I’ve been busy preparing a paper for an upcoming conference on Calvin. My paper, titled ‘John Calvin: Servant of the Word’, attends to the notion of Calvin as servant/minister of the Word, and considers the attention that preaching occupied in the Reformer’s ministry, his understanding of preaching as divine accommodation, as public, as event, as the Word of God, and its relationship to the proclamation activities of font and table. Along the way, I manage to entertain a few detours, one of which concerns ‘chronological snobbery’.
G.K. Chesterton once quipped that ‘Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as from a root. Even when we improve we never progress. For progress, the metaphor from the road, implies a man leaving his home behind him: but improvement means a man exalting the towers or extending the gardens of his home’.
One recalls here that oft-quoted phrase employed by Inklings C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield – ‘chronological snobbery’. ‘Chronological snobbery’ is the notion, in Barfield’s words, that ‘intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century’. ‘Chronological snobbery’ is a fruit of one of modernity’s great lies, and one which slices of the Church have swallowed with significant detriment.
But a recovery of the Church’s health cannot be purchased via an attempt to return to some golden age. Rather – as the history of God’s people teaches us repeatedly – such recovery comes via realignment with the Church’s evangelical and catholic centre in the gospel itself borne witness to in the prophetic and apostolic writings. At a time when ‘chronological snobbery’ remains the outlook for many, the reading and promotion of such a word will seem ‘countercultural, provocative, [and] strange’.
There are, of course, obvious implications here for pastors. If William Willimon is right that Christians are indeed among ‘the last close readers left in this culture’ (and that is a significant ‘if’), then ‘a major task of pastors is to assist congregations in reading carefully in order to align ourselves to a text, in order to submit and bend ourselves to the complex redescription of reality that is Scripture’.
The best of the alternatives may mean taking on a new look: