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The Old-Time Religion

The pressures and changes of modern life in both the church and world regularly elicit from naive conservatives in every generation impassioned appeals for a return to "the old-time religion."

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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The pressures and changes of modern life in both the church and world regularly elicit from naive conservatives in every generation impassioned appeals for a return to "the old-time religion." These appeals are frequently laced with criticisms of modern practices (many of the criticisms sound), as well as exhortations to restore "old-time" practices that have been abandoned. There is a yearning for the "good old days" of yore, a longing about which the sage Solomon warned millennia ago (Ec. 7:10). In the first place, the "good old days" were never quite as good as depictedone thinks immediately of the faithless craving of Israel for the leeks and garlic, and therefore, of necessity, the slaveryof Egypt (Num. 11:4-6). It just so happens, though, that the piners for the "good old days" are not usually historically astute, or at least they have poor memories, or, like the "mixed multitude" of Israel, their romantic notions cloud those memories that are not poor.

Including the Biblical element creates a second problem. It is instanced most noticeably by a prominent Christian institution which selects for its slogan, "Standing for the Old-Time Religion and the Absolute Authority of the Bible." It does not occur to them that the "old-time religion" could ever conflict with the Bible. Of course, the Protestant Reformation was anchored in the conviction that the Bible could indeed conflict with the "old-time religion"not the religion of ancient catholic orthodoxy, which all the reformers endorsed,1 but the centuries-old medieval religion of the Western church, which they were convinced conflicted with the Bible at key points. Had the reformers merely maintained the status quo of what was at the time the "old-time religion," the Reformation would possibly never have occurred. We sometimes are obliged to scrutinize the "old-time religion," especially our individual or denominational interpretation of it, in light of God's infallible word.

The New "Old-Time Religion"
But the problem—the irony—cuts deeper still. The institution "Standing for the Old-Time Religion and the Absolute Authority of the Bible" (and many like it, including thousands of churches) happens to endorse dispensationalism, revivalistic "altar calls," the "pretribulational rapture of the church," and "gospel music," all of which it naturally equates with the "old-time religion," despite the fact that not one of the views or practices is yet three hundred years old (and some much more recent). We might wish to conclude that the trademark "old-time religion" lacks credibility when issuing from the lips and pens of people with short-term memories.

A leading Christian Reconstructionist in England, to mention another example, received a visit from an evangelical minister who berated him for advocating the application of the Faith to the state in the form of Biblical law. The evangelical identified this view with "new doctrine," objectionable both for its novelty and error. That a conservative minister in England, the home of the Puritans, could equate the application of Biblical law in the state with novelty exhibits not only how far conservatives have come from (and how far they need to return to) comprehensive, Biblical religion, but also how lamentably a- and anti-historical they have become. For these people, a revival of any Biblical view or practice of the past is equivalent to embracing "novelty."

Absolutizing the Past
A third problem associated with the "old-time religion" is the temptation to absolutize the past in the attempt to recover an era or age one identifies as truly Christian or Biblical (it is the opposite error of those who worship at the shrine of change for the sake of change, like modern liberals, for whom change, ironically, becomes the unchangeable orthodoxy from which there may be no dissent). The craving for the past, however, is a craving for a world that no longer canor shouldexist. It wants to repristinate the human (and therefore creaturely and limited) interpretation and expression of God's word from an earlier age, not realizing that human interpretation was itself at the time an attempt to express God's truth in the contemporary situation, and that to absolutize that human interpretation and expression for all time is not only to substitute man's limited creaturely word for God's unlimited Creator-Word, but to dilute the contemporary relevance of the living, inspired, infallible word of God.

Usually accompanied by the ancient pagan lust for timelessness within history2 it erroneously romanticizes the past and assumes it was not the product of the very sorts of historical forces its supporters today eschew (new ideas, technological advances, and other historical changes). Roman Catholics, for example, often pine for the patristic and medieval era, though that period constituted anything but a stable, immutable preservation of Biblical Faith.3 Many Protestants long for the epoch of High Reformation Orthodoxy as the acme of Christian doctrine and life on which one could never improve, despite the fact that some of its key tenets were borrowed from Renaissance humanism.4 Cultists and radical reformers perceive a timelessness in any new bare reading of Scripture, which pointedly refuses to account for the church historic;5 and thus, despite their distaste for historic orthodoxy, their own historically conditioned interpretation and practice (usually far inferior to that of historic Christianity) becomes for them a new tradition, the "old-time religion."

The Biblical Approach
Biblically and historically aware Christians value our forebears and their forebears's beliefs and practices not because those doctrine and practices represent the final word of Biblical orthodoxy (as though God wiped his hands of theological progress in A. D. 325, 1054, 1517, 1647, 1870, or 1997), but because these individuals had a deep love for God, his word, and the Christian Faith, and therefore can lead us to a better understanding of God, his word and the Christian Faith. In a conversation once over the topic of baptism, I quoted several times from Calvin's Institutes. My clearly exasperated friend finally remarked (and somewhat patronizingly), "You're quoting Calvin, but I quote the Bible; your view is based on what man says; mine is based on what God says."

To this I responded, "No, the difference between us is not that I hold Calvin's view while you hold the Bible's, but that I am not arrogant enough to think I understand the Bible better than anyone else ever has . . . ."

With this recognition there are two errors to avoid: the anti-historical provincialism that reinvents orthodoxy on the anvil of its own inferior (and usually heretical) speculation (liberals and charismatics are the most notorious), and, on the other hand, a static historicism that absolutizes one era of the past, not recognizing the change that era represented, and thus threatens to substitute the authority of the Bible with the authority of the products of a romanticized past (conservative Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox can be almost equally guilty).

We must constantly go back to the Bible (recognizing, of course, the fact of own creaturely and sinful limitations, and not only our forebears') and mine its divinely inspired richness to discover the eternal truththe only infallible answersfor our generation, recognizing all the while that it is the Bibleand not our belief about the Biblethat is infallible.


1. Jaroslav Pelikan, Obedient Rebels (New York and Evanston, 1964).

2. Rousas John Rushdoony, Salvation and Godly Rule (Vallecito, CA, 1983), 144, 145.

3. Gerhard Ebeling, The Problem of Historicity (Philadelphia, 1967), 56-60.

4. Henning Graf Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World (Philadelphia, 1985), 126.

5. George W. Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America (Orlando, 1983), 4.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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