The Dead Theologians Society: How yesterday's theologians can help you flee today's idolatry

Article by   September 2011
Central to the problems tackled by the Apostle Paul in the first century Corinthian church was its idolatrous fixation on personality cults centred on the so-called "super apostles". That this verged on almost literal hero worship is suggested by Paul's own assault on the Corinthians: "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. 1:13)

In creating their own intra-ecclesial pantheon of celebrity preachers (to whom, one assumes from Paul's rebuke, something verging on a de facto salvific importance was ascribed), of course, the Corinthian church was merely aping its host culture: theirs was a world geared toward the full blown deification of the hero. The hero cult was an important aspect of ancient Greek religion: Ajax, Jason and Achilles were all the focus of religious devotion. Paul saw himself, Apollos and Cephas being brought (in Paul's case, even against his own will) dangerously close to the same end. In its rush towards personality cults, the Corinthian church was busy aligning itself as a sub- rather than counter-culture within the broader world of Greco-Roman idolatry. It replicated, rather than challenged, the prevailing idolatry of its cultural milieu.

One should hardly be surprised that the problem seen by Paul in Corinth continues to arise in each successive generation of Christians. No doubt this is so because the sin of the personality cult, like every other sin, is a distortion of something good; namely, that we worship God and offer admiration to our neighbour where and when it is appropriate. It is no sin to have well chosen heroes. It is wrong, however, to treat ordinary men and women as though they are somehow more than the sum of their (grace-dependent) parts; to ascribe such spiritual significance to them that Paul is obliged to redirect you to Christ and ask, "Was this person crucified for you? Were you baptised into his name?"

In this respect, many Protestants charge Roman Catholicism with this particular error. They point to its past and present as replete with patron saints under the gaze of the great personality cult that is the Papacy. The history of Protestantism however, despite its break with Rome, has little reason for triumphalism in this regard. John Exalto's work Reformed Saints (Gereformeerde heiligen. De religieuze exempeltraditie in vroegmodern Nederland (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2005)),  for example, demonstrates that the same impulse central within Roman Catholic devotion to the heroes of its own tradition was not convincingly jettisoned by the Protestant church (in a Dutch context at least) after the Reformation. The Reformed tradition has known many of its own saints and mini-popes. They fit within Protestant ecclesiastical structures and are labelled differently, but, in nature and function, they are not significantly different to the Roman Catholic alternative.

Within the more local context of contemporary English-speaking Reformed Evangelicalism, a movement drawing the bulk of its momentum from North America, the same problem is also evident. The North American church finds itself within a host culture also centred on hero worship. This is seen chiefly in two areas: the important role played by personality factors in American politics and the astounding popularity of reality TV shows designed to deify previously unknown singers as it catapults them into a fleeting brush with stardom.  It isn't called American Idol for nothing. Were Calvin alive today, one wonders whether he would add Factory to its name...

It seems hard to account for the idiosyncrasies of much contemporary Reformed Evangelicalism unless one reads it against the broader backdrop of the cult of personality in secular society. It is a movement dominated by a group of preachers who, whether they encourage it or not (and we must remember that even Paul, the arch-nemesis of hero worship, was unwittingly drawn into a personality cult in Corinth), are treated as celebrities within their sub-culture. Without the notion of celebrity, for example, it becomes very difficult to explain the phenomenon of the North American Reformed mega-conference.

My desire to avoid Christian personality cults changed considerably when I became a minister. Through personal experience and conversation with more experienced ministers, I saw that the task of pastoring a super apostle acolyte (bearing in mind that I was probably somewhere on the quite mild end of that spectrum as a seminarian) is disheartening. Ministering to someone who only gets excited by his chosen celebrity pastor (a hero who, incidentally, lives across the Atlantic, does not know his devotee exists and most likely will not be at hand should the acolyte have a pastoral crisis) and who seems disinterested in your own preaching, is no great source of joy.
If one wishes to avoid hero worship, of course, it is not necessarily the best idea simply to shun the personality in question. Had I been around 2,000 years ago, I would certainly have wanted to hear Paul preach (and living in the present day I read his letters) regardless of the fact that some Pauline groupies had taken things too far. (Kudos to Paul for publicly rebuking them, though). Similarly, I would have wanted to hear Cephas and Apollos for myself. However, I hope I would refrain from hero worship, simply because personality cults are out of step with the gospel.

