21 November 2006

Big Names in balance

by Dan Phillips
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1)

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:13)
In our attitude towards Great Men, towards Big Names, we walk a narrow plank. Chasms of folly yawn on either side.

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 it—once. 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 exemplar—but 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 earth—and 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 Word—don'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.

Dan Phillips's signature


David Sheldon said...

My guess is the reason we glorify personalities is because we don't study the Word - not because we do. Ultimately we all only have one teacher - "But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers." Matthew 23:8 ESV
The proliferation of "Christian Publishing" and the lack of discernment therein is probably a testimony to the lack of longing for the Word and intense study of Scripture - and not the opposite. This is, of course, a very timely post and should be taken to heart.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Dan. This does become an irritating trait amongst many.We need to be careful, and engage the text, that infallilke Word of God, and the Word who was flesh, Christ Jesus.

ricki said...


"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."

As with most of your posts - excellent, excellent warning. Well written and as the Brits say, "spot on".

I still wish you wouldn't take away from the whole with comments such as, "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."

That issue is applicable to any group of Christians I can think of. Singling out one group just detracts from your overall excellent point.

Or perhaps you are in competition with Phil and do that just to generate comments?

DJP said...

I do it for one reason, Rick, and one reason only:

To tick you off.


{ victory dance }

Red22 said...

Thank you Dan for a great post.

Don't think twice about your phrase, "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", which was previously brought up.

Application is the hardest for us to hear, but it has to be applied directly "to the forehead" or "to MY forehead" (to steal a phrase from the pyro team.)

Honestly, it is when I start complaining about a point made in a sermon, that I should probably be searching my heart and the scriptures. If it has pricked my conscious enough to warrent attention - maybe it is worth considering.

Thanks again,


joey said...


excellent thoughts, and timely.

I find this issue to be a difficult balancing act. Especially when someone nailed it in the past and its sooo much easier to say "just go read Calvin" than "let me defend election to you verse by verse"

Martin Downes said...

Adopting a right attitude toward Christian leaders is something that we need to be taught. It seems fair to say that 1 Corinthians 1-4 has been given to guide and control our thinking on this and to help us avoid the errors of the Corinthians.

We'll never understand Christian leaders properly unless we see that though they plant, water, and are God's fellow workers (that is Paul, Apollos and Cephas are not in competition because they all belong to God's work force) only God makes things grow.

I liked Richard Baxter's comment shortly before he died. "I am just a pen...and what praise is due to a pen?"

DJP said...

This is a bit tangential, Joey.

Once I was struggling with a sermon on Deuteronomy 6:5ff. I found that Spurgeon had preached on it.

I deliberately didn't read Spurgeon that time, because I was afraid that his "take" would so stamp my brain, that I'd be unable to see anything else that was legitimately in the passage. This hasn't happened frequently, but I just was having difficulty finding my own "voice" on it (preachers will know what I mean), and was afraid that his steadying hand would be, to me, a calcifying hand.

Jim said...

Excellent, excellent post Dan. You have struck at the heart of a very big problem.

Connie said...

Very good post on many levels--a valuable warning!

Over the years I've grown more and more cautious of putting too much "stock" or confidence in contemporary big names.

Yet, to my shame, I often find it comfortable--and lazy--to look to dead theologians more than I look to scripture.

It is a constant struggle to master that which is "greater" and "more to be desired".

James Scott Bell said...

The way to select a teacher, IMO, is to make sure he's on TV. Also, that the Bible verses he uses are flashed on the screen. That way, you don't have to go to church or own a Bible to be instructed.

DJP said...

PS to Rick, who -- astonishingly -- has not always gotten my attempts at humor:

I keed! I keed!

And the "astonishingly" was a joke too.

Connie said...

BTW Dan,

I think "Motorcycle Paul" is alive and well in southern Oklahoma! We had regular visits from a Paul when my husband pastored a church in southern Oklahoma. Paul had plenty of things to say to us, but no time to listen to others.

He'd apparently traded in the motorcyle for a Ford Galaxy. :-)

donsands said...

"I wouldn't need him to teach me that I didn't need him to teach me". Try saying that five times real fast.

Good teaching. Nice post. Thanks for helping to always find a balance and to stay the course in our walk with the Savior.

Another verse is 1 Cor. 4:15 which complements your study I would think.

Eric Nielsen said...

Excellent post! This sort of thing is why I proudly say, "I am of Dan Phillips".

