To learn from our historical heroes, we must consider their context
As Christians, we must attempt to look at history as it was — not simply as we are.
It is lazy and unloving to be dismissive of a person from the past without considering their context. Chronological snobbery is the belief that one’s present time is superior to the past and that people and ideas from generations gone by are necessarily inferior to those in the here-and-now. The truth is that though every generation experiences progress, progress in itself is no indicator of worth and supremacy.
Questions must be asked: What have we progressed from? What did we leave behind? Why did we leave it behind? The snob arrogantly looks at the mistakes of history, the “primitive” thinking of previous cultures, and vainly imagines that, had he been there, he would not have thought, felt, or acted as people then did. He sees himself as way too sophisticated to dilly-dally around with the ignoramuses of what he considers to be unenlightened people. “Out with the old and in with the new,” is the mantra of the self-professed morally, spiritually, and intellectually superior modern man.
There is another way of thinking about the past and also swerving into error; it is to so admire the exterior of antiquity that the glow of former days is used as a kind of varnish on one’s present personal ambitions. This error leads to idolatry and shallowness, idolatry because the hero-worshipper wants to be what he envisions from romantic days gone by.
“Heroes were successful and I want to be successful like them,” says the peddler in hagiography. Such is shallow thinking because its focus on the veneer leaves little time to ponder deeply the interior of the man, woman, or philosophy idolized. It is patently unloving towards those who ran the race prior to us to worship them. It is also unhelpful and shallow.
As Christians, we are charged to love everyone. Therefore, we must love and not slander those who left their footprints in the dirt of history. We must study history as objectively, lovingly, and fairly as we can. To do so requires humility about one’s self and culture. As loving Christians, we must attempt to look at history as it was — not simply as we are. We cannot love or learn from notable figures of the past if we simply attempt to import our way of thinking back to their time of living.
Sadly, we will not want to learn from old dead folks if we are exclusively enamored with the latest and greatest. We will also mine only fool’s gold from former days if we glamorize the good to the neglect of the bad. We really do have to consider how Martin Luther, for example, can be a real hero and yet have embraced some really bad views. We, as loving Christians, must attempt to look at history as it was.
Charles, Susie, and Victorianism
I have spent not a little time over the past four years researching Victorian England in an attempt to better understand Charles and Susie Spurgeon. Part of the fruit of my research is found in Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon (Moody, 2018). However, though my understanding of Victorianism is still somewhat on the veneer, I do realize the danger of assuming that I can simply transport my immediate frame of reference to the years 1837-1901 when Victoria waved to her adoring subjects.
I get, at least intellectually, that the people who lived in Victorian England cannot be defined by my culture, nor can they can’t be fully defined by their own. In other words, one’s cultural context helps to provide a peephole from which to see the influences of their surroundings, but it does not define any one individual. There are factors that outweigh his contemporary setting, the main one being his religious convictions and where he got those convictions.
Take Charles Spurgeon, for example. Spurgeon, though raised after the Puritan era, was still raised on Puritan soil, read Puritan literature from the time of his childhood, and lived beneath the roofs of a Puritan-thinking grandfather and a Puritan-thinking father. Spurgeon simply cannot be understood outside of the context of a previous generation as well as his own.
Spurgeon’s Puritanism was not so much about the exterior (clothes, manners, customs, etc.) but of the interior, convictions about God and the Bible. And among the Puritans, Spurgeon was most influenced by one Puritan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan. That means, in part, to understand Spurgeon one needs to understand something of Bunyan and Bunyan’s writings.
Trouble with Spurgeon’s contemporaries
Spurgeon bled Puritan blood, and he was criticized for his blood type. He was mocked for being out of touch with the more refined thinking of higher-brow London. Ironically, a good number of those who once mocked Spurgeon, ultimately came to respect him and a fair number of those who once respected him ultimately rejected his way of thinking. Spurgeon’s view of the Bible, the atonement, and his Puritan gospel were viewed as outdated.
Even some students that he trained for ministry turned away from Spurgeon’s old-fashioned view of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and slid, slowly at first and later more rapidly, down the Down-Grade. (You really should read Iain Murray’s Book, The Forgotten Spurgeon to learn more about the Down-Grade Controversy and its after-effects.)
Valiant for truth
Spurgeon’s old Puritan-like context supported him as he fought valiantly for truth against a tidal-wave of modernism and liberalism. Considering Spurgeon’s context from Puritanism to Victorianism might encourage godly folks to erect a few barriers in front of the slope that many professing Christians seem all to happy to slide down like a ride at an amusement park.
It’s hard to be humble
Be humble about yourself and your surroundings. Mac Davis, the spinner of folksy philosophy sang, “Its hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way.” But humility we must have if we are to live rightly by living lovingly. And the only way to live rightly is to think backward even as the flavor-of-the-day crowd screams at us about our irrelevancy.
The ill-informed Spurgeonite
I have met and talked with people who revere Spurgeon. But I wonder, how acquainted some of them are with the “Prince of Preachers.” It is tempting for a church leader, for example, to regard Spurgeon as a great leader who built a mega-church, and was held in high regard. Admiring Spurgeon’s exterior, the leader makes Spurgeon’s accomplishments, his own objectives, which is shallow idolatry. That’s not the way to read Spurgeon, love Spurgeon, honor Spurgeon, and follow the Christ of Spurgeon. And to read Spurgeon like that is to miss the wounds, the scars, the pain, the tears, and the depressions that bubbled beneath Spurgeon’s lauded accomplishments.
There is also the Spurgeon-idolater who keeps a “safe” Spurgeon neatly in a theological box, one that the idolater himself is confined within. When he boxes Spurgeon in, he then fails to grasp Spurgeon’s great-heart towards those who differed doctrinally from him, something the idolater cannot fathom for himself.
Context is king
I am not suggesting that you must excel in Victorianism in order to get Spurgeon, but you do need some acquaintance with his time period and the surroundings of his life. I am not even advising that you need to morph into J. I. Packer (perhaps the greatest living Puritan scholar). However, you do need to dig a bit deeper into the Puritan ground to discover the BIG truths taught by Spurgeon that he found beneath the blood-soaked Puritan soil where he turned his spade.
He did not seek fame
Spurgeon didn’t aim to be famous; he did aim to know Christ, preach the gospel, and to live a holy life. He didn’t set out to be a mega-church pastor, sought-after conference speaker, or best-selling author; he set out to be faithful to the old gospel that he learned from his parents and grandparents, that they learned from reading of the Puritans.
For Spurgeon to have become the Spurgeon that we love, he had to breathe the air of three worlds; Puritan-land, Victorian England, and Heaven. Spurgeon, in fact, lived in several places at once, the past, the present, and the future. That was his context. He had one foot on Puritan soil, one foot in Victorian England, and his one heart set on Christ, the gospel, and heaven. The latter fueled his life; the former helps us to understand his application of the gospel to his context and then to better love Spurgeon.