Heroes, Villains, and Conversation Partners: A Call to Rethink Church History
Three cheers for all those who approach church history looking for heroes and villains. May the tribe of passionately subjective historians increase, may their efforts always spur us on to love and good works (Heb. 10:25). Similarly, three cheers for all those who know the value of historically diverse conversation partners. May we all long to hear not just from God’s people around the globe, but from across the ages.
In a previous article I addressed the need to rethink how we teach and study history, especially the history of the church. I highlighted two pressing problems: First, a name-and-dates approach to the subject is both a failure to grasp what history is as well as a reliable way to ensure that most people will never care about it. (We’ll return to this presently.)
Second, a far more destructive problem is the fact that most people have drunk so deeply from the poisoned wells of progressivism that they have fallen prey to the smug fallacy of chronological snobbery.1 In this way, the point of history—if a modern man even cares about it at all—is simply to make sure he doesn’t repeat it.2 The solution to such a dim view of history is found in the biblical injunctions to “remember the days of old; consider the years of past generations” (Deut. 32:7). For all these things were recorded “for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4), that we might “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and “hold fast to the traditions” of God’s people (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thes. 2:15) as we imitate their virtues (Heb. 11:2ff; 13:7) and avoid their errors (2 Chron. 30:7; Zech. 1:4). In this way, history is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16)—not an as an equal to the Scriptures, much less as a replacement for the same (μὴ γένοιτο), but as an interpretive assistant and an illustrative guide.3
This brings us back to the first problem. Christians of all people (should) know that history is not something mainly to be ridiculed and avoided but to be treasured and studied with humility and gratitude. This is precisely why the names-and-dates approach to history is such an abysmal way to teach the subject, for the main effect it produces is a listless yawn. Yet such apathy only furthers our ignorance of history, which, in turn, fuels our chronological snobbery in self-destructive ways. Here, then, is a proposal for a better way forward.
Heroes and Villains in History
Since the ultimate point of history is not merely learning ‘what happened’ but learning to imitate the good, we ought to approach church history from the explicit goal of trying to cultivate virtue. And that means history must have heroes and villains.
Unfortunately, such an approach is widely frowned upon. For example, when speaking of historical theology (a field of study closely related to church history), one prominent evangelical historian writes: “If it is to be of use, historical theology must be descriptive rather than prescriptive.”4 He further explains, “It is not the historian’s job to prescribe what should be believed theologically or done practically today.”5
Never mind the hopelessly modern notion of an objective historical record.6 The fact is that ancient historians cared very little for any sense of neutrality. They had some thoughts about what happened, and so should you, dear reader. To be sure, their interpretations might be wrong—as might ours. But at least they were spared of the terrible demon of dispassionate historical detachment.