Church HistoryCultureEvangelical

The School of Churchmen

Back in April (2019), David Doherty gave three reasons to study church history. His case was, in brief, that church history teaches us how to live well, inspires us to do so, and is ultimately an act of love for the Church. I wholeheartedly affirm David’s reasons. I would add at the outset that the confidence provided by the discipline is especially desirable. 

R.G. Collingwood, the polymathic philosopher of history, and himself a committed Anglican, noted in The Idea of History that Christianity represented a unique contribution to the discipline of history. Unlike their Greek and Roman predecessors, Christians do not, in the first instance, conceive of history as a story of man achieving his own ends, but rather, as a record of God’s dealings with man, a working out of his providence in time. Now, simply offering “God’s providence” as the answer to every historical question regarding secondary causes is less than helpful. But it is the acknowledgement of providence as undergirding all human occurrences that provides the Christian with confidence to investigate the secondary causes. Having established for him as a priori fact the starting and ending points, the Christian can have a good deal more fun with the in between parts.

This value of history from a Christian perspective stands on its own two feet. Studying God’s providence is a worthy endeavor, especially when done as an act of devotion to Christ’s Church. But, there is another, seldom acknowledged, value of history that Christians would do well to adopt.

Why History?

In an 1870 lecture, Cambridge historian Sir John Seeley inquired as to why history should be studied. Classics, he said, “train us in the gift of speech, and at the same time elevate our minds with the thoughts of great men and accustom us to exalted pleasures.” Philosophy teaches us about ourselves and induces deep contemplation of deep things. Physical science exhibits its importance by “reveal[ing] to us the excellent order of the universe we live in.” The “great subjects” command attention by their self-evident merit. But does history present less urgent claims for our attention? Seeley resoundingly replies in the negative. “History,” he argues, “is the school of statesmanship.”

Seeley’s vision for statesmanship is really that of citizenship. In a free society, every citizen should be concerned with public affairs and the health of said society—which is to say, the common good and order of it. Accordingly, “it is desirable both for the public good and the self-respect of each individual that great events and large interests [i.e. history] should make part of the studies which are to prepare future citizens for [their] duties.” Certainly, every citizen will not be called upon to partake of future great events, Seeley acknowledged, but all must be prepared to, for even the most secluded person, performing the most menial of tasks, is living in “the midst of momentous social changes.” The only question is whether he will be able to make sense of them and chart a path forward, should he be called upon to do so by his fellow citizens. It is the study of history that prepares a man for the life of a citizen, or rather, a statesman. History enables the statesman to see his place in the grand scheme of things and to serve his country with distinction and humility as a wise decision-maker.

Collingwood held to a similar notion of history as Seeley. In his autobiography, Collingwood famously described the man trained in history as a “trained woodsman,” contrasted by the “ignorant traveler,” the man who possesses little knowledge of history. While the ignorant traveler walks through the forest, he sees only the landscape before him, the trees and the grass. But the woodsman has a trained eye, he can spot the danger ahead, the tiger lurking in the tall grass. This is the skill of Seeley’s statesman.

Putting History Back to Work

The Ciceronian statesman is what Seeley had in mind. Per the Republic, the true statesman is virtuous, just, temperate, and wise. Above all, he exercises the powers of his office for the sake of the common good (happiness and security) of the civitas (the body of citizens bound together by law producing a collective life of its own), not for ambition, popularity, or personal gain like the demagogue.

As mentioned above, for Seeley, every citizen must be prepared to serve as a statesman. The magnanimous citizen is a prerequisite for the magnanimous leader. But Seeley’s focus is less on how the virtues of the statesman are cultivated (other than, perhaps, wisdom) and more on how they are applied. It is history that provides guidance for this application.

History contains the only raw data of human activity (and human nature) available to us. It is this archive, then, that the decision-maker should consult—unless, of course, he foolishly believes that he should prioritize his own judgment over the collective wisdom of the past. As much as history is important for every citizen, it becomes even more important for those who are called upon to hold public office and who exercise authority. One recalls that Christopher Buckley once humorously proposed that a cabinet secretary of history to be established. 

Seeley’s understanding of history’s utility harkens back to a more classical understanding evidenced in Thucydides and Polybius. It is lately referred to by those who seek to recover the classical approach to history asapplied history,” a term coined by Benjamin Shambaugh. This approach does not seek to negate the study of history for its own sake. Indeed, someone must produce the raw data from which the appliers of history can draw. Someone has to first tell us what happened before anything else can be done. Rather, applied history simply attempts to put history to good use, so to speak, solving present problems. It turns history into a public utility.

By studying the data of human activity, good historians develop familiarity with people generally—as well as their patterns of action and thinking—over long periods of time, so that true (rather than merely perceived) changed can be tracked. Hence, the historian is often able to discern the outcome of situations ahead of time, or at least spot the dangers of certain trajectories beforehand. This is why the good statesman must be a good historian, if he is to chart a safe path through tiger-filled woods on behalf of his countrymen. When new, notable phenomena arise, the first instinct of the trained statesman should be to ask, What is this like? and proceed to mine history for an appropriate (contradistinguished from the lazy) analogy. 

