Blind Spots of the Past

I’ve long been uncomfortable with our contemporary habit of attacking our dead ancestors in the church for their blind spots.   I hope you know what I mean: you’ll be reading some Christian classic from 100, 200, even 1500 years ago, and suddenly come across a phrase or thought that is so utterly abhorrent to you, that for a second you can’t believe that this person was actually a believer. For example, I read a book review recently, in which the reviewer condemned the book’s author for making the same mistakes as Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin.   (If I’m going to be making mistakes, that’s the company I want to keep!) 

It’s easy for us to condemn these uncomfortable statements from the past as patently absurd and plainly anti-gospel.  And our culture habitually favors the new, so it’s easy for us to see our current culture as inherently superior to that of the past.  And, let’s admit it, it’s easy: the dead are no longer around to defend themselves.  We don’t have to worry about some preacher from 300 years ago calling us up and giving us an earful for distorting his sermon. 

We have our own cultural blind spots, and reading books from the past with a hyper-critical eye robs us of the chance of having our own blind spots pointed out.  C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton each made this point in various places, and I recently heard an interview with the late Jaroslav Pelikan that again made this point well.  Pelikan was a church historian, and he described his role as “filing a minority report for the past 2,000 years.” 

Secondly, we deny the communion of the saints when we are too quick to point out the faults of our spiritual ancestors.  Today, it is easy to condemn a dead believer or long-gone community of believers for their now-rejected beliefs.  It is much harder to extend grace to them and accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is much harder to forgive their faults, and praise them for the accomplishments they achieved without the benefit of hindsight.  It is much harder to put aside judgment, and submit ourselves to their judgment, so that our own blind spots can be revealed. 

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