Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1)In our attitude towards Great Men, towards Big Names, we walk a narrow plank. Chasms of folly yawn on either side.
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:13)
On the one side is arrogant presumption. A fellow occasionally dropped by the college/career fellowship in which I ministered, decades ago. We called him "Motorcycle Paul." He resolutely never brought a Bible to the Bible Study. (Irony pause: 3... 2... 1....) See, Motorcycle Paul had read itonce. That did it for him. Now God spoke to him directly, and he needed no man to teach him. He had visions.
(Before some of you embrace him as a pioneering brother, you should know that "God" told him that Jesus was not God incarnate, and that the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity was a lie. Among other things.)
Motorcycle Paul was an advanced student in this College of Faux Knowledge; but I've met many other lower classmen from that same institution over the years. One trait they share in common is a complete lack of self-awareness. They can stand before 12 or 1200, and without a tick teach Christians that Christians need no teachers. They inform them that they need no information. They would lead them to cast off all leaders.
Okay, lack of self-awareness, and no sense of irony, whatever.
Of course, this teaching, if true, is false. It is self-invalidating. If I need someone to teach me that I need no one to teach me, then I need someone to teach me. Or I wouldn't need him to teach me that I didn't need him to teach me.
Each spiritual Narcissus disqualifies himself as a Bible teacher by overlooking a great deal of Scripture. Paul said that he could serve as the Corinthians' example (1 Corinthians 11:1), a thought he echoed elsewhere (cf. 4:16; also Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:9). He enjoined his pastoral apprentices to live exemplary lives as well (1 Timothy 4:12; Titus 2:7), so that others could see their example, and gain thereby.
Such vain pretenders know nothing of the godly wisdom which loves those who reprove and education him (Proverbs 9:8b, 9), loves instruction (12:1), and shows especial and tangible appreciation for teachers (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17).
A wise believer is glad to find models and instructors who, by word or example, point us to Christ. He doesn't find it humiliating, but praises the Lord Jesus for the gift (cf. Ephesians 4:11-12).
In all of these, the apostle Paul is setting high value on living, breathing examples. But I sympathize to a large degree with those who feel that "the best theologian is a dead theologian"simply from the vantage point that (A) we know the whole course of the man's life (i.e. did he suffer shipwreck?), and (B) we know his abiding influence, if any. This perspective has explicit Scriptural backing as well (cf. Hebrews 11; 12:1a; 13:7).
But there is a danger on the other side as well, the "I am of Paul" side.
Some seem more temperamentally prone to it than others. These folks feel the lunar tide pull of strong personalities, present and deceased. Big-name preachers, teachers, writers, living and dead, functionally become their Canon. In seminary, you hear young preacherlets sounding off, and you can almost tell by their style who their pulpit idols are.
Or these folks wed themselves to a dead theologian, or a school of dead theologians. These worthies may make very fine instructors, but they are very poor gods. The devotees may be about as right as their exemplarbut no righter. If Right Hon. Rev. Dr. So-and-such didn't see it, then by gum they're not going to see it, either. They won't finger a rosary with a Romanist, but they're equally wed to tradition, and equally blinded to portions of the Bible. Just a different tradition, and different portions.
Here's a symptom. Try to talk Bible with such an one. Does he engage the text? Not directly. No, he quotes Dr. So-and-such, or he plucks an allusion from the life of Pastor Thingummy. Instead of instructors and guides, these revered exemplars become albatrosses, coral reefs, or excuses.
Try to engage a modern day leaky-Canon advocate seriously on a Biblical level, and you may hear this whacky statement from Lloyd-Jones, or be directed to Jack Deere's pathetic writings, or sidetracked to that out-of-context remark of Spurgeon's. Criticize a doctrine, and you get a list of great men who embraced it, or at least didn't smash it outright.
You want to say, "Okay, so let's suppose Dr. Hoarybeard never lived. Suppose it were God, you, me, and that Bible. What would that verse mean then, eh?" Or, "So, if I gave you a dollar, would you engage the text?"
But of course sometimes the real inner soliloquy is, "I want to believe X no matter what so, hmm, let's find some authority who said something like X...."
Does this actually honor our departed instructors? Think of Whitefield and Wesley on election, or Zwingli and Luther on the Lord's Supper, or Spurgeon and Murray on baptism, or Allis and Feinberg on eschatology. Think it through. It stands to reason, that on arrival in the Lord's presence, at least one of each of those pairs did the heavenly equivalent of slapping his forehead, and letting forth with a resounding "D'oh!" At least one of each of those pairs instantly and painfully wished he'd seen what he missed on earthand wished he had not taught what he taught.
At least one, allowed a visit back to this vale of tears, would earnestly urge his erstwhile devotees not to repeat his mistakes. At least one, given the opportunities, would say to those aping his errors, "No, no you fools! Don't just go where I went! You've had longer to study, you've had more opportunity to get more light! Don't just sit there, repeating my errors! It's the Word that's God's voice! It's the Word that will judge you! It's the Word that's living and powerful, and sharp! Let my example teach you to get into the Worddon't stop with what I was able to see! See more! See better!"
And yet, with misguided loyalty, eyes closed to the Scriptures, Big Man hyper-fanboys (and -girls) plow the same rut over, and over, and over.
It's a hard balance to strike. Admire godly examples, past and present. Learn from them. Respect them.
But don't chain yourself to them. And don't hide behind them as an excuse for not engaging the text of Scripture.