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Doomed to Repeat?

Posted by Matt Postiff May 29, 2012 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Theology 

There is a common proverb that goes like this:

Whoever is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it.

Many people have affirmed this idea. I myself have done so. The problem is that it is false. has a bit of truth to it. Namely, the idea is that if you are ignorant of the mistakes made in the past, you may well repeat those mistakes.

But just as true as the common proverb are the following statements:

Some who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.
Some who are ignorant of history are blessed to repeat it.
Some who are knowledgeable of history are doomed to repeat it.
Some who are knowledgeable of history are blessed to repeat it.

So my first point is to lay out these three other possibilities. My second point is to bring to your remembrance that knowledge alone of history is no guarantee of victory over mistakes or sins. If we really believe that, we deny the doctrine of total depravity and embrace a kind of gnosis which is obviously false. People sin in egregious ways even when they have historical examples of the same kind of sin leading to terrible consequences. Part of knowing history is knowing that other people who have known history have not succeeded in avoiding the repetition of its sins. Anyone who has understood their reading of the Old Testament can see this.

My third argument has to do with the fact that the proverb exposes an underlying philosophy that is contrary to the orthodox Christian belief that the Bible, God's Word, is our sole rule of faith and practice. A person who heartily accepts the proverb looks to history as a rule of faith and practice. History becomes another Bible, or at least close to it.

To the contrary, we don't have to know historical theology to live a successful Christian life. Now, don't get me wrong—knowing the history of interpretation may indeed help us interpret the Bible better; and knowing church history may help us to live better. But knowing historical theology may also induce us to interpret the Bible wrongly and to live incorrectly.

This brings me to my fourth point. Why can knowing history have such a deleterious effect? To adapt another proverb about the church fathers:

You can find anything in history.

Practically any good deed, good belief, right choice, wrong choice, bad belief, or bad deed can be found in history. (There's nothing new under the sun?!) By immersing yourself in a study of history, you may end up embracing the wrong things you find there.

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