There is a famous phrase about intergenerational dependence: that ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’. It reminds us that whatever we have we owe to those greats before us. But let me remind you of Isaac Newton’s specific use of the phrase: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. In other words, the upshot of standing on a giant’s shoulders is that you tend to have a better view than the giant himself does. As we build sensibly on the greats of previous generations, we also have the privilege of seeing better than they.
The reformed church is always reforming. We don’t stand on giants’ shoulders so we can stomp on them; we stand on their shoulders because they put us there. But to extend the imagery again, while they put us on their shoulders so that we can see what they could see, the effect is of course to have been given a better view—a view that we ought not be silent about. And we pray that the next generation would so use us.
The problem is that we live in a society used to adversarial rather than collegial critique. To seek to reform what we’ve been given sounds like a fight rather than taking up the baton—especially if the ones passing the baton don’t want to let go, don’t trust us to hold it, and can’t see where we may run with it because they too think reformation by definition sounds like a fight (in this case, with them). As in a relay, we pray that the previous generations will run with us a part of the way—that space in time in the race where both are running full speed and both are holding the baton. To be set on the path and to continue further down it.
I have met a genuine fear in some ‘youngers’ about speaking up. They love and respect their elders so much that it would seem a critique and a ‘fight’, a parting or separation of ways, to dare critique their elders. That’s a myth of churchmanship promoted by the model of religious writing endorsed by secluar media: everything is a confrontation, division, and fight. But we know better. We know that we strive together for the truth, we know that we each seek to safeguard the gospel, even if we disagree for the moment on how. And we listen to one another.
We need to move beyond an adversarial model of critiquing, and even of worrying that the newspapers will call our model of critiquing divisive no matter what we do. We need to embrace a model where we seek to push higher together, to bring one another closer to the knowledge of God. It would be a shame if those who have taught our particular generation so faithfully thought of this growth to maturity as betrayal and so silenced us (exasperated us); it would be a shame if we thought of it as betrayal and so failed to speak, or only spoke in the ashes of conflict and the dishonouring of our elders. But the greatest shame of all would be if we failed to speak simply because we were afraid.