Kim said...

We are all too prone to latch on to gurus of any sort; theology gurus, parenting gurus, marriage gurus. We are lazy, and don't want to think through for ourselves. I'm as guilty as the next guy.

So much easier to hitch our star to someone's wagon than to think for ourselves.

Spiritual sloth is alive and well.

Kim said...

Okay, I think I meant "hitch our wagon to someone's star."

Blame it on Dan; I'm still laughing at the Patsor Thingummy.

And no, Dan; I'm not spamming this thread :-)

DJP said...

But you'll want to. To correct "Patsor."

(Waiting with "SPAMMER" brand in hand.)

James Scott Bell said...

Dan Phillips quoting Triumph? Is there no end to this man's theological influences?

Phil Perkins said...

GREAT POINT. GREAT POINT. That has been needed to be said for so long!

I teach biblical languages and hermeneutics at an SBC school and if I could get my students to drop Calvin, then lots and lots of sincere Christians would learn of the sovereign grace of God. Too many times folks are turned off or just want to fight because of Calvin's name. (And I'm a 4 1/2 pointer.)

The doctrines of grace were biblical long before John Calvin was a glint in his daddy's eye.

I came to Calvinistic doctrine long before I knew much about Calvin. When folks ask if I am a Calvinist, I say, "No, I'm biblicist."

This is a good hobby horse. Ride like the wind, young man.
Phil Perkins.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

In my admittedly limited experience the "dead theologian groupies" fall into two broad categories the "valiant protectors of the true reformed faith" sometimes referred to as TRs and then we have the "dead german aficionados" (not ethic german but german language). There is a new group which is taking over in the english speaking biblical studies subculture and their idol is still living. You guessed it. Tom Wright.

When I was a young man I was a Francis Schaeffer guy for about five years but quickly discovered that Schaeffer was all too human. I never warmed up to Luther or Calvin even after reading thousands of pages of them. J.Edwards was a great man with a warm heart and I liked him. But I came to Edwards after a baptism in Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Albee, Sartre, Camus ...

The three german (language) guys who theological wannabes love to quote are Barth, Bultmann and Bonhoffer. The latter two were not theologians but they were objects of veneration among the fashionably left wing evangelical subculture that I walked away from many years ago

Kim said...


You're a meanie. :-)

DJP said...

Canadian Spammer.

Daniel Calle said...

I used to have a blog named "Dead and Living Teachers". That blog is dead now, but I am planning to resuscitate it.

God´s Word is our only authority and it's infallible, but I have learned a lot from wise christians whom had been enlighted by the Holy Spirit in their study of the Scriptures.

Kaffinator said...

Dan, this post is a blessing and explains exactly why I hope you never give up your completely wrongheaded interpretation of 1 Cor 13:8. Because, if you did, I would be unable to find any quarrel with you whatsoever and I would compelled to canonize you straightaway.

joey said...

dan said,

"I just was having difficulty finding my own "voice" on it (preachers will know what I mean), and was afraid that his steadying hand would be, to me, a calcifying hand."

even though I am not a preacher, I think I know what you mean. I ran into this in philosophy while in college. As a philosophy major, I had to write many, many papers. I remember one in particular in which I was arguing against Sartre's radical freedom concept. It was difficult to not simply respond by quoting what dead guys had already said. (obviously there are differences in writing a paper arguing with Sartre and preaching a sermon, but the temptation to simply allow others to do all the work for oneself is similar)... anyway definately tangential now.

Anonymous said...


I deliberately didn't read Spurgeon that time, because I was afraid that his "take" would so stamp my brain, that I'd be unable to see anything else that was legitimately in the passage.

I know exactly what you are saying. When I am studying a passage, I can't read MacArthur until I am finished studying or I will find myself adopting his viewpoints and his outline in my own sermon.

Glad to know it also happens to the best of us!


Gloria said...

Another litmus test to judge whether someone has his love of a "big name" in balance is to evaluate his attitude toward the littler names that are actually in authority over him. Is his honor and deference to the Rev. Somebody greater than to his own pastor and elders? Or worse, does he use the Rev. Somebody's teaching as a weapon in open rebellion against the leaders in his own church? Then he is flouting the scriptural call to obey those in authority over him. He has rejected not only their lesser authority, but Christ's greater authority, and is an idolater.

DJP said...

