In the summer of 1949, the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League merged to form the National Basketball Association (NBA), a league made up of seventeen teams. Since then, the game of basketball has undergone significant changes in almost every area imaginable—style, pace, attitude, strategy, rules, fan base, and revenue, among others. But it’s worth noting that this development didn’t occur over one or two seasons. In fact, if you were to analyze the history of basketball, it wouldn’t be difficult to divide the NBA into eras based on players whose presence significantly changed the game. Bill Russell, for instance, played for the Boston Celtics beginning in 1956, bringing eleven championships to the franchise in his thirteen-year career. Then, in 1959, came Wilt Chamberlain, who would score one hundred points in a single contest in 1962. Following Wilt were Oscar Robertson, Moses Malone, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At the beginning of the 1980s, two NCAA championship rivals—Magic Johnson and Larry Bird—began their almost two-decade-long NBA rivalry. Only a few years later came Michael Jordan. The start of the twenty-first century ushered in Shaquille O’Neal and then Kobe Bryant, who recently passed the baton to the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Have you ever witnessed a debate between people representing different generations concerning who is the greatest NBA player of all time? Everyone thinks the players they grew up watching represent the golden era of the NBA. For example, the perennial debate from about 2009–14 was whether LeBron James had surpassed Kobe Bryant. The younger crowd largely heralded LeBron, while the ’80s and ’90s kids didn’t appreciate the premature disrespect of Kobe. The underlying culprit of these debates is a lack of consideration for historical development. People romanticize a particular era. If you don’t believe me, try to reason with a Chicago native (like me) that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, and he’ll chronicle Jordan’s career as if he never missed a shot.
Chronicling the NBA in terms of its greatest players also misses the point that each era has its drawbacks. From the slow pace of play in the early decades, to the lack of defense in the 1980s, to the eschewing of set plays in favor of hoisting three-pointers today, the point is that each NBA era has had its share of the good, the bad, and the ugly. There was no golden age.
Golden Age of the Church
Discouragement with the state of the modern church and an overly optimistic view of church history have caused some Christians to believe that the church once had a golden age. It’s often suggested that the early church represented this age. We must correct our drifting and return to the values and practices of the early church, the argument goes. They want the church to be more “Apostolic.” They want it to be more communal (see Acts 2:44). They want it to be free of denominationalism and separation. The natural consequence of this well-intended attitude is a disparagement of the modern church.
In many ways, these critics are right—there are many things that the church needs to heed from our earliest forefathers. The early Christians faithfully employed the divinely ordained means of grace (v. 42), they shared the gospel with deep fervor, they exhibited tremendous generosity, and so forth. We would do well to reform our piety and practice to better conform to Scripture, which reform perhaps was modeled better by previous generations of Christians. This is the heart of the Reformation principle semper reformanda—the church is continually reforming itself to the teaching of Scripture. But to identify the early church (or any other age) as the golden era and to yearn for its exact replication is misguided and dangerous for a number of reasons.
- The idea of a golden age discounts the shifts in redemptive history.
I understand the frustration in reading the book of Acts and concluding that the Holy Spirit was more visible in His work in the early church. But the Spirit that came upon those at Pentecost is the same Spirit that indwells us. What’s the difference, then? The primary difference is with regard to methodology, not source. The extraordinary, foundational Apostolic office—with all its accompanying gifts—eventually gave way to a more permanent church structure featuring the simple offices of elder and deacon. This doesn’t make the church any less “spiritual”; rather, it accounts for the intentional shift from the Apostolic foundation-laying stage to the more permanent ordinary age. If we are to lament anything in the modern church, it should be our susceptibility to neglect those ordinary means of building the church in search of something more extraordinary. In reality, the early church devoted itself to the same things that we should be devoting ourselves to—the sacraments, the Word of God, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:42). The Spirit who made the ascended Christ present to them in and through those means is the same Spirit who does so for us today. Grasping for the gifts of the past implies a distrust in the redemptive plan of Christ.