Wednesday, April 6, 2011

To be steeped in history is to cease being Reformed

Yes-the title of this post was taken from the oft repeated statement of Cardinal Newman after his conversion to Romanism "To be steeped in history is to cease being Protestant." Though I am theologically far removed from the Roman Catholic church, I cannot help but be sympathetic to this sentiment. Though it is not a primary area I have discussed on my blog, a study of historical theology was as influential to my conversion as was my exegetical work.

The question I pose is this: Could the Church have been wrong about so many central elements of Christian theology and practice for 1500 years?

As a Reformed Christian, I would have to answer yes--though I was not willing to admit that the gates of hell had prevailed against the church.
As I began to read through the church fathers and medieval theologians, there were several things I quickly noticed.

First, baptism is always seen as a means of regeneration. From Justin Martyr, to the apocryphal gospels and acts, to Tertullian, to Irenaeus, to Augustine, through the middle ages, there has never been a major theologian who has regarded baptism as a symbol (nor as entrance into an external covenant with no real soteriological benefits). I still have been unable to find a single writer who understood baptism in any other way than regeneration prior to the reformation.

Second, it is always an assumption that a Christian can fall away from grace. It is a consistent theme in the apostolic fathers that the Christian must not quit running the race, or else his salvation will be lost. This again is echoed through out the centuries. Augustine himself, while acknowledging the perseverance of the elect, believed that many who were baptized and regenerate would fall away. Again, I have not found a single writer who taught otherwise.

Third, no one limited saving grace to the elect. Yes, there are elements of what would later be labeled "limited atonement" in the early Prosper of Aquitaine, Fulgentius of Ruspe, and Gottschalk, but none of these theologians denied that non-elect believers had true regeneration, thus saving grace, for a time. Baptismal grace is seen as a universal gift, given to all who are baptized, regardless of their election.

Finally, there is no "regulative principle of worship" in the early or medieval church. From the first century, the church functioned by means of liturgy. The church calender played a pivotal role in spiritual formation through out the second and third centuries. The church functioned under an episcopal system, without any outcry to the contrary. At least in the conservative RPCNA circles I have been a part of, it is seen as sinful to worship in any manner other than that which is directly commanded by scripture-which in this view is a Presbyterian form of government, exclusive Psalmody in worship, and no spoken or chanted liturgy. If this is the case, one must admit that there was no real worship service from 100 AD until Calvin's Geneva.

These are only a few of the issues which I was unable to find in earlier church history; there are several more. If these, and other Reformed beliefs are true- how were they missed for 1500 years? Did everyone get it wrong? Did the Holy Spirit allow his church to fall into such error?

The history of the church is of course not an infallible authority as is the scripture. However, it should, if Christ's promise is true, at least be taken as a reliable guide for Biblical interpretation. If one is to disagree with the tradition of the church, there had better be rock solid exegetical reasons for doing so. In this case-it does not seem that there are.


Nick said...

Excellent post! I came to the same conclusions as I began to look into those issues myself.

Eric Bendekovic said...

I listened to issues etc do a program on the didache yesterday. They said some scholars have dated it to the 1st century. The process went catechize, baptize and then fellowship in the Lords Supper. How can one be catechized without the spirit? Or more importantly why would one want to without the spirit?

Alden said...

To be truly historic, I guess, would be to be Eastern Orthodox. When the Anglicans started ecumenical discussions with the Orthodox, they were told they'd have to abandon 2 things at the outset: the filioque clause and Reformed theology.

However, I am not sure that an unchanging adherence to tradition is the key, either. But, approaching theology with a respect for historical positions is, I believe, important. And it does bring many modern ideas into question.

Jordan Cooper said...

Eric: both baptism and the word are means of regeneration, thus one can have the Spirit-wrought gift of faith before baptism through the proclamation of the gospel. However, even if this is the case, baptism still brings forgiveness and seals the Spirit in the believers heart. It does not become merely a symbol for those who have already been given faith.

Alden: I disagree that one must be Eastern Orthodox to be truly historic. The level of veneration given to the Theotokos and the saints is far beyond that of the fathers. It also seems that the Eastern church has neglected the legal aspects of salvation in favor of the ontological; the fathers have both.

Jeph said...


Suppose I have come to faith in Christ by the proclamation of the Gospel alone but have not yet been baptized. Am I justified? Am I regenerated? Am I God's child? Will I be saved?

Steve said...


Just a quick question - do you have any recommendations for books that would be suitable as a good introduction to the Church Fathers?

Jordan Cooper said...

Jeph- Yes, one can be saved without baptism, though baptism is the ordinary means of bringing this about. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of a "baptism of desire" in which, if someone simply has not had time to do so, or has not been instructed to do so, he can be saved without it.

Steve- The best books to get are J.N.D. Kelly's "Early Christian Doctrines" or the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's "The Christian Tradition" volume 1. There are a lot of books out there with small selections of writings from the fathers put together. However, the theological leanings of the editor tend to distort the picture, by the inclusion of quotes he/she agrees with. For example, Jurgen's "Faith of the Early Fathers" series makes the Patristic authors much more Roman Catholic than they are. After these two books, begin reading the fathers themselves.

Steve said...

Thanks Jordan.

DavidC said...

Jordan, regarding the possibility of falling away, do you know in what ways the Reformed try understand the early church fathers on this? Do they simply conclude they were wrong/misguided or do they attempt read Perseverance of the Saints back into the early church writings?

Jordan Cooper said...

DavidC, I've never heard anyone try and defend the idea that early writers held to perseverance of the saints, though I wouldn't be surprised if someone did. I have always heard them claim that the "error of baptismal regeneration" crept up early in the second century and ruined the church's teaching on perseverance.

Anonymous said...

Gottschalk was a heretic, too.