How I Learned Not to Be A Chronological Snob

Somewhere C.S. Lewis wrote about “chronological snobbery”, which he defined as “telling truth by the clock.” In other words, pretending that what is most in line with our own current conceptions is certainly true, while whatever is not in line with our current conceptions is manifestly false and “stupid.” Or, as another resource puts it

Chronological snobbery is the presumption, fueled by the modern conception of progress,1 that all thinking, all art, and all science of an earlier time are inherently inferior, indeed childlike or even imbecilic, compared to that of the present. [Chronological Snobbery]

This is the story of how one day, quite unexpectedly and to my great embarassment, I came to vividly understand that I was guilty of chronological snobbery toward my ancient fathers in the faith.

It was September of 2001, and I was taking an elective on the Norman Conquest of England. For about a year prior to taking this elective I had been working through one of the main lessons that the history colloquium has focused on inculcating, namely, the need to interpret the history of the Church covenantally and not discontinuously. That is, the need to interpret especially the Middle Ages with charity and a sense of our own real identification with the saints of the past, regardless of how they failed to measure up to our own Modern Protestant standards of what is biblical.

As part of the work for this class I gave a presentation on Book II of The Life of King Edward Who Rests At Westminster, a hagiographical work on King Edward I, a central figure in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England. In my presentation I made the following remark concerning a passage in which the anonymous author attributes the cause of ill times in Britain to the sin and disobedience of the people:

at this point in church history, the concepts that underlie a full-orbed covenant theology in matters of grace and God’s dealings with His people have not been formally developed. That this highly biblical covenantal vision occurs in the context of believers who clearly believe other things that are quite unbiblical and silly—ex., a distorted emphasis on chastity, even in marriage (ii.1, 9); works of supererogation / mediation of departed saints (ii.5), perpetual virginity of Mary (ii.5), and purgatory (ii.11; pgs. 121,127)—focuses attention on the issue of our historical continuity with past ages of believers.

My notes for the presentation do not show it, but at this point I believe I looked up from the page and made what I thought was a really clever remark about the “superstitions” of the Christians in the Middle Ages, specifically referencing the saint cults that formed such a large part of practical piety then. Thinking myself clever (and oh so biblically superior as a Protestant), I attempted to move on to the next part of my presentation. However, the professor stopped me in mid-sentence and, much to my horrified surprise, demanded that I give an account for my “clever” remark about Medieval “superstitions.” Well, being challenged so directly on a matter of such “obvious” truth was the last thing in the world I would have expected. After all, wasn’t New St. Andrews a Protestant school, and so shouldn’t I be able to get away with making typically Protestant remarks about history? Had not Brother Martin spilled tons of ink on the corruptions of the Church in his day, much of that ink being pecifically related to concepts of the mediation of the saints? Had not Father Calvin wrote a scathing and enormously humorous treatise on the foolishness of relic-mongering? Does not the Bible say that there is only one Mediator between God and man? Isn’t it all just so obvious to anyone who loves “plain” biblical truth and does not allow goofy traditions to creep in and taint our liberty in Christ?

Well, apparently it’s not all so “plain” and “obvious”—or at least, it wasn’t to our brethren in the past, who thought differently about biblical truth and its applications to the world than we ourselves do. I myself had been trying to develop a sense of continuity and identity with people I had, at least in theory, come to recognize as brothers in Christ first deserving our charity, and only second our criticism. Yet there I was reversing the order, pretentiously pretending a superior piety, a superior love for Truth and the Scriptures, and the ability to judge the past as if from on high, seeing all their stupidities and errors from a position of myself not being quite so bad as to gullibly fall for such utter nonsense!

What my professor did in that recitation by challenging my cleverness was this: he forced me to face some unconscious assumptions about “purity” and “truth” which were coloring my account of history such that I was looking at the past through a very self-serving and condescending lens of presuming my own superior fidelity to Christ and the Scriptures. He himself did not defend the relic-mongering of the eleventh century treatise I was reporting on, nor any of the other concepts I had too easily labeled “superstitious”. In fact, his aim was not to get me to accept such things as being true and properly biblical, but to make me ask deeper questions about both the things on which I was reporting and on my own frame of mind than I was accustomed to asking.

As I said, I was mortified at being called out, at being required to, essentially, “put up or shut up.” And since I couldn’t “put up”…well, let’s just say that all the unreflectively pompous wind went out of the rest of my presentation, and I left the recitation with a great deal to think about. Over the last few years I’ve worked hard to implement the lesson I learned that day through great embarrassment.

Although I would not consider myself to have arrived, I consider this one event (possibly above all others in my time at New St. Andrews) to be life-changing. It redirected my intellectual energies to new paths—paths which have opened up possibilities for defending the Reformation which I never would have envisioned had I continued merely sneeringly looking down on the saints of the past, paying lip service to a principle I had no intention of actually living.

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