I have often thought back, with a smile and the feeling of incredulity, at the scene which unfolded in Denver, Colorado in 1993. It was the second night of the debate on the Papacy with Gerry Matatics. Gerry was really scrambling. He had never been hit with so many patristic citations in his life, that was obvious. During the break he ran up into the choir loft and madly scribbled notes for the second part of the debate. Then at one point he actually stood before that crowd (oh how I wish it had been video taped!) with the first volume of William A. Jurgens’ The Faith of the Early Fathers in his hand, opened to the “doctrinal index” in the back. And there he stood, reading names of early writers as if the appearance of their names in a Roman Catholic historical work means they in fact believed what he believed concerning the Papacy and Petrine primacy. I was dumbfounded. I had often found Jurgens a biased or, at best, incomplete source, and to cite such a secondary source as if it had relevance in debate surely would have resulted in his immediate disqualification under formal rules. And yet, for a large portion of Roman Catholics today, the simplistic citation of an early writer, without the first attempt to contextualize or prove that the language he used carries the same meaning as the modern era, is enough to satisfy, and substantiate the oft-repeated phrase, “to go deep into history is to cease to be Protestant.” Ol Newman could write a line, but folks like Salmon sure did put him in his place.
In any case, both Roman and Orthodox churches “do battle” on the field of history for the simple reason that their respective claims of authority necessitate it. And yet, if there is anything you learn from reading, fairly, the first four centuries of currently extant “Christian” writing, it is this: there is no consistent, universal position on almost anything, outside of, possibly, the fact that there is only one true God (over against pagan polytheism) that can be derived from these writings. The idea that there is, in fact, this kind of unanimity, is almost always born from the most selective reading of the texts.
What should concern our pilgrim on the road to Antioch, if what he once believed is still relevant at all, is whether he finds the writings of those early centuries compelling on biblical grounds. We know that there were false teachers in the days of the Apostles. We know apostasy was a real problem even while apostles ministered in the primitive church. We know they warned us of the continuation of that problem in the coming generations (Acts 20, 2 Tim. 3, Jude). So the real question our pilgrim must consider is, given the manifold contradictions and inconsistencies between early writers (and, at times, within the extant writings of a single person), and their acknowledged non-inspired status, what is, in the final analysis, the only sure word he has from God today? Peter warned that untaught and unstable men would plague the church: and they wrote books, too. Should we not hold ancient writers to the same touchstone as a person in the modern period?
I liken the almost starry-eyed view of the early writers to a person who would rummage through the wreckage of a modern Christian bookstore after it has been hit by a force five tornado. If one attempted to recreate the theology of Christianity in America by reference to a jumbled sample of what would be found in such a mess, what would the result be? Piecing together a tangle of T.D. Jakes, Zane Hodges, Jerry Jenkins, Rick Warren, the Dake Study Bible, Benny Hinn, and maybe a few pages of good stuff in the process, would result not only in utter theological pandomonium, but it would also create a representation that would have no meaningful connection to the actual historical situation. When one considers the fact that we have but a small sampling of the actual beliefs of the earliest generations of believers (it is sort of hard to develop a full body of doctrinal writing while hiding from armed Roman soldiers and being fed to lions), and even then, the later generations exercised a “filtering” influence at that (look at what happened to Melito of Sardis’ writings for just being on the “wrong” side of the Quartedeciman controversy!), how can we even say we have a meaningfully balanced view of that period, let alone one that can provide us with such “uniformity” on issues as later sacramental theology? Turning this body of literature into the filter through which we are to view the qeo,pneustoj (“God-breathed”) scriptures is to enslave the Scriptures, not to aid in their interpretation. While we may well be able to learn from a “Clement of Rome” (i.e., the writer of the letter representing the plurality of elders at Rome to the church at Corinth), or the writer of the epistle to Diognetius, or Athanasius, etc., we find ourselves more often learning what happens when untaught and unstable men are put in positions of leadership than otherwise.
So the real question that should concern our pilgrim is the same that concerns us to this very day: when examining any man’s teaching, its value is to be determined solely by its fidelity to the plumbline that is the God-breathed Scriptures. Does this one handle the Word aright? Does he cut it straight? Is he consistent in this matter, or is tradition his Master? Just as one cannot serve God and mammon, one cannot serve the Word and “tradition.” And when you begin examining the early writers on that basis, very few pass the exam with very high grades. The reasons are many. Some in the very early period did not have a full canon of Scripture upon which to base their teaching, leaving them subject to imbalance. Very, very few, from what we can see, functioned within a biblical view of the church, and hence did not have the maturing, corrective structure of a plurality of elders. Given the cultural context, many brought massively unbiblical influences from their philosophical backgrounds and forced the Scriptures into the mold of their philosophy (Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr). Their writings provide a veritable handbook on exegetical error, yet, for those looking to substantiate an unbiblical dedication to an “ancient tradition” they are given a “pass” on the exegetical issue, their inconsistencies are swept under the rug, all so as to create some kind of unanimous view “of the Fathers.”
So I would ask our pilgrim just what it is he seems to be “missing” from the proclamation of the inspired Word? There must be a reason to be “looking” for something else, something in the smells and bells that is more attractive than the spiritual, miraculous, incredible activity of the Word working in the hearts and minds of believers as it is proclaimed within the context of the Body of Christ. Granted, us Reformed Baptists have a long, wide streak of Puritanism in us, and a person given to ceremony and ornate liturgy might end up comatose in our company. But doesn’t the accurate, consistent, God-honoring handling of the sacred Scriptures trump censers and candles and bells and icons? None of those things change you, none of them conform you to the image of Christ. And very importantly, is it possible for a faithful Orthodox priest, for example, to engage in exegesis of the text on those issues where Orthodoxy has defined a traditional belief through its liturgy and prayers? How can Scripture function as a corrective in that kind of situation?
In reference to our pilgrim’s question about the “true” church being a minority, I do wonder if that is not how John felt when he wrote 1 John. Sure sounds like it to me. And did Paul wonder if the truth had become a minority in the churches in Galatia? Things could not have been overly rosey in Jude’s day, either. I truly wonder about those who think truth should be determined by majority vote. Look at the situation in the Lord’s day: the Scriptures were readily available, yet the very ones with the most access to it overlaid it with the dead crust of tradition, bringing the strongest words of condemnation from Christ (Matthew 15, 23). In Christ’s day, had it not been for Luke’s recounting of Simeon and Anna, we would have not even know of this “remnant” in Israel, just as Elijah despaired in his day. When our pilgrim speaks of an “unheard of minority,” is he seriously thinking that if you have the truth, your writings will prevail over error in the long run? If the Word of God brings reformation while the bent of man is always toward error and suppression, will there not be times when following his viewpoint will lead solely to error? And is it not equally true that following the Word of God will always provide you a firm foundation?
If I were to sit down with our pilgrim, I would want to know how it is that once he would have confessed justification by grace through faith, and the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, as his sole ground of peace with God, and now he is willing to abandon that for…the mystery of liturgy? Isn’t it the Word which gives life, light, and wisdom? Isn’t the only thing that animates any and all liturgy the truth of the Word? How can you give up the very focus of your peace with God for a sacramental system that cannot offer you that same biblical truth?
Maybe our pilgrim will stop in the way and think about his priorities. Maybe not. All I know is that Christ never fails to bring His own into His kingdom, and in the long run, the pilgrim’s soul is in His hands.