Church History and the Biological Fallacy

Church historian David Knowles writes of his own discipline:

…no class of historian has found the presentation of its subject-matter in terms of ideas so difficult and so perilous. Those who have attempted to do more than give a summary or a narrative of events have often fallen into the biological fallacy that has misled historians of parliament and other institutions. They have presented their theme, whether it was the doctrine of the Real Presence, or the development of the papacy, as one of gradually increasing definition and clarity, from the mists of the early Church to the present time. The present is tacitly regarded as the norm, if not as the ideal, to which the long series of past events is directed. They thus give to the present an element of finality and to the past an element of inevitability. In both past and present the purely historical appearance is lost, for though the present derives its characters from the past, the past has seen the action of multifarious agencies, material and spiritual, and it is no part of the historians task to distinguish between God’s design and man’s part in failing to accomplish it. We must beware as historians of the slant toward apologetics. Church historians in general say too little about the changes of cultures and of mental climates, and still less about the extravagances, ignorances and misconceptions of sentiment and devotion that have coloured or deformed the purity of the spirit in past centuries and that may well be obscuring for us now in this respect or that the full vision of revealed truth. For there is no reason to suppose that our generation is more spiritually clear-sighted than that of our forefathers, or that the Spirit of truth will not work in the future as He has worked in the past. [Foreword to Albert Mirgeler's Mutations of Western Christianity (Montreal: Palm Publishers, 1964) pp. v-vi]

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4 Responses to Church History and the Biological Fallacy

  1. Peter Escalante says:

    Excellent quote from Knowles, and from a foreword to an excellent little book. Mirgeler deserves to be much better known.


  2. St. Worm says:

    I’m working through Schaff’s 8 volume history now (on the second book), and this comment seems pertinent to Schaff’s work. It’s a great work, but simply one long running apologetic. So it’s more preachy than anything, even when I agree with Schaff.

    But when I read Pelikan (finished all 5 volumes last December), it’s cool, reserved, and full of material that flows nicely. I like Pelikan more because of this.

    Anyone else here feel the same about Schaff? Or is it just me?

    St. Worm

  3. Tim Enloe says:

    St. Worm, sorry for the long delay in responding. I no longer have Internet at my house, so I’m very limited in my access. I agree that Schaff can at times be “preachy,” but I think this is easily explainable in terms of his own historical context. He was living in a time when Catholicism was on a major offensive against everything outside of it, and Protestantism, particularly in America, was stuck between the rock of increasing availability of serious scholarly material on Church history and the hard place of a stupid, blustery “Romanism as the Antichrist” polemic that viewed even fellow Protestants with suspicion and disdain if they didn’t “toe the line” of the ranting polemicists.

    Schaff was himself quite the ecumenist, believing Rationalism to be a far bigger threat to all Christians than the divisions between Christians. But he was still a Protestant, and couldn’t simply gloss over the errors of Catholicism. He did, after all, help to talk his friend John Williamson Nevin out of converting to Catholicism. So, yeah, sometimes he’s a bit preachy, but I think there was a good reason for that. And frankly, his treatment of the Middle Ages, though now 150 years out of date, is far superior to that of many Protestants writing about Church history today.

  4. St. Worm says:

    Excellent, Tim. Can’t wait to get to the Medieval stuff in Schaff’s work. It is an enjoyable read — lots of information concisely spelled out in a relatively small space.

    Yes, I can appreciate Schaff’s struggle to navigate the polarizing worldviews of his day. The work just struck me as overly-”hegelian” (and I’m an Anglican!).

    Nevertheless, glad I’m taking the time and effort to read the series. It’s enlightening to say the least.

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