Chronological snobbery is an iconic phrase dubbed by C.S. Lewis to describe prejudice against an era. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, he recalls exclaiming, “Why – damn it – it’s medieval,” continuing, “I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of the earlier periods as terms of abuse.”1 It was common for his community to denigrate the past. But I was raised in a branch of conservative evangelicalism that practiced chronological snobbery in the opposite direction: the term ‘modern’ was often bandied about as a term of derision. Concepts like ‘cultural’, ‘modernity’, and ‘progress’ were often bashed, and in their place, we sought to recreate some wholesome, by-gone era through the supposed dress code, social norms, and lifestyle of prior generations.2 In essence, to partake of modern culture and lifestyle was to be (at best) theologically compromised, communally fragmented, technologically addicted, and morally unclean. And to be sure, there are many fair and urgent critiques to be made of modern life and thought. But Christians today can inadvertently fall into another form of chronological snobbery when we carry a subconscious or conscious prejudice against anything modern.

Chronological snobbery against the present tends to walk hand in hand with an impoverished understanding of history. In considering the ‘good old days’, we must ask: good for whom? When we romanticize the past, many of our mental images of history may be drawn from the middle or upper classes. When we picture the 1800s, for instance, some of us may think primarily of the romances of Jane Austen, the warm family hearth of Little Women, the adventures of Tom Sawyer, or Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Pa as he plays a fiddle. When we think warmly of a wholesome Christian past, we aren’t typically considering the rampant domestic violence and alcoholism that attended the industrial revolution and sparked the women’s temperance movement.3 4 We aren’t considering the armies of young children working up to eighty hours per week in pre-regulatory coal mines and factories.5 When we long for the elegance and chivalry of the early 1900s, our imaginations may be more likely to picture the fine lords and ladies of Downton Abbey or the Titanic than to the ravages of World War I. When some of us sigh for the moral goodness of the 1950s, we may be thinking primarily of pastel-clad suburban housewives rather than the poverty and racial injustices that racked many African-American communities. Ecclesiastes 7:9-11 exhorts us, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” The ‘good old days’ can become a false ‘g.o.d.’

Of course, this error, like most errors, stems from an overcorrection. Secular culture tends to elevate modernity and postmodernity as the era of indisputable progress, atheistic genius, and humanistic triumphs. Many secular moderns assume the attitude that “if it’s modern, it’s probably true.” But many Christians react with a corresponding error that is just as deadly: “If it’s modern, it’s probably false.” In Mere Christianity, Lewis addresses this fundamental tendency of human nature:

[The devil] always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies upon your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.6

The knife of chronological snobbery cuts both ways. Modernity’s progress brought us both modern medicine and modern warfare – both healing and horror. Not all progress is progress. But while the modern era has deep faults, it also brought to fruition the historically unprecedented movement towards justice and human rights. The idea that every individual person possesses inherent value is a deep outworking of thousands of years of development in Christian theology and natural law. In the Western world, we now have laws outlawing slavery and protecting the rights and dignity of women, children, people with disabilities, and people of every race and ethnicity. This is justice on a scale largely unseen in history. Such movements towards justice are rooted in an ever-deepening understanding of the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei – the image of God in every person. Yet many moderns also believe they can progress beyond their need for the Vine, clinging to the fruit of a just society while rejecting the just God who grounds natural law. If we progress beyond the foundation that makes progress possible, we will fall into the void. Clearly, progress should neither be unequivocally praised nor unilaterally condemned.

So my goal in this essay is to provide a fresh paradigm for understanding progress, that we may be equipped to evaluate both history and the modern era fairly. It will help us to appreciate both the past and the present without idolizing either. It will enable us to resist chronological snobbery in either direction, that we may discover and cherish God’s natural revelation wherever he chooses to reveal it.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Progress

We might think of progress as the patron idol of secular modernity. It is the attitude that anything new is better, and anything old is obsolete. By and large, the secular world sees progress as horizontal and sequential. It’s as if history were a lengthy row of dominoes proceeding down a dark corridor, with the spotlight of truth, goodness, and human flourishing resting only on the foremost dominoes. Meanwhile, the fallen dominoes disappear down the hall into a void of thick darkness. In this view, we are the heroes of history, the refined and enlightened moderns looking down our noses at the bloody, brutish barbarians of past eras. Chronological snobbery writ large. Christians unwittingly accept this horizontal view when we wrench the spotlight onto some different set of historical dominoes and cast today’s dominoes into shadow, arguing that some other era is the pinnacle of goodness, truth, and human flourishing. Both views commit the error of chronological snobbery. But there is another way to view progress that squares more truly with Scripture.