Of course, history does not actually repeat itself. It does not move in cyclical patterns (this was another insight of Christian history emphasized by Collingwood). Human nature, on the other hand, is static. By analogy, then, historians can identify similar scenarios and predict likely outcomes, thus advising prudent responses. Contra the truism that history repeats itself, the famous maxim of Thucydides is more accurate, “The present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future.” Most importantly, historians should be able to see and grasp causality—in other words, they should spot the problem. The consequences of actions should equally be grasped, that is, the likely outcome of the problem spotted. This is obviously not an infallible process, and analogies are easy to get wrong. Seemingly every journalist in America will tell you with certainty that we are reliving 1930’s Europe under the Third Reich right now, when, in fact, the more sensible analogy might be seventeenth century pre-Westphalian Europe. Historical analysis is a tool, not a magic wand (or as Henry Kissinger put it, history is not a “cookbook” of “pretested recipes”); but it is an essential and much neglected tool. 

The Decline of History

The study of history has experienced steep decline at American universities over the past several decades. Simply put, barely any undergraduate is majoring in it. This trend has produced an equally, though less quantifiable, decline in historical thinking, and by extension, a detriment to leadership in domestic, and especially foreign, policy. The situation is not much better at evangelical protestant theological institutions. Though the context and goal of these schools is different than secular ones, the results are comparable. 

 It is common to see evangelical seminaries offering MDivs with a focus area in apologetics, biblical languages, or counseling—all important subjects, to be sure. It is rare to see focus area offerings in church history (or even historical theology). Typical requirements for the MDiv degree include two to three courses in church history. That’s six to twelve credit hours, out of the (usual) 80 to 100 hours, specifically devoted to historical study. This is hardly an adequate allotment of time for ministry candidates to grasp the history of the institution they will serve. Much less do these meager requirements represent adequate time for the development of the historical imagination capable of formulating historical analogical analysis for application to contemporary problems. What collectively amounts to less than a semester’s worth of historical study, out of the usual six to eight semesters spent earning the MDiv, is insufficient for the training of God’s statesmen.

Every year seminaries seem to be increasing the focus on “practical” training in their MDiv curriculums. (If a reader can provide an example of a seminary adding history requirements to their core educational programs oriented toward vocational ministry, I would be much obliged to hear it.) This is partially driven by the market. It’s no coincidence that seminaries are moving in a more economical, “practical” direction and at the same time evangelical publishers are churning out “Lifehacks” Bibles, but I digress. 

Obviously, students are afforded a limited amount of time to prepare for ministry (and few attend seminary out of love for church history). There are only so many hours in a semester. When one thing is added to a program, something else must give. The only point here is that it is increasingly the non-practical disciplines that are forced to give, and that history is almost never prioritized. But if Sir John Seeley were sitting on the board of an evangelical seminary, he would tell them that there is no discipline more practical for leaders than history. I know of no seminary that would not claim as its mission the training of leaders for service in the church. It should be added, for our purposes, that in the sense that history is “practical” its presence and influence is essential to the church, a body which necessarily espouses a historic faith. 

The Purpose of the Past

Historical knowledge and consciousness are indispensable to the health of the church for several reasons. One case for church history was made by Carl Trueman last year. In a lecture with the unlikely title,“Reading the Reformers after [Cardinal] Newman”, Trueman argued that teaching church history is necessary for the preservation of the teaching of the church. When theology is not taught from the perspective of its historical context within the doctrinal development of the church throughout the ages, an intellectual vacuum opens up. It is the chasm created by this vacuum in many evangelical circles that has, in part, induced the exodus from evangelicalism to Rome or Canterbury, as documented in Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Path to Rome. Some readers of CP will undoubtedly see this trend as a net good. Regardless, the point derived from the recent mass Tiber-crossings is universally applicable. Theology must be rooted in the history in which it was developed. It is the historical record that provides the reason and purpose of certain dogma that does not immediately leap off the pages of Scripture. Teaching in a theological vacuum, from a position of misguided radical biblicism, accomplishes the opposite; it ironically erodes confidence in God’s revelation.

But the need for historical study goes further. Not only must orthodoxy be historically situated when taught, but future leaders must be trained for the service of the church to defend not only their beliefs and their dogma, but also to protect the health of the church. They must become woodsmen, statesmen—or rather: churchmen, a term perhaps less in vogue today than “statesman.”

The Crucible of Crisis

It is in the crucible of crisis that the statesman is most needed, and most tested. A cursory survey of the present state of the church in America, of nearly every denomination, yields the conclusion that she is, on many levels, in a state of crisis. A glance at the news and the conclusion that many of her leaders are not passing the test must be concluded with equal conviction.  

The reports this year from the Houston Chronicle of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches has reminded everyone that the Catholic Church has no monopoly on sin. This reminder was only necessary for those under a delusion to the contrary, but it is nevertheless tragic, if not surprising. In evangelical circles, the recent abdication of Josh Harris, the illumination of James McDonald’s frankly tyrannical management of the Harvest Church network, and the fall from grace of the one time darling of the YRR movement, Mark Driscoll (who has now repudiated reformed doctrine and joined up with the charismatics, much to the chagrin of his fan club), all illustrate a crisis of leadership in broad evangelicalism.  

