Heroes, Villains, and Conversation Partners: A Call to Rethink Church History

By Doug Ponder    |    March 13, 2023

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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. In other words, I am trying to persuade you not to be the kind of historian who refuses to make value judgments about historical persons and events, especially in the life of the church! As one critic rightly observed, “[T]here are a great many history teachers who—in their refusal to declare some historical figures righteous—are essentially forming their students to be relativists.”7

Three cheers for all those who approach church history looking for heroes and villains.”

—Doug Ponder

Of course, nobody actually thinks history is impossible to interpret, for we make such judgments all the time: “At the end of the day… we must decide that a certain man is good enough to marry, that a certain sinner was actually a saint, that a certain teenage girl is not responsible enough to babysit little children.”8 My question is simply this: Why should historical figures be any different? As Alister McGrath reminds us, “Theologians are not empty vessels containing abstract theological ideas, but are living souls who exhibit and embody those ideas and values in their lives.”9 Therefore, the fact that a man is dead does not relieve us of the need to make up our minds about him. And if we can’t decide whether he was worthy of imitation or condemnation, then what’s the point of learning more trivia about him?

Historical Authors as Conversation Partners

In addition to being heroes or villains, the authors of the past ought to serve as our conversation partners. Though they cannot sit across the table from us, historical persons commend themselves to us as Christians engaged in the same quest (i.e., life with God) illuminated by the same source (i.e., the Word of God).

One would think that the benefit of having such conversation partners would find a natural ally in the contemporary movement to read from “diverse perspectives.” Alas, that tends not to be the case. The call to read diverse perspectives too often is made by folks who appear to be ignorant of the even greater need for hearing the words from God’s people in ages past.

Scholar Alastair Roberts has written about this tendency to fixate upon modern diversity (i.e., gender and race) at the expense of more significant contextual differences across history. He writes, “The demographic fault lines that provoke our contemporary concerns for diversity really don’t neatly correspond with those differences of perspective that are most illuminating for our understanding of Christian truth.”10 In other words, a white upper-middle-class man has more in common with a poor black woman today than he has in common with Thomas Aquinas or Anselm of Canterbury.

This does not diminish the value of reading diverse contemporary perspectives—indeed, I myself have urged others to do this. Rather, all this is meant to increase the value that we give to historical perspectives. For, unlike conversations with even diverse contemporaries, older authors do not share our same assumptions or questions. For this reason, they are better able to highlight the enduring truth of God’s Word for all, liberated from the preoccupations of our present moment.

In other words, every age has its blind spots, but, thankfully, we don’t all have the same blind spots. This is not a novel observation. C. S. Lewis wrote about this in his justly famous introduction to Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word. There he writes, “We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it.”11

The trouble is this: “None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true. they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false, they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.”12

What, then, is the solution? How can we escape the shared blind spots found even among diverse contemporaries? I hope by now you already know: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”13

Go and Do Thou Likewise

So, then, 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, “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Eph. 4:13).

  1. That is, they have become people who uncritically accept whatever ideas or practices happen to be popular in our time, while uncritically rejecting (with passionate intensity!) whatever is now passé.
  2. As I pointed out in the previous article: Such an approach to history requires almost nothing of us. Indeed, it is all too easy to feel self-righteous about sins of the past that we are not even capable of committing (e.g., slavery) while turning a blind eye to our many real sins in the present.
  3. As the late J. I. Packer rightly said, “Scripture must have the last word on all human attempts to state its meaning, and tradition, viewed as a series of such human attempts, has a ministerial rather than a magisterial role.” Quoted in Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 252.
  4. R. Scott Clark, “History Theology.” TGC Essays. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/historical-theology/. Accessed March 10, 2023. Emphasis original.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Indeed, the mere decision to write at all, including what relevant bits of information to record and what to leave out, is already fraught with subjectivity that is impossible to avoid.
  7. Joshua Gibbs, “Getting Practical: How to Teach Virtue When You Teach History.” Circe Institute. August 3, 2019. https://circeinstitute.org/blog/blog-getting-practical-how-teach-virtue-when-you-teach-history/. Emphasis original.
  8. Ibid.
  9. McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography, 6.
  10. See Alastair Roberts’s public thread on this subject here: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1065475229638635520.html. In another place Roberts also writes, “Something terrible has happened to people’s perception when, whether they see Gregory of Nazianzus, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, or a host of others, they can increasingly only perceive various expressions of ‘whiteness’ and/or the ‘patriarchy’. The voice of history is increasingly effaced, as ancient texts are increasingly repurposed as screens upon which we are to project and play out our contemporary sociopolitical psychodramas. A sort of insipid parochialism is metastasizing under the mask of ‘diversity’. There is a troubling preoccupation with second-rate and/or unorthodox yet cosmetically diverse writers, while the vast treasures of the Christian tradition lie neglected and unexplored as they aren’t as ‘diverse’ as some folk who all went to the same small set of universities.” Cf. “Why Do I So Challenge the Contemporary Western Fixation Upon Race and Gender in Theology?” https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1065610561352843264.html.
  11. Lewis, “Introduction” to Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word of God, trans. by Penelope Lawson, a Religious of C.S.M.V. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1946), 7.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Lewis, “Introduction” to Athanasius, The Incarnation of the Word of God, trans. by Penelope Lawson, a Religious of C.S.M.V. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1946), 7.
Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder is professor of biblical studies at Grimké Seminary and is a teaching pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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