Westminster Seminary California
Only Children Can See Their Parents’ Faults

Since becoming a parent I have crossed the threshold where literally billions of others have trod, so I don’t claim to have any unique insight into child rearing. However, over the years I have begun to think about the proverbial monkey on my back of trying to do things differently than my parents. I am forever grateful for the upbringing I received. I was raised in a God-fearing home, taught the Scriptures, and constantly taken to church and exposed to the means of grace. But like all parents (including myself), my parents are sinners, have weaknesses, and made decisions that I do not necessarily agree with. In my own efforts at raising my children, I want to avoid the mistakes I perceived my parents made.

But here’s the catch. I’m sure that my parents saw and heard things that their parents did that they did not like or agree with. I’m sure they told themselves, “When I’m a parent, I will avoid making those same mistakes. I want to do a better job in this particular area.” And no doubt, when my children grow up and begin, God willing, to raise children of their own, they too will reflect upon all of my foibles and poor decisions and tell themselves, “I want to do things differently. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes my father made.” All of this is to say, I’m thoroughly convinced that only children can see their parents’ faults. I suspect that if parents could identify the faults to which they are blind, they would undoubtedly fix them. In some cases, I think the so-called faults are simply the censorious judgment of a child. In other cases, I suspect that children have genuine legitimate complaints.

Why are children able to see the things that parents cannot? I think the issue is one of perspective and time. Children can look back over a number of years and reflect upon their upbringing and see what they believe is a problem. On the other hand, parents are frequently living life by the skin of their teeth—they are doing their best to parent their children with a series of “firsts” always hitting them like the relentless pounding surf. What do I mean? First-time parents have never raised a child before. I have found that as soon as my wife and I get a handle on things, the child has grown past a stage or milestone and we are faced with new challenges. My wife and I are constantly adapting to an ever changing, growing, and hopefully maturing child. Hence, mistakes are bound to be made along the way.

So what has this to do with anything theological? I believe that the same pattern unfolds in the history of theology. Only the children can perceive the theological faults of their forefathers. When the city government of Geneva decided to burn Michael Servetus at the stake for his anti-trinitarian heresy, I’m sure they hardly gave a second thought to it. After all, this is what the government did with heretics. For example, in the Netherlands between 1521-66 over 981 people were tried and executed for heresy—this is just one region in Europe over a forty-plus year period. Later moderns look at such statistics with shock and horror and tilt our noses upward in a collective sense of superiority thinking to ourselves, “We would never do such horrible things. How ungodly, uncivilized, and inhumane.”

But how will our theological children treat us? In several hundred years when they look back upon our actions, beliefs, doctrines, and yes, errors, what will they look upon with scorn and horror? All of this is to say, when we look upon our parents, biological or theological, we should always do so with kindness and humility in the knowledge that, in most cases, they did the best job they could. Yes, by God’s grace we should seek to build upon the spiritual “capital” that our forefathers have established, but we should always remember that in parenting or in laboring for the kingdom of Christ, we should do so from a posture of humility and prayer in reliance upon the grace of God. We like our parents and theological forbearers, are redeemed, but nevertheless, weak creatures with feet of clay who are always in desperate need of God’s grace in all that we do. We can also rejoice in knowing that, regardless of our shortcomings, the gates of hell will not prevail against the gates of heaven. Praise our triune God, for he draws straight lines with crooked sticks.