In a negative sense, there truly is nothing new under the sun. So many of the errant religious viewpoints and heresies that we deal with today are simply recycled from the past. Gnosticism and Deism run rampant among liberal theologians in our day. Cults recycle old Arianism and Sabellianism and simply attach their names to it instead. Having a working knowledge of what people have erringly believed in the past can do much to inform us as to the battles we are fighting today. Today I want to point to examples of some of those who have gone down before us from whom we can learn in both the positive and negative sense.
Bernard of Clairvaux lived from roughly from 1090 - 1153 AD. He was born in eastern France outside of Dijon in the Burgundy province. His writings are insightful and touch on such important doctrines as the love of God. He is referred to by some as the “honey-tongued doctor.” Unfortunately, this man lived during the crusades, and the influence of that culture can be seen in his life. "The Abbot of Clairvaux . . . exercised great influence in ecclesiastical and political affairs. He was a supporter of the Second Crusade and preached throughout Europe to raise money for the military campaign."
Living during the early to mid 1500's, the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin brought about great return to the true gospel of God and the reading of the Bible. However, they lived during a time period when heretics were routinely killed for their beliefs. Calvin interacted by letter routinely with a heretic named Servetus. When Servetus showed up in Calvin's city - Geneva, Calvin had him arrested by the secular authorities and he was subsequently tried. Servetus was found guilty by the authorities. Calvin tried to get them to reduce the sentence to no avail. Tweedie notes: "Thirty-five years thereafter Calvin delivered up Servetus to secular justice. Melancthon congratulated him for it, and publicly sustained the thesis 'that the magistrates of Geneva did well to burn the heretic.' . . . The Word had produced the Reformation; but to defend itself, it preferred the scaffold to the Word. The execution of Servetus was at once the fruit and the remedy of this fatal inconsistency."
Robert L. Dabney lived from 1820 - 1898 AD. He was an excellent theologian and confederate army chaplain. His work has been some of the most influential in recent Presbyterian history. Unfortunately he also wrote the following: "Our system is represented as oppressive and cruel, appointing different penalties for crimes to the black man and the white man; depriving the slave of the privilege of testifying against a white in a court of justice; subjecting him to frequent and inhuman corporal punishments, and making it a crime for him to exercise the natural right of self-defence, when violently assailed by a white man. The reply is, that the penal code of Virginia was properly made different in the case of the whites and the blacks, because of the lower moral tone of the latter."
From all of these men we have something to learn, both in a positive and negative sense. Positively, I want you to recognize the following: All truth is God's truth. So many times I have heard Christians tell me "I don't read Calvin, he was a murderer," or "Dabney was a racist, the only thing to learn from him is how NOT to do theology." Such statements are misguided at best. On that same argument I should not read Moses because he was a murderer, nor David because he was an adulterer. One of the beautiful things about the Bible is that it is honest and up front about the sins of the saints. It meets us where we are and where we live. Fellow saints down through history are no different. We need to have the biblical and theological acumen to recognize how to separate wheat from chaff ourselves when we read church history; not write off wholesale those whom we have deemed to be unworthy in advance. Really, this principle applies to all of life. We can glean special insights from Hume and Kant, Thoreau and even Oprah. All human beings are created in the image of God and as such they cannot escape his truth no matter how hard they try. Sometimes God has gifted even the most wretched unbeliever with special insight; how much more a fallible saint in history. All truth is God's truth.
Negatively, we are given an example of how not to act. I don't mean this in an elementary manner either. All of these saints have something in common: they capitulated to the society and worldview of their day to the point of compromising their Christian walk. Surely if Dabney were born during our day, he would not have turned out to be racist. Bernard of Clairvaux likely would not have supported evangelism by the sword if it were not already happening during his time. We are affected by our society and culture much more than we would like to admit, and each of these men are shining examples of why we must not compromise. There are not one, but two major issues that we must stand firm on during our day and age even in spite of great pressure and opposition from the culture. Those issues are evolution and homosexuality. Christians are defecting left and right, compromising because they have not examined the Bible closely enough on the topics, lack the understanding to effectively defend the biblical position, or have lost the spine to stand up under the pressure. Beloved, please learn from the examples of these men. We must stand firm despite what may come. These are defining controversies during our day and age, and while I would like to deal with each of them in more depth in the future, I hope today you will take the charge seriously to stand firm in the face of the opposition, even if the entire world may assail us. "Let God be true though every one were a liar" - Romans 3:4
Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 202.
Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 739.
W.K. Tweedie, Calvin and Servetus: The Reformer’s Share in the Trial of Michael Servetus (London: John Johnstone, 1846), 224-225.
Robert L. Dabney, A Defence of Virginia, and through Her, of the South, in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party (New York: E. J. Hale & Son, 1867), 220.