Why History Matters

It’s no secret that I love history.  Pretty much everyone who knows me is aware that I’m a history buff, and a brief perusal of this blog probably reveals the same.  Sometimes this has made it all too easy for some of my friends to dismiss my reference to history as a matter of personal interest.  But that is a misunderstanding of what I’m trying to do.  I am passionate about history not simply because it interests me, but because history matters.

Let’s take a look at the late great C. S. Lewis.  When he wrote a foreword to an Early Christian classic On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, he wrote:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.

This, I think, captures the heart of why studying history is so valuable.  As we read the writings of those who have gone before us (and learn about the context in which they lived), we gain insight into a different way of looking at the world.  Without that, we fall into what Lewis called “chronological snobbery” – the mistaken attitude that we moderns are so much smarter than all the generations that lived in the past.  Although our technology has advanced, our brains have remained unchanged for tens of thousands of years.  When it comes to worldview, we are not necessarily any more advanced than those who lived a hundred or even a thousand years ago.  In fact, given our modern disinterest in history, we may actually be cutting ourselves off from what the ancients have already learned, forcing us to reinvent what the human race has already gone through.

To avoid this chronological snobbery, Lewis recommended reading one “old book” for every one or two “new” books.  To some extent this applies to the writings of other culture in our own day, and it is a credit to current scholarly trends that we’ve started paying more attention to non-western thought, history, arts, and culture.  Nevertheless, in this age of increasing globalization the difference of perspective between contemporary cultures may be less dramatic than with our predecessors.

This is true with biblical exegesis and interpretation.  What may seem patently obvious to us may seem utterly foreign to the medieval scholastic, or to the undivided Church of the first millennium, and vice versa.  So we have much to gain from reading their sermons, devotionals, and theology.  To assume that 20th-21st century authors have a monopoly on sound biblical studies is a gross form of chronological snobbery, worthy of a deriding -ism alongside sexism and racism.

Instead of looking for the “next big hit author” on the shelves of the Christian bookstores, consider picking up a book that’s been around a little longer and stood the test of time.  It may help to break up Christian writings into different groupings to aid the process of unchaining ourselves from the “tyranny of the present.”

  1. The Apostolic Fathers (90-150), such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Hermas.
  2. The Apologists (150-325), such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, or Athenagoras.
  3. The “Patristic” Fathers (325-500), such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, or one of the Gregory’s (of Nyssa, Nazianzen, the Great).
  4. The Fathers of Late Antiquity (500-1050), such as Benedict of Nursia, the Venerable Bede, or Cyril & Methodius.
  5. The Early Medieval writers (1050-1200), such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury, or Anthony of Padua.
  6. The Medieval Scholastics (1200-1500), such as Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, or Julian of Norwich.
  7. The Reformers (1500-1700), such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Richard Hooker.
  8. The Counter-Reformers (1500-1700), such as Erasmus, Thomas More, or Ignatius of Loyola.
  9. The writers in the Age of Imperialism (1700-1900), such as Seraphim of Sarov, Jonathan Edwards, or John Henry Newman.

You then might also want to consider the modern age (since 1900) embracing different major tradition-groups.

  1. Protestants, such as N. T. Wright, John Piper, or Charles Spurgeon.
  2. Roman Catholics, such as Peter Kreeft, Thomas Merton, or Karl Rahner.
  3. Eastern Orthodox writers, such as Alexander Schmemann, Jaroslav Pelikan (in his later years), or Kallistos Ware.

You may not agree with everything you read, but that is true no matter what book or author you choose, regardless of historical or cultural context.  I bet you’ve disagreed with your own favorite beloved pastor before!  But that didn’t stop you from going to that church; neither should it scare us away from reading the writings of those who have gone before us.  It can definitely be a challenge, but it pays dividends as we are slowly called out of ourselves and cast off some of the blinders of our age.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about spiritual formation, theology, biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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