On the Shoulders

statue of man sitting on the shoulders of a giant

I believe this is one of the greatest times to be alive in the church. Yes, persecution exists in different forms in different places. Yes, there is a great resistance in modern culture due to industrialized convenience, editorialized education systems, and popular intolerance of institutionalized religion. But I personally believe that God can (and does) use these problems to refine His people.

He uses our “I want it now” society to reveal to us the unyielding discontentedness of impatience. He demonstrates how poorly stuff fits in that God-shaped hole evangelists are always talking about.

He uses our pontificating professors to ensure “Christians” have real personal faith rather than a third cousin faith twice removed (or as Jefferson Bethke writes in Jesus > Religion, “I was a Christian by default. Everyone else said there were Christians; my mom took me to church; there was a Bible in the house. So I thought all that made me a Christian too.”).

He uses our distaste for religion to remind us that it’s all about relationships (with God and men) rather than pure tradition. It’s about getting the insides aligned with God more than the outsides the Pharisees clung to.

Yet on top of that, we have a special privilege in this era. More than ever before in church history, we have easy access to all of church history. Two thousand years of scholarship, debate, analysis, mistakes, heresy, and power mongering can be found with the click of a mouse or the cracking open of a mass-printed book. We have the unprecedented opportunity to learn from the past. It all can be learned from.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all pretty. It’s certainly not all perfect.

The Shoulders of Giants

Somehow, though, much of modern scholarship neglects this dark fact. Many students of Christian history and tradition happily glean from these readily available archaic sources unquestioningly.

Two thousand years of scholarship, debate, analysis, mistakes, heresy, and power mongering can be found with the click of a mouse or the cracking open of a mass-printed book.

They believe, and rightly so, that they can reach higher by standing on the shoulders of these giants of yesteryear. Indeed, if we fail to capitalize on the wisdom and knowledge gained by history’s great Christians—men and women who often spent decades of their lives devoted to prayer and the study of the Scriptures—we are being very poor stewards of the resources God has given us. Tradition and history serve as great illuminators of today.

However, we must never allow our appreciation for the past to grown into blind faith. As we admire the view from up on these shoulders, we mustn’t assume they are perfectly square. Perhaps this particular giant has a bum knee, causing him to limp awkwardly, or maybe his back is hunched and he’s not reaching as high as he might have otherwise.

It’s easy for some to fail to recognize the fallen nature of Christian history (so long as they’re not a denomination that holds to the church’s infallibility). Sure, they accept the errors of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the ignoring of the Holocaust, and the selection of an atheist pope, but they fault politics, not religion, for these failings. Never mind that it’s the same fallen man facilitating both the religion and the politics.

Aged like Wine

Many Christians seem to believe that theology and doctrine ages like some wine, better with time. If it’s old, it must be good, as it was born from a purer time or holier men. Bleh. What putrid nonsense.

For one, the Preacher wrote there’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)—that time had its impurities just like this time. No decadence known in the present is foreign to the past.

Second, though it was at times in the past in vogue to be pious, men weren’t somehow holier then. All men are sinners, and not one of us is righteous without God. The righteousness He offers today is not any less holy than it was before.

Still, some cling to the teachings of dead men like gospel. In fact, I know one well-studied man who used that qualifier—dead—as an indicator of the value of his preferred studies: “I study the great ones: Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Henry—you know, dead men.” It goes like this: if they’re dead, they’re old; if they’re old, they’re great.

Look, I appreciate the works of men like Matthew Henry and Charles Spurgeon, and I’d be a fool to dismiss what God did for the church through the hands of an like Martin Luther and John Calvin, but their deadness only points to their fallen nature (death came by sin), not some infallible character quality.

I’ve repeatedly seen similar blind faith in the King James Version of the Bible. When I worked in a Christian bookstore, one of my jobs involved helping customers choose from our wide selection of Bibles. The first question I’d often ask is, “Do you have a preference on which translation?” If they didn’t know, we’d answer questions and help them decide. If they had already decided, we’d take them to the appropriate section. If they answered, “Yeah, the real translation,” we’d take them to the KJV section. Seriously; that was part of our training. And I thought it was a joke until about the tenth time I heard that response!

Some people just believe the KJV is better, more holy, because it’s older. And it even sounds older, which makes it sound better. These are the same people who throw a dozen thou arts into their public prayers. (Admittedly, the KJV has its merit [thee vs. thou is a rather handy attribute, for example], but its dated language, even if its translation were flawless, would place it beyond the intimate understanding of most modern-day readers.)

Eyes on the Horizon

I do not do well with the ocean. The infinite rolling of the waves can have an effect on me similar to swimming in ipecac. Yet I’m told (I haven’t mustered the courage to test it yet) that keeping your eyes on the horizon can stabilize your perception enough to grant you some reprieve. I can’t speak for the ocean, but I know that some balance yoga poses are very difficult to do with closed eyes—maintaining your upright position is easier when your mind is informed with a clear view of the perpendicular horizon, even if you’re not consciously thinking about it.

Similarly, having the Bible as the perfect plumb line can equip us to assess the stability of those giant shoulders upon which we stand. Gleaning insight from commentaries, scholars, and church tradition in general is highly valuable, but it can never be permitted to work against what God reveals to us through His word and the Holy Spirit inside us.

If I know the immense contributions made by men like Origen or Augustine or Wesley, I can appreciate their input all the more. However, Paul tells us to appraise (“prove”, in some translations) all things, and not one of these men offered perfection. Jerome repeatedly scorned the God-given institution of marriage. John Rees, the composer of Amazing Grace, made a living as a slave trader.

I’d be a fool to dismiss what God did for the church through the hands of an like Martin Luther and John Calvin, but their deadness only points to their fallen nature (death came by sin), not some infallible character quality.

Scripture provides us with the ultimate litmus test for all truth. The Holy Spirit, granting me access to the mind of Christ, empowers me to engage with input in a rational, objective manner, that I may correctly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

I’m fallen, but so was every scholar before me. I must strive for obedience and stewardship in my own life, but that requires that I never naively take for granted that the giant on whom I stand did the same. This is just as true for my pastor, my mentor, my father, my brother, my wife, and all others—all are subjected to the sword of the Spirit, and it is up to me to wield it in my own life.

I cherish my Christian heritage, and the great cloud of witnesses before me. I expect insight from it, but I do not expect perfection. That would, in a sense, be idolatry.

Originally posted 2015-09-25 08:00:46.

About Phil (250 Articles)
Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.