G.K. Chesterton wore many hats in his lifetime. His enterprises as a writer, philosopher, and theologian yielded a majority of the recognition, but we ought also consider Chesterton the historian. Chesterton—though it was not explicitly amongst his primary faculties of study—greatly valued the study of history and the lessons of the past.
He often nodded to the fact that these lessons of old have much to offer in guiding the present, and historiography was not lost on him. He once wrote: “Ignorance of the past means ignorance of the present: ‘History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living.’” Not only did he care that his readers continued to explore the literary works of their forerunners, but he also advocated for them to come to know the great thinkers of the past themselves.
One of his best known quotes tells us that the “whole object of history is to enlarge the experience by imagination.” Using the fundamental understanding of Chesterton’s assertions about history, we are able to deduce the importance of learning from our heritage as believers in the growth and health of the church at large. In his book Lunacy and Letters, Chesterton presents the key presuppositions for this claim. “The story of human society is the only fundamental framework outside of religion in which everything can fall into its place. A boy cannot see the importance of Latin simply by learning Latin. But he might see it by learning the history of the Latins.”
Parallel to this thought is the idea that the importance of the Church cannot be understood from merely learning about church, or even from being in weekly attendance. It is learned by reading texts from early church writers, reading the works of theologians and preachers in various time periods, and examining recorded events in church history as part of the spiritual maturation of the believer. Chesterton greatly valued reading primary sources. In fact, he valued the practice so much that he claimed to have been able to recall most material written about Oliver Cromwell from memory from the period in which Cromwell was living. Chesterton mentioned that he, above all else, would read Cromwell’s own writing. Rather than picking up material from his own time, Chesterton made the point that there would be a void in the study of Oliver Cromwell without looking into works from his time.
This is the main historical philosophy that Chesterton held. He wrote about two kinds of historians: the first being those who tell half the truth; angry historians who only see one side of the question. The second kind is the historian who tells none of the truth, “calm historians” who “see nothing at all, not even the question itself.” He then proposed a third method of historiography: “We should not read historians, but history. Let us read the actual text of the times. … For a time let us cease altogether to read the living men on their dead topics. Let us read only the dead men on their living topics.”
As a theologian, Chesterton still based his primary apologetic on the historicity of the Christian faith. He made two central claims: first, “Christianity arose and spread in a very cultured and very cynical world—in a very modern world.” Second, “Christianity, which is a very mystical religion, has nevertheless been the religion of the most practical section of mankind. It has far more paradoxes than the Eastern philosophies, but it also builds far better roads.”
Chesterton often scoffed at limiting one’s sources on Christianity to mere “modern generalizations.” He recalled that in reading from sources on ancient Christianity, it “was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations,” the Mediterranean and the Roman. “The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast. It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top.” Similarly to the ancestors of the faith, as Chesterton points out, Christianity and church history are together “a living teacher, not a dead one.”
Through his study of the history of the church, his faith was deepened, and this was apparent even in the timeline of his writings. He argued in The Everlasting Man, an historical book written as a sequel to Orthodoxy, that claiming the Church was discredited by the war is like saying the ark was discredited by the flood. “When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right.” For Chesterton, anything that remains true to its own nature will have the best success and the biggest impact on its surroundings and in history, and he trusted in the Church and the impact it left on humanity even in times of devastation.
Chesterton often alluded to the dangers of modern thought; embracing the novel is dangerous when it deemphasizes—or, worse still, does not bother to understand—the old. He frequently wrote almost as if he was warning the reader not to get lost in the desire to constantly generate new ideas, because they are often lacking and underwhelming. “Have you ever seen an athlete trying to do a high jump but not making it simply because he did not go back far enough for his running start? That, says Chesterton, is modern thought.”
Modern theologians and pastors are often too infatuated by the new and latest without so much as glancing back at what has already been. Church history, a familiarity with the creeds, or an understanding of the biblical canon all fall to the wayside when church leaders are not taught of their importance. Chesterton argued the same of modern philosophers, saying “they put first things last.”
The modern Church faces many potential threats, but amongst the top of them is mass communication. Though this can also—by God’s sovereignty—be used for the furthering of the Gospel, Chesterton saw this issue coming and left us with a warning. He argued that “the best information is very seldom the latest information.” A brief overview of the climate of the Church today can effectively verify this idea. Shaky doctrines and unsound theologies are often the newest, and they elicit an emotional response from impressionable followers. They often feel “groundbreaking.”
Nowadays, prophets are heralded for their forward thinking, their progressive ideas, their visionary outlook, their ability to bring the future to us. But the old prophets did not do that. They cautioned us about what the future would be like if we did not repent. They wanted us to think about today, and the only tomorrow they talked about was the Day of Judgment.
Tradition can be an unappealing concept to the modernist. It is viewed in the negative light of limitation and closed-mindedness. However, though they reject it, they have nothing to replace it. Every attempt at making something more relevant and more inclusive than the creed always leaves something out, which is a great irony, because modernism and progressive theology claim to be the most expansive. This is why Chesterton consistently builds on his point that the past is of immense value to us in the present. “Old ideas” do not necessitate a lack of growth, as it is sometimes otherwise believed. There is much to be gathered from them.
C.S. Lewis mentioned Chesterton’s impact on his life and faith various times in his writing. One of the more obvious ideological commonalities Lewis shared with Chesterton was this view of new and old. “I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must only read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.”
Lewis says that newer works are still “on trial,” and have not had due process making their way through the body of Christian thought. He mentions that literary works often have even hidden implications, ones that the author himself might not have intended, but that this process will eventually bring them to light. He brings in a helpful point, that people of the past are no more “magical” than we are. The Lord is still providentially working in church leaders and historians alike, and the people who have gone before were also part of his redemptive plan. However, the only way to truly protect ourselves against our blindness to lessons of the past is by “[keeping] the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” Lewis notes that this is only accomplished in reading old text. “Two heads are better than one. Not because they are infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. … The books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
Brilliant minds like Chesterton and Lewis have been late teachers of the Church for decades. Their works are being referenced in the areas of spiritual formation, church leadership, and other various theological matters to this day. This aligns beautifully with their desire that we continue to look for wisdom and guidance in the literary works of the past.
The understanding of the Church and of the Bible are deepened immensely with the help of other Christian thinkers. This is almost a “safety net” practice to ensure we are still moving forward rightly as Christians. Though generations past made mistakes as fallible people just like we are, they provide ideas and thoughts that contribute to the overall health of our churches to this day. Incorporating historiography to any church leadership training is not only a fascinating endeavor, but also a sanctifying and honoring way to learn. We are indebted to writers like Chesterton and Lewis for these reminders, among many more.
Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.
Ian Ker, G.K. Chesterton: A Biography, (Oxford, 2012). ↑
G.K. Chesterton, Lunacy and Letters, (Freeport, 1972). ↑
G.K. Chesterton, Lunacy and Letters, (Freeport, 1972). ↑
Chesterton, G.K. The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol 1 ↑
G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton. Electronic Edition (Charlottesville, 2002) v.1↑