THE THEOLOGICAL ENGINEER
The Good ol' Days
Weren't always good...
By Jeff Laird
A look back into history can give the impression that Christians living in bygone eras were just...better...than we are today. The words and deeds we read about in history books come across as holier than anyone we see living today. This is especially convicting when we realize that historical figures lacked access to the information and resources we have now! This can be discouraging, and perplexing, but it's also misleading. This perception is nothing more than a "historical illusion" caused by comparing what we remember with what we're experiencing. This misconception also helps to underline the key dynamic in the Christian life: discipleship.
In many countries, certain radio stations only play songs classified as "classics" or "oldies." These are the best songs from decades past; usually from several decades. It's easy to listen to those songs, compare them to the playlist of a station playing current popular music, and assume all music "back then" was better. After all, every song we hear on the oldies station seems catchy, memorable, or exciting. They're all as good, or better, than the best songs we hear on the popular stations. But this makes the same misleading error of comparing the "classic" Christians of eras past to all Christians of the modern world; we're not comparing the exact same group.
The reason we hear certain songs on the oldies station is because they were good enough to be remembered. For every song played on a modern oldies station, there are dozens or hundreds of songs from the exact same era which are never played anymore. Those other songs used to play side-by-side, but now they're forgotten. Modern stations are simply playing what's new — not necessarily what's been proven to be "good." So, the oldies station is replaying the best of that era, while the modern station is playing everything from today.
The same perspective helps when we consider Christians and history. Looking back in time, it's easy to focus on names like Aquinas, Origen, Anselm, Augustine, and so forth. We don't even have to look that far back to think of people like Moody, Spurgeon, or Livingstone. But the reason we remember them is because they were exceptional. Most Christians who lived alongside those men were just as flawed in their Christian walk as the people we see today. Christians "back then" were not necessarily more spiritual than we are in modern times; we simply don't remember them as much as we do the shining stars.
We also need to keep in mind that major figures of Christian history were flawed; they were far from perfect. Every one of them, from Origen to Calvin and Augustine to Aquinas had blemishes and scars on their record. We tend to take it for granted that certain "heroes of the faith" were so far above others that they're beyond reproach. In reality, they simply added something of value to our understanding of the faith, despite their shortcomings. The songs we remember from prior decades are usually the same — they're not necessarily "perfect," but they are "memorable."
That's not to say spiritualty can't grow or fade over time in a culture. It's not unreasonable to notice when a society experiences a wholesale slide towards God, or away from Him. And we should keep in mind that in eras past, especially in the earliest days of the faith, declaring yourself a "Christian" meant persecution. The less risky it is for a person to claim the name of Christ, the easier it is for non-believers to be grouped with believers.
The entire issue is also an excellent example of why discipleship is so important. Jesus did not command His followers to go and print Bibles, or books, or encyclopedias. Rather, He told them to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). That means personal counseling, guidance, and teaching. Christians in earlier eras of the faith had no choice but to be discipled, since they didn't have access to the kind if information we do today.
That makes some of the resources we have now a drawback, in a way. People tend to assume they don't need others, as long as they have the internet. We're an internet-based ministry, of course, but we still realize that this is a tool, not the be-all-end-all of Bible study. Treating modern information as all you need for your Christian life leads to all sorts of mistakes, misconceptions, and other problems. The modern Christian has wonderful access to knowledge, but that access is not always used in the right way. The Christian model has always been discipleship, and the further a culture gets away from that, the less "Christian" it will be, whether it has access to libraries, or not.
Looking to the past, then, we should weigh what seems like a huge gulf in spiritual strength against the reality of how we remember history. The "classics" of the faith, the "golden oldies" of Christianity are just that — the best of the best. Even then, they weren't perfect. They did, however, exhibit spiritual strength even without all of our modern libraries, apps, and resources. Rather than discouraging those of us living in the modern world, we should use such memories to commit ourselves to greater discipleship.
Image Credit: Andrew Eason; "theology books, Bristol library"; Creative Commons
Tags: Christian-Life | History-Apologetics | Theological-Beliefs
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