In order to look back at the past, we have to (metaphorically) turn our backs on the future. This means, among other things, that the future can sneak up on us. Our study of history can mean that we give way to an optical illusion — we think we are standing on a fixed promentory, called the present, and before us extends the broad vistas supplied to us by the monthly selection of the History Book Club. But the present is never a fixed point. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Allegory of Love, the present is also “a period.” We are always standing on the fantail of a moving ship. Future thinkers and historians will one day be staring at us with furrowed brow, with the same baffled expression that we wear when looking at Sir Philip Sidney in his Elizabethan ruff.
But if the present is an historical period, then some of the things that we think are slam-dunk certainties will almost certainly turn out not to be. E.G. Stanley once commented (with some acid in it) that the history of scholarship is the history of error. And was it Max Planck who said that science advances funeral by funeral? And Malcolm Muggeridge once said that evolution will be shown to have been one of the great jokes of history. Scholarship of all kinds — scientific, historical, grammatical, philosophical — partakes fully in the tendency our race has to veer into sin and folly. Some of the dumbest ideas ever to afflict our race have been embraced first in the academy, and abandoned there last. Two examples should suffice — Marxism and evolution. Marxists think it can cost a dollar to make a loaf of bread, and that we can make people sell bread for fifty cents, and then still have bread. There are people in our university system who still think that. And evolutionists think that the Canadian moose and the bright yellow canary are blood cousins. Where are you most likely to find people who will defend such things? The answer is somewhere where people have letters after their names.
But does this means that we should strive for a lack of scholarship in what we do? Certainly not, because anti-intellectualism has a bad case of its own besetting sins as well. Proud ignorance is no better than proud knowledge. The problem is the human heart, which is always about eighteen inches below the head, whether or not the head in question is full of axle grease or erudite learning. Why does Paul taunt the wise man, the scholar of the age? It was because with all his learning, he did not know God.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). It may sound arrogant to us to say something like this, but it is really humility. “I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps. 119:99). One of the foundational prerequisites for faithful study in any area, therefore, is a fear of the Lord, and a complete willingness to ground everything on the Word of God. Only God is omniscient, and when we compare how much any human being knows (in his field) with how much there is to be known in that field, the only marvel is that any of us know anything at all. How much history is there, and how much of it made it into the historical record? What is man, that You are mindful of him?