When the Pantheon of Christian Greats Blows It


C.S. Lewis, from another viewI mostly read dead authors, at least when I’m considering Christian theology. Call me crazy, but I find more truth in those writers than what I read in modern ones. My personal library reads like a big list of dead guys: Lloyd-Jones, Schaeffer, Tozer, Lewis, Bounds, Ravenhill, Edwards, Nee, Murray, Torrey, and Bonhoeffer.

We all have our pantheon of Christian greats, the people who inspire us and many times provide us our ideas as to what is true and right within the Christian life. I listed some of mine above. I’m sure you have your own.

But sometimes our Hall of Christian Fame gets us in trouble. From the reaction in some corners of the Godblogosphere, Tim Challies tossed a heap of burning coals on his own head last week when he quoted a list of great Christians who believed the Roman Catholic Church to be the antichrist.

No matter where you stand on that topic, the question lingers: Can great Christians be mistaken?

When I was at Wheaton College, I took a New Testament overview class from Dr. Robert Yarbrough, currently professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. (I’ll say without flinching that Dr. Yarbrough may be the most intelligent Christian I’ve ever met, especially when it comes to the Bible. That class was my favorite at Wheaton.) When he discussed Revelation, he outlined at least a dozen end times scenarios, when they were popular, and most of all, some great Christians who supported those scenarios.

What struck me during that teaching was not the scenarios themselves, but the revelation (excuse the pun) that some exceedingly wise and far more biblically diligent folks than I arrived at the wrong eschatology. And for those who avoided predictions as to when the end would come, the law of non-contradiction alone will prove most of those theologians wrong when the End indeed arrives.

Given that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God and see through a glass darkly, ALL great Christians are wrong somewhere in either their faith or practice. I’m willing to say that the apostles were certainly as close as it gets to perfection, yet Peter’s brush with the Judaizers showed that even apostles could have feet of clay.

This is not a question of Biblical infallibility. I believe the Bible to be the perfect and infallible word of God.  But this IS about the foibles of human agents of God.

Pick a topic and you’ll find great Christians on opposing sides. At Monergism.com, witness the solid people at opposite poles on the credobaptist and paedobaptist position. Someone’s wrong, right? Who wins the tag team between John MacArthur and John Piper (credobaptists) and John Calvin and Martin Luther (paedobaptists)? If you want to go with the bulk of historicity here, then the latter win.

But what if the Reformers are wrong? And if they’re wrong on that one position, what other errors may lie in waiting for the undiscerning?

It bothers me sometimes that we treat great Christians as if they could never, ever, in a billion years have a mistaken position on an important piece of doctrine. The Godblogosphere is bristling with defenders of this great Christian or that, and God help anyone who questions that great Christian for even one second! People are so dogmatically in one corner massaging the shoulders of their Spurgeon, Tozer, Aquinas, or Merton and whispering into their man’s ear, “Throw the uppercut this round!” that they’re blind to their hero’s own glass jaw.

It’s not just dogma, either. It’s fairly common knowledge that some Christian greats who were married didn’t have rosy marriages by the standard we uphold today. No one liked Wesley’s wife, and evidently, neither did he. (Gives a whole new perspective to the amount of time John spent away from home.) Plenty of great Christians smoked and drank alcohol (which I think will get you pilloried in the SBC, if the latest conference is any indication), while other great Christians opposed such behavior. Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

The Bible says this about our hero fascination:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
—1 Corinthians 3:1-11 ESV

Just a couple weeks ago, a commenter at another blog said she’d gotten a lot out of reading Watchman Nee. The very next comment was from someone warning her about Nee. I immediately responded that the Bible teaches us to be discerning about ALL things, not just what troubles us. Truthfully, the greatest errors arise when we cast our discernment aside because “Hey, I’m reading my favorite Christian great who I’ve enshrined on my altar of godliness.” What we build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ matters, and from time to time even the Augustines, Spurgeons, Tozers, Calvins, Luthers, Lewises, and Schaeffers of this world molded a few questionable bricks.

