“Barely Capable of Discussing the Discoveries of Their Forerunners”

This quote from Richard of Bury (1281-1385) is surely somewhat rhetorical, but I think it nevertheless strikes home as a critique of our own shallow world:

Although the novelties of the moderns were never disagreeable to our desires, who have always cherished with grateful affection those who devote themselves to study and who add anything either ingenious or useful to the opinions of our forefathers, yet we have always desired with more undoubting avidity to investigate the well-tested labours of the ancients. For whether they had by nature a greater vigour of mental sagacity, or whether they perhaps indulged in closer application to study, or whether they were assisted in their progress by both these things, the one point we are perfectly clear about is that their successors are barely capable of discussing the discoveries of their forerunners, and of acquiring those things as pupils which the ancients dug out by difficult efforts of discovery. [Cited in R.R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and It's Beneficiaries, pp. 240-241]

The more I dig into classical, Renaissance, and Medieval texts, the more I become convinced that we Moderns have simply lost the robust, holistic way of thinking and living that our pre-Reformation and earliest Reformation fathers and brothers had. This isn’t some romantic pining after a mythical lost “Golden Age,” or some merely curmudgeonly whining – it’s a justifiable lament that in so many ways we today don’t have the basic tools to truly understand the world that our fathers had. We have people who go to seminary for years to learn how to cite Calvin from memory, but precious few of them could themselves actually write what Calvin wrote. We have people who bluster about the “compromises” of past generations of pagans and Christians, but who exhibit next to no interest in actually reading widely, sympathetically, and comprehensively so as to actually understand what they are talking about. On and on it goes – but on almost every front we are, as Bury said, “barely capable of discussing the discoveries of our forerunners.” Yet we have the arrogance to imagine that we are better and more spiritual than them, that our truncated little lives of obsessing about “sound doctrine” and “the solas” and “being consistently biblical” actually constitute intelligent thought and living. We don’t have any Augustines or Dantes or Calvins today because, as I often quote from King Alfred, “we have lost the wealth and the wisdom because we have not wished to set our minds to the track.”

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3 Responses to “Barely Capable of Discussing the Discoveries of Their Forerunners”

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    We don’t have any Augustines or Dantes or Calvins today

    Well, we don’t have them all over the place, to be sure, but we did have Barth and von Balthasar in the 20th century. Given the availability of education, we should have a lot more, but they are around — they just don’t teach at WTS or RTS.

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Sure, Kevin, that’s a good point. Since you mentioned education, the implication of the post is that a big reason why we don’t have many greats today is that our educational system stinks. Maybe I’m looking in all the wrong places, but especially in the Reformed world I can’t find 1 in 100 who are interested in anything but “soteriology” and destroying “compromise” wherever they (think) they see it. It just gets disheartening sometimes, especially when you realize the sorts of tools and concepts the Reformers had at their disposal.

  3. Kevin Davis says:

    Not to over-hype my alma mater too much, but I think John Webster is the greatest Reformed theologian working today. It may take a while (and certainly will require some concentration), but I think you would appreciate the sort of dogmatic work he is doing in his Kantzer Lectures at Trinity Evangelical:


    Lectures 3-6 are especially stimulating. And, of course, you should check out his books, especially his two volumes, Essays in Dogmatics (Word and Church and Confessing God). Holiness is the best introduction to his thought and a pure pleasure to read. Currently he’s working on the first volume of his systematic theology. It’s hard to describe his general “style,” but he’s big on ontology driving epistemology, which explains his fondness for Aquinas, Calvin, Bavinck, and Barth. And, while he’s big on the integrity of theology (i.e., prolegomena is not a clearing ground for what theology is “allowed” to do), he doesn’t fall into the far too easy dismissal of humanism, whether via the “postmodern” antics of Milbank, the silly circularity of van Til, or the “back door” existentialism of so-called Barthians (who never read Barth past the first volume of the CD).

    In addition to Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer is another notable Reformed theologian, very much outside the mold of WTS but still confessional. And, actually, Micheal Horton has done some excellent work in his 4-volume covenant theology. Unfortunately, Horton’s image is largely shaped by his work on the White Horse Inn, with its myopic focus and analysis — but I think he is capable of much more.

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