Suppose we imagine progress to be vertical and cumulative rather than horizontal and sequential. 1 Peter 2 presents the Christian Church as a temple made of ‘living stones’ which are “built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”7 The Imago Dei in every person means that every living stone contributes to a vertical edifice, a temple that rises ever higher, accumulating ever more knowledge and depth of insight. Jesus himself is the “chosen and precious cornerstone” of this Church.

Picture a heap of stones. Each stone on its own is not a temple. It cannot remotely pass for one, though it might like to put on airs. But when built together into a cathedral of great height, some stones will, in fact, see farther than others. After all, the view from the top is greater than the view from the base. Because of this, the stones near the top of the edifice may arrogantly presume to be more ‘progressed’. They have, after all, a better view. But that view is due to no merit of their own. They possess no superior intellect by the sheer accident of placement. The view they enjoy is only possible because of layers upon layers of other stones that brought them up to that height. In fact, in order to truly see clearly, a stone must first understand the cumulative insights of the stones that have gone before. But stones that refuse to learn the lessons of history are just as naturally ignorant and entrenched in their cultural mud as any stone a thousand years ago. By understanding the layers of stones that have gone before, each stone will find its place in the whole structure. It may perhaps gain a clearer vision than the stones on the lower levels, but this clearer vision is due to no merit or greater brilliance of its own, but due merely to a willingness to be built up and edified by the whole structure.

We see, then, how when rightly understood, progress is cumulative and vertical. It depends not on the renunciation of everything prior to the Now, but rather on the embrace of the best of natural revelation in every era of human history. In other words, a Christian view of progress means that we do not merely react to history, like dominos forming a line. Rather, we build upon history, like stones forming a cathedral. (This also requires learning our true history, of which most of us are terribly illiterate.) Furthermore, in Christ are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.8 So we may also delight in the treasures of natural revelation discovered by non-Christians on a variety of subjects, bringing those treasures into Christ’s temple.

Again, simply being a stone near the top of the cathedral does not make it superior to stones below it. Some stones near the top are ornamental gargoyles, embellishments that lend beauty and whimsy to the cathedral’s aesthetics, while some stones near the base are crucial to the cathedral’s structural integrity. And some stones near the top will themselves be structural pillars for the insights and progress of the next generation.

In other words, I am not arguing that modern figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, or Isaac Newton are innately more intelligent, moral, or enlightened than historical figures like Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, or Plato. But there is a very real sense in which later figures have an advantage that earlier figures lack: the opportunity to reap the benefits of more cumulative progress. When we build upon the foundation of all the knowledge and wisdom that has accumulated through our predecessors, we can see farther.

For example, we have a better understanding of science in the year 2024 than in 1524. But we also have a worse understanding of the unity of beauty, goodness, and truth in 2024 than we did in 1524. For true progress to take place, humanity must consciously take hold of the best of every era, from ancient times to today, to build a holistic, cumulative vision.

For those still skeptical that progress is possible, it is a fact that more books exist in 2024 than in 1924, and more in 1924 than in 1024. If a ‘book’ is ‘recorded data’, then we have more recorded data now than ever before. Some portion of that data turns out to be false, the dross that burns away; and some portion ultimately graduates to the category of knowledge. In that sense, knowledge accumulates. If some imaginary person in 2024 could absorb all existing knowledge and apply it rightly, we would think them wiser than another imaginary person in 1024 who did the same. Hence, cumulative progress is possible.

Note well that affirming the value of progress does not entail an embrace of secular progressivism per se. Secular progressivism adheres more closely to that horizontal view of progress discussed earlier. It depends on the renunciation of the past as largely worthless and an overinflation of ourselves as fundamentally wiser and better than our forebears. But progress, understood vertically, rightly values the best of the past and the best of the present. It avoids the trap of chronological snobbery in either direction.

