The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

I like dead guys

with 13 comments

Dave Bish highlights a  fairly interesting comment/complaint from Phil Whitall:

I read this morning that Josh Harris is a fan of JC Ryle, which in itself is hardly something to get upset about but it did spark this mini-rant. Good for Josh, Ryle is a worthy hero of the faith. But it seems to me that the Yanks get all excited by CS Lewis, CH Spurgeon, JC Ryle, CT Studd and other guys with initials instead of first names. Lewis and Spurgeon in particular are highly exalted, oh and Dr MLJ of course.

On the other hand, if you pay close attention to the names that are bandied around amongst us Limey’s are John Piper, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Rob Bell and whoever else is leading some very large church.

What you don’t seem to find are Brits talking about dead American Christians of any note and any Americans talking about living Brits of any note (our churches are too small).

The whole thing is fascinating and completely unsubstantiated and has the ring of truth about it (everyone should get hold of this piece of jewellery – useful in so many situations).  You should read it all, not least so that you can argue with it.

Because I beg to differ to a degree.  It depends to whom you are listening.  Yes, most of us – sometimes of necessity – interact with the Pipers, Mahaneys, Driscolls, Mohlers, etc. of the evangelical hypersphere.  Our peers and sometimes the wider church is reading them, listening to them, concerned about them, aping them.  I do think it is often the desire to find what works, to discover what will make us (read, “me”) big and successful.  But there is an undercurrent of men and women who have not entirely abandoned those who have gone before us on these shores.

You will find us quoting, at least occasionally, Charles Spurgeon, John Ryle, Matthew Henry, Robert McCheyne, John Owen, Jeremiah Burroughs, Stephen Charnock, Thomas Brooks, Hugh Latimer, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, John Bunyan, not to mention Flavel, Knox, Traill, Eadie . . . I could go on, and I could come forward to men like Poole-Connor and Lloyd-Jones, and back as far as some of the church fathers.  We love those men who have followed Christ, and whom we now follow in the path of Christian discipleship.  We have not forgotten their lives and their lessons, and – in fact – we sometimes get a little bit troubled at the selective embrace offered by some of our American brothers.  Who knew C. S. Lewis was Reformed until he was co-opted by the New Calvinists and given a fairly robust air-brushing in the process?

If we’re going to make C. S. Lewis our patron saint, we should at least listen when he is talking sense.  This is from the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (”mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

If we followed Lewis here, perhaps we would have a little more discretion and discernment in how far we follow others, and which others we follow, and how slavishly?  In fact, when we listen too long and too hard to the old, sometimes the new get a bit annoyed with us, and accuse us of being crusty, hidebound, and reactionary.  Funny, that.

Samuel Davies (American, but with Welsh roots and long dead, so not a bad note to finish on), wrote a few lines that still decorate my study.  They are worth recalling:

I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the hurries and noise of the world around me; the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me, and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.

So, Phil, come hang out with us.  We hang out with the venerable dead, often British, although if they followed hard after Jesus we’re happy to see them sitting on our shelves wherever they hail from.  We listen to them, learn from them, engage with them, debate and even argue with them.  We converse across the years, and enjoy the relief they afford us from the nonsense of surviving mortals.

We like dead guys.

13 Responses

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  1. A good repost Jeremy! If you quote even half the dead guys you list then the diet your church feeds from will be healthier than most.

    Just to be clear – I’m not against learning from those who have gone before, that would be foolish or from learning from those who are with us but ahead of us which would also be unwise.

    However, it just feels like sometimes we’re slave to the successful from the States while in the States where the trends are that society is following the arc of Europe over the last fifty years, they are not listening to those who have learned how to lead in a post-Christian context.


    Thursday 13 August 2009 at 10:06

    • I didn’t intend to imply anything else: like you, I ought to be and hope I am willing to learn from anyone who has something to teach me (that generally works out as everyone). I agree that our sometimes purblind attachment to success in the US means that we fail to grasp differences of culture and development, and the fact that our trajectory of godlessness is, in some respects, sadly ahead of theirs.

      Thanks for dropping by, and thanks again for your very stimulating post.

      Jeremy Walker

      Thursday 13 August 2009 at 10:19

  2. Thanks Jeremy, happy to hang out with you. Loved your last paragraph by the way


    Thursday 13 August 2009 at 11:13

  3. What about dead Americans then … Shedd, Dabney, Thornwell? They all seem to be not dead for very long but :)


    Thursday 13 August 2009 at 15:12

    • OK, some favourite dead Americans: James Henley Thornwell does go in there, for fervent heat combined with bright light; R. L. Dabney is fascinating, often penetrating, regularly contentious, generally stimulating; B. B. Warfield is there, for digging through the thorough assessment of error and bursting into the beauty of truth; we cannot forget the outstanding Jonathan Edwards, so piercing in his thinking and passionate in his feeling; does William M Taylor count? – though a Scot, he spent plenty of time in the US, and his character studies and sermons and studies of the parables and miracles are outstanding; yes, we should include Shedd, as well as Gardiner Spring, of course; Broadus, naturally, as much for his pastoral theology as anything else; some others who crossed and re-crossed the divide, like Professor Murray; William Plumer, for simplicity and profundity combined.

      Shall we bring it home there? We’re not ignoring the dead Americans, we just had to make a point about the dead Brits. They are all (including Davies himself) among the “venerable dead.”

      Jeremy Walker

      Thursday 13 August 2009 at 16:19

      • sure sure, that was just a general blether comment not an implied criticism. In case it sounded annoying.

        couple of names there make me feel some more reading is in order!


        Thursday 13 August 2009 at 23:17

        • Nope, not annoying. More a case of, “Yes, fair point, let’s ‘big up’ some dead Americans.” More reading = good idea.

          Jeremy Walker

          Friday 14 August 2009 at 14:24

  4. American deads — you forgot Jonathan Edwards, James P. Boyce.


    Monday 17 August 2009 at 02:49

    • Edwards is in the supplementary list that Cath prompted. Boyce is not there simply because I have not read enough of him to say that I know him, and because I am not aware that I have (yet) quoted him. I shall take this as a recommendation.

      Jeremy Walker

      Monday 17 August 2009 at 07:54

  5. Dr. Nettles just finish writing a biography of Boyce. I also have a pdf of Boyce’s Abstract Systematic Theology if you want one.


    Monday 17 August 2009 at 15:05

    • Thanks, Jade. I have my eye on the Nettles book, and have a copy of Boyce’s Abstract. It is a question (a) of having them and (b) of reading them!

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 18 August 2009 at 14:05

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    I’ve just found your site via various links. It looked good and then I noticed your name. I worship at Lower Ford Street (for the last year or so – we just became members)! I also know Mr Briggs very well. He was the minister that married my son & wife in the States.

    Small world – I’ve added you to my links.


    Tuesday 18 August 2009 at 10:40

    • Hello, Mike. Thanks for dropping by, and for adding me to your links. Nice to know of all the real-world links as well. God bless.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 18 August 2009 at 14:06

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