There’s nothing worse than being called “outdated”. Actually, I can think of a lot of things that are worse, such as having to get a tetanus shot, or needing to have dental work of any sort done. But in our fast, modern, connected culture, it’s a pretty bad thing to be called “outdated”. The Walkman is outdated. Sleeveless denim shirts are outdated. America thrives on progress, and over the past 300 years we’ve made major progress in many areas, such as women’s rights, civil rights, technology, healthy living, and medicine. Progress is good. Most of the time.
I think we need to be very careful however, when we start jabbering about progress in our ideas of God. A few months back Rob Bell released a book called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Many people embraced the book, saying that it was time we moved past our old, tribal, outdated ideas about a fiery God who pours out wrath on sin and sends people to Hell. This argument of “moving past” old ideas has been repeated in regards to many other ideas about God and the Bible, such as sexuality, marriage, and the creation debate.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for reexamining our commonly held beliefs and making sure that they really are from the Bible. But I think we need to do slowly and very, very carefully. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, do we really think that we are somehow spiritually superior to those who went before us? Do we really think that all the Christian men and women who went before us and held to a particular idea were spiritual morons who didn’t know what God was really like? That spiritual giants like Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones somehow missed it when it came to their ideas about Hell, or sexuality, or the church, or the family, or creation? It’s not like God has changed since the times of these men. He’s still the same, and the men and women who went before us wrestled with the same Bible that we do. So let’s not be arrogant punks and think that somehow we’ve moved past the ideas of those before us.
Second, we’re just as much products of our culture as those who came before us. The argument usually goes something like this: Augustine (or Calvin, Luther, Edwards, etc.) was deeply embedded in a patriarchal (or misogynistic, medieval, Enlightenment, rationalistic, etc.), and therefore all his ideas were shaped by that culture. We are part of a superior culture that has moved past all those old ideas, and therefore our ideas are better. But that’s just a boatload of bologna. Our ideas are shaped by our post-modern culture just as much, if not more than those who went before us. Our ideas aren’t inherently better than earlier ideas.
Finally, the Bible talks about guarding the truth of Jesus Christ and not letting it be changed. For example, in 2 Timothy 1:13-14, it says, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” We are primarily called to guard the faith entrusted to us. Not mess with it or change it or improve it. In light of this, we should be hesitant to dismiss ideas that have traditionally been held within the church.
We should always evaluate what we believe and what has traditionally been believed in light of scripture. The Reformation was built on the idea that everything must filter through scripture. My concern, however, is that in our modern culture we will be too quick to abandon ideas that have traditionally been held. That can be just as dangerous as holding on to “outdated” ideas. Maybe more dangerous.