Whenever cases like the ones mentioned above are brought to light, the operative sin itself should be the foremost object of attention. And yet, as I read the report from the Houston Chronicle, my initial thought was to see the larger problem as one of lax church discipline, negligible membership standards, and poor oversight and governance of the churches in question. Others have made this same case. These failures of church order and practice have notoriously plagued Southern Baptist, as well as independent Baptist and non-denominational, churches for years, at least in my estimation.

This is not to say that good church order will absolutely mitigate against sexual sin and corruption in leadership. It is, rather, to say that disorder certainly doesn’t help and can often act as a catalyst for sin. It is also to say that the church, like the physical body to which Scripture so often compares her, must always be evaluated holistically. She is as much an organism as an institution. 

What is, perhaps, more concerning on the leadership front than the instances of “fallen” leaders, is the seeming inability of “standing” leaders to navigate through the myriad doctrinal, social, and political debates in the church at present. More often than not, prominent church leaders have either tested the direction of the wind and promptly positioned their sail accordingly, or simply lowered their sails entirely, opting for the path of least resistance. 

This post is not intended to comment on the merits of the social justice movement itself, but what is evident is that many of the same evangelical figures who eagerly jumped on the YRR bandwagon just as swiftly leapt into the social justice saddle. 

Thus, my question in response to reports of abuse, demagoguery, misconduct, and general fawning over fads in the church, wherever it arises, is, “Where are the churchmen?” The same question is relevant regarding the erosion of classical orthodoxy in many evangelical sectors. Where are the citizens of the City of God who are occupied with the preservation of order and doctrine? The historically rooted attendants of church governance and those able to chart a course through this mess? 

A Call for Churchmen

 Trevin Wax, writing at The Gospel Coalition, called for “multi-directional” church leadership. “We are trained in sword fights wielded in only one direction,” he writes. “As a result, we never turn around to get a fuller picture of the battle. What we need are leaders who can identify problems, engage with challenges, and oppose dangers that come from multiple points.” Wax goes on to outline this vision for church leadership, with John Stott serving as his exemplar. He refers to Stott as an “evangelical statesman” and, along the way, refers to none other than Churchill, a leader who was steeped in history and employed it strategically. I would opt for calling the late Stott a “churchman,” myself, but that’s beside the point. Wax’s idea is complementary to what I am expressing here. He wants perceptive leaders who see the extremes on both sides of a given scenario and who foresee the pitfalls ahead if a balanced course is not followed. I would add that leaders should be able to see right through the latest fads, not getting distracted by the latest “movement.” 

In response to Wax’s plea for more circumspect and temperate leadership, I suggest that such is currently lacking in the church because most leaders are not equipped for it. They lack the tools of the churchman; they are not trained woodsman. To use a more biblical illustration, they are watchmen on the wall without binoculars (Ezk. 33:1-9). How can they be expected to accurately identify the problems plaguing evangelicalism writ large and lead the church through the tall grass? The only way to become a leader of the type Wax desires is to be exposed to multifaceted fact patterns over an extended period of time. But this kind of insight takes more than one lifetime to amass. Since no leader has such a luxury, he must avail himself of the wisdom of the past and learn from the events he finds there.

If more evangelical leaders were steeped in history, and carried within them the historical imagination, capable of re-enacting past events in their minds eye, I dare say evangelicalism might have avoided some hardship. It is completely unsurprising, for example, that the unfolding downfall of the YRR movement (see John’s recent piece) was not perceptible to many evangelical leaders, much less to the de facto leaders of the movement itself, but that one of its few, long-time critics is a historian.  

Though every ill of Christendom cannot be laid at the feet of seminaries, the demise of historical knowledge, due at least in part to the decline of history as a central part of seminary education, is owed some of the blame, if Seeley’s thesis is taken seriously. There is a deficit of churchmen in the church because the school of churchmen has been neglected. Church leaders cannot possibly be expected to navigate rough seas when they lack adequate training. 

Obviously, many individuals do much to improve, via their writing and teaching, the historical knowledge of the church in general. The aim of this post is simply to highlight that evangelical Protestantism, in general, does not prioritize historical knowledge in training its leaders, vocational or otherwise. It is not perceived as practical.In this narrow respect, Cardinal Newman’s quip that “to be rooted in history is to cease to be Protestant” apparently rings true, though not to the desired effect of Newman himself. And admittedly, I cannot speak to the competence of leaders in other sects of Christianity.  

It is my contention that the deficit of history in the church has produced much the same effect as it has in secular institutions (especially government); our leaders are not perceptive, dexterous problem solvers. Though the jury might still be out, in the minds of some, as to whether the modern seminary model is the best form of pastoral training (or rather “churchman” training). Pastors who train candidates for ministry through alternative means (such as apprenticeships) must, in my view, prioritize historical knowledge as well in their “curriculum.” As it stands, however, seminary education is the dominant means for vocational ministry preparation.

Seeley suggested that a university should endeavor to be a “seminary” for statesmen. I would argue that a seminary should be a “seminary” for churchmen.  


Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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