Paul's exhortations to the Corinthians are reminders of the gospel. Christ is our Lord, he was crucified for us, we are baptised into the Triune name; thus we must treat God as Creator and Redeemer, and accordingly we must treat humans (however heroic they may be) as just that. This does not mean, though, that we honour God best by having no regard for our neighbours. I restate that I would have gladly heard Paul preach, despite the attempt of others to form a personality cult around him. Indeed, I benefit a great deal from hearing the sermons of some extremely well known contemporary preachers, despite my reservations about the personality cults centred upon them. They are significant because they are, in general, excellent gospel communicators and, as such, there is much to be learned from them. Giving due respect is in keeping with the fifth commandment.

How do you appreciate the significant Christian leaders of your day without (as our culture conditions us to do) moving from respect towards idolatry?  The remembrance of the gospel imperatives listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 is central.  However, bearing in mind that the only way to inhabit and continue a tradition is to learn that tradition from those who have followed it well, I have found it particularly helpful to have a dead, rather than a living, theological hero.

My PhD years were spent buried in the books of Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), the outstanding systematic theologian of the late 19th and early 20th century Dutch neo-Calvinist movement. I loved having three years to explore his ideas and benefit from his works. They were great times. Years of wrestling with the books of a dead theologian, rather than simply attending the conferences, following the Tweets and reading the blogged soundbites of contemporary super preachers, forced me to learn from Bavinck in ways that I probably could not from living Christian leaders. That was, on the whole, a very healthy thing.

As Bavinck has been dead for almost a century, my access to him is entirely through his books. There are relatively few publicly circulated photographs, obviously no videos and (as far as I am aware) no audio recordings of Herman Bavinck. Although Bavinck was a stylish, cultured man, my lack of audio-visual aesthetic access to him robbed me of the temptation to dress or preach like a bad Bavinck impersonator. Whatever faults there are in my preaching, that is definitely not one of them. While I appreciate Bavinck's controversial (in 19th century Kampen!) dandy style, I have never been confused between replicating Bavinck's look and being theologically discipled by him. Substituting aesthetic style for substantive growth is not a problem when the aesthetic connection between teacher and student is, for the most part, severed.

I realise that exposure to Bavinck's writing style is also access to an aspect of his aesthetic, but the silver lining on the dreadful cloud that is reading someone who wrote in 19th century Dutch is that my goal was simply to understand, rather than replicate, his writing style. Although I now live in the Netherlands, my spoken Dutch doesn't aim to emulate Bavinck's elegant language of yesteryear. My aspiration, (i.e. simply to be understood) is far less grand. No doubt there are people who attempt to copy the dated linguistic style of, say, the Puritans, but for me this has never been attractive.

In fact, there was no audio-visual aesthetic attraction to Bavinck at all: I was not drawn to him because he was a persuasive or charismatic public speaker (as much as those are admirable skills), or because his look matched up with my (consciously held or not) "image" ideals, or because his "brand" offered me a crowd within which to find a place to belong. Instead, I was attracted to Bavinck because his thoughts were full of the Triune God. His theological vision struck me as particularly beautiful because it was grounded in truth.  It captured my imagination and made me long to think like this man. These circumstances have pushed me to engage with his thought substantively, and for that I am thankful.

None of this, I should add, is to decry the importance of aesthetics. Form and content are both significant, but as I learned from Bavinck's handling of the relationship between beauty and truth, form must take its lead from content.  Form follows function.  Style without substance is of little worth. Beauty that is not grounded in truth is not particularly beautiful. In learning from a theologian who gave aesthetic expression to the Reformed tradition within a cultural context quite different from my own, I had to think rigorously in giving form to this tradition in my own context.

