Arguing from Silence in the Early Church

This summer Luke Stamps and I had a relatively brief interaction about penal substitution and its catholicity. One of the common objections to penal substitution is that it is not found in the early church’s theological reflection. While we gave some brief examples in our posts of where it might be found, at least implicitly, there is a larger problem with this kind of approach to the Patristic period. We often use the early church in one of two problematic ways: either to proof-text in support of our position or to make an argument from silence against a position we oppose. While methodologically speaking the former is a bit easier to confront, the latter seems more prevalent these days (at least in my reading). Our hermeneutics classes have warned us of proof-texting enough that I think it’s easier to reject that approach not just biblically but historically. What is harder to reject, but what is just as problematic, is citing the silence of the Fathers as proof that a doctrine isn’t biblically or theologically warranted.

This is methodologically suspect on at least two levels. Historically, it ignores the fact that Christian doctrines develop over time. Theology does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it worked out in all its loci all at once immediately after the last apostle passes away. It should be clear to those who have studied church history that the Patristic and Medieval periods are given over to working out the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. Soteriology and ecclesiology are the focus of theological reflection in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, while anthropology and eschatology (to name just two) are being worked out in much more detail in contemporary theological discussions. To ask a second century apologist to speak about the Triune God with the same level of exactness as fifth century Christians is anachronistic. And to argue that a particular understanding of the atonement (e.g. penal substitution, or justification by faith alone) is not warranted because the Fathers do not mention it[1] is to miss the point that soteriology is largely assumed and not worked out with particular fervor or exactness until the Reformation. In other words, historically, this “argument from Patristic (or Medieval) silence” is an error of anachronism.

The “argument from silence” is also theologically problematic. For Protestants, the ultimate doctrinal standard is not a particular period in church history or how early or late a particular doctrine is widely attested, but whether or not a particular doctrine is faithful to Holy Scripture. While we certainly want to pay attention to any belief’s development, our assessment of it, if we are to be fully Protestant, should rest finally with whether or not it conforms to God’s Word. As Protestants, we affirm that the church can and does make mistakes, ethically, interpretively, and doctrinally. Just because the first, second, or third (etc) generations of Christians after the apostles believed something does not make it automatically true, nor does their lack of attestation to a belief make that belief necessarily false. Sola Scriptura demands that we make those judgments ultimately from Scripture, not via picking a particular period of church history as more important than another.

That said, there is a reason we often look to the Patristic period for validation of our beliefs – it is important both historically and theologically. Historically, it is most immediate to the apostles and their teaching. More importantly, perhaps, is that, theologically, the conclusions of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon are accurate summaries of biblical teaching about the Trinity and about Christ, and therefore can be used (penultimate to Scripture’s authority) to assess whether or not later doctrinal developments are faithful to the good deposit of Scripture and the church’s summary of it in the three ecumenical creeds. So it is not as though I am arguing that the early church is unimportant in theological reflection. By no means! But I am saying that arguments from silence are not proper method, either historically or theologically.

[1] I’d argue they do, but it is still a very minor theme in their discussion of salvation when compared to its prominence in contemporary evangelical theology.

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Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.

 

Earthy Signs of Israel’s Restoration

At the end of Hosea, God promises to restore Israel, and he declares his redemptive purposes using the earthy symbols of grain and vine:

They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:7).

The following book, Joel, reverses this earthy restoration with a promise of YHWH’s judgment:

The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes (Joel 1:10).

Notice that a third earthy element, oil, is added into the mix. We could also add here the sign of water; throughout the Old Testament, water is a sign of judgment in both its excess (e.g. Genesis 6) and its lack, as well as a sign of restoration (e.g. Ezek. 47:1-12). For Israel, then, the earthy signs that they are looking for, the signs that demonstrate that YHWH has renewed them through his Messiah and Spirit, are water, oil, grain, and vine (cf. also Deut. 7:13 for the initial promise of blessing via these elements). Israel’s redemption is pictured as a redemption of the Land, and particularly of those four elements.

When Jesus comes, he comes as Israel’s Anointed – “Messiah” just means “anointed one.” He is anointed both at the beginning of his ministry in baptism and at the end of his ministry, just before his Passion, with oil (Matt. 26:6-13). In other words, Jesus embodies these restorative signs of Israel’s salvation, water and oil, in his Messianic anointing. With respect to the grain and vine, two elements crucial to Israel’s commemorative and formative Passover meal, Jesus embodies these as well, this time in the Last Supper. As he breaks the bread and takes the cup, identifying them as his body and blood, he is taking up the rich symbolism of Israel’s redemptive hope and culminating it in himself. There is now bread to eat, and there is now the fruit of the vine to drink – in Christ. We could also point to the “I AM” statements in John; Jesus is, among other things, Israel’s Bread, Light (associated with oil lamps), Living Water, and Vine.

