Everything Old is New Again.
By Pastor Richard Bacon
Copyright 1998 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

A Review of The Arrogance of the Modern: Historical Theology Held in Contempt by Pastor David W. Hall (Oak Ridge, TN: The Calvin Institute), $21.95 retail viii+308 pp. Available through The Covenant Foundation, 190 Manhattan Ave. Oak Ridge TN 37830.

One of the rallying cries of the 1960s student radicals was "trust no one over [the age of] 30." Basically anyone who had lived during the "great depression" was automatically suspect. Their motives were not the same as those of the flower children (meaning, of course, that they were not as pure); their goals were different from those of the post war — or post depression — generation (the generation that lived during the depression was the last frugal generation that this nation produced); their axiology (system of values) was also different. The drug culture radicals would eventually "tune in, turn on, and drop out." Then they would elect Bill Clinton President of the United States.

Though it may seem unlikely, the same sort of disdain for the wisdom of the past that characterized the "flower power" subculture of the 1960s also characterizes much of evangelical Christianity today. It must be acknowledged that there is a tension that exists between old and new. We must respect that which has gone before, but we must not idolize it. We must recognize the extent to which previous generations of the church spoke clearly and truly to their generations, but we must also recognize the necessity of speaking to our own generation and not a generation long dead.

Another caution when looking to the past is not to overvalue history in a way that leads to the opposite error of thinking, "everything old is good and true." First, not everyone who is dead was necessarily in the right. Second, even those who were in the right in some things may not have been in others. This is an error being made by some that overreact to the "arrogance of the modern." Thus it is not so uncommon to witness Evangelicals and even some Protestants being deluded by the siren-song of Romanism and Eastern "Orthodoxy." [1]

It may be the case that the Roman Church is semper eadem (always the same, though this reviewer would argue otherwise), but if her historical consistency lies in continuing to teach soul-damning error, we must avoid her for the whore of Babylon that she is. For example, we might rejoice that G. K. Chesterton left his agnosticism if it were not for the fact that he simply traded one path to Hell for another. Hall quotes Chesterton’s Orthodoxy on p. 48, "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church." This sounds like a truly Christian sentiment until we stop to realize that the "church" to which Chesterton referred was not the bride of Revelation chapter nineteen, or even less to the persecuted woman of Revelation chapter twelve, but to the harlot church of Revelation chapter seventeen!

The warning for us is that not only does the new contain much that we should avoid — so does the old! We must not venerate the old simply because it has a beard. We must hold fast to that which is true, regardless of its age. We must remember that one of the charges leveled against the first century Christians was that they wanted to forsake the "old ways." [Matthew 15:2; Acts 6:14; Acts 15:5; etc.]

Lest I be misunderstood—or Mr. Hall be misunderstood—it is important to point out that Pastor Hall does not advocate an unswerving allegiance to a particular tradition as though that tradition were the "last word" on Christianity. We know of some who do so hold, however, and it is important that we not think we can attach the prefix "paleo" to something and thereby make it one of the "things which are most surely believed among us" (Luke 1:1). Tradition is quite important—as Pastor Hall and I would both agree—so long as the tradition is not merely "from the elders," but from Scripture alone.

The true Protestant is aware of a constant tension to accept a tradition because it is biblical or apostolic and to reject tradition which merely has a long history to commend it. To say simply "the church has always done it this way" is merely another way of saying "the majority is always right." Not incidentally, that forms the basis for Chesterton’s defense of his "Orthodoxy." We must regard something as orthodox which is biblically orthodox, though like Athanasius we stand alone "against the world." At the same time we must reject that which is biblically unorthodox even though it may have a certain antiquity to commend it.

Pastor Hall suggests that what he calls "feeling-ism" has only recently crept into the church even though it has a long history in Paganism. As we examine the history of Christianity, however, we need look no further than the second-century heresy of Montanism to find precisely the kind of authority-despising subjectivism that pervades modern "Evangelicalism." The same sort of content-less faith has also been found in the fringe movements of Christianity through twenty centuries. Such subjectivism or individualism is more widespread in this country and in this century, at least in part, because neither side was orthodox in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that helped to define Christianity in this century.

