Old Dead Guys are Dumb

I’ve heard the phrase “dead white men” as a scornful euphemism for traditional American and European history. Too focused on dead white guys. No minorities, no women, and no focus on _today_ and _tomorrow_.

Unfortunately, this is also true in the church. One of the ideas of the Reformation was _sola scriptura_, the fact that only Scripture is authoritative and normative in matters of faith and conduct. But _sola scriptura_ does not thoroughly reject creeds and tradition; it merely relegates them to a supportive role and elevates the scriptures.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up as a Baptist, but between a distorted view of _sola scriptura_ and misguided notions of the priesthood of every believer, it seems to me like Christians have by and large pretended to be cut loose from the thousands of years of history and millions of saints of God that have gone on before.

And we’re not just content to ignore them. In order to justify our disregard of tradition and history, we mock it. The classic hymns of the church are derided as “dry theological treatises” instead of the spiritually moving ad-libbed praise and worship choruses. Preaching the gospel is “irrelevant” and discarded in favor of “telling a story”.

More to the motivation of this post, traditional Christian views on societal matters are termed Pharisaical and legalistic, contra the new views based on grace, liberty, and love. Which is code for antinomianism.

If I were to even take the Christian church’s teaching from 50 or 60 years ago, I would be roundly denounced (again!) as a fundamentalist Pharisee.

For instance, even AW Tozer wrote and preached about the dangers of going to movies, and he was certainly opposed to “religious movies”. Here is a quote:

the motion picture in evil hands has been a source of moral corruption to millions. No one who values his reputation as a responsible adult will deny that the sex movie and the crime movie have done untold injury to the lives of countless young people in our generation.

Or how about this, about the profession of acting?

Bacon has said something to the effect that there are some professions of such nature that the more skillfully a man can work at them the worse man he is. That perfectly describes the profession of acting. … No one who has been in the presence of the Most Holy One, who has felt how high is the solemn privilege of bearing His image, will ever again consent to play a part or to trifle with that most sacred thing, his own deep sincere heart. He will thereafter be constrained to be no one but himself, to preserve reverently the sincerity of his own soul.

I don’t want to get into whether or not Tozer was right; that’s not the point. But when we read this, isn’t our first reaction to dismiss him as a reactionary legalist? Do we take him seriously?

I foolishly got into a discussion about divorce and remarriage the other day. Did you know that if you take the historic position of the Christian church, today, you are a gnat straining Pharisee just like the ones who criticized Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath? I even quoted the Westminster Confession, hoping that would help. I was wrong.

What of separation from the world? There is a scathing quote by Spurgeon about Christians not partaking of worldly amusements. But if you present it today, you are criticized. For quoting Spurgeon!

What about quoting respected saints of God who have written that Christians ought to avoid all needless interaction with the unregenerate? If you say that today, you have no heart for the lost, and have missed the _whole_ point of the Gospel. I presented some quotes along those lines to some folks I go to church with – they didn’t even register as something vaguely within the pale of possible Christian thought. Why, those people must be Fundamentalist nuts! Matthew Henry? John Gill? Who are they?

What about keeping the Sabbath? The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message said Sunday “should be employed in exercises of worship and spiritual devotion, both public and private, and by refraining from worldly amusements, and resting from secular employments, work of necessity and mercy only being excepted.”

This statement is similar to the Westminster Confession (written _three hundred years earlier_), which states that Christians should “observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their wordly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.”

Such legalistic Pharisaical nonsense! The BFM has now been updated. Now, Sunday should “_include_” acts of public and private worship. But the rest has been replaced by “Activities on the Lord’s Day should be commensurate with the Christian’s conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

What about the Roman Catholic Church? The Reformers held that the Pope (or at least the papacy) was the antichrist. There also seemed to be an idea that maybe it was Islam instead (although now we know we all worship the same God, right?). The 1689 London Baptist Confession said the pope was the antichrist. Even as recently as 1932, the LCMS said the pope was the antichrist and it was not open for discussion. But now we have new perspecitives on Paul that wind up bringing evangelicals and Catholics together. What gives?

