Word Of The Day: Anachronism

One of the themes that emerged from yesterday’s discussion of Machen’s ugly letter is the problem of anachronism. It has probably three senses and the one most relevant to this discussion is the expectation that earlier figures in history should know what we know or think as we think. With just a little reflection we can see how unfair such an expectation is. Is it reasonable to expect that, before the Wright Brothers (inter alia) achieved mechanical flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903 that everyone would understand mechanical flight or expect to be able to climb into a machine and travel through the air? Let us say that we found someone in the 19th century scoffing at the possibility of mechanical flight. Should we mock that person as “backward” and “unenlightened” because they doubted that it was possible to do what no one heretofore had ever done? After all, virtually no one, with the exception of Leonardo DaVinci (1452–1519) had even theorized about the possibility of mechanical flight. What makes DaVinci amazing is that despite the limitations inherent to the time in which he lived, e.g., widely shared assumptions about the nature of things and the nature of the physical world, he was able not only to imagine the possibility of mechanical flight but he wrote 35,000 words on mechanical flight, sketched numerous flying machines, and even built a prototype.

Should we infer from DaVinci’s theory and experiment that all reasonable people should have reached the same conclusion as DaVinci? By definition an exception is unique, different, it tests the rule (the norm). Mechanical flight would not actually occur for another 400 years. That seems to prove just how exceptional DaVinci was. It is unreasonable to expect that everyone in the late medieval period to have thought like DaVinci. It is unreasonable to expect Thomas Aquinas to have anticipated quantum mechanics. That breakthrough was only possible after other developments. It takes time.

So, by analogy, Warfield is the DaVinci figure in this story. He reached an understanding that was, all things considered, highly unlikely. It is unreasonable for us to look back to late nineteenth or early twentieth century figures and expect them to look at things the same way we see things after the modern civil rights movement. Certainly some Christians anticipated the breakthrough of the civil rights movement but such a breakthrough makes them exceptional rather than the norm.

In 2018, when inter-racial marriages are uncontroversial, when inter-racial adoption is unquestioned by decent people, when intentional racial segregation is rightly denounced as apartheid and evil, and in a time when the study of history in high school and university must be optional (judging by the general lack of historical intelligence and awareness) it might be difficult to understand the prevailing sentiment among the majority culture in the USA at the turn of the 20th century. At the turn of the 20th century America was a much more rural place. It was simultaneously much smaller and much larger. We take it for granted that we can commute 30 miles to work or catch a jet to Chicago. In that sense we live in an entirely different world. We are in near constant contact with each other and with large numbers of people from an array of people groups, cultures, and languages. Machen did not live in our world. As a matter of experience Baltimore and Chicago were more distant than they are today. People groups, cultural groups were also more distant from each other. American culture was more segregated then than now. In the preceding decades there had been a large influx of immigrants from Europe and Ireland but the USA was not nearly as ethnically diverse as it is now. The immigration act of 1924 greatly reduced even that immigration until the immigration act of 1964. Since the mid-1960s, we have become a much more ethnically diverse nation. The Hispanic population alone has grown dramatically since 1980. In short, we live in a rather different world than the world inhabited by Machen. To expect a turn of the century Southern white man to see the world in the same we as we, when he did not have the benefit of the intervening decades of experience, is anachronistic. It is imposing a later standard or set of assumptions upon an earlier time. It is akin to expecting Aquinas to think about the physical world like Einstein without the benefit of the intervening scientific “revolutions” (Kuhn).

When scholars began to theorize that the earth is not the center of the universe it was scandalous. Many learned people did not accept the new science for as long as a century after. It is easy to mock them now but such mockery is lazy. It fails to understand just how revolutionary heliocentrism was and how firmly entrenched geocentrism was in the minds of most people. The civil right movement of the 1950s and 60s was such a revolution. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. I saw white people react to Dr King and then, over time, change their minds. It took time. It took new experiences. It was messy, difficult and awkward. I attended what was considered the “integrated” high school in Lincoln. It was entirely possible to grow up in Lincoln with virtually no experience of any other culture but one’s own and this was well after the mid-century civil rights movement. In the absence of any opportunity for cross-cultural experience may we reasonably expect people to be cosmopolitan and tolerant in their outlook? Lincoln is more ethnically diverse today than it was in the mid-1970s but it took time. If it was difficult for white suburban Lincolnites in the 1970s not to be racist, how much more difficult for Machen and the Princeton faculty in the very early 20th century?

This is not excuse making. It is the work of the historian to try to explain (not to justify) why Machen thought as he did. Understanding is what we do as part of the search for truth, what happened and why. The search for understanding assumes that there is more to life than coercion. The Marxists are wrong about this. Everything is not the product of the class struggle. Every act (e.g., scholarship) is not a cover for the exercise of bourgeois power and oppression of the proletariat (whoever “the proletariat” might be in a given case). History is the business of getting to grips with the past as it really was. It is telling the truth about the past, blemishes and all, as best we can. There is a great difference between understanding and excuse making.

