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The Peril of the Past in the Present

The contemporary dismissal of history is of epic proportions, not only in the broad culture but also within the Christian church.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this. — Ecclesiastes 7:10

The contemporary dismissal of history is of epic proportions, not only in the broad culture but also within the Christian church. The Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "Truth is Subjectivity" and limited meaning largely to the individual's momentary experience. Today, human history and tradition are considered not so much irrelevant as unreal - they are not within the purview of the reality in which most of us live.

In conscious reaction to this New A-Historical Reality, many conservative Christians and churches have deliberately recovered a profound sense of the historical. This is exhibited, for example, in a healthy interest in the founding of America, the burgeoning of the "classical Christian" educational approach, and the intensity of ecclesiastical confessionalism (a return to the early ecumenical creeds and Reformational confessions). Each of these trends in its own way reflects a creditably sharp rebuke of the absence of the sense of history in the modern world and the Christian church. The first often identifies with the "heroic" definition of history, bringing to the fore such great Christian heroes of the past as John Knox, George Washington, Stonewall Jackson, the Scottish Covenanters, and others. The second perceives great value in the medieval synthesis of Christian and Greco-Roman education, which was Western education for centuries. The third interprets the doctrinal laxity and unbelief in today's church as a result of apostasy from the precise theological statements of Faith, mainly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Buttressing each of these (and other history-recovering enterprises) is the healthy motivation to counter the evident depravities of the modern world that spring from a denial of the authority of the past.

Reverent Approach or Reckless Appropriation?

Each, however, may be readily seduced by the subtle shift from the creditable desire for a recovery of history to a repristination of that history in a way that does less than justice to today's world. A reverent approach to the past easily becomes a reckless appropriation of the past.

In my experience, even some of the most knowledgeable proponents of a recovery of our Christian history seem not to recognize the mammoth, staggering shift that has created the modern - or rather, the postmodern, and now (after 9-11) the post-postmodern - world. Those of us who (often correctly) seal ourselves off from postmodernity in our home schools and Christian day schools, institutional churches, and relatively small circle of "conservative" Christian friends are unaware of the massive paradigmatic dislocations of the world surrounding us. In his lacerating work Reality Isn't What It Used to Be, Walter Truett Anderson accurately observes in postmodernity not simply a new fad, but an entirely new world, one in which men structure their own reality and in which there is simply not the substitution of one belief system for another, but rather a whole new "belief about beliefs": "Most of us now are not so much believers as possessors of beliefs. . . . The new polarization is a split between different kinds of belief, not between different beliefs. It divides those who believe from those who have beliefs" (9, 19). In the oft-hyped and -quoted words of Lyotard, "Postmodernism is incredulity toward metanarratives." It is the belief that there are no genuine believers, only those who choose certain beliefs as humanly constructed interpretations of reality. Christianity, therefore, like Islam, the New Age religion, Protestant liberalism, Animism, feminism, and Marxism, is to postmoderns simply a humanly contrived intellectual construction of what a certain collection of people have chosen as a reality. Each is simply a fanciful story ("metanarrative") designed to make sense of the world - no, rather, to create a particular type of world for its communal members.


In the face of this increasingly pervasive postmodernity, traditional apologetics for Christianity is almost useless - the notion that Christianity is credible because it presents a large degree of evidence does not pass muster, because, unlike much of the 19th century, most non-believers do not reject Christianity on the ground that there is insufficient evidence for it. On the other hand, presuppositional apologetics fares little better. In the eyes of shrewd postmodernists, it is seen as simply a concession to postmodernism itself -"You presuppose your belief system, and I presuppose mine; your belief system gives you meaning, and my belief system gives me my own meaning; your presuppositional Christianity cannot reduce my presuppositional anti-Christianity to meaninglessness, because the very idea of meaning is a construction in my own mind."

The attempt of many of today's conservative Christians to recover history, while laudable, is usually the attempt to recover a particular historical era more favorable to orthodox Christianity. But it is vital to understand that the basic assumptions of life at the time were necessary to sustain the sort of hegemony that Christianity then enjoyed. Theologically strong churches, for example, do not long exist in a vacuum. They tend to be fostered, over time, by favorable cultural conditions. This was no less true of the Christian culture of medieval Roman Catholicism than it was of Protestant Europe. Everybody on all sides believed in man's capacity to grasp an absolute truth; they simply disagreed on what that truth was. Similarly, the European Enlightenment did not abandon belief in absolute truth. It simply held that this truth was to be found in neither Roman Catholicism nor Protestantism but in "enlightened human reason." The religion changed, but the faith in the absoluteness of that religion did not. Postmodernism has squashed all that.

