Ours is a world infatuated with progress, novelty and consumption. We don’t make things to last, because who wants the pressure of buying something that’ll last forever? Are those who bought shoes with flashing lights in them glad that they fell apart two years later? I certainly hope so. We want to move forward, not look back.
The Christian world is not exempt from this mood. Doctrine, orthodoxy, heresy, liturgy and the like have all become dirty words for younger Christians. It is fashionable for us to be suspicious of the authority of tradition, the received wisdom of our parents and their parents before them. We don’t want the Doctrines Of Our Forefathers when we can have the vital, lively experiences of life in Christ in the present.
Well, as with mullets and moustaches, regrettable fashion mistakes have a habit of repeating. The last few centuries have witnessed a constant stream of battles in ink over so-called Liberal theology, which also patterned itself as a fresh update of stale religion. There’s nothing new about a clash between those who have a conservative disposition and those who like change and progress. Nevertheless, Christianity needs both.
Seeing as the fresh and the new are in the ascendancy in the church, and conservatism is the musty, cheese-scented side of the battle, it is worth considering afresh why we need to appreciate the old.
The Good in Conservatism
Bigots and paternalists are often called ‘conservative’, and they may be for all I care. That’s not what we’re talking about. We mean the conservatism that is a desire to secure and conserve the past. Conservatism doesn’t have that new car smell or the shiny foil-wrapped exterior of the more progressive mindset, but it is nevertheless extremely important.
Firstly, and most importantly, Christianity is a religion inextricably tied to the past. Our scriptures were written in history and commanded to be passed down to reliable people who will handle the message faithfully (2Tim 2:15). In scripture, we learn about Christ who died and rose again for us. Paul says that if this didn’t happen really in history, then our faith is worthless and stupid. So, our faith looks back to that central event, and the teaching of the faith depends on the faithful transmission of what the hymn calls ‘the old, old story’.
Secondly, scripture directly commends conservatism to us whenever it speaks about the preservation of the true gospel. Paul’s rant in Galatians is wonderful. He says that even if an angel from heaven appears to you with a different message to the apostolic gospel, you are to pronounce him eternally condemned!! [And he repeats himself for effect]. So, the difference between salvation and condemnation is conservation of the true gospel, in the face of the threat of false teaching. Someone who claims to love Jesus and who works miracles and who has a million people hanging on his teaching is playing for the other team if he does not also speak the message of the cross that saves sinners from judgment.
Thirdly, conservatism spares us from shallowness, stupidity and arrogance. I once read a prominent author and church leader who said that he doesn’t read anything except the Bible, because all through history theologians have been making one mistake after another, and why should he have to untangle their mistakes when he can go straight to the source? Do you not think that it’s the height of arrogance to think that everyone in history combined has done a worse job than you will? Every thinker in history has been unable to read scripture without making a fatal jumble of it, but you are going to crack it on your own? Creeds and commentaries can sometimes be dreary, but over time, the church has accumulated the best thoughts and the best research. Over time, the church has already made all of your mistakes, and come up with responses and corrections. Only fools dismiss tradition. As they say, those who will not learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them.
So, the theological well-being of the church depends on conservatism. It guards our gospel, without which we are lost, and it keeps us wise and humble, without which we’ll soon get lost. Progressive minds help us not to stagnate, they keep the church in touch with the world as it changes, and they provide fresh solutions to old problems. However, without conservatives to rein them in, they’ll tear us apart. We must recapture an appreciation for the heritage of our faith, and not become enamoured with the shiny, empty baubles that sometimes pass for ‘cutting-edge’ theology.
The Bad in Conservatism: Corals and Kings
On the other hand, conservatism must learn from the reaction against it. There’s nothing about conservatism, for example, that insists we must be stuck in the past in every respect.
One serious downside of conservatism can be illustrated by the difference between Coral Snakes and King Snakes.
Corals and Kings look very similar, but as snakes go, their scales are about where the similarities end. My herpetology is open to correction, but Coral Snakes are highly venomous, whereas their lookalikes, King Snakes, are completely harmless, except to other snakes! They kill the killers! They can be easily identified by a handy rhyme: ‘Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, venom lack’ (or ‘won’t hurt Jack’). Their stripes are in a different order.
Now, conservatives are the shepherds guarding the flock. One Coral Snake, if it sets its mind to it, could fatally poison many of the sheep, perhaps the whole flock, so conservatives are especially eager to root out any Corals before they do damage. Unfortunately, not wanting to take any chances, they’ll destroy King Snakes too, just because they seem fundamentally the same. The truth is, though, King Snakes are allies, and could have got rid of the poisonous snakes for them.
OK, the analogy is getting annoying now. Point being, conservatism has a tendency to be narrow-minded and over-protective. It breeds heresy hunters. Taken to extremes, this can be damaging (http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/ may be the world’s most odious example; I would consider it an honour to be branded a heretic by them). There are many people who are genuinely labouring for the health of the gospel, but in ways that can raise suspicion. This is especially likely among those who are trying to stand for truth in the Liberal-dominated world of scholarship, or those who are trying to navigate the treacherous waters of postmodernism. CS Lewis comes to mind as someone blessed with an enormously fertile mind, and the tendency to follow it where it took him. His minor aberrations are enough to have him dismissed as a heretic by some, and so his major contributions are lost to them.
Conservatives have eyes peeled for ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’, or to return to our analogy, snakes that might poison the sheep. The danger is that they might not be paying careful enough attention to notice the scales: the ‘double agents’ who can use the enemy’s language, but nevertheless are labouring for the gospel in those difficult fringe areas. We’re quicker to condemn those who seem to us vaguely like the Serpent than we are to truly understand what they’re saying.
Maybe we can learn to combine the conservative’s sense of the preciousness of the one true gospel with the progressive person’s love for enquiry and exploration. With ageing, emptying churches, how are we ever going to get that precious gospel out to the world without some risk and imagination? As much as we need conservatism at our core, we need progressives in the fringes, people who can meet threats head on, talk the language, work with the arguments, and ultimately (by God’s grace) overcome.
[Apologies to the unnamed photographers from whom I stole the snake images. I hope you don’t mind.]