Excellent point, Gloria. I can think of four, offhand, in three different churches. They'd listen to me preach, more or less -- then run off and check it against their real pastor... who wouldn't know them from Richard Simmons, whom they'd never met, who might even no longer be living.

Mr. Baggins said...

Dan, thanks for a thought-provoking post. My question for you is this: would you see the former danger as more rampant in Christianity today than the latter danger?

My own take is that I see far more of the former than the latter. I see far more biblical illiteracy and narcissism than (almost any) honoring of dead traditions. I think this is true even in tradition-bound churches such as the Roman Catholic church. What do you think?


DJP said...

Mr. Baggins, I can only tell you my own experience. I've seen more of the latter than the former. Now, in the former, I have in mind those who will scoff disdainfully at any human teacher, and so won't read anybody, and will mock anyone who does. I just don't run into as many of them as I do the other.

But I don't conclude that this means anything globally.

Mr. Baggins said...

Then I will concede that both are equally problems. In the two churches I serve as pastor, the problem is definitely not a "truly Reformed" mentality. The problem is that people do not want to read. They do not want their minds expanded. Personal revelation from God is therefore an attractive temptation to my people.

Kimberly said...

(I'm trying this one more time. Hopefully I'm in the right place this time :)
I have hesitated to comment on this because I don't know "Motorcycle Paul" personally, and I'm very new to this blog. But, from your limited description, it seems that Paul doesn't have a problem with "teachers" as much as with authority.

My point in mentioning this is that people who have a problem with authority have, often, suffered extreme harm at its' hand. I've had many an experience where a fellow christian attempted to "teach" me something by trying to point out the rediculousness of my idea in comparison with theirs. It's pretty hard to respect someone as a teaching figure when it's clear they have no respect for you as a thinker, even if your idea is wrong.

That said, I tend to be a little more on Paul's side than others here. It's not because he's so brilliant in his theologies about Jesus as God incarnate or the trinity business (I happen to think his ideas on these things completely inaccurate.) It's because the word says that there is only one teacher, and it is not any of us (Matt. 23:8).

By the way, I did get the point that we should be more into the Word, ourselves, than into what the latest, or deadest, theologian is spouting. An excellent point, but not so well practiced.

ricki said...

Dan - Ok then, if that's it, I understand and I'll be man enough to admit that it worked - again ... but good news, small group starts in a few minutes and I'm sure I'll get some cool prophecies to pump me back up.

Have a great evening with the Bible.

DJP said...

Well Rick, when the Bible's just not enough for you, I guess you have to grab for something!


Antonio said...

engage the text

(you make 3 references to it and one to a leaky-canon advocate)

I agree with engage the text.

The less superficial/more substantive the better

DJP said...


Chris said...

With Dan's ability to consistantly churn out posts like, his use of smilies is one of the only things holding me back from attributing him with some kind of super power or heavyweight status or something.

Austin Bob said...

C.H.H. -- The smilies are no doubt a sop to the sarcasmicaly challenged among us.

Dan -- A truly excellent post, smilies notwithstanding. On a related note, however, I have noticed that there is an equally rampant problem with the "I'm not of Paul" crowd ... at least in the Presbyterian circles I run in. People line up on one or the other side of a controversy over a fairly narrow range of issues, the nuances of which they all to obviously fail to understand, and then they categorically reject the "other guy's" positions on everything else ... even when that "everything" extends to the very heart of the Gospel. For those of us who actually use congregational recitation of the creeds in gathered worship, it is amazing that the whole congregation does not go silent on the "one holy, catholic and apostolic church" bit.


DJP said...

Hey! What's wrong with smilies?!


4given said...

You people better not forget to mouse-over those pics!!! HILARIOUS! (It's about time you got back to that)

DJP said...

Your earlier rebuke was taken to (at least one) heart.

candy said...

Does this mean I shouldn't get my teachings from Pastors.com anymore?

DJP said...


Jim Swindle said...

It's a wonderful post.

I've met those who try to be clones of a dead teacher. Yet I'm also concerned by those who think their own, living preacher is virtually infallible in teaching. When an issue comes up, I think a mature Christian's first question should not be, "What did Pastor X teach us about that?" but "What does the Bible say?"

However, the result will be that in the church we'll sometimes disagree. How do we reconcile submission to authority, with our responsibility to hold to what we believe is biblical truth even when our godly pastors see things differently? I don't know.

As you say, after death, we'll know the truth.