“Let us not idolize these people, learn from them, for they were simply doing in their day and generation what we seek to do in ours.” (Carl Trueman)
As we approach the 499th anniversary of the start of the reformation there is a renewed sense of appreciation for these great men and the work they sought to accomplish in making the Word of God central to the worship and life of all believers. Recently Carl Trueman penned an article for First Things focusing on how much we tend to idolize these great men from the past without critically looking into who they were and what defined them in history and time. Personally, I have great admiration for the work of Calvin and Luther knowing full well that they would have little acceptance of my Baptist views, and in Luther’s case I would most definitely be excommunicated for my rejection of consubstantiation. A view that he held as essential to his reformation efforts.
Now what is so important about this is that we do not sugar coat our disagreements with each other but rather learn from one another and think critically about what the Scriptures teach us about God. If we simply take every church Father and historical Christian figure throughout history we will see a great difference in how they approached Scripture and came to their theological understandings, and applications. In some areas we have immense respect and appreciation for Augustine’s work on human depravity and the our need of Christ’s salvation alone. However, we would strongly disagree with his creation of some theological ideas such as that of Limbo.
Augustine was a great Christian thinker, but he wasn’t perfect and neither were our reformation brothers as they struggled to reform the Roman Church and cleanse it of it’s false teachings on things like transubstantiation, purgatory, indulgences and the like. Moving throughout history we must continue to be equally critical to learn and grow from those that went before us, but to never make more of any one author above the teachings of Scripture.
In the end they are only authoritative to the degree to which the Scriptures drive their theological work and ministry.
So as we move close to the modern day we have again seen the open acceptance of great Christian men (such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer) into modern evangelicalism, without ever giving much thought to their actual theological views. Now there is much to appreciate about Bonhoeffer especially in relation to Christian Discipline and pastoral communion, but was he was still most solidly Neo-orthodox and in line with his mentor Karl Barth, when it comes to theology. Both men wished to save Jesus and the Scriptures from the Liberal wing growing within Germany theological institution. To that end, they made great strides in reorienting the church to the truth of God through biblical and academic discussions in Germany, but they would hardly fall in line with our modern Reformed evangelical belief. However, many today have begun to whitewash their doctrine as a means to accept their devout Christian practices.
Now I wrote all that to make us think about our own heroes and those who even today fight to reorient the church to the truth of the Gospel. Each of us have a tendency to create idols out of Church historical figures and act as if they are untouchable or without error in theology or practice, for fear that if there was an error in them the whole truth they taught would fall. However this is just being dishonest, and can equally create in us a false sense of loyalty and commitment to our own modern Idols. In the last few years we have seen some “great” church leaders removed from their churches for a variety of reasons, but to this day many will still defend everything they do even the things that were blatantly wrong. If there is one thing we have learned from the Bereans is that we’re to search the Scriptures to determine the validity of a mans message and after that, hold the person very lightly. By this I mean we must not make men into idols; this is the very action Paul attempts to warn us of in his introduction to 1 Corinthians. In this text he points out that all the growth and movement of God in the life of believers originates in God not in man. So while we may love these men let us remember that the source of truth comes from God alone. That which they taught that was truthful and in accordance with the Scriptures should be appreciated and learned from while that which distorts the truth should be critically inspected, questioned, and rejected.
Ultimately, we should never allow our idols words to become more important than Scriptures, whether they wrote 1500 years ago or last month.