The sins of the fathers – case studies in how (and how not) to do church history

I’ve seen two examples recently of people attempting to make connections between the thoughts and actions of predecessors and culture today.  Both are concerned with the influence of the reformation and its aftermath on western, especially American, Christian culture.

Here’s the first example:

And here’s the second:

I want to suggest that one example, unsurprisingly by a historian does it well. The other, not so much.  In Dani Treweek’s thread you will notice a few things.  First, she treads cautiously, if anything, she understates her expertise and experience in the very specific area. It’s important by the way for historians to recognise that they do not know their subject, even their specialist part of it exhaustively. 

Dani does not rush to evaluate, to make specific value judgements on either the historic situation or the present context she is also commenting on.  Of course, there will be a place for evaluation and assessment and no doubt, in due course we will hear Dr Treweek’s but she isn’t rushing to do this. Instead, she is sticking with those cautious observations, encouraging us to look more closely with her.

And as it happens, I think that Dani has identified something worth a look at. She has noted that the Puritans, especially those who sought refuge in the US had particular views of how church, state and family related to each other, to God and to us and the role they played.  A key primary source for this would be., for example, Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex.  Treweek believes that it is possible that contemporary social views, including the emphasis on the nuclear family may have arisen out of this kind of thinking.  She is not claiming that the Puritans placed a strong emphasis on the nuclear family, just that you can potentially see the roots of the idea.  Now, in so much as contemporary views of the nuclear family are unhelpful (and I would suggest that some stuff is helpful and some unhelpful), we might argue that they are a corruption of, a distortion of Puritan thought.

The first example, in my opinion, doesn’t do such a good job.  Now, this might seem a little puzzling, as both twitter threads are doing the same kind of thing, tracing back current social and cultural norms/theological thinking to their potential historical source.  Yet, in this case, I think the author is wrong and badly wrong.

Why do I say this?  Well because it isn’t so much that the reformers promoted a cerebral view of faith emphasising intellectual assent. Indeed, the idea that “simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously justified and sinner) divorced belief from existence and permitted Christians to do as they please without regards to “works” is a travesty, it is as much adistortion of reformation thinking as it would be a distortion of Paul if applied to him. 

Rather, the Reformers had a clear belief that the Gospel was transformative, that it touched upon the whole person, that it called for obedient response and that it should be warm and lively.  The best way to get a sense of this is to read the Reformers for themselves.  I’d particularly encourage John Calvin on prayer.  Another helpful way of getting a sense for what the reformers believed and practiced is to consider their impact on the next few generations down, what do we see in the aftermath of the Reformation?  Well, we end up back with those puritans and again what you;ll discover is that their view was that grace was meant to encourage obedience in the believer’s life, you’ll hear them talking about preaching to the affections and you’ll discover them catechising their children to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  Their faith was truly experiential.  This means that the heirs of the reformation are people like Wesley, Whitfield and Edwards with Wesley’s description of his heart “strangely warmed” and Edward’s discussion about religious affections.  It includes Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and Fry with their concern for social reform, the abolition of slavery, the ending of cruel factory practices, the reform of prisons etc. 

If there was, especially in the 20th Century a move to intellectualise and privatise faith, to divorce belief from existence, to strip it of joyful experience then that was a wrong turning, dare I say it not just a distortion of the Reformation but a step so far that it was a repudiation of it.

So, what we see in that example is an overhasty reading back onto the past the prejudices and assumptions of the theologian today and that without the caution and carefulness of Dr Treweek.

It is good and right that we examine history and we follow the money to see root causes of today’s fruit. However, if we are going to do that, we need to do it carefully and correctly.

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