Finally, this episode is a good reminder of the importance of distinguishing between history and theology (or ethics). As a matter of theology and ethics we should reject Machen’s prejudices. We should determine to apply our theology (e.g., our doctrine the image of God) consistently. As a matter of Christian ethics, we should determine to love our neighbor as ourselves without regard to ethnicity. We rightly regard this as basic Christianity. As a matter of history, however, we need to interpret figures in light of their time, their circumstances, their location in history and not in light of ours.  This too is a matter of basic Christian ethics. This is how Christian historians love their neighbor as themselves. Anachronism is the result of impatience and even intellectual laziness. This is an American disease. We tend to want results now. We tend to agree with Henry Ford,  “history is bunk.” Christians, however, cannot afford to indulge their impatience and pragmatism. Ours is a historical religion. The history of redemption took a very long time. We have no idea when God spoke to Job. We As a matter of science the flood seems to have been rather a long time ago. God made his covenant promise to Abraham 2,000 years before the incarnation. He allowed the Israelites to wander in the desert for 40 years. It has been almost 2000 years since our Lord ascended. He seems not to be in a hurry and he seems to value history more than we Americans. Here is a place where American Christians should criticize their culture, i.e., see it for what it is and allow the faith and allow the past to inform them as they consider the messiness of the past.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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15 comments

  1. I think you made the point yesterday that says it best, there are no golden ages, no heroes. Only Christ was/is sinless.

    Even so, I’m still really enjoying Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism and appreciate his tenacity to fight for orthodoxy.

  2. Reflecting on whose ‘we’ are in Christ (HC 1) through history and theology increases the intention to be merciful, forgiving, and forbearing. I am grateful Machen wrote openly to his mom. How did she respond to her son’s sin? The short list of God’s faithful in Hebrews 11 has surprised many ‘perfect people’.

    Thank you for helping me think outside of the viral mindsets of modernity.

  3. Let’s not try to make excuses for Machen. He was an “elitist, racist pig” without excuse. He should have known better. So are all of God’s people, because Christ came, not to save the righteous, but wicked sinners who trust not in their own righteousness, but the promises of the covenant of grace. Under it, if God forgives on the basis of trusting in Christ for salvation, we can hardly dare to overturn God’s forgiveness by being judgmental and condemning others.

  4. People’s attitude in this area can often be akin to what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”.

  5. Nit-pick: didn’t you mean to say it has been “almost” (not “more than”) 2000 years since our Lord ascended? 🙂

    • On the basis of many bible passages, Machen should have known better, that there is no difference, we are all one on Christ. Machen was a sinner, who should have known better, as we all are, used by God to courageously defend the faith. That is why we admire him, not for his moral perfection, which he knew he didn’t have. That is why he trusted in the active obedience of Christ. Christ was his Hero and his boast. That is what makes Machen a model for us, and a teacher of the Truth.

  6. Angela:

    No, he shouldn’t. He made his decisions with the totality of information that he had. We do so as well. Every day. We do or don’t do based on what we know or believe to be true. However, even though we have the benefit of Machen and some great Bible teachers that have come after him, our sins are even more glaring and egregious than those of Machen.

    • You are so right, we are all wretched sinners in a sight of God, who should have known better, and that includes Machen. We all have the law written on our hearts, we have no excuse for our sin, not one is righteous except by the imputed righteousness of Christ. That is the faith Machen defended and died relying on. He was not sinless and he knew it.

      • Angela, I praise the Lord for your openness and vulnerability – openness is to wholeness what secrets are to sin, Ps 32: 2-5. I am continuously surprised that God elected me to live in the abundant Grace of His Mercy through Christ’s Righteousness. As the Spirit faithfully uncovers and lays bare the sin that lurks in my flesh, like you, the ugliness of the sin overwhelms me with despair until the same Spirit seems to move me to confess the sin. As I praise the Lord for not leaving me blind to the sin, I gratefully repent and rejoice in His Word. I am studying ‘The Pearl of Christian Comfort’. I appreciate your suggestion.

    • I actually find it quite encouraging to discover that Machen seriously fell into sin by harboring racism, which is a failure to love our neighbor as we ought. When I honestly look into my own heart and see the ugly depravity and sin that lurks there, it could make me ready to despair that God could really love me. But when I see the sins of God’s greatest saints, it helps me to understand that God’s love does not depend on anything in me, but only on His sovereign mercy by election in Christ.

  7. While I think anachronism is a legitimate concern in historical research, I don’t think it’s anachronism to say, in 2018, that the Ptolemaic model of planetary rotation was simply wrong. I think it’s okay to say that Ptolemy was wrong. It’s also okay to use a historical letter to say that Machen was wrong in light of God’s Word, yes, even if we’re in 2018. Calling something “wrong” should not always be relatively determined by the contextual knowledge or ignorance of the person.

    • Chris,

      It is the definition of anachronism to use our knowledge of physics and astronomy to critique those who could not possibly have known better. Ptolemy couldn’t have known better. No one did.

    • Sorry, I mistakenly wrote “I don’t think it’s anachronism to say, in 2018…”. I meant to say “I don’t think it’s *wrong* to say, in 2018, that…was simply wrong.” The writer who says today that Ptolemy was wrong, doesn’t have to be accused of anachronism. Machen’s view *is* (and *was*) wrong, because the unfortunate significance of the ugly letter is not about whether or not Machen *should have known*. It is simply an article regarding Christianity and the Christian life. We don’t have to demonize Machen. But we also shouldn’t demonize the purpose of the article. It is just a matter of being historically transparent. I believe that this is an implication of the 9th commandment as believers. We don’t have to blame the church father’s writings and say “they should have known better.” We can, however, say that they were wrong.

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