The Hardest Other Culture To Learn From

James Petigru Boyce biography
After seeing a favorable mention by Andy Naselli, I read a fascinating interview with Tom Nettles, a scholar who wrote a biography of the Baptist leader James Boyce.

The interviewer asked Dr. Nettles, “How would you respond to someone who said he would never read your book for the simple fact that James P. Boyce was from the South and owned slaves?”

As a minister to college students, I was curious to see what he would say. Young people today are often eager to learn from every culture but our own for precisely the reasons implicit in the question. The virtues of earlier American or European leaders are often swamped by their vices, and so college students seem unable to appreciate the other culture that is our past. And they are particularly prone to judge dead Christians harshly.

Dr. Nettles’ answer is amazing:

I would try to resist the production of a long list of insults to the intelligence of one so bigoted, narrow-minded, unthinking and hypocritical as even to think such a thing. Employment of such a principle would shut one off from the study of the Old Testament, virtually all of the ancient cultures, Greek dominance of the intertestamental period, the Roman Empire, the history of England until the first half of the nineteenth century, the history of colonial America, the lives of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the entire ante-bellum South and so forth. If one believes that the union of church and state has brought untold suffering and evil to both church and state as well as society in general (which I do), and feels that avoiding the documents produced in that context is a moral necessity for a Christian and that awareness of their viewpoints on theology, politics, philosophy, and society are reprehensible and unworthy of the intellectual and spiritual life of a Christian (which I don’t), then avoid the study of the German Reformation, the English Reformation and all western medieval culture. Bring to void any benefit from the study of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Know nothing of the City of God, the Proslogion, and the Summa. If one studies history and gains interest in persons and nations simply on the basis of personal moral approval of the subject or the era in which he lived, he probably can find justification for the study of nothing and spend his life congratulating himself that he is ignorant of everything. But if one wants to see the operations of the mind of a highly gifted, intellectually and morally driven person, whose flaws are obvious and will not hurt us and whose strengths are massive and will inspire and help us, then go for Boyce. If one wants to see the way in which theological and biblical commitments transcend the ability of any individual to facilitate the moral, intellectual, and spiritual loftiness engendered in the study of divine revelation, study Boyce. If one want to see how that same commitment, nevertheless, raises a common sinner such as we all are to uncommon heights of self-sacrifice inspired by a vision of the divine glory, study Boyce. If one wants to see how Christian character constantly nourished by increased knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ can interrupt the natural tendency to bitterness and resentment and seething hostility fostered by the crushing destruction and snarling ridicule of deeply-held conviction and unfettered commitment to a cause and transform the soul to the sweetness of a reconciled and reconciling posture of mind, study Boyce.

Emphasis mine.

Wow. So yeah, learn from the past. Even dead slave owners were not without some wisdom and virtue. And remember — your descendants will judge you far more harshly than you imagine.

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