(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)…
A manifest physical, intellectual, and moral weakness was strangely blended with an intense eagerness for novelty. We ordinarily associate a desire for new things with progress, but here that desire is associated with that which is the reverse of progress. This warrants the statement that a desire for something new is not necessarily indicative of progress. Indeed, it may be indicative of regress. It may not be an earnest desire for something better, but a mere restless, uneasy craving for change. To seek the new simply because it is the new, and apart from any consideration of its intrinsic worth, is to go backward rather than forward. I would not disparage legitimate desire for progress. Only an ignorant bigot will assert that "that which is new is not true, and that which is true is not new." Some new things are true, and some old things are false. Let reverent investigation go on. Let it be accorded the widest liberty. To hinder it were intellectual and moral treason. But the contention now is that progress and restlessness are not synonymous terms. It is not the seeking of "some new thing" which is wrong, but the "doing nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing." Indeed, so far from being good, it is evil. It indicates a fevered condition of the system — an unhealthy and morbid state. It begets instability of character and purpose. It leads to superficial ideas and modes of thinking. It withdraws attention from the tried and settled, and directs it to the flotsam and jetsam of daily happenings, the real importance of which is hardly ever discerned till time has them in their true perspective. Much occurred before our time which is of inestimable importance. Men need today, not less of the new, but more of the old, a wiser perception of its relative worth. More seriously, this craving for something new often dupes men into the acceptance of old errors. As a matter of fact, most new things are comparatively worthless, not all, but most. Originality is rare. What we call originality is usually eccentricity, and eccentricity nearly always means a screw loose in the intellectual or moral machinery. If an alleged new thing proves to be really good, the presumption is that it is not as new as it was supposed to be. But it not infrequently happens that the so-called new idea is an old error. We are told almost daily that modern thought has shown a belief in miracles to be unreasonable, and yet there is hardly a modern objection to miracles which was not anticipated by Celsus, who lived in the second century. Conversely, the presumption is that the old and established ideas are true. Not always, I grant. I would not fall into the opposite error. I would not question the reality or the value of the many great achievements of the present age. But it is a fair presumption that the old is the true. This was so of Athens in the time of Paul. The past was glorious, but the Athenians of St. Paul's day, with all their passion for hearing or telling some new thing, added nothing to the stock of the world's knowledge. For all that we owe to Athens, we go centuries back of those babblers. All history teaches us that progress is as likely to consist in getting back to old standards as in creating new ones. There is real ground for the apprehension that we may become a volatile people, lacking in stability and weight of character. We see this in literature, in the demand for new books, and in the neglect of old ones of tried value. "Robert Elsmere" is a case in point. The book is simply a dressing up, in popular narrative style, of the stalest and shallowest rationalistic objections to Christianity. Great was the commotion which it excited! Dire were the prophecies of the ruin which it would accomplish in the Church! We see it in science, in the haste with which new theories are accepted and promulgated as facts. Indeed, no matter how wild a theory is, there are always multitudes who are ready to seize it, and to proclaim that all existing institutions must be reorganised in harmony with it. We see this same craving for new things in everyday life, in the restless moving of people from place to place, in the frequency of business changes, in the small talk of society, in the rage of speculation. It seems to be the great object in life of many people to devise something novel, "something we've never had before," the utility of the thing devised being usually a secondary consideration. And we see it especially in religion. Many people do not like the old ideas and doctrines which, after all that can be said, are those that are fairly deducible from Holy Scripture and the faithful preaching of which has wrought such glorious moral and religious changes in the world. They want something new, and the minister who gratifies them is sure to have a large, though unsubstantial following. Multitudes are hurried hither and thither by their craving for change. Their religious convictions are those of the last book they have read or the last person they have talked with. Suffer me in conclusion to make two additional remarks.
1. A disposition to undervalue established ideas or institutions is a sign of a weak mind. A misconception is prevalent at this point. There are some, particularly among the young, who say that they will not accept anything which they have not personally investigated and found to be true; and they pride themselves upon that position, and deem it an evidence of intellectual strength and independence. As a matter of fact, it is simply an evidence of intellectual conceit or moral debility. Has the world learned nothing in all these thousands of years? Has it proved nothing to be true? Does the endorsement of ages create no favourable presumption? A sensible man will no more refuse to become a Christian because he has not had time to investigate for himself the history and claims of Christianity, than he will refuse to become a citizen of the country in which he was born and reared until he has satisfied himself by years of study that the institutions of that country are better than the institutions of other countries. He who declines to avail himself of an electric car, because he has not yet learned what electricity is, is not a wise man, but a fool.
2. In this restless age we need a progressive conservatism, a willingness to accept the new when it is the true, but a holding fast to the old, which has demonstrated its right to be. This gospel which we preach, and in which lies the hope of the race, is not a new gospel. And we love it because it is old, because time has not been able to weaken it or exposure to tarnish it — because all the attacks of earth and hell have not been able to overthrow it.
(A. J. Brown.)
Parallel VersesKJV: (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)