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

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.

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.

Of course, cynicism is not the only thing a historian offers to the church, and cynicism by itself can be a vice and not a virtue. Neverthless, Trueman is right. We should listen to those who have a built-in skepticism about the latest hype because they know enough to have a proper perspective.

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The Former Baptist Pastor Who Popularized Ben Franklin’s Electrical Experiments

James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America offers a remarkable account of Ebenezer Kinnersley, a Baptist pastor who lost his Philadelphia church position due to his opposition to the Great Awakening. Kinnersley then improbably became the greatest popularizer of Ben Franklin’s discoveries in electricity.

Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the 18th-century revivals. As a 3-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job.

Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados).

The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them.

Kinnersley, contemptuous of religious enthusiasm and superstition, proclaimed that his shows were subduing fearful apprehensions of electricity and lightning, and bringing them into the realm of rational understanding. “Another miracle! the ignorant would say,” Kinnersley scoffed. But now through Franklin’s experiments, “the mystery was understood.” Yet Kinnersley did not see himself as undermining faith with science. Instead, he paired the de-mystifying of nature with greater worship of God. Scientific knowledge leads us “to the First Cause,” he wrote, “by refining, enlarging, and exalting our ideas of the great author and God of Nature.”

For many believing scientists, knowledge has continued to produce doxology. But in Kinnersley’s popularization of Franklin, we can see tangible ways in which a former pastor also helped open new opportunities to believe that the natural world is all there is. Divine mysteries, the secular rationalist says, will all eventually dissipate before the bright sun of science.

I also discuss Kinnersley, Franklin, and the religious implications of Franklin’s experiments in my biography Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017).

This post originally appeared at the Anxious Bench blog, Patheos.

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