The most common explanation for this deviation from history is that the world is changing and we must reinvent the church to continue to be relevant. Fine. Let’s grant that for the sake of argument. For the moment, let’s assume that changes in worship formats, replacing expositional preaching with storytelling, multimedia presentations, and practical, wordly advice from the Bible, is legitimate. Let’s assume that the role of singing is to create a particular spiritual or emotional state in the congregation. Let’s say that traditional church must be replaced with cell groups. I won’t argue that. At least, not now. :-)

What I _will_ argue, though, is that any of the changes in the church’s _moral_ teachings can be justified by this.

Either Sunday is to be honored by an exclusive devotion to worship (plus acts of necessity and mercy – which is arguably worship too!), or it’s not necessary to be so strict. God’s standards do not change. It’s either _always_ been OK to have Superbowl parties on Sunday, or it will _never_ be. Either it has always been acceptable for Christians to enjoy non-sinful secular amusements, or it will never be. Relationship evangelism has either _always_ been a good approach, or it is _always_ sinful to have needless relationships with unbelievers. Either Spurgeon was right, or today’s evangelists are, on this question. The answers to these questions of sin and propriety cannot change over time.

The only tenable position for the modern evangelical church is that these old dead guys were dumb, they just fundamentally missed it. Because we don’t just disagree on a few peripheral issues. We disagree deep down at the very core. When I read what the church taught about questions of law, grace, morals, and so forth – to be honest, I _barely even understand them_. Those older teachings are almost entirely foreign to me. They are orders of magnitude different than most of the church’s positions today. We don’t even start from the same position. The Pope as Antichrist? Don’t go to movies? Some occupations are unbecoming of Christians? I can’t even usually begin to wrap my mind around it enough to deal with it.

Did you know that the elders of the Presbyterian(?) church, once upon a time, would stop by your house to make sure you had family worship? And they would _discipline_ you if you weren’t doing a good enough job? This is just fundamentally different from us.

As I even casually learn about bygone times, I have to say that 10% of the church’s historic teaching on moral questions sounds familiar. The other 90% is simply unrecognizable. And I grew up in very conservative, even fundamentalist, Southern Baptist churches.

Either we’re wrong today, or just about everyone else who died more than 50 years ago, has been. Must have been them. Old dead guys are dumb. Glad we’re done with that legalistic hypocritical morality. I’m going to go watch an R-rated movie this Sunday with all my lost friends.

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5 Responses to Old Dead Guys are Dumb

  1. Chris P. says:

    Good post. I tend to worry about the white men who are living at this time. Robert Bork was right in his assessment that the real danger we are facing comes from white western, liberal men,i.e. Phil Donahue. John Spong etc.Have you read “The Shape of Sola Scriptura” by Keith Mathison;Canon Press? I wish more people would read it before they offer the arguement that the concept of inerrancy was invented 130 years ago. Anyway good work.

  2. Karl Thienes says:

    This is one of the key reasons why I was atracted to Orthodoxy–the influence of “the dead guys” is still a living part of our daily life, our worship, and our moral teaching.

    At some point we have to ask ourselves: are we trying to be a part of the church of Sts. John Chyrsostom, Basil, and Gregory et al….or are we trying to sqeeze them into ours?

  3. Luke says:

    I agree. And something I have thought before. I do not like the distaste or just plain ignorance that so many have of these great christian men. Would read a computer book from 15 years ago, and try to use it today? Probably not, for technology has changed. But man has not. He is still tempted by the same things as always. Lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It might be in different forms, but at the root it is all the same. I just wish people would make up their mind about what they really believe.

  4. Julia says:

    I’m just popping to to say hello and that I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now and am really enjoying it. Keep up the good work.

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