Monday, February 6, 2017

Standing on Shoulders of Giants

When we sing vintage hymns, we can be reminded we're
standing on the shoulders of giants.
Has anyone told you we’re, “standing on the shoulders of giants”? It’s used in many contexts, ranging from America’s unique system of government to science to education to entertainment to sports. It’s uncertain who originated the phrase, but 12th century theologian John of Salisbury expressed a version of it in his treatise on logic, Metalogicon, in 1159:
"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."

Centuries later Sir Isaac Newton, in a 1676 letter to his rival Robert Hooke, said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." A humble observation from Newton, regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time.

This idea, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” has resonated throughout my life in many ways. My first professional job was at a small newspaper in central Ohio, founded by a dedicated, hard-working individual in 1927. That newspaper served the area proudly for more than 50 years, and I was privileged to serve as its editor for 6½ of them. Even as a weekly publication, the Record was highly respected in its community and for a time, I stood on the shoulders of a giant.

More recently I’ve worked with several outstanding Christian ministries and non-profits also established by determined, visionary individuals. Because of their rich legacy of single-minded devotion to Jesus Christ, again I “stood on the shoulders of giants” in those organizations.

It’s important to remember those who have gone before and “raised us up.” They provided a sound foundation upon which we can build. Sadly, this notion is being lost in society today. Many seem eager to reinterpret the U.S. Constitution; some would just as soon discard it. True, it was written and enacted more than 200 years ago, but could it be the “giants” who collaborated in crafting it, our founding fathers, succeeded in producing a transcendent, timeless document?

Hymns like "Rock of Ages" reflect back on
faith that's passed on through the ages.
The same could be said of churches today, especially those that emphasize being contemporary, even “hip.” While I’ve never been a fan of the “we’ve always done it this way before” obsession with tradition, at the same time, just because something has been around awhile, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s obsolete.

For example, I enjoy praise music, typically accompanied by guitars, keyboards and drums. For some congregations, however, this has become their only form of music. I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but while these spiritual songs are heavy on beat, they tend to be light on theology. Just as there’s room for all kinds of music in society, it would be nice to hear these occasionally joined by classics like Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” or even an old Fanny Crosby song, some of which were borrowed melodies of popular barroom tunes in her time.

It’s not a matter of musical style, cadence, or orchestration. These beloved hymns, sung through the centuries, were composed by giants of the faith and represent some of the great traditions passed down from one generation to the next. As we look to Jesus Christ and anticipate eternity beyond this life, there’s danger of losing an understanding of our heritage, the paths blazed by brothers and sisters in the faith that helped bring us to where we are today. Maybe that was the impetus behind “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” written by Isaac Watts.

“Remember” is a word that appears often in the Scriptures. Psalm 77:11 says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.” It benefits us greatly to reflect on the wondrous works of God in times past.

But we’re also instructed to remember the saints who’ve gone before. “But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold” (Jude 17). An Old Testament prophet stated, “A scroll of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name” (Malachi 3:16). The so-called “hall of faith” in the 11th chapter of Hebrews recalls those who stood firm in their faith, many times facing great adversity and even death.

King Solomon warned of the consequences of forgetfulness regarding the past: “Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This was something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. These is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow” (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11).

Whether we’re using long-treasured hymns as reminders, revered statements of faith like the Apostles’ Creed and Westminster Confession of Faith, valued books and traditions, or especially accounts of Old and New Testament heroes, we must never forget that in worshiping our Lord and serving as His ambassadors, we’re “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

1 comment:

Steve said...

Spot on, brother. Thanks.