I’ve alluded to this several times in other posts, but I think I need to throw it out as a subject in its own right. An awful lot of “doctrines” that are considered by church authorities as standards for faith, even standards for who is orthodox or heterodox, stand on what I submit are fairly tenuous grounds. I’ve been thinking about this a good deal lately, in part because of Scot McKnight’s series on heresies on the Jesus Creed blog. It was further stimulated by a good discussion over on my friend Mason’s blog.
In his introduction, Scot quotes Ben Quash, one of the authors of Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe: “A heretic is is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches must be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (that is, universally valid) Christian faith.” To my shock, in four posts so far, Scot has appeared to reinforce this definition several times, and I have not yet seen him challenge it. This shocks me because, coming from the Anabaptist tradition himself (as I do), Scot has got to realize that this definition validates the condemnation of his own spiritual forbears as heretics–for they certainly denied a number of “truths” that were universally accepted by “the church” of their time.
While I have not (yet) read the book, so I am going primarily on the discussion on Jesus Creed and other locations, I am highly troubled by the degree to which Christians of a variety of stripes appear to be perfectly OK with elevating various church fathers or reformers to canonical status. I say this because of the level of deference I encounter, in debates on doctrine, to those fathers’ teachings, even when those teachings go beyond what is stated in canonical scriptural sources.
It should be familiar to anyone who has read much in my blog, that I believe this level of deference to extrabiblical authority is inappropriate. But just to make it blindingly clear, let me state the proposition directly:
If any proposition is not derivable from scriptural sources alone, it dare not rise to the level of dogma.
By this I actually challenge most of what is in the vast majority of creeds and statements of faith, including the ancient ones (cf this post). My issue is that an awful lot of cherished doctrines of long standing are, if viewed honestly, extrabiblical. Unless we are willing to grant apostolic, inspirational credentials to the church fathers (which the Roman Catholic church does for some, but Protestants claim not to), their writings, however carefully and prayerfully considered, do not rise to the same level of authority. This same filter must be applied to the Reformers.
From Ingatius and Iranaeus, through Augustine, to Calvin and Luther, and even to Wright and Piper and all the others today, we have the writings of Godly, dedicated men who deserve to have their reasoning and arguments considered in the light of scripture, but none of whom, severally or individually, deserve canonical deference.
I do not claim that everything these guys stood for was/is unbiblical–far from it. I say rather:
- If what they say is derivable from a careful, contextual reading of scripture, it deserves doctrinal consideration.
- If what they say may be supported (or at least is not contradicted) by scripture, but is not independently detectable there, it may or may not be true, but as a doctrinal test it must be considered optional. . .even if centuries of church tradition have adopted it!
- If what they say is not actually found in scripture (and here I actually place at least some christology, believe it or not), it’s nothing more than opinion and dare not be elevated beyond that.
These criteria make a lot of Evangelicals nervous, because when consistently applied they actually strike at some pretty closely-held positions. One of the things these standards produce is a much shorter list of things for which we can maintain certainty. But if we are to really “rightly divide the word,” one of the things we have to be about is dividing it from all those accretions it has gathered in our doctrines and creeds over the centuries. Frankly, I believe such a standard would return “systematic theology” to its rightful place–as a useful tool to contemplate the wonder and grandeur of God’s work, but in humble acknowledgment that it is, at best, a good and honest guess, and not sufficient to divide the orthodox from the heterodox.
Put more simply, none of us–not even the doctors of divinity, the reformers, the church fathers–know half as much as we think. Writing people out of our fellowships, or worse, consigning them to damnation, on the basis of these things is wrong. It was wrong when they did it at the second council of Constantinople, and it’s wrong when denominations, conventions, preachers, and the rest of us do it today.