Why Cynicism Is One of the Historian’s Great Gifts to the Church

"Any intellectual historian of any merit will tell you that the last 1,000 years in the West have only produced two moments of paradigm shifting significance, and neither of them was the Reformation."

“The next time someone comes along and tells me that a movie by Mel Gibson is the most significant contribution to church culture since the Apostle John laid down his stylus and parchment, my eyes can glaze over in confident knowledge that what I have just been told is complete drivel. When I am informed that a book by the Rev. Tommy Tweedlethumb is the most important piece of Christian literature since Augustine’s Confessions, I can politely stifle a yawn behind my hand and go back to reading the newspaper, for I know full well that in a hundred years time Tommy’s complete works will be as long-forgotten as genre-shattering pop bands such as ‘Men Without Hats.’”

 

I was recently reminded of this older piece from church historian Carl Trueman, and I thought it might be worth reposting an extended quotation on how the church can benefit from historians who take the long view and don’t get caught up in hyperbole and hagiography.

Some years ago, Phyllis Tickle likened Brian McLaren to Luther and the Emergent Church to the kind of paradigm shift that happens only once a millennium.

The amazing thing was not that she said this; in a world shaped by the continual escalation of sales rhetoric, this kind of language is to be expected in advertising.

No. What was truly amazing was that people actually took her seriously, friend and foe alike. Such people are in urgent need of help to stop them saying or believing things that are very, very silly and absurdly self-important.

Enter the church historians. Any intellectual historian of any merit will tell you that the last 1,000 years in the West have only produced two moments of paradigm shifting significance, and neither of them was the Reformation.

The first was the impact of the translation into Latin of Aristotle’s metaphysical works.

This demanded a response from the thirteenth century church. The response, most brilliantly represented by Thomas Aquinas,

revolutionized education,

transformed the philosophical landscape,

opened up fruitful new avenues for theological synthesis, and

set the basic shape of university education until the early eighteenth century.

Within this intellectual context, the Reformation was to represent a critical development of Augustinian anti-Pelagianism in terms of the understanding of the church and of salvation, but it did not represent quite the foundational paradigm shift that is often assumed.

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