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From an older piece by Carl Trueman:

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.

The second major moment was the Enlightenment. Like the earlier Aristotelian renaissance, this was a diverse movement and the singular term is something of a scholarly construct; but the various philosophical strands covered by the terms served to remake university education and to demand new and fresh responses from the church in a way that the Reformation had never done.

In this light, to hear that the work of some trendy representative of the angst, insecurities and obsessions of middle America somehow represents the kind of paradigm shift that comes along once in a millennium in self-evidently laughable. He may have an enviable gift for writing popular books and speaking (the musical talent is, I fear, more questionable) but he is not bringing about a comprehensive revision of the whole of theology, establishing a comprehensive framework for understanding the world, or reshaping the very foundations of knowledge as either the church or the wider world understands it. Further (and here is the real historical rub) even if he were doing so, it would be a hundred years or so before anybody would really be able to make that judgment with any confidence. . . .

And that is why church historians play such an important role and our cynicism is such a boon. Church history keeps things in perspective. Through reading the texts and studying the actions and events of the past we can truly say that we have seen it all before. Thus, whatever it is that the latest guru is suggesting, it definitely will not work as well as expected, probably will not work at all, and anyway it will be a hundred years or more before we can say whether it made a real difference or not.

Thus, 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.’

The old saying has it that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Whether or not that is entirely accurate, it is certainly true to say that cynicism is one of the historian’s great gifts to the church. To put it bluntly, cynicism serves to keep things, especially us, in proper perspective. After all, most of what goes on today in the name of earth-shattering paradigm shifts has no value, whatever the price tag.

You can read the whole thing here.

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18 thoughts on “Why the Church Needs Cranky, Cynical Historians”

  1. John T. "Jack" Jeffery says:

    Thank you very much for reposting this excerpt! It got a “read aloud” response for my wife’s benefit, minus, of course, the inimitable brogue heard from the Paul Woolley Chair. :-)

  2. ScotT says:

    As if Trueman needed another reason to validate his constant snark and incessant crankiness.

  3. Wesley says:

    Love this! Another needed corrective from the Carl-bomb. As it were, he seems to be saying that church historians are like a sanctified version of Dr. House: not the most cuddly and loveable of characters but wicked-smart and necessary at times such as that comment about Luther was made in ref. to B-Mac for a much needed smack-down and head shake.

  4. Luma Simms says:

    I am finding myself liking Trueman more and more, in spite of the fact that I had over–dosed on cynicism during my gospel amnesia days.

  5. Ben says:

    I think being cynical is being a bit unbalanced. A certain amount of skepticism and wanting to keep a realistic perspective is important, but it can be done in a non-cynical way. Christ said to prove all things, so there is every reason to do that before jumping on a bandwagon.

  6. anaquaduck says:

    Maybe in a kind of “I told you so” or “been there done that” sort of manner but at times we need to experience the emptiness of what appears to be full so that God may fill us anew with His tender Grace. All that glitters is not gold is good advice to be sure & true enough even if it comes from a grump or grouch.

    The advice is there in Scripture, the history of Israel & the NT Church, God’s faithfulness also. If we start getting bored with that, the problem may be with our own lack of appreciation & thankfulness with the text in a book of priceless treasure.

  7. Christian Langley says:

    The next paradigm shift will be a shift to communism, socialism, marxism, darwinism, atheism, etc. The final world system before the coming of Christ. We are already seeing the integration of these ideas into our own culture via Liberalism.

  8. Nathanael says:

    Christian, I hate to point this out but communism, socialism, marxism, darwinism, atheism, etc. already had their heyday back in the mid-twentieth century. Post-WWII Russia, China, and much of the rest of Europe, Asia, and parts of South America were openly communist. Now, the only large and powerful communist nation is China and they are economically capitalist and rapidly becoming more Christian. Both Christianity and Islam are growing and atheism is shrinking. So no, communist atheism is not the last world-system and I think the world will keep on spinning long after America loses most of its Christianity and loses its political power in world affairs. After all, the world survived the fall of Rome and the conquest of the near east and Egypt by Islam and the European abandonment of Christianity.

  9. Bruce says:

    The big shift going on now is to Oneism. It will literally wreck the world economy, but I believe will become fertile soil for the third Great Awakening.

  10. Christian Langley says:


    You must be joking. You think Atheism is dying? Where have you been these past 25 years? Half the young people I talk to classify themselves as Atheist or Agnostic. Young people don’t believe in much now adays.

    And Christianity is quickly losing its influence in this country and around the world. One need only look at recent court rulings about homosexual rights and abortion. This country is becoming increasingly hostile to Christian ideals.

  11. Christian Langley says:

    The main goal of Communism was not economical or political. It was about usurping power from monarchs, stirring revolutions, and destroying Christianity from the minds of people.

  12. Nathanael says:

    1) I am only 25 years old myself so I guess that answers that question.

    2) Most folks my age I know who are not Christians will say that they are atheist or agnostic but when pushed will say they think there is some sort of god or higher power. In effect, most people my own age that I know are more like pagans than real atheists.

    3) Communism has objectively decreased since the 1950s through 80s.

    4) I did admit that Christianity was losing its influence in this country but the fact is that it is gaining ground in Africa, South America, and Asia (China and Indonesia in particular but also elsewhere). America becoming non-Christian is not the end of the world. We are not God’s special country and his kingdom will go on just fine without us. If you want evidence of that just look at the Anglican church in Africa (Uganda in particular) and the way it has responded to the erosion of American Christianity.

    5) See also Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World and Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

  13. Christian Langley says:

    Nathanael, I guess it all depends on your eschatology. If you believe that there will be a one world government ruled by the antichrist, in which the church will be persecuted, and billions will die from wars and famine, and people will be forced to take the mark of the beast or die, then you must also believe that Christianity will become less and less influential to governments and the population at large.

  14. Nathanael says:

    Fair enough. But I was just pointing out that Christianity really is growing by leaps and bounds in the rest of the world. America is far from typical in that regard. So, even if your eschatology is correct, I don’t think the apostasy of the west necessarily means that the world will end any time soon. After all, the big centers of the early church were the middle east, Egypt, and present day Turkey, and most of the influential early western (Latin) fathers were from north Africa (e.g., Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine). So, if the world didn’t end when all of that was taken over by Islam, I don’t figure it will end just because America goes south.

  15. It’s refreshing to read a thoroughgoing rejection of contemporary hubris.

    As an aside, my research colleague and I have long found the designation “Phyllis Tickle” rather offensive. Indeed, some of our work has been oriented towards sloughing off dubious bywords such as these.

  16. Tyler D says:

    I like Phyllis Tickle and I think she is right here.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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