Reading the theologians of the past can be a rich experience. We have a lot to learn from those who have gone before us. Yet like most good things, there is a potential danger.
As we read godly men like Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Augustine, John Owen, and many others, we are drawn to the force and brilliance of their arguments. But we seldom consider the arguments and worldviews that they were addressing. Does it matter? Absolutely.
We admire their argumentation, we stand in awe of the impact they had on their generations, and naturally, we want to have the same sort of impact. So we imitate their argumentation and emphasize what they emphasized. But when we don’t consider what they were arguing against, we fail to recognize that we may not be called to answer the same questions.
What I mean is this. The great theologians of the past were answering questions. But the answers they gave would not have been helpful if they were not responses to actual questions—regardless of how brilliant those answers were. An ingenious explanation of the law of gravity is not a good answer to how to bake bread.
So before we adopt the great arguments of the past, we must first consider which questions we have been called to answer.
Martin Luther said it like this:
“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point” (Cited by Francis Schaeffer in The God Who Is There).
In 1863, a soldier fighting in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania would have been considered a hero. But a soldier fighting the same way in the same location today would not be a hero—he would be foolish and irrelevant.
Should we read old theologians? Of course! As I said, we have much to learn from them. But we cannot afford to uncritically adopt their battles as our own. If we want to impact the world as they did then we must know the Bible well and bring that knowledge to bear on the questions and erroneous thinking of the world in which live. Sometimes we will find that we are addressing the same issues that our spiritual forefathers faced. But often we will find that we are asked to answer different questions, or questions that have been significantly reframed.
Not only did the Bible answer the questions that our heroes from church history were asking, it also answers the questions that we face today. Our job is to bring Scripture to bear on our unique historical situation.
How do we know what questions need to be answered today? We will never know until we walk out the front door and start conversations with our neighbors. Only then will we find that the Bible has answers for real life—it always has, and it always will.