Beware the Burdens of Biography

Mindful that our ‘Vetera’ series of posts might elevate the giants of the past so far that they disappear from our mortal sight, here is a caution about how we read (and write) biographies of Christian heroes, from my Silent Witnesses: Lessons on Theology, Life, and the Church, from Christians of the Past (Banner of Truth, 2013):

I am concerned that the risk of unequivocally positive portrayals of Christians from the past is that we are left with highly unrealistic expectations for our own lives. If our spiritual ancestors seem never to have sinned, then why do we sin? Is there something wrong with us alone? Are important details being left out of Christian biographies? Did Charles Spurgeon really only ever sin by smoking tobacco? We can be left with an acute and destructive sense of inadequacy by relentlessly positive Christian biography. To avoid these kinds of effects, I do not wish to white-wash the sins of our Christian ancestors. Every Christian is a sinner. In principle there can be no objection to the claim that any Christian hero sinned. For example, one recent biography of John Calvin tells us that he ‘was the greatest Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century, brilliant, visionary and iconic. The superior force of his mind was evident in all that he did. He was also ruthless, and an outstanding hater.’[1] To a contemporary Calvinist these may be shocking words. We may be so used to thinking of Calvin as a hero that the very statement jars. Yet Calvin was a sinner like all the other children of Adam, and the statement that he sinned is one that we not only can but must believe. How ironic if Calvinists, who believe in the total depravity of human beings, refused to admit the sinfulness of Calvin! We do the saviour no favours by diminishing the sins of the people he came to save and the burden that he therefore bore for them. Christians of the past were new creations who lived with the sinful nature at war with the Spirit. As such, their lives exhibit a mix of the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of the flesh. It would be as wrong to pretend that they had no sin as it would be to pretend that they had no holiness. To adapt the words of 1 John 1:8, if we say they had no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. This does not of course mean that we must automatically approve any particular negative verdict on a Christian’s conduct, but it would be unbiblical to maintain a principled aversion to any claim that he sinned.

[1] Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), p. vii.