Church History Isn’t Boring (You’re Just Doing it Wrong)
By Doug Ponder | February 20, 2023
Topic: Historical Theology—Missiology—Pastoral Theology
I have always enjoyed studying history, but I understand why many don’t. Most were taught by well-meaning (but horribly-misguided) teachers who think of history as a catalog of names and dates. But if we approach history like Microsoft Excel, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the only people who love history look a good deal like those who love spreadsheets.1
That doesn’t mean I think all learning should be fun.2 Learning is a discipline, and the author of Hebrews reminds us that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (Heb. 12:11). That said, the names-and-dates approach to history is a travesty of what the subject should be, and all the more so when it comes to church history, which is the post-scriptural story of the people of God.
This article is the first part of my attempt to right the ship (wherever it needs to be righted), by addressing what history is for. Only then can we begin to grasp how not to make history boring.
“Those Who Cannot Learn from the Past . . .”
Obviously, history is the study of the past. But why should anyone care to study the past? I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d wager a good deal of money that most people would answer the prior question with some form of George Santayana’s infamous quip, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”3
This quote has become something like pop wisdom, the sort that elicits knowing nods and audible “mms” whenever someone utters it as if to show that we all are in agreement about its sage advice. Yet that view of history sees the past as something we are condemned to repeat, which is another way of saying that everything in the former times was stupid and unjust.
Never mind that a person can’t even make such an assessment of right and wrong without an unchanging standard, such as the Word of God, which comes to us from the past. Setting aside that gaping hole, an additional problem with such a view of history is that it trains people to “submit to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,”4 treating our ancestors as morons while we few, we enlightened few, have basically got it all figured out. (That is until the next generation comes along to tell us how stupid and evil we all are.)5 C. S. Lewis called this view of history “chronological snobbery,” which consists in the uncritical acceptance of whatever ideas and practices are popular today coupled with the naïve assumption that whatever ideas and practices are now past are certainly worse and probably wrong—simply because they are no longer in fashion.6
“Those who fail to learn what history is for are doomed never to learn it.”—Doug Ponder
If that sounds familiar, it should. In the West, we live and move and have our being in a culture saturated with the chronological snobbery of a godless progressivism. Even Christians, who ought to know better, fall prey to a similar way of thinking, for it is easy to feel self-righteous about sins we are not in danger of committing while turning a blind eye to how we are transgressing the consensus of God’s people in every era and culture.
Don’t Mind Me (Literally)
Furthermore, such a view of history implicitly suggests that our lives now, once they are past, will only serve as negative examples of what not to do. In other words, the man who says “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is begging you not to take his life very seriously.
Yet that is not how parents speak to their children. We intuit (correctly) that our lives are more than mere examples of bad behavior to avoid. There is also much good to be embraced. Indeed, this is precisely how the Scriptures talk about the lives of God’s people: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). “Remember your leaders… Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
To be sure, no one denies that history—including the history of the church—contains ideas that should be condemned and ways of life that should be rejected. But the point is that history also contains many ideas and practices that should be accepted and emulated. This means that those who fail to learn from history are doomed not to repeat it. They are doomed to learn by the costly means of experience instead of benefiting from the trusted wisdom handed down to us from former times by men and women who walked with the same God, read from the same Word, and inhabited the same old world that we do.
What Church History Is For (A Preliminary Conclusion)
Here, then, is what church history is for: church history is an ongoing account of the church’s failures and successes to believe, understand, and practice what the Scriptures teach. Therefore, it too is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16–17; Rom. 15:4).
Any other approach fails to understand what history is for. And those who fail to learn what history is for are doomed never to learn it—and therefore never to benefit from it.
- Yes, I am making an argument from aesthetics. ↩
- The notion that all learning should be fun is a hopelessly modern idea which come home to roost in the form of folks who think watching zeitgeisty documentaries on Netflix is the educational equivalent to pouring over the great books that formed the sharpest minds of Western civilization. It is not. ↩
- This quote has been paraphrased many times, most often as “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but the original (as stated above) can be found in George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense: Volume One of the Life of Reason (1905). ↩
- G. K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy (1908). ↩
- Behold the fruit of progressivism: you spend your whole life fighting to reach a moving goalpost, only for people twenty years (or twenty days) from now to tell you just how regressive you were for espousing views you thought were “ahead of your time.” ↩
- See chapter 13, “The New Look” in C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (1955). ↩