Most Evangelicals in America are the spiritual descendants of Fundamentalists. But the Fundamentalists were and are also infected with what Hall calls "the arrogance of the modern." When the so-called "Five Fundamentals" of Christianity failed to include such foundational doctrines as the Holy Trinity and justification by faith alone, evangelical Christianity opened the door to Rome. As a result, many Evangelicals today are deceived into thinking that Rome teaches "justification by faith" just as we do. "You poor Protestants have simply misunderstood us all these years," claims Rome.

Of course it is true that Rome teaches a doctrine of justification by faith. The problem is that Rome means something different than we do by the term "justification," something different than we do by the term "faith," and something different than we do by the term "by."

The underlying problem of much of modernity (as opposed to mere modernism) is its reluctance to believe that anybody has had much of importance to say until recently ("don’t trust anybody over 30"). Hall does a good job of pointing out this tendency and even of documenting it. For example, he points out in his chapter on hermeneutics the fact that much harm can be done by self-appointed interpreters who have little notion of the history of the interpretation of an idea, a book of the Bible, or a Bible passage. I cannot count the number of times I have wanted to scold some young pastor or seminarian by telling him, "at least read the literature on the subject before boring me with your opinion." Hall gives several illustrations of how modern exegesis has come unstuck from the history of Reformed commentaries.

The second half of Hall’s book seems to be the author’s attempt to apply what he taught us in the first half. Basically Pastor Hall demonstrates that some very important Christians of the past have had some very important things to say about politics. For those unfamiliar with Groen Van Prinsterer (1801 – 1876), Hall has a nice but short introduction to his life and work. The chief value of Van Prinsterer’s work, in this reviewer’s opinion, lies in its demonstration that axiology (our theory of values) is foundational to praxis (what we do). Hall covers this subject well, though quickly.

In the original copy of Hall’s book given to this reviewer, the final chapter was missing and the next to last chapter was incomplete.[2] A subsequent copy had the final chapter and several useful indices. The book is well built and has an attractive cover. It is refreshing to see a trade paperback that does not have pictures of some unrelated scene on the cover, but simply uses the title as sufficient graphics for the cover. If you are used to paying for college textbooks and for short-run trade paperbacks, the retail price of $21.95 will probably not put you off.

This reviewer is not quite so "optimistic" regarding present-day Evangelicalism as Hall seems to be. One may hope that at least for the Evangelicals within Hall’s Presbyterian Church in America maybe there truly is a returning to "the old paths."[3] However, among Evangelicals in general there is very little understanding of the historical Christian gospel, much less a general returning to the old paths of worship and doctrine.

The chief shortcoming of this book lies in its broad sweep. Hall says little with which we would disagree. It would be helpful to see a more careful caveat regarding G. K. Chesterton. However, we would like to see a more detailed discussion of how those who do have a respect for history might help the "arrogant" learn a similar respect.

Perhaps when we see Presbyterian Churches again singing the Psalms in Sunday worship; perhaps when we see presbyteries requiring candidates for ordination to demonstrate integrity in their ordination vows; perhaps when we see Presbyterian seminaries teaching the original intent of confessional standards; perhaps when we see those same seminaries spending more time teaching axiology than praxis; perhaps then we will be convinced that there is once again a genuine regard in this land for history and for history’s God.


1. This is not the place to relate the sad tales of men such as Scott Hahn and "Franky" Schaeffer, but there has been a considerable return to Rome and Eastern "Orthodoxy" among Evangelicals and Evangelical pastors over the past twenty or so years.

2. [Ed. Pastor Hall assured the editor this is the first such complaint.]

3. Though that seems doubtful, given the fact that the most conservative and history conscious within the PCA are now having to hold the line at six-day creation.