Books on the tendency toward anachronistic approaches to church history?
May 20, 2016 6:16 AM   Subscribe

So I've been listening to this podcast on the History of Christianity from the Reformed Theological Seminary and there is an odd way that events in the early period of the church are presented which seems rather anachronistic or suffers from "hindsight bias". Is there a term for this? I was wondering if there is literature on this tendency in religious thought (i.e. in which present orthodoxy is retrojected into past debates and conflicts over doctrine.) Is it common?

A notable example would be the lectures on "Perversions and Heresies", in which various alternative conceptions of christ, god, etc are presented by the lecturer as "perversions" or "heterodoxies" even though they pre-date the establishment of an orthodox position on these very debates.

Interestingly the lecturer often attempts to deflate his use of "perversions" as though he is aware of this anachronistic action but doesn't seem to want to openly admit that its rather misrepresentative.
posted by mary8nne to Education (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Someone better trained in theology and/or Reformed thinking will hopefully jump in here, but my $.02:

I don't know of an "official" term, but hindsight bias is not bad for what I think you're describing. As a broad term you might want to get acquainted with if you're not already, hermeneutics is the area of study that probably drives this tendency. To be a little more specific, many teachers or commenters on Bible texts bring some philosophical commitments to the table that reinforce a tendency to do this.

In other words, there tend to be some key issues (not always obviously important to the uninitiated) which provoke some predictable responses. It's like if your friend is always going on about the Democratic party, you can say almost anything and the conversation will get bent toward - Democratic politics. "Yeah, it's just like those guys to have drained the pond out back of the church; they always were against baptism..."

So because they are discussing subjects not as objective historians, but for teaching purposes (and what they want to teach is what they consider the "correct" positions on things), they will conveniently label certain actions or beliefs as incorrect, even though, as you say, the church in question may not have taken a hard and fast position yet.

Also keep in mind that a conservative theologian or teacher doesn't just consider this history of abstract interest, nor does he or she consider one opinion to be as good as another. One position is right and another is wrong, and even if someone held a view back when the matter wasn't settled, it's still an example of someone holding the "wrong" view, so they're going to discuss it as such.

The fairer-minded will sometimes acknowledge that a given view may differ from "modern" versions of the view, and/or that the people who held this position perhaps didn't see it in the same light, but unpacking all that takes more time.

For example, many feel that Paul was speaking in some of his letters against a set of beliefs that eventually matured into gnosticism. For example, Colossians 2:8 (ESV)

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

If I were teaching a class about this, I would acknowledge this passage to potentially be aimed at the same sort of beliefs that gnostics eventually took, but I would not say something like "Paul cautioned the Colossians about gnostics in their church." But you can see how that's simpler to say... an ounce of inaccuracy to save a pound of explanation, as it were.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:50 AM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

This sounds a bit like what historians call presentism . Something like ethnocentrism, but with analysis biased to the mores and norms of your own time rather than your own culture.
posted by col_pogo at 7:21 AM on May 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

As to your question "I was wondering if there is literature on this tendency in religious thought?", I think there is much religious writing that has a high awareness of it. One of the highly educated Episcopal priests that I know referred to "the heresy that almost won". (Arianism, IIRC) That phase certain suggests the chance that Christian theology could easily have evolved very differently.

There have always been Christians holding out for "that which has always and everywhere been believed". These words go back to St. Vincent of Lerins (435 AD), and suggest a deep distrust of anything that smacks of a new or definitive interpretation of Christian doctrine. There was a reform movement (at least in the Anglican church) along these lines in the 19th century.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:41 AM on May 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: ha, I actually picked up the term "hindsight bias" from the wikipedia entry on "Historian's fallacy" and "Presentism". I'm familar with Heidegger's conception of Hermeneutics but not really with the origins of the term in biblical interpretation. Perhaps I should look into Origen and Clement of Alexandria on Hermeneutics.

I also recently went through this Yale Online course on the New Testament which takes a more Historico-Critical method and is based on Bart Ehrman's work. So I suppose the contrast is particularly striking between the approaches.
posted by mary8nne at 8:33 AM on May 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

There have always been Christians holding out for "that which has always and everywhere been believed".

SemiSalt is right, and this attitude is highly correlated with the one you're trying to get at, in that for there to be heresy, there has to be an orthodoxy to be different than. :-) The church (universal) has always held a variety of ideas, while at the same time wanting to believe that its "real" members are all agreed on a bunch of things. The credal statements are sometimes based on efforts to agree on what those "essential" things are. And then there is disagreement over what is essential to agree on, and hilarity ensues.

I'm a Christian myself, if you haven't figured that out, and this fact of life can be kind of embarrassing. Not sure there's an easy answer, other than to say that while I have a right to adopt considered beliefs, I have to be humble enough to recognize that people of good will have often disagreed, and will continue to do so. Theology and humility often seem to be uneasy bedfellows...
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:39 PM on May 20, 2016

« Older Classics nerds of MeFi! Name my dad's adorable...   |   How to find month-long housing in Melbourne Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.