As the great theologian Sergeant Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues fame proclaimed:

“Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

17 thoughts on “When the Pantheon of Christian Greats Blows It

  1. Francisco

    Great post. Btw, I remember reading some of your comments in other blogs about warning the blogger for taking only pieces of Tozer’s writings and not considering the whole thing and according to what you say here, well maybe Tozer wasn’t right in all what he said, right? If so, in what he was not right?
    And the scripture you quoted fits well this discussion. Once I had a conversation with a young man and he quoted me twice a well-known christian author and I felt kinda weird. Another day, I did quote Ravenhill to my roommate several times and he challenged me to find Scripture to support those quotes. Now, it is needless to say I avoid quoting Christian authors to friends so I’d better quote Scripture.

  2. Derek Simmons

    Dan: Keep on reading those dead guys—and the longer dead the better. There are a couple of reasons–I think–why in this context “old” is closer to True than new. First, you can’t find works of dead guys unless their works have survived, and the winnowing process that led to their survival is a “refiners fire” of sorts. Next, to get a “new” book published it must be “novel” (not A novel); and if it is “novel” then it is saying something different from and frequently opposite to the dead guys. Much of what is different from and opposite to the works of the dead guys is the product of our culture’s captivity by and reflection of the “radically autonomous” who have a “high view” of Derrida and a “low view” of David; who are more “Stanley Fish” than “fishers of men.”
    Stick with the old guys; you’ll still go wrong on occasion, but less far and less frequently.
    Derek Simmons

    • Derek, et al.,

      Lots of good thoughts there.

      I’m not certain that everything new is a downgrade. Some of it’s just a rediscovery of something dusty we forgot. Nor do I think that the elders of the faith always stressed the balances of the faith. Many times they wrote to counter what was out of balance and that makes it look as if their counterbalance is the one true position.

      While it’s easy to write about the errors of Pelagianism, it’s far harder to write about the practice of outreach to the needy. I think this is one reason why we’ve gone so far over to doctrine and left the practice wanting. I say they’re both important.

      Radical autonomy is a problem for us in the US, but the answer is not to doggedly cling to one apologist no matter what. I think the Lord calls us out to deeper waters and that means going in over our heads—not a position too many American Christians are willing to explore. It’s far more comforting to say we stand behind Spurgeon or Tozer and leave it at that. Problem is, we always wind up missing something in our faith and practice.

  3. And the natural off-shoot of this is that if these great minds can be wrong (and you’re right, of course, that they can be), then what of us? We should all perhaps remember this when we are ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that we are RIGHT.

  4. Philippa

    I love those dead guys! Augustine! Luther! Tozer! Yes, even Calvin. 😉

    I’m a CS Lewis fangirl. And yes, Jack Lewis had big ole feet of clay. He wasn’t perfect – and his theology wasn’t either, not by a long shot. But he was a superb apologist for the Faith, and a kind tutor to his students, and the gifts of imagination he bequeathed to the Christian world are priceless … and who knows how many came to faith because of his lucid, rational, eloquent and wonderfully inspired writings, both fiction and non-fiction?

    I’m also a John Wesley fangirl, even though I don’t agree with all of his theology either. So passionate, so fallible, so human. A great man who did great things for God. A great man who seems to have been all too aware of his failings. I really love him for that. His spiritual journals are so raw and honest.

    When I read stuff by Calvin and Bishop Ryle and other dead guys, I listen with profound respect. No, I don’t have to agree with all that they said. Because – shock horror! – none of them were Protestant Popes. Fancy that!

    And yet some today behave as if they were. 🙁

    And what shall we say of the characters in the Bible? Jacob, one of the great patriarchs of Israel – an inveterate liar and deceiver until God broke him. David, glorious king and poet and spiritual leader of Israel – who committed the appalling crimes of adultery and murder. The disciples, bless them! … and on it goes. Wow, they’re just like us! Human! Sinful! Who knew?!

    Hero-worship (even when the hero or heroine in question is deeply admirable) in Christian circles is a dangerous thing, IMO. It leads to spiritual immaturity and more dangerous things, pastors and preachers with an empire-building mentality who forget how to be servants. Ultimately it can lead to heresy and cults.

    I also think that we can even put our favourite systematic theologies in place of God Himself. Idolatory can be that subtle. It doesn’t have to be blatant.

    Thank you for reminding us, Dan, that Jesus, the Lord of the Church, is our one and only Foundation and Cornerstone.

