Understanding our past to engage in ministry today

Matthew Bingham has recently seen his new church history book published. He talks about the book and the relevance of church history to ministry today.

Matthew Bingham, Oak Hill’s Tutor in Systematic Theology and Church History, arrived at the College last year and has recently seen his new book published, on the beginnings of the Baptist tradition in 17th century England. Matthew talked to Dan Strange about the book, the relevance of church history to ministry today, and his experience of Oak Hill.

Matthew, tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to Oak Hill.

I arrived at Oak Hill this past August, moving with my family from Belfast. While in Northern Ireland, I had been finishing doctoral studies and serving as an associate minister in a local church.

But I suppose the road that led us here to Oak Hill College really started back where my wife and I grew up, on the west coast of the United States, in Los Angeles, CA. While at university there I studied history and had intended to pursue an academic career—my interest at the time was the American Civil War—but midway through, this plan was interrupted by a strong sense of calling to fulltime ministry, a calling that led me to theological college and to pastoring a Baptist church in the southern United States.

Eventually this led on to further academic study and historical research, except that this time I took up the scholarly task with an eye toward serving the church. Thus my historical research now revolves around trying to better understand how Christianity has developed and adapted to the ever changing contexts in which it finds itself.

To that end, it was a great joy to arrive at Oak Hill College and to be presented with the opportunity both to continue to think through these important issues and to help emerging Christian leaders do the same.

How are you finding living and teaching at Oak Hill six months in?

So far, life at Oak Hill has been great—very busy, but very good. One of the most attractive aspects of life at the College has been the real sense of community and shared purpose. As a fulltime faculty member my family and I are living on campus alongside both students and colleagues. This presents wonderful opportunities, both formal and informal, for conversation and fellowship, opportunities that simply would not exist outside of this residential context.

Moreover, since coming to Oak Hill I have been impressed by the degree to which students and faculty are united by the convictions that robust theological education really matters for the health and vitality of the wider church, and that to be here together in pursuit of that end is a tremendous privilege.

It also doesn’t hurt that the campus setting is lovely and its proximity to central London entails numerous cultural benefits!

You’re a church historian – why is church history so important for Christian life and training for Christian ministry?

I think it is very easy to imagine that church history is just a sort of a niche pursuit, a set of names and dates that are mostly harmless and potentially interesting to those already interested, but of little ultimate consequence for ‘real life’ and ‘real ministry’. It just isn’t immediately obvious how knowing that so-and-so was born in fifteen-forty-whatever will impinge in any meaningful way upon one’s efforts to comfort the grieving, to pray with the anxious, and to preach solid sermons week in and week out.

And yet, while I can certainly see how one might arrive at such a conclusion, this way of thinking both misses the real value of studying church history and puts the church at great risk moving forward.

This is because all of us, whether considered individually or corporately, are deeply embedded in historically conditioned contexts, contexts that are not of our own making and that have been formed over many years by the people, trends, and events that came before us. Those called to minister in a 21st century context do not get to start from a blank slate, but rather are receiving from those who preceded them a richly coloured cultural canvas that is thousands of years in the making. I think we ignore the texture and colouring of that canvas at our peril.

OK, fair enough, but how does that actually play in out in practice? Where are the points of contact between what you are saying and the sorts of questions that people in ministry are actually having to answer?

Well, think about a very basic question that anyone in ministry today has surely asked in one form or another: why does the average person on your street today dismiss the biblical storyline, whereas the average person on the same street 200 years ago would have likely embraced it? To even begin to conceive an answer is to think historically. Likewise, when we consider how we do ministry, whether we are thinking about our style of preaching, our way of praying, our enthusiasm for small home groups – you name it – every aspect of our evangelical life together in 2019 has a back story, and to trace the lines of that back story as they lead into the present is to practice church history.

Why does your church observe the Lord’s Supper in the way it does? What does it mean? Why do you sing hymns instead of psalms? Why does the minister wear a particular outfit? To answer such questions with any degree of sophistication requires one to begin thinking through a complex set of interrelated historical questions. There is simply no other way to go!

So, then, while names and dates are surely a part of the historian’s task, they are more the by-product of learning to think historically about our present moment, not ends in and of themselves. And thus while we are free to try and ignore church history and to dismiss it as an irrelevance, the reality is that we cannot escape it because, whether we like or not, it is always there, standing in the background of everything we do. The question then becomes not whether we will practice church history or not, but, rather, whether we will practice it well or poorly.

You’ve got a book that’s just been published. Can you tell us little bit about it and its relevance for 2019?

The book is titled Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2019), and it presents what I hope will be a significant reinterpretation of how Baptist churches got their start in mid-17th century England. The book tells the story of where the first English Baptists came from and tries to recapture a sense of just how shocking their theology would have been to the vast majority of their contemporaries.

Today we probably do not think that being a Baptist is very shocking at all – there are, after all, many, many Baptists and Baptist institutions all around the world. But in 17th century England, to follow the Baptists in rejecting the baptism of infants was, indeed, an incredibly strange and radical thing to do. This raises the obvious question of why the early Baptists would have pursued this unusual path, a path that brought them nothing but grief from their contemporaries. Orthodox Radicals tries to answer that question, in part by tracing the contours of the religious and cultural contexts out of which the early Baptists emerged.

Tying this back into our conversation a moment ago about the relevance of church history, the reality is that many (most?) of us today lack an adequate sense of why our churches approach baptism the way they do. We take for granted that they either baptise infants or they don’t, and we fail to grasp the degree to which our practice on this and, of course, innumerable other crucial points are shaped and conditioned by the men and women who came before us.

Church history helps us to recapture a sense of contingency, a sense that past events did not have to turn out the way they did. Men and women in the 1640s did not have to rethink their views on baptism, but, as it happens, they did, and the more deeply we understand why they did, the more deeply we will understand and appreciate our own church practice today.