Editor’s Note: In advance of the twentieth anniversary of David Hall’s Arrogance of the Modern, the editors asked Dr. Hall to write a few reflections on its abiding applicability.
Is Modernity Less Arrogant? Continuing in Contempt of History
About a quarter of a century ago, a scrappy little band of techie nerds pulled me onto the internet to write for the Center for the Advancement of Paleo Orthodoxy (CAPO), likely the first Reformed website in the United States. Neither wanting to be confused with that day’s sub-orthodoxies nor ashamed of rigorous debate (our first meme was a dinosaur, wishing to stipulate: “OK, we’re old orthodoxists—so what? Now, where’s your substantive argument?”), we published many of the essays that eventually formed The Arrogance of the Modern on one of the pages of CAPO or its online magazine Premise.
I still chuckle at the youthful brashness of some of these essays. To be sure, they could have been more soft-edged. However, discursive reasoning that seeks to persuade is not always afforded the murderously Salonic luxury of excessive nuancing. On an upcoming anniversary of this set of essays—all thematically querying, “Are you sure modernity is so great or enduring?” (albeit launched on the most modern media of that day)—we can ask: Is modernity still arrogant or less arrogant? Also, isn’t any rhetorical argument automatically afforded greater validity (by the unknowing) for supposedly bringing a “new” study or innovative plan? Or might we not value Solomon’s discerning epistemology over the trendy, the novel, or the putatively contemporary? (The original motto for our site echoed Solomon’s Nihil novum sub sole: “There is nothing new under the sun.”)
A few of those essays have worn well; a few have not. I still give to sessions and conferences the revision of the first paper I ever presented to a 1989 Evangelical Theological Society meeting, whose theme was a strategy for the coming decade. This paper took a decidedly contrarian approach: “Orthodoxy and Strategy: On Not Having a Strategy for the New Decade or Millennium.” While only a handful of folks heard that paper when it was first given, its point, I think, is still valid: What in the world is the basis for having such a short-sighted, culture-kowtowing approach imposed on the Bride of Christ? Yet, after thirty years, it appears that the strategic savants have commandeered many pulpits, though their ascent or durability might be short-lived. See the abundant falls of recent “celebrity” evangelicals.
The essay “Heresies That Transform, Deform, and Re-form” sought to demonstrate that many strains of error are transformative and—far from being minor or neutral—they actually skew toward deformity. Moreover, those same viruses tend to replicate and “re-form” time and time again. The basic, organic thread, for example, of Gnosticism crops back up over and over in cults and error-filled theological systems. The heresies of Pelagius—rather than staying buried—revive and re-form into an escalading Socinianism or mutate into a terminal Unitarianism. With heresies exhibiting a decipherable symptomology, one would think that “Solomon + Diagnosis of Error = No New Heresies under the Sun; Only Recycled Ones.” Such wisdom, however, would be predicated on learning from history instead of being arrogantly contemptuous of it. Whether the issue is the return of Marcionism among antinomian evangelicals or a Schleiermachian absolutization of feeling (over reason), maybe a review of G.K. Chesterton’s 1905 Heresies or J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism should be required classics for all Christian readers, lest our discernment decline much further.
The utility of history is featured in a short illustrative essay that will surely challenge the moral purists among us. For all the haughty ethical nobility today, nobility whose eyes are too pure than to look on the evil by earlier flawed exemplars, we might actually learn something from Robert Dabney’s 1854 “The Uses and Results of Church History.” Dabney valued history as a comprehensive discipline, believing that a mastery of it was essential for a learned or public leader. He wrote that a knowledge of the past can provide the experience of age. Moreover, he saw history as prophylactic, noting that the best way to expose “the unreasonable pretensions” of faulty ideas was to “display their origin.” He put it this way: “Often there is no way so practical and so efficacious to disarm a modern heretic as to prove that his pretended improvements are substantially the same with the errors of some schismatic who has been stamped with the reprobation of Christendom in ages long past.”
Dabney categorized (and criticized) the French Revolution as emblematic of much of modernity, and he believed that the “arsenal of church history” was a weapon that was both useful and essential. His stinging critique of the “anarchical fallacy” should be required reading for all participants in debates about modern issues. One could only wish that his dislike of any “neo-” hyphenates could be rediscovered.
If one wishes, in “The Brits Expose an Imbecile Habit,” one can compare (lightly of course) Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and Michael Oakeshott. “The Ten Commandments of Nineteenth Century Church Planting” are sourced from the early (and presumably sterile) minutes of early Presbyterian assemblies, minutes that can still offer better church planting and oversight models than most. The use of history for almost any sector is a help, whether we wish to review the spirituality of the Westminster divines, to consider the contributions of Groen van Prinsterer—particularly as a father to Abraham Kuyper and Cornelius Van Til or grandfather to Francis Schaeffer—or to see the main exegetical options in “Hermeneutics: With Hubris or with History,” which is the thesis and repetitive chorus of this book.
Seeking to bring history to bear, several other essays drew from different eras. Arguments for the classic positions on creation, for the value of confessions, and discussions about the church, ethics, and many other areas are fodder for this work. Of course, my favorite from this collection is still our mid-’90s ridiculing of semper reformanda, along with our cash offer for those who could find its use as it is employed today—as a wedge for liberalist expansion (and denial of orthodoxy)—among the early Protestant Reformers. Also in the final chapter are brief applications of history to multiculturalism, crisis-ism, postmodernism, and other spawns of liberalism, concluding with a cherished citation from P.J. O’Rourke, who opined (in his modified Santayana): “Those who fail to learn their lessons of history . . . also failed geometry.” There is, indeed, a systemic connection to much of modern thought, and forsaking the past may generate more blindness to truth.
From these ancestors, might we not improve if we recognized new ideological fashions as but cousins from the same genetic branch? Or at least when liberation theology is back in vogue (goodness, we critiqued it thoroughly in seminary in the late ’70s), or when the latest hipster wants to send can goods to stop trafficking (as if Jim Wallis and the 1970s Sojourners were erased from memory as in the 2018 Beatles movie Yesterday), or when the terms “missional” or “gospel-driven” have become virtually indistinguishable from “advocate the more liberal or culture-accommodating position,” or when there is a recurring of naivete that wishes to merge all communions, maybe check first to see how these ideas went to their earlier trash heaps.
A new edition of The Arrogance of the Modern is planned for 2020. And as Ligonier Ministries’ Chris Larson is prone to say: “It will sell tens of . . . tens.” Be that as it may, some of these essays still have legs precisely because modernity has not diminished its arrogance in the least. And the very sad thing is that many churches breathlessly tag along in that pitiful parade.
Modernity is still contemptuous of the perceived shackles of the past but is probably seldom as embarrassing as in the hands of its neophyte scholars, who may not have the benefit of a generational approach. Hubris still haunts. Maybe we could more honestly inquire if our new ideas aren’t drenched with moral superiority and reeking of self-importance. Or as Chesterton warned in his memorable broadside against progressivism: “The only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. . . . All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone . . . you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post.” Thus, he (and others who are not holier-than-thou) call us to apply the past humbly and continue to repaint. “Briefly,” Chesterton advised, “if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.”