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April 8, 2020

In Church History, the Present is NOT the Key to the Past

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 the hard sciences, the idea of evolution largely works by assuming that “the present is the key to the past.” That is, the only way to properly understand the past is to start with some feature(s) of the present and “read them back,” as it were, into the historical records. This enables a historian to bring order to the choking cataract of facts by constructing a linear narrative. Why is some part of the present – say the Roman Catholic Church – the way it is now? Why, because of all these clear precursors in the past that seem to look like it. It’s just been one long process of progressive development. Knowles doesn’t buy it, and for the very good reason that such a scheme is not even really historical at all:

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]

Worth considering, especially if one is already inclined to the sort of odious apologetics that pretends everything is obvious to those who just “let history speak for itself.”