A lot of the Puritans described themselves as the chief of sinners: John Bunyan and Oliver Cromwell for example. They were employing the well-known phrase from 1 Timothy. From an objective standpoint they could not all have been right. In fact, Richard Wurmband (1909–2001), the Romanian pastor, thought Paul was actually telling the objective truth when he described himself as the worst sinner who had ever lived.
But if we look at this statement about being the chief of sinners from a subjective standpoint, well that is a very different story. Who is the worst sinner I know? I have read a lot of church history and that narrative abounds with sinners: the Alexandrian Christians who murdered Hypatia; Luther and his anti-Jewish rants; Calvin and Melanchthon and their sanctioning of the judicial execution of Servetus; Oliver Cromwell and the slaughter at Drogheda; Whitefield and Edwards the slave owners; Whitefield’s friend Wesley did not fall into that trap, but, man, look at his marriage! And then my hero Carey: how he failed Dorothy.
But the most wicked person I know, c’est moi. This is not some rubbishy virtue-signalling but solid truth that, recall, is at the heart of one of the most important of Jesus’ parable, that of the Pharisee and the publican. “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Now, when I begin with that as a hermeneutical principle for reading church history, wow what a difference it makes in reading the story of God’s people. In fine: it tempers the moral judgment of this historian.