The fact that Bavinck is dead means that I am in a position to make an overall assessment of his lifelong contributions. Which ideas did he express as a young man? Did he remain committed to the truth in old age? Were his life and theology consistent? Did he run and finish the race well? However much I benefit from the sermons and writings of contemporary preachers and theologians, I am in no position to ask those questions of them simply because they are still alive. Their futures remain to be seen.

There is a sad naivety in those who make very public displays of loyalty to high profile contemporary Christian superstars. "I am of Cephas." What will you do, then, if Cephas reneges on his profession? How will you cope if Cephas is at the centre of an unexpected personal scandal? What if Cephas becomes a heretic? Will you still be of Cephas?

As a young seminarian I spent a period engrossed in the sermons of a particular celebrity preacher, though I (thankfully, with hindsight) made no public declarations of undying allegiance to him.  The preaching style was novel and the accompanying online aesthetic flawless.  A few years down the line, however, I find this preacher increasingly embarrassing as he naively promotes a series of often bizarre personal hobby-horses that are not the gospel. I am glad that however much I found his preaching interesting at one time, I did nothing to bind my own theological credibility to his. No doubt my doctrine has its own fair share of weakness and imperfection, but I am at least thankful that my face is not covered in another man's theological egg.

This was not a problem with Bavinck. Rather, the fact that he is dead meant I could maintain a healthy critical distance to his life and thought. If I found unacceptable things there, they were in the past. They could be read and explored. While it is, of course, possible to idolise the dead, bearing Paul's gospel directives in mind (which, in part, were to attack idolatry at its core), and then being able to read his contribution as completed, certainly helped me to fight idolatry of Bavinck.

Associated is the principle that it is very hard to ascribe enormous significance to a Christian leader until that leader has passed on to the next life. Indeed, the same is true of any intellectual's contribution: greatness is a posthumously granted ascription. Only when we can examine a writer's work in its final state, for example, may we make final decisions on its lasting significance. The same is true with the contribution of the outstanding Christian leader.

I suspect that it is also more helpful for Bavinck himself to have intellectual disciples after, rather than during, his own lifetime. He has passed into the church victorious, is free from the sins of pride and arrogance, and will in no way be puffed up and tempted to sin because people think his books are important and conferences (though the only thing mega about these conferences is the extent of geekdom on show) are organised to study his thought.
Bavinck, of course, is simply one example of a possible useful dead theological hero. I chose to focus upon his writings because he was someone who had run the race well, was committed to orthodox theology in the modern world, wrote in a tradition closely related to my own (but far enough apart to make him that bit more interesting) and who lived in a world close enough to my own that much of his thought was of direct and obvious relevance to my own context. No doubt others would say something similar of Abraham Kuyper, Jonathan Edwards, Adolf Schlatter, Dietrich Boenhoffer et al.

Sin's reach, of course, is very wide indeed. Its corrupting influence can certainly affect one's relationship with a dead theological hero. I must be on my guard against supplanting the central place of my local pastor-teacher for Bavinck, a dead man to whom I have no ecclesiastical accountability. It is also important to resist a wholly uncritical approach to Bavinck and his thought world. Here, I suppose that one of the positives of studying Bavinck in an academic context was that I had to ask plenty of critical questions about his thought. However, it would be quite naïve to assume that the norm of academic rigour somehow inoculates PhD students against idolatry towards their heroes. The late great Calvinist historian Heiko Oberman's critique of much Calvinist-led Calvin study (wherein Calvin, a theologian whose writings can deal with the most thorough investigation, is handled with the softest of gloves) points the finger close to home in that regard (see Peter Dykema, "Introduction" in Heiko Oberman, John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (Librarie Droz, S.A., Geneve, 2009), 15).  One doesn't have to spend long in mainstream Protestant academia to come across those whose mantra may as well be "Barth said it, I believe it."

Grace's reach, though, is broader and deeper. Its restorative power extends to the fallen teacher-disciple relationship. I remain convinced that sin's corruption of this relationship means those who wish to be taught should choose their teachers very carefully, and that a well chosen dead theological hero offers something that no living hero can.

Dr James Eglinton was the assistant minister at St. Columba's Free Church in Edinburgh while he earned his PhD in systematic theology from the University of Edinburgh. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Theologische Universiteit Kampen.
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