There are statements we circulate credulously without examining them. They achieve the status of self-evidentiality by dint of repetition. One such saying is that we "stand on the shoulders" of those who came before us. Even to suggest a problem with this maxim is to invite censure.
I suggested in an essay proposing seminary reform that we might do well to spend most of our precious class time reading the Bible rather than hallowing the doctrinal formulations of the 16th century. One of my editors answered that we "stand on the shoulders" of those who came before. (To my undying appreciation, he let me have my two cents anyway.)
The shoulders that Martin Luther was asked to stand on were not good shoulders. They had slipped off the shoulders of the Apostles in the book of Acts in major ways. They gradually had us paying money to get souls out of Purgatory, and worst of all they had us thinking that salvation was to be had by a combination of following regulations, maintaining membership in a visible church, and believing in Jesus. The Apostle Paul called that a damnable heresy, not commendable shoulder-standing.
I was thinking of this during my morning Bible reading. I read the statement "Abraham believed God" (Galatians 3:6). It jumped out at me with all its loaded implications: "Abraham believed God"---and not man. "Abraham believed God"---and not what well-meaning pastors or little old ladies told him about God. "Abraham believed God"---knowing that different preachers and professors teach opposing and contradictory things, and theologies are not infallible, but go awry. "Abraham believed God"---and that's all you and I can do, at the end of the day.
I can just imagine what Martin Luther's counselor told him in his office when the monk of tender conscience came to him with a troubled mind: "Martin, pray that God will forgive your arrogance and presumption. Who do you think you are, that you can see something that has escaped the divines of the centuries, and many a better scholar than you? Martin, don't you know: We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us."
I wonder if the monk replied: Dear Abbot, the Word of God must always stand above the word of man. I cannot judge his word; it judges me. The only shoulders I can stand on are Jesus', Peter's, and Paul's.
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