Stephen J. Nichols is research professor of Christianity and Culture at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School in Lancaster, Pa. He is the author of many books, including For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church (Crossway) and Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ (IVP Academic). His forthcoming book is Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation (Brazos). Steve lives with his wife, Heidi, and their children, Ben, Ian, and Grace, in Churchtown, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Question: Do you see more history being written well and written with an eye toward a lay audience? How important is that?
Stephen Nichols: I think it is not only tied into historians realizing their service of the church, but I think it is also tied into evangelicals recognizing their need for history. So, it is a sort of supply and demand issue. I find in terms of our students and in terms of our churches, that there is a greater demand for the voices of the past and some perspective. I think that might come from the ones who people are listening to who are current voices who are constantly pointing back to the voices of the past-the John Pipers, the Mark Devers, the Albert Mohlers, who are drawing upon the voices of the past, all the hearers of these folks are wanting to go back to the sources. I think that it is a supply and demand issue and that to me is encouraging: that people in the church are much more open to and much more eager to hear church history, particularly in the American church, than it has in so many decades.
Q: We are Protestants and do not see history as authoritative. So how important is it for the average Christian to know some things about church history?
SN: I think the idea is it’s not ultimately necessary. But I go back to Spurgeon. In his book on the use of commentaries by ministers, he makes a comment that the Holy Spirit is not a unique gift to you. And he makes this argument so that pastors will avail themselves of commentaries. The Holy Spirit is a gift to the church and he even comments to the effect that, “I find it odd that people who think so highly of what the Spirit teaches them think so little of what the Holy Spirit teaches others.” If you apply that broadly, you could say that the Spirit is not a gift unique to the 21st century. The Spirit has been the gift to the church and so what we are essentially saying it is prideful to look askance and say, ‘What the Holy Spirit teaches us in the 21st century is what we need” and sort of downplay the Spirit has been a historical, global gift to the church. We are essentially cutting ourselves off of 2,000 years of resources for living the Christian life…Luther makes an interesting point that I think Protestants need to hone in his work On the Councils of the Church. One of the criticisms of him and his movement was that he was discounting history. So Luther writes On the Councils of the Church to say church history is instructive not to be dispensed with. He just doesn’t find it authoritative on the level of Scripture. So, somewhere between the Roman Catholic view of history as authoritative and the American evangelical tendency to dispense with it, I would say history is instructive for us.
Q: You’ve written several books covering a diversity of subjects from Christology and the Reformation to blues music. What has been your favorite and why?
SN: I don’t want this to sound self-serving, but I always like the book I am working on at the moment, but of the history books I wrote, I think I enjoyed the Machen (J. Gresham Machen) book the most because I really enjoyed the archival research for that. Of the other books, I’d have to say the blues book because I learned a lot through that book. With every book you write, you learn. You think you know a subject until you write on it and you find out what you didn’t know. I think with the blues book, I learned so much about such a different culture that I still find myself as a theologian even in reading the Bible because of the that book. This was 1920s-30s early blues in the Mississippi Delta acoustic music and very much a close-link to the old world of slavery, a close link to the old spirituals which are richly theological in what they have to offer.