History & Doctrine – Written by the Winners?

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury


It is a common dictum that history is written by the winners. Scholarship, particularly for the pre-modern world, enables us to uncover the other side of the story. Revisionism – often a term of abuse – is in fact a commitment to uncovering the other side of the story.

This came home to me in a shocking way as I concluded Catherine Nixey’s recent book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Like good revisionist history, Nixey’s book is an uncompromising account of the dark side of the so-called ‘triumph’ of Christianity in the post-Constantinian world. We read of the suppression of philosophy and other academic learning – in the name of, and for the glory of, Christ, with perhaps 10% of classical philosophical writing surviving the Christian onslaught. We read of the rise of monasticism, which in many instances involved Christian mob rule – with hordes of monks descending on towns to destroy books, temples and people, and with some monasteries being, to the modern ear, little more than centres of abuse and terror. And we read of the other martyrs, the ones who died not for Christ but for paganism, having their lives taken from them by those who, encouraged by radical preaching, thought that the best way to give glory to God was to destroy their fellow human beings. Nixey’s book should be recommended reading for all who cling to the idea that the late Patristic period was a sort of Christian “Golden Age”.

The great gift of revisionist histories is that they reveal that the world of the past was far more complex than we would care to believe. I well remember reading John Boswell’s The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe which was an eye-opening moment and helped me to see the ancient world in a new light. Even Tom Wright’s revisionist Jesus and the Victory of God prompted a reassessment of Jesus through his painstaking scholarship. Nixey, Boswell and Wright, from their different angles, all offer new perspectives. They may claim more than scholarship completely allows, but they do us a great service.

Our current conversations about sexuality in the Church of England include the claim by some prominent conservatives that progressives are arguing for a change in the teaching of the Church.

So, recent reviews of Vicky Beeching’s Undivided have praised her courage and lamented her treatment, while offering a robust, occasionally sub-Christian, defence of the teaching of the Church. What Nixey and the revisionist historians remind us is that ‘the teaching of the Church’ is not a neutral idea and that the claim that the current teaching of the Church has emerged solely through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is not really tenable. Power, corruption, homophobia, violence and intolerance have also played a part. When we assess the value of the teaching of the Church as a guide to making ethical decisions, we need to set it in a particular context of its emergence within a particular culture, development into doctrine (including the suppression of alternative perspectives and all that implies for the treatment of human beings), and the way in which that teaching has affected the conduct of those who have followed it.

It is an unusual development in the current Church that Evangelicals are using the more Catholic approach of arguing against the goodness of same sex relationships by appealing to ‘the teaching of the Church.’ If they are to do that, then it is important that they accept the negative side of that appeal, the dark side of the development of particular doctrinal and ethical positions.

Many who now argue for a new approach, like Vicky Beeching, do so out of a deeply negative experience of the effect of the teaching of the Church. Failing to recognise that doctrine leads to actions that are sometimes negative cannot simply be explained away by the sinfulness of those who act; it must recognise that the doctrines and teachings themselves are shaped and emerge through sinful, broken and sometimes deeply destructive periods of Church history by sometimes terrible people.

Doctrine, like history, is written by the winners.

Our commitment to Jesus the Lord of all time requires more than allowing the winners to have the only word. The marginalised are also those whose voices have been silenced by history.

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2 Responses to History & Doctrine – Written by the Winners?

  1. Leslie says:

    Simon – This is just a blanket piece against “the teaching of the Church” (whatever that means). You need to state what teaching of the Church you are against and then let others peer-review your arguments. Let’s not write history as merely a story of winners and losers, it doesn’t benefit any of us.

  2. Phil Gardner says:

    For an alternative viewpoint to Catherine Nixey’s ‘The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World’ and similar works, I recommend David Bentley Hart’s excellent book ‘Atheist Delusions’, especially Part II: ‘The mythology of the secular age: Modernity’s rewriting of the Christian past’, in which with great erudition Hart examines the historical evidence for the claims that early Christians suppressed pagan philosophy and learning, destroyed pagan books and libraries, and generally behaved in a violent and tyrannical fashion – and finds that in most cases quite the opposite was true. He does not try to pretend that no abuses occurred: they sometimes did, but the tendency of modern atheist writing is to exaggerate them out of all proportion.

Any thoughts?