Cunningham on History and Protestantism

William Cunningham (1805 1861) was a nineteenth century Scottish polemical theologian who, like many in his day, promoted the anachronistic notion that Calvinism has always been the confession of True and Pure Christianity. Also like many in his day, he liked to stoke the excessive antipathy toward “Romanism” and “Popery” that was harbored by many Protestants. Having been reminded by a quote on another site of Cunningham, I wanted to say a few things about his problematic view of the usefulness of Church history to the Protestant and of the status of history relative to the Scriptures. I’ll start with this remark from Chapter I, Sec. 4 of his Historical Theology:

Protestants may, and do, derive important assistance in establishing their own principles, and in making out a case against the Church of Rome, from an investigation of the church’s history;but they are not essentially dependent upon it, and no assault that can be fatal to their cause can come from that quarter. They do not need, as Protestants, or in virtue of the position they occupy as seceders from, and protesters against, the Romish apostasy, to adopt any particular theory of the church’s history, and then to labor to silence or pervert the testimony of history, in order to support their theory, or to guard it against objections. The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants; and when the divine origin and authority of the Bible are conceded or proved, Protestants are quite able to deduce from it all the doctrines which they maintain, and to establish them in such a way that no assault from any other quarter, such as the testimony of history, could competently be brought to bear upon them.

Cunningham is right that Protestants can from Church history “derive important assistance in establishing their own principles, and in making out a case against the Church of Rome.” But he’s wrong if he thinks (and he seems to so think) that these are the only reasons why Protestants should care about Church history. Church history is not like Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but is rather the grand, epic story of God’s redemption of fallen man. Even when one looks at Church history and sees glaring examples of corruption or even dark apostasy, one is still looking at the mystery of God’s redemptive work. This alone makes it worth the look, for Scripture testifies that its own historical records, especially those of unfaithfulness, were written “for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:6). Why should this not be true of Church history, the story of God’s redemptive work after the closing of the Apostolic Age? Mind you, I am not agreeing with the pessimistic Cunningham about the course of post-apostolic history being a bunch of darkness and apostasy, but even given his belief Scripture exhorts us to know a good bit more about examples of evil doing than just what is required to slur them with dirty names like “popery.” And there is some question from Cunningham’s text as it is given whether he actually knew much about the period he slurs as being dominated by “popery.”

But Cunningham is also wrong – and in a fashion that is utterly fatal to Protestantism – in saying “The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants.” A lot could be said about this, but the mere fact that “the Bible” didn’t drop out of heaven complete and bearing infallible interpretation right on its surface is plenty of proof that a “Bible Only” religion is a simply absurd and nonexistent animal. The Bible, that is, the self-contained, leather-bound Book complete with explanatory notes and concordances and red letters and the like, was compiled by people – people who had to make decisions about what was going to go between its covers. The canon, or, the Table of Contents, did not just pop into existence without any intermediaries, but is the product of generations of work by many hands.

Now, since like everyone else except for perhaps the actual writers of the biblical books, Cunningham got his Bible from the Church, something immediately follows for the witness of Church history. Although Cunningham evidently thinks the Medieval Church was a nasty whore full of superstitious Gospel-hating papist idolators, nevertheless, whether he cared to acknowledge it or not, it was members of that Church who labored for centuries under conditions we can scarcely imagine to copy and preserve the Scriptures (and much else of great value besides). These generations spent thousands of hours in often cold, ill-lit rooms dipping hand made quill pens in hand made ink and writing on materials that were very expensive and sometimes difficult to come by – and on top of all this, in many cases, never knowing when some marauder would beat their doors down, kill them, and burn their precious books. Imagine what these generations would think of some Protestant polemicist sitting in his easy chair centuries later taking cheap, printed books and cheap, easily obtained writing supplies, and a high level of personal comfort and safety entirely for granted -and doing all this while enthusiastically railing about “the Dark Ages” and crying “Death to Popery!” and treating Holy Scripture like the Muslim treats the Koran. Something doesn’t seem quite right here, does it?

