Historical Humility

I’m currently enjoying Theology in the Democracy of the Dead, by Matt Jensen, a former professor of mine from the Torrey Honors College and a fellow (though much more accomplished) St. Andrew’s alum.

First of all, I highly recommend this read, as it offers a comprehensive yet relatively brief look into the lives and work of key theologians throughout Christian history. Each chapter focuses on a specific theologian and highlights his primary emphasis, providing a “living dialogue” between even deceased men.

I am glad to recall the books I read in college through this compact, conversational volume. It is helpful to revisit Anselm and Iraneaus and all the others I wrestled with during my undergraduate years. I am delighted to consider once again the profound impact each had on our thinking as Christians, but, more so, I am impressed by the character of these men, reminded that orthodoxy means little when orthopraxy is neglected—that is, if we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, what good is our faith, really?

Most shockingly, I am finding that these theologians were men of deep humility. I fear that modern Christians (if they care about church history at all) often look upon these fathers as domineering old white men, but this is not only a poor representation of the diversity of the early church theologians, but a deeply slanderous portrayal of their character.

Today, pastors and churches often desire promotions, large congregations, and vast spheres of impact, but their character may suffer or go unquestioned. Although podcasts such as The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and journalists like Julie Roys are doing work to expose this hypocrisy, I’ve seen firsthand that it is too often assumed that a faithful pastor is the one with a large church, thousands of sermon downloads and a huge media following. The men I find in this “democracy of the dead,” however, were deeply adverse to claiming power and fame.

Augustine took on his church posts with resignation rather than ambition, and Anselm wept hysterically and pled “please no!” as he was forcibly appointed a bishop. Augustine reluctantly took on leadership, always remembering keenly his sinful past and striving to remain humble before his Lord. Anselm “resisted with tears streaming down his face, his nose bleeding…[as] the king and bishops and his own clerks all [harried] him to accept” (Pg. 113). Indeed, the king and bishops physically pressed the pastoral staff into Anselm’s hand against his will. In a culture of influencers and power-seekers, how refreshing—how revolutionary!—it would be to witness a pastor reluctantly taking leadership, doing what must be done for the flock even against his own desires.

If the Church is to move forward with discernment in both doctrine and character, we must look back. We cannot cut ourselves off from our fathers in faith, who strove so painstakingly to establish a foundation of theologically wisdom and to exemplify an ideal of biblical humility. Theology in the Democracy of the Dead is a must-read for any believer seeking a connection to and understanding of our historic, living faith.

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