I hear lines like this a lot: “we need some of that old time religion”, “this would never have been allowed in our parent’s church”, or “we need to get back to the faith of our fathers.” The idea being that we need only look back or appeal to a previous (often the most recent or first) generation to see a time when the faith was “pure” and so use that time as the infallible authority by which the “faith of today” should be judged. This isn’t a rant against “old people”. I’ve been blessed to be in the company of many “old people” who because of their love for the faith want to see it transmitted effectively, not tyrannically to the next generation. And I’ve encounter plenty of “young people” convinced that any church that doesn’t look like the one they grew up in must be of the devil.
Personally, I find this mentality of “old time religion” troubling, confusing, and dishonest on a number of levels. First, the idea that there was a time when the faith was “pure” or problem free just isn’t true. Try reading the New Testament (not to mention the Old). Not only were many of Paul’s letters words of correction to the early church, but Jesus Himself faced constant problems with confused (Peter) and wayward (Judas) disciples. Furthermore, our own memories are greatly tainted by nostalgia. Everyone longs for the “good ‘ole days” when everything seemed “simple” and “good.” But in truth they never were as great as we imagine them to be.
The “faith of our fathers” that is so often appealed to is almost never a call back to the historic faith, but the faith of a particular generation. We should certainly cherish and learn from the faith of the previous generation, but we also need to be realistic about the past, it’s shortcomings and its limitations. This supposedly pure, authentic time of the faith, usually the 40s and 50s, was also a time when the faith, at best(?), turned a blind eye to racism. If we really need to return to the “faith of our fathers” does that mean we also need to resegregate churches? (Not that they have been particularly desegregated today)
Finally, this appeal to the authority of the infallible past seems particularly dishonest to me. First, as I have already said, it is not an appeal to the historic faith, but an appeal to one’s favorite time in history that that person has fondest or perceived memories of. The faith that is being pushed by these “resorationists” isn’t the “truth faith of the Bible” they think or want it to be, it is in fact the very thing they so adamantly condemn in their opponents: a faith made in their own image, formed by their own desires. Their real allegience isn’t to God or the Bible but “the way things used to be.” Certainly there were (and always will be) times in the past that were better than the present. We are constantly getting things right and then screwing them up. But as much as we are and should be a people of history, we can’t be a people who live in the past. The world around us is constantly changing. That certainly doesn’t mean we need to renarrate the gospel in order to make it more appealing to modern ears, but it does mean that we need to recognize that the very fact that the gospel is “relevant” to all cultures and all times means that its presentation, not its content, will look different in different cultures and times. This isn’t something to fear, but to celebrate.
The faith of our fathers isn’t a faith that goes back only a generation or two. It goes back centuries. We absolutely must learn from it and use it as a guide, but we must also never refuse look at our past critically. We always need to be willing to look back at our past and ask questions of it in order to glean what can be learned and leave behind what is better left to bygone days. If we look back at our past with blind devotion and refuse to look critically at it then it, not God, quickly becomes our object of worship.