J. I. Packer describing the heretical spirit of our age, which holds that:

the newer is the truer,

only what is recent is decent,

every shift of ground is a step forward,

and every latest word must be hailed as the last word on its subject.

This is what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” (a lesson he learned from his friend Owen Barfield. Lewis defined it like this:

the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

Lewis explains what’s wrong with this approach:

You must find out why it went out of date.

Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.

From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

Sources:

J. I. Packer, “Is Systematic Theology a Mirage? An Introductory Discussion,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, ed. John D. Woodbridge and Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1991), 21.

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966) ch. 13, pp. 207-8

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16 thoughts on “Chronological Snobbery and the Spirit of Our Age”

  1. John Thomson says:

    Packer and C S Lewis often said it so well.

  2. theperkster says:

    In our information age, this perpetuates the tyranny of the urgent. Good post.

  3. Paul Norman says:

    Like the Athenian’s idolatry in Acts 17:21, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

  4. Paul M. says:

    Good post. Of course, the inverse is true as well. The liberal mindset embraces change as a panacea, but the conservative assumes an idealized past.

    The older is the bolder,

    Only what is past will last,

    Every hold your ground is step forward,

    And every ancient word must be hailed as the final word on its subject.

  5. Rick says:

    Packer emphasizes the Reformation, and especially on the Westminster Confession, yet not the older creeds/positions. In a way, is that not hailing the “newer”?

    When does it become “new”, and when is it “old” enough to give it consideration?

  6. Dean P says:

    Paul: The problem with what you are saying is that relying on the past really is a better reference point to start with than looking to the new. The reason is I believe is that since the Christianization of western civilization people believed in the Christian view of human anthropology with the doctrine of original sin and therefore established that human nature doesn’t change and won’t change and that truth is transcendent regardless of the time period. So with that idea established as a reference point upon which to look at the world, western civilization sought to rely on historical precedent and not innovation as the best and most accurate way of navigating through the times. But with the enlightenment and Deism and then Darwinism later all bets were off. Human nature was no longer seen a fixed but in flux. Now in the last 200 years instead of human nature being seen as bent and sinful it was being seen as either basically good, a blank slate, or evolving. It is this that has made innovation and Chronological snobbery king. This is eventually how we have got to this point of seeing the “new” as better and disregarding the past as no longer having any relevance. Even though when all is said and done we know that as the writer of Ecclesiastes states “There is nothing new under the sun.”

  7. Oh there are SO many ways this could be applied. I’m with Packer and Lewis!

  8. Justin, interesting observations, and I agree, though Rick’s question raises a good point.

    Dean, I disagree with “human nature… being seen as either basically good, a blank slate, or evolving.” I’ve read newspapers most of my fifty years. I have never read one that does not affirm, in every section (though not every column) that man – every man (and woman), and I include myself – is fallen, sinful. Not good. The proof is all around us. One must only have eyes to see and ears to hear.

  9. Dean P says:

    Marty: Yes we see it and many who are truly honest with themselves and reality see it. But many still surpress the truth and I would say that academia, most of the media, and most of pop psychology still maintain despite what is plainly right in front of them that we are basically good people despite what we do or despite what the facts say or produce.

  10. Joshua says:

    Excellent post. The wisdom of Lewis and Packer is very timely.

  11. Ryan says:

    While the enlightenment, modernity, and secular humanism should all be held in the gaze of a wary eye; what is actually at issue here is an incident of equivocation. The fallacy of Chronological Snobbery can be broken down into two sub-categories 1) Appeal to tradition and 2) Appeal to novelty. I hope it is obvious which is which. Regardless, what is at greater issue is our discernment of the truth and our particular preferences of how we approach grasping truth. I, myself, favor tradition, as I have seen that time has the peculiar ability to erode the temporal and reveal that which abides. As such, I need to be conscious of the limitations of my point of view. I have to be careful to not validate something as truth merely because it appeals to my sense of tradition. God can, and often does, reveal truth in a manner that upsets our notions of acceptability. Yet, He never violates what He has shown to be true to His person.

    1. Paul M. says:

      There’s something pre-Reformational about the idea that tradition is valuable for its own sake. The Reformers made a series of radical claims–that the accumulated traditions of the previous millenium and a half had departed from the original message of the Scripture. This was not a tradition-respecting position; Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc… were liberals, not conservatives.

      I don’t bring that up to argue that a liberal stance toward culture is always preferable to a conservative one. I do bring it up to problematize our common assumption that the conservative mindset is inherently right or proper. “Conservative” and “liberal” are simply stances and their propriety depends upon the cultural manifestation being considered. (A great deal of confusion stems from them becoming shorthand for bundles of political ideas in modern America. That’s not the same thing.) When the tradition being inherited is biblically-sound, then great, be a conservative. When it isn’t, we should be liberals.

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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