Stop citing “the test of time” – it isn’t a real test!

A line you will hear from time to time in Christian circles is that something has ‘stood the test of time’. You might hear it in relation to hymnody, for example. These songs are good, the argument avers, because they have stood the test of time. You might hear it in relation to creeds and confessions. These things are to be believed and heard because they have stood the test of time. You might hear it in relation to anything that somebody discerns existed in the past and has, as they judge it, survived to today. Good things, they argue, stand the test of time.

I really wish we would consign this argument to the bin. Ironically, the test of time argument has stood the test of time – inasmuch as it has been with us for many years – and it remains as risible as it ever was. The argument is a nonsense.

Now, before I go into why, let me say that there are things to which the test of time argument gets applied that are good things. Some older hymns remain good and so we still sing them. Some creeds and confessions are excellent and so we still refer to them. There are old things that are good! But they are not good because they have stood the test of time.

Indeed, some good things have not stood the test of time. For example, everybody laughed at Clive Sinclair when he made his Sinclair C5. That electric vehicle has gone down in history as a world-renowned dud that ended Sinclair Vehicles. But electric vehicles – including bikes, scooters and cars – are being pushed like there’s no tomorrow (specifically because some people believe there will be no tomorrow if we don’t!) The C5 is no longer with us and everybody thought it was stupid. It didn’t last the test of time. But clearly, if it were available today, it is hard not to see there would be a market for it. It was effectively a fore-runner of every electric vehicle we now see around us. A good idea built at the wrong time. I suspect we will say the same thing about petrol motors in several decades time. A great invention that served us very well but that is no longer with us. It probably won’t stand the test of time, but there’s no denying it has been a valuable and good invention. I appreciate we might have something of a discussion about the goodness and badness of these things, but you get the point.

By contrast. there are plenty of terrible things that we should want nothing to do with are still with us. They are enduring time’s test though we desperately wish they wouldn’t. As Christians, it is hard not to look at some of the major world religions which fall into this camp. Buddhism, for example, predates Christianity (though not Judaism). If we are going to land hard on the test of time argument, do we have to say Buddhism has lasted and is therefore more credible than Christianity? After all, it has stood the test of time. Much longer than the test of time we like to apply to hymnody for example.

And let’s think about that example. Have some hymns stood the test of time? Yes. But then, some hymns that still do the rounds are frankly awful. I am still surprised by the number of Reformed people happy to sing John Henry Newman’s Lead Kindly Light when he was one of the foremost proponent of the Oxford Movement and the ‘kindly light’ he wanted to be led by – that was in his mind as he penned that hymn – was the Catholic Church. But his hymn remains with us, often in otherwise good hymn books. It has stood the test of time. But it is not a hymn I think any Bible-believing Evangelical should be singing.

Many of us are aware of the term Chronological Snobbery. The belief that we are more advanced and therefore better placed to make judgements that people in the past. But the test of time argument rests largely on that same principle. Because why do things stand the test of time? Ultimately because people today still use or subscribe to the thing. The test of time is really just another way of saying some people still like that thing today. Which places quite a lot of weight on what we do. Stuff that hasn’t passed the test of time is merely stuff we, today, have decided we don’t want anymore. The only difference between the test of time argument and chronological snobbery is that the former agrees with those in the past whilst the latter says those in the past were wrong. But in the end, the ultimate arbiter is us today.

The point here is that the test of time argument holds no logical water. Truth and goodness is not determined by what has lasted longest. By that measure, sin which has been with us since The Fall must be good, since it has stood the test of time. That is a nonsense. Sin is a terrible thing that has remained with us and we look forward to the day that Jesus returns to rid us of it and its effects. Similarly, the test of time argument assumes what has passed away is necessarily bad. But it clearly isn’t necessarily so. Things pass away and are no longer used for all sorts of reasons. There are hymns and songs, for example, that we no longer use that weren’t bad by any stretch but were perhaps not well suited to modern contexts. There are inventions that were not bad, they were useful, but are now obsolete. What about countryside that once was and has now been built upon? Was there something bad about the countryside, or is there something better about built up urban areas, or is that change neither good nor bad and the test of time something of an irrelevance in judging that matter?

All of that is to say, I think we should stop using the test of time argument. If you want to make a case for a particular hymn, then do. Make the case on its merits. Does it teach something good, right and helpful? Is it understandable to people in the modern day? If you think it is and its beneficial, then make that case. The fact that some people still use it today does nothing to make it good or bad. Likewise, if you think a particular creed or confession is good, make your case for it. The fact that some people hold to it – and have done so for a fairly long time – doesn’t ultimately help the case one way or the other. In the end, we don’t determine the value of something by the length of time it has been around. Which means we should drop the test of time argument altogether because it isn’t really much of a test at all.