At any rate, sola Scriptura is not the doctrine that the Bible is the only rule of faith; it is the doctrine that the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith. Although in our day many Protestants very easily conflate the two, there is an immense difference between these two positions. The “Bible Only” view is a gross misreading of Luther and Calvin and Turretin and Whitaker and others, not to mention a distortion of the Confessions of Faith. True enough, these authorities are fallible, but that is no argument that we should not consult and mine them for whatever truth they can give us. Furthermore, it is no sin against Scripture to rely on the ministerial judgments of the Church – say, in a Council – about the application of Scripture. No, friends, it is not true that “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestants.” And in fact, ironically, one of the greatest enemies of Protestantism is the Protestant man whose religion is defined by fideistic appeals to the Bible and who, by his mocking disdain for all authorities outside of the Bible, has conceded to his dreaded “Romanism” and “Popery” all the ground it could ever ask for relative to converting Protestants. It is a very short step from Cunningham’s Bible-Only fideism to the anxiety many feel when they read Newman’s Essay on Development and realize they have no answer to the devastating rhetorical quip, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”

A bit later, Cunningham continues:

It is the more important to keep these considerations in remembrance in investigating the history of the church, because really the history of the church for fifteen hundred years is, to a large extent, just the history of Popery. The Apostle Paul assures us that, even in his time, the mystery of iniquity was already working; and in every succeeding century we find clearer and clearer traces of these seeds or elements, which, when fully developed, constitute the Popish system. Satan took six or seven hundred years to develop and bring to full maturity what has been justly described as his great masterpiece; and indeed some of the peculiarities of Popery were not devised till the middle ages, when the great body of the visible church was sunk in gross darkness, superstition, and idolatry.

This type of rhetoric has constituted the lion’s share of Protestant thought about Church history since the Reformation.:”(See my series “On the Development of Protestant Historiography” on this site.)”: This is lamentable thing, although to be fair, neither the scholarly tools nor the emotional frame of mind to see that it is a lamentable thing existed for us to make use of until quite recently. Cunningham lived prior to the rise of the science of history, before the big collections of manuscripts such as the Patrologia Latina and Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the like were painstakingly assembled from the scattered libraries in which their components had languished, uncatalogued and unanalyzed, for many centuries. He did not have the tools to do the types of intensive, careful studies of various historical periods that we have been able to do for the past century and a quarter or so. It is likely that his understanding of the flow of Church history came more from a degraded form of polemics against Rome combined with an unrealistic assessment of the Reformation combined with an epistemologically and historically problematic view of the authority of Scripture than from anything approaching true scholarly understanding and intellectual virtue.

We come to the crowning statement of Cunningham’s view of Church history:

There is, indeed, something dark and mysterious in the survey of the history of the church of Christ, in its so soon losing its purity, and falling into error and corruption; and in this error and corruption gaining such an ascendancy, and virtually overspreading the visible church for nearly a thousand years.

I suppose the best way to deal with this sort of rhetorical generalization, other than what was just said about Cunningham’s lack of scholarly equipment to properly analyze the historical Church, is just to say that while Church history for Cunningham surely was “dark and mysterious,” for us it is not – or at least, it need not be. We have J.N.D. Kelly and Peter Brown and Jaroslav Pelikan and William Courtenay and Brian Tierney and A.N.S. Lane and Harold Berman and Heiko Oberman and Steven Ozment and Arthur Monahan and Marcia Colish and Cary Nederman and many, many others who have dedicated their lives to shedding light on many aspects of history which up until about a hundred years ago were simply “black boxes,” impenetrable, intimidating, and incomprehensible. Cunningham had none of these resources, so how could he have known? But since we can know, there is no excuse for us simply repeating his slurs. There is no sense in us using Church history merely as a front for fighting “Romanism” and “Popery,” and pretending at the same time that we need nothing but (our own perceptions about) the teachings of the Bible to construct and defend our religion. Cunningham’s type of approach litters Protestant propaganda today, and it is only for lack of ourselves as Protestants getting our hands dirty in what is out there that his view appears to be the default and only view that Protestants can hold.

My friends, it is time for us as Protestants to dump this legacy of misuse of history, and this legacy of militant Bible-Onlyism, and work on something better. We have the resources at hand, and, as I will never tire of saying with King Alfred the Great, we only need to set our minds to the track.

This entry was posted in On History, Reformational Ruminations. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.