They’re All Dead, They’re All Forgotten
Johannes Oecolampadius, Conrad Pellican.
Peter Martyr Vermigli, Wolfgang Musculus.
Theodor Bibliander, Johann Heinrich Bullinger, Robert Estienne.
These names are to me what they are to you: just names. No quick reactionary smile comes to mind as I read over their names as there would be if they were a relative or a treasured hero from history. No scowl or grunt of contempt if they were a famous for their persecution of the church or some other genocidal tyranny. They’re all dead; they’re all forgotten.
All were commentators on the Scriptures from the 1400 -1600. These men spent their lives seeking to learn and understand the truth God has entrusted to mankind in His word, and having learned it communicating it to their countrymen that they in turn might come to a greater understanding of and love for their savior. How many hours were spent by candlelight pouring over copies of ancient manuscripts, seeking to unravel the seeming contradictions between the Apostle Paul and James? How many moments did they spend on their knees, begging the Lord to give them insight into His text? How many cheers of commendation did they receive from their peers and how much excitement were the people around them filled with upon placing their hands around a new volume from the pen of one of these men?
And now no one reads their books. No one even knows their names.
Do not be fooled by the illusion of permanence. What is treasured today will fade into obscurity given 500 years as the issues and the wars fought over the Scriptures continue to evolve. Piper? Who was he? MacArthur? Never heard of him. Lloyd-Jones? Wasn’t he the guy who wrote Inspiration and the Authority of the Scriptures? A list of names in a book on interpretive history, that is our future. Where Wolfgang Musculus is, we’re headed.
And not only that, we’ll be derided for our interpretations the same way we stare at the Church Fathers and wonder what madness caused them to plunge headlong into allegorical readings of the literal text. And many of our critics will be right. We all imbibe the culture, and the culture influences our hermeneutic. You can’t swim in the ocean and not swallow some seawater.
There are a few that God calls to be perpetual witnesses to His church. But for every Augustine, how many millions of pastors and scholars have lived, died, and been forgotten.
Faithfulness is not timelessness. Faithfulness is a devotion to the glory of God in the present moment and the present context. We are not called to minister in such a way that we will be remembered 500 years later. We are called to minister in such a way that we bear the souls of those God has entrusted to us towards heaven. Every man owns but a tiny sliver of the ministry of God to His creation. Some may be remembered for 50 years, others for a decade. But we’re all destined to wind up somewhere on the pages of a long list of forgotten faithful men.
If the goal is fame we are doomed to fail. We all will wane into irrelevancy or neglect. But history is not our rewarder. We serve the God who is unconcerned with fame, with recognition and even often with results. “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” That is the goal. Someday I will be dead; I will be forgotten. But though I will be forgotten by history, I will not be forgotten by Yahweh.
So let the list come, for it is not a judgment of failure but faithfulness. We may stand and critique the exegesis of those prior to us because they did exegesis and in turn passed the gospel onto those who came after them. And they did the same. And their children did the same. And we shall do the same. It is not the messengers who are timeless, it is the message. That must be my identity, the message. And when my whole purpose is to ensure that the message is faithfully passed down to the next generation of faithful men, being dead and forgotten isn’t really a bad thing.
Bray, Gerald. Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. IVP Academic, 1996.