It’s cliche in reformed, lutheran, and particular-baptist blogs and podcasts to bring up “chronological snobbery” now, but it’s just the perfect way to describe the way we all, to a greater or smaller degree, think.

      I don’t know the general scholarly opinion of “The Discarded Image,” which I think was Lewis’ last book, but I wish more people would read it, because it shows that the way we think today is not the way people have always thought. The “medieval situation” out of which the reformation emerged is worth understanding, if only to better understand the reformation itself.

      • I love The Discarded Image for those reasons. It’s one of those books that can dramatically expand your vistas if you’ve not previously encountered those ones much.

        FWIW, it was an available text to write about in a PhD and upper honors undergrad History of Science in Europe course taught by a Dual History-Literature PhD professor.

  3. We should remember that TUNC SUPER NUNC is also wrong. From time-to-time I run into really committed young me who, having discovered the Reformed tradition, try to minister as though we were living in the seventeenth century.

    This is not in anyway to disparage the importance of history for Christians. In fact, Church History along with learning to exegete the Scriptures in the original langues are probably the two most important things students learn in seminary.

  4. Makes me think of those in the pro-homosexual / pro-gay-marriage movement who think they have soundly refuted the biblical sexual ethic (you know, where marriage equals a man and a woman joined in legal wedlock) — an ethic which has been observed by the vast majority of the human race for the vast majority of its history — with this one line: “C’mon, this is the twenty-first century!”

  5. Thank you for distinguishing, defining, and perhaps diagnosing a condition I call ‘self-centered biblicism’ in which an individual claims the final interpretation of a passage. The individuals appear to be held captive by an attitude of ‘NOTS’: not philologists, not students of Church History, not devoted to the Confessions of the Reformation, not Covenantal regarding Redemptive History, etc. To be honest, I recognized the ‘NOTS’ flaw in my thinking about how to read the Bible after I departed from ‘Sunday environments’ opposed Confessional Reformed Theology directly. Upon entering a true Church, it was pointed out to me ‘there are correct ways of reading the Bible’. After that fortuitous, relational confrontation I began to see the flaw more as a cultural abscess. Up to the blessing of that communication, I had not considered another way of reading the Bible.

    Now, as a humbled, lay person, the ‘NOT’s’ that confined me diminish in the light of a healing, educational process I call devotion to ‘Recovering the [Classic] Reformed Confessions’. The humor of being in the Church in the fallen world, I am surrounded by ‘NOTS’!

    Relating to ‘NOTS’ is happening in a NW state in the United States of America and is the work God prepared for me as ‘one of His called’, who believes Christ accomplished my justification before God, I believe Christ reigns over His inaugurated Kingdom at God’s right hand, and is preparing to return to consummate the Kingdom of God.

    Perhaps being human results in a peculiarly temporary, self-centered condition!
    Surely, being freed of ‘NOTS’ increases liberty in Christ to lay down life for God and others.

  6. Michael,
    Thank you for mentioning CS Lewis’ “The Discarded Image.” I found an online pdf and began reading the feast of his classic (Latin) understanding of people in medieval time: diverse people using language, culture, and books to establish a system in order to integrate diverse ideas. When I began studying Reformed Theology I also joined a group of CS Lewis’ readers. CS Lewis’ books always engage my thinking in helpful ways.

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