From Christianity to Modernism to Postmodernism

This shift from modernity to postmodernity was a much greater shift than that from Christianity to modernity. The modern world that ended in the mid-70's carried with it the Christian belief in an objective, external reality. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant began the digging to undermine that belief, the German nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche created the underground chasm, and today's postmodernists like Jacques Derrida have collapsed the entire modernistic edifice. Two large rooms in the collapse of this modernistic edifice are, interestingly enough, fundamentalism and liberalism. In the language of Stanley Grenz, fundamentalism and liberalism were both modern. Both held to objective truth, the former the objective truth of the Bible and the latter the objective truth of experience. The vast majority of America's Protestant conservatives are products of the fundamentalist-liberal controversy and interpret the conflict of today's world within the terms of that twentieth-century dispute. That dispute, however, is now over. In the words of postmodernist Stanley Fish, "Liberalism doesn't exist." In the postmodern world, the objectivity that furnished the foundations of both fundamentalism and liberalism has simply vanished - or been annihilated.

Well-intentioned attempts to recover and restore the greatness of a George Washington or Robert E. Lee or Patrick Henry, or the great medieval synthesis of classical Christian education, or the precise confessionalism of high Reformation orthodoxy may succeed spectacularly - but only in hyper-marginalized Christian ghettos. To those committed to a separatistic view of Christian culture, this is all they can hope for; and perhaps they will - and should - rejoice in their success.

These ghetto measures will have no impact, we might add, on a postmodern (and probably not even a post-postmodern) world, which does not reject these paradigms so much because they are wrong, as because they are irrelevant, not because they are Christian, but because they claim to be "objective." They are "naive," not erroneous. Postmodernists do not hold such history-recovering enterprises to be offensive or dangerous; they are, in fact, wholly vapid and, for that reason, even desirable: they instance the great "diversity" of the postmodern world. "See, we have all sorts of people with a variety of conflicting belief systems, and they all live harmoniously in our culture that consists of a multitude of privately constructed realities."

The Christian Enterprise in this Climate

The Christian enterprise amid postmodernity - and, I would add, the only legitimate Christian enterprise at any time - is the enterprise that has been right all along: the insistence on history, but a very narrow, specific history, the history of events that took place 2000 years ago in the Middle East -the birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Calculated apologetics, well motivated though it may be, will recede in significance. The "cultural Christianity" that adapts the church and the Faith to individually constructed realities will continue to gain huge popularity - and will manifest nothing of Christianity. "Scientific" interpretations of the Faith will merit no attention in a culture that never once denied Christianity for scientific reasons. It is only what Thomas Oden terms the "scandal of particularity" that can break through the entire postmodern ethos that has become not a fad, but The New Reality. That scandal is that 2000 years ago a Babe was born in a small city in Jerusalem Who was shown to be the very Son of God, Who died a sacrificial, atoning death on the cross of Calvary to save sinners; Who rose bodily from the grave to defeat all evil principalities and powers; and Who today sits at the right hand of the Father waiting until all His enemies are made His footstool. The chief motif of the early church was the present Lordship of Christ. Jesus Christ is Lord, and he uses His church to relentlessly subordinate all things to Himself by the power of His Spirit (Acts 2; Eph. 1:20-23).

It is this message - and this message alone - that can overcome the postmodern (and post-postmodern) world.

And it is this message that the church, following her first-century predecessors, should have been declaring all along.

Select Bibliography

Anderson, Walter Truett. Reality Isn't What It Used To Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-To-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Cullmann, Oscar. "The Kingship of Christ and the Church in the New Testament." In The Early Church. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956, 100-137.

Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1989.

Fish, Stanley. "Liberalism Doesn't Exist." In There's No Such Thing as Free Speech . . . And It's a Good Things Too. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 134-138. Grenz, Stanley J. Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Translated by David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Murphy, Nancy. Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 1996.

Oden, Thomas C. The Living God. Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press [1987], 1998.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Vindication of Tradition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984.

Sandlin, P. Andrew. "Reality Bites." Letter to the Editor, Time, October 15, 2001, 15.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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