    All these dead guys – and gals! – built some solid gold on that cornerstone. But they, like us, are subject to Him, and Him alone.


  5. Hi Dan,
    Excellent post and an attitude of mind we should all maintain. If I am not mistaken — Romans states that trying to establish their own righteousness (being right) was the reason the Jews in the time of Christ missed Him. Hummm… thanks for reminding us all to avoid such a mindset. How I praise Him for His grace — takes care of me, even when(opps) …although I may well be wrong.

  6. Great post, Dan! I would do well to head these words of warning. I completely agree with Francisco – quote the Bible, not your favorite theologian. I would also admit that it is very difficult to admit that I MIGHT be wrong about anything.

  7. “…Peter’s brush with the Judaizers showed that even apostles could have feet of clay. This is not a question of Biblical infallibility. I believe the Bible to be the perfect and infallible word of God. But this IS about the foibles of human agents of God.”

    Which makes me wonder why we tend to be so dogmatic about a closed Canon. Of course, that’s a whole ‘nother ball game… =/

    Francisco (comment #1) seems to head in the wrong direction, though. Should we quote the Psalms written by the adulterer/murder (David)? Or the first five books, all attributed to a murder (Moses)? What about the letters written by the guy who killed Christian (Paul) and the guy who refused to eat with them (Peter)? It seems more that we should stop being shocked when we realize that our leaders aren’t as perfect as Jesus.

  8. Dan, great post (as usual). I wrote about some similar stuff, focusing more on church leaders and Bible characters, but the same thoughts apply to the guys “in between”. 😉

    For those who don’t follow the link to read my own ramblings at length, let me second a thought that Philippa touched on. By “over-honoring” these men, we are in grave danger of idolatry.

  9. The old stuff is no better than the new. The old stuff that has stood the test of time is superior to the majority of what has been written. Some of the writing of today will be held closely by people 150 years from now but most of it will fill landfills, just like in days gone by.

    On another note. I find it amusing to here cry Sola Scriptura and justify it by quoting their favorite dead guy who wrote none of the scriptures.

    This is a variation of a common Dan Eden post. A little more humility would lead to a lot more godliness.

    • Ruth

      Lol, remember the Sola scriptural is nothing new. In the 1st century the Sadducees were Sola Scriptura and therefore rejected afterlife, heaven and hell, reward and punishment, Angels, and resurrection, which led Jesus to blow them off saying they didn’t know what they were talking about.

      All of these beliefs were held by the Pharisees, however, which is where gentile Christians got them. Just a little food for thought. 🙂

  10. Ruth

    No human has perfect theology. Whew, glad that’s out of the way.

    There are consequences to the theology we embrace, however and we have the luxury of 2000 years to evaluate the theology of those who came before us.

    Take Luther. He did some remarkable things. Yet, he wanted to take several books out of the Bible, including the book of James since it contradicted his “Solae Scriptura”. He also dispised the book of Esther and his rabid anti-Semitism and hateful teachings about Jews led, many years later, to a mostly Luthern Germany, that mostly looked the other way— or supported the annihilation of millions of the Lord’s own people. Kristallnacht was even launched on his birthday, and there were clergy praising this destruction in Luther’s name.

    He wasn’t alone. Milito of Sardis, Justin Martyr, Augustine, St John Chrysostom, Aquinas, and virtually all Church Fathers who came before him also hated Jews and called for their perpetual suffering.

    Despite these men’s hate-filled hearts towards Jews and the countless pogroms, blood-libels, persecutions, expulsions and exterminations they inspired against Jews, they still did some great things.

    How do I, a deeply committed Christian married to a Jew, reconcile all of this? I know my faith isn’t based upon the weaknesses and sinfulness of these men. I do t put them, or anyone else (including my personal fav, Clive Staples) on pedestals.

  11. I have argued this for years and often encountered the slings and arrows of unrighteous advocates of infallible ancients. This fact gives me great comfort as I ponder the sometimes ridiculous ideas I have promoted. IMO no human is rational and reads scripture in a factual manner. No one can develop a theological system without errors. As RC said, “The most brilliant theologian was never more than 80 to 85 % right”.

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