Chronological Elitism!

Posted on 29 March 2008

Evangel 12:1 (Spring 1994)

Chronological Elitism!
Evangel 12:1 (Spring 1994)

Every traveler to the Holy Land comes back with different highlights to recount; for some it is the visit to the Garden Tomb, for others it is experiencing the hustle and bustle of old Jerusalem or the tranquility of a gentle cruise on the sea of Galilee.

  However, for me the most outstanding memory of a recent visit was the vivid way in which the appropriateness of the title given to Herod as ‘the Great’, was brought home. There were the enormous and impressive ruins of Caesarea and the tales of the palace built in the sea and served with a freshwater swimming pool. Then there was Herodion, a vast man-made hill topped by a massive and impregnable citadel. A few miles away in a Jerusalem full of Herodian artifacts lay the Temple Mount and its huge platform extended by Herod over the steep-sided Kidron valley. Above all, there was Masada among whose wonders was a sophisticated system of cisterns able to drain off the waters from one of the storms that periodically flood the Judean desert and provide sufficient water resources to supply the fortress for up to four years! Commenting on this, our guide appropriately observed that Herod was engaged in a constant battle in order to show himself greater than nature itself.

  Yet all this makes a more important point. It draws attention to the terrific sophistication of the world in which the New Testament was born. Within the limits of the technological skills available to them, first century artisans constructed works which are quite the equivalent of our putting a man on the moon!

  Alongside of this there emerges a paradox. Much modern theology is preoccupied with studies which assume the basic innaccuracy of the New Testament documents; an assumption based upon the presumption that first century men and women lacked sophistication and were, for example, dependent on a ‘primitive mentality’ with which we can no longer identify. Yet such evidence as we have (and it is not simply technological) gives the lie to such arrogant assumptions.
  Apart from unbelief, what factors have created this odd situation? Perhaps the most crucial is what I would term ‘chronological elitism’; an attitude which continues to infect much modern thinking. The final years of the last century were dominated by philosophical evolutionism. This, most obviously, is to be witnessed in the rise of Darwinianism. However, it was present elsewhere. James Frazer and E. B. Taylor each constructed an evolutionary framework for the development of social structures and religion. Into the twentieth century Levy-Bruhl advanced his theories of primitive mentality. The list could be endlessly extended! The result of all this (or was it the presupposition?) was that mankind in the twentieth century has come of age and thrown off the shackles of superstition and ignorance which had imprisoned former generations. So marked was this development that, for example, Freud could advance many of his theories without interaction with past studies; after all what value could they possibly have for enlightened men and women?
  The First World War, as Karl Barth eloquently shows, exposed the fallacy of much of this sort of thinking. Subsequently studies of culture and language have revealed that the theories of Frazer, Tylor and Levy-Bruhi were just that; and not very good theories into the bargain!
  It is high time for theology to break free from such elitism. Our increasing knowledge of past civilizations is often more humbling than a cause for self-congratulation. Biblical studies need to escape from the hot-house of abstract theories which wither and die in the face of reality.
  As evangelicals, we have every right to stand firm on the high view of Scripture which the Bible itself teaches and our forefathers espoused. When all is said and done, it is not we who are naive!