Why We Still Need Progress

One might wonder whether we even need progress today. Some might think that since we have Scripture, human thought is unnecessary. Don’t we already have everything we need in Scripture? I affirm that the biblical canon is closed and must be respected. We most certainly must hold a high view of Scripture. But a high view of any tool means using it as intended, not insisting on using that tool for tasks that the master craftsman gave us other tools for. I do not treat a sword with respect or esteem if I use it as a sledgehammer. The purpose of Scripture is to reveal the character of God, the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, and timeless principles for right living. It is not to tell us the exact details of how to embody those principles in every situation.

So applied theology, or orthopraxy, must be developed in each era as the needs of the moment arise. Theological progress is made when we seek to creatively apply the timeless principle to the specific, embodied situation, building on the insights gained in past eras. Our understanding of ethics grows as we encounter new and varied situations and as we seek to apply sound ethical principles in uncharted waters.

Truth is timeless, yet it is also particular. ‘Love your neighbor’ is timeless and unchanging, but what does loving your neighbor mean in the era of Roman pantheism? In the era of the Black Death, or bubonic plague? In the era of chattel slavery? In the era of child factory labor? In the era of modern warfare? And what will loving one’s neighbor mean if, in some distant dystopian future, some humans are colonizing other planets? Such circumstances do, in their particularities, call for us to consider how timeless truth is to be applied to new and uncertain circumstances. And these applications build upon one another throughout history, leading eventually to modern ethical developments such as inalienable human rights. Such progress in our understanding of orthopraxy is rooted in the timeless principles of Scripture.

This is why it is crucial for us to be engaged and present in our current era, rather than pining for a different one. The orthopraxy of ministering to modern people in modern culture will be influenced, necessarily, by modernity. So to love our neighbors well, we need to understand the best and worst of modernity and how it shapes our neighbors’ lives. The Church cannot be salt and light in the present if we retreat en masse to separatist communities to cosplay as 19th-century pioneers. We cannot fulfill the Great Commission if our distaste for the modern era overshadows our love for our modern neighbors. Rather, we fulfill our calling when we seek to meet the unique needs of today’s communities, fighting today’s social ills and meeting the needs of today’s people instead of retreating to a romanticized past.

There is also much room and need for scholarship, growing in knowledge in a variety of fields. Strides in the scientific and medical fields allow us to serve the needs of our communities. New archeological discoveries bring more clarity to our understanding of history and Scripture alike. Innovative philosophical arguments help us more deeply understand the existence and nature of God. Research on ethical matters helps us navigate the more dystopian facets of modernity. Ecological advancement helps us to fight global hunger and steward God’s good creation. We glorify God when we study his world, that we may love God and neighbor more truly.

Conclusion

A vertical, cumulative approach to progress, rooted in the Imago Dei, is summed up simply: All truth is God’s truth. This includes the truth discovered today. Not all that is modern or contemporary is true, of course. But neither is all that is ancient, medieval, historical, or traditional. Truth discovered in modern times is still true, modernity notwithstanding. We would expect such innovations and notes of progress if every human is, in fact, made in the image of God and learns from natural revelation in their journey towards understanding God and his world more accurately. We stand on the shoulders of giants. So let us glory without shame in the soaring heights of this cathedral of living stones, grounded on the chief cornerstone of Christ.

Notes:

1 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 206-208.

2 For more on this, see Shiny Happy People, the Amazon documentary regarding the Duggar family of the hit TV show 19 Kids & Counting. Other figureheads included Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, Voddie Baucham, and the now-defunct Vision Forum. A popular representative of this posture today is Doug Wilson, pastor at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho.

3 Erin M. Masson, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union 1874-1898: Combating Domestic Violence, 3 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 163 (1997), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmjowl/ vol3/iss1/7.

4 See also “Things to Know about the History of the Domestic Violence Movement”, CAWC (Connections for Abused Women and Their Children). Last modified September 7, 2023, accessed April 14, 2024, https://www.cawc.org/news/things-to-know-about-the-history-of-the-domestic-violence-movement/.

5 Michael Schuman, “History of child labor in the United States – part 1: little children working,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2017, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2017.1

6 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 150.

7 1 Peter 2:5b (NET)

8 Colossians 2:2-3.