One way that the modern world differs from the ancients – the ancients often felt that a great teacher is to be believed simply by their reputation. Moderns rely more on a scientific method of evaluation – test and verify. It is not the reputation of the claimant that determines the validity of the truth, test the truth itself. Thus ancients tended to accept Aristotle’s science largely based on his reputation and repeated his ideas for many centuries, apparently disregarding observation at times because the evidence didn’t agree with Aristotle’s thinking.
Similarly, we also see the Patristic authors accepting, for example, the wisdom of Solomon based on Solomon’s reputation in tradition and the scriptures. Because he was viewed as the wisest of men based on the claims of Scripture, Solomon’s writings were given added weight, accepted as irrefutable truth. If Solomon said something, it must be true, though we might have to discover in what way is it true. St. Basil the Great writing in the 4th Century says:
“After all, when a teacher has a trustworthy reputation, it makes his lessons easier to accept and his students more attentive.” (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 54)
Obviously, on one level St. Basil’s words are as true today as they were 1600 years ago: if a person has an established reputation we do take their words more seriously and give them added weight (think Albert Einstein, for example). But, today the reputation itself is built upon the person’s ideas being tested and proven true. And for us, the test is based on a scientific method where a person’s ideas can actually be proven false and only if they survive rigorous testing are they held to be true. Again one can think of Albert Einstein’s theories – despite his great reputation and a great track recorded of his ideas being upheld by scientific scrutiny, 100 years after his ideas were expressed, they are still being tested against the known evidence and not accepted until proven true, or at least as long as the evidence doesn’t prove them wrong.
St. Basil writes about the evidence that would convince him ideas are to be accepted. So he says of the wisdom literature of Solomon:
“Now the very fact that a king wrote this book greatly contributes to the acceptance of its exhortations. For if kingship is a legitimate authority, it is clear that the counsels given by a king – at least if he is truly worthy of this designation – have great legal force…” (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICES, p 55)
For St. Basil the fact that Solomon was a king adds weight to what he says – a king has a special authority and his words are more trustworthy than others because of the office he holds. This sense that by virtue of one’s office, one’s words are more trustworthy is also an idea held more by ancients than modern people. Today, there is a great amount of distrust of political authority, so much so that we have popular wisdom which says: “How can you tell if a politician is lying? . . . If his mouth his moving.”
Just think of the words of President Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.” That certainly is the more modern attitude. We are much more skeptical of ideas, even if they come from kings because scientific thinking enshrines skepticism as wisdom. Just because a king or even a saint says something doesn’t necessarily make it true – the ideas have to be tested against the evidence to be verified. Great thinkers of the past may be well known, but their ideas are given regard only if they are proven to be true. Aristotle is of great historic interest but he is no longer read or taught as offering real science.
This skepticism is part of what makes trusting religion so difficult for many modern people. It is why modern believers if desiring to witness to the truth to non-believers must be so careful in what we say or do. Every word and action of ours will be examined and efforts will be made to verify them. If they can’t be verified that will lead to even more skepticism and disbelief. We would be wise to remember the words of Christ: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)
Thus it doesn’t help our cause in witnessing to the world to make dubious claims, or to point to miracles, real or imagined, as they won’t necessarily convince the skeptic. At best they may cause them to seek verifying evidence, but more likely it will cause further skepticism and even distrust of Christians. In an age of skepticism, witnessing to the truth comes to mean something different than it did for ancients who might more readily appeal to the reputation of saints and kings as proof of the claimed truths. Probably our best witness is the lives we live, not the miracles we claim.
If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14:20-25)