Jesus, in other words, takes all these earthy symbols of Israel’s redemptive hope upon himself, and fulfills them. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, including its hope of restored Land. By taking these earthy symbols on himself, Jesus is declaring that in him Israel, including the Land itself, is redeemed. All of Israel’s promises, including the Land promises, are fulfilled in the incarnate Son.

But neither Jesus nor the NT stop there with respect to these symbols. These earthy symbols are not only fulfilled in Jesus but also instituted as signs of his Kingdom. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and King, but he does not isolate the presence of the Kingdom in his person. Instead, through pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus spreads his Kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via the proclamation of the gospel by his Church. And as his Spirit-filled Church expands, they bring with them signs of the Kingdom, namely the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These two ordinances are instituted by Christ as signs of the Kingdom because they are signs of Israel’s redemption in him and therefore also signs of Israel’s restoration as YHWH’s people in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

Jesus’ body and blood – Israel’s redeemed grain and vine – are proclaimed to us in the Supper, and therefore the Supper is a sign of Israel’s redemption. Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed to us in baptism, and therefore our identification with Christ in our submergence into and reemergence out of the waters is a sign of Israel’s redemption. And as we anoint ministers, we anoint them (historically with oil) to minister the Word – the vehicle of Christ’s authority in his Church – to his people. The congregation sits under the kingship of the anointed Christ as anointed ministers proclaim his Scriptures. The Church’s symbols are therefore Israel’s symbols, and thus as the Church worships Christ they are doing so as the renewed and restored Israel, the Israel of God, because they are united to Israel’s Messiah who redeemed Israel in his own flesh.

The Good News of Holy Saturday

In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.

One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?

First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.

  1. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
  2. Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
  3. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.

Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day the Church celebrates the triunity of God. It’s also the day that begins Ordinary Time, the time between Pentecost and Advent. In the cycle of the church year, we now await Advent. In terms of the church calendar, we wait for the celebration of the first advent, Christ’s incarnation, but this also reminds us that we are expectantly waiting for the second advent, his arrival on the clouds and return in salvation and judgment.

Below are the three ecumenical creeds, each of which is at pains to assert the triunity of God and the second person of God’s, the Son’s, incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ, who came for us and for our salvation.

Christian, this is what we believe. This is the foundation of our faith. Celebrate today!

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic* Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

* catholic means “universal” and is not a reference to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Athanasian Creed

Written against the Arians.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three Eternals, but one Eternal. As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.

This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.

The Benefits of Baptist Theology and Practice

A couple of weeks ago Luke and I wrote two posts on ways Baptists can learn from the larger Christian tradition in our worship practices, specifically through reciting the ecumenical creeds and through more frequent and intentional Scripture readings. These reflections, and more like them that we will write in the coming weeks, are in part a continuation of a paper we delivered together at last year’s ETS meeting and subsequently published in the Journal of Baptist Studies, “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity.”

After delivering the paper, one of the questions we received, and one which we continue to be asked, went something like this: “While I appreciate what you’ve said, I find myself on the other side of the coin asking, ‘what can/should other Christians learn from Baptists?'” This is not a question I take lightly, and it is one that I believe we should ask. The reason that we started from the other direction, and continue to write on it, is because we think that it is that side of the coin – what can Baptists learn from other Christians? – that has been neglected in Baptist life. Nevertheless, we still do believe and wholeheartedly affirm that Baptists are theologically and liturgically distinct in some ways from other Christians, and that these distinctions can be sources of growth and reform in non-Baptist denominations. So then, what are some areas where non-Baptists can learn from this “people of the Book?”

1. That nickname, “people of the Book,” points to the first area where non-Baptists can learn from Baptists. We are doggedly biblical, in at least two ways. First, in our theology, we want first and foremost to be faithful to the biblical text. This means that creeds and confessions, while able to serve as hermeneutical guides, are never the last word. If a creed or confession can be shown to contradict or even to obfuscate biblical teaching, then we feel free to revise said creed or confession. We believe that the Baptist vision comes closest to semper reformanda (“always reforming”), simply because we are always willing to reform. Now, this commitment to be biblical has sometimes resulted in distortions of sola scriptura, namely “no creed but the Bible!” and a suspicion of virtually all creeds, confessions, and systematic conclusions. But that has not been the historic Baptist approach to historic theology; instead, Baptists throughout our history have been appreciative of and have learned from Christians in our past and present. But this has been coupled with a willingness unsurpassed by other denominations to depart from those we learn from when they are wrong.

This is particularly true in two areas – baptism and polity. Baptists, in our view, did not go beyond the Magisterial Reformers but instead completed the reform that they began and did not finish. We baptize only adults because we believe that this is the clear teaching of Scripture, rather than an implication of it and/or a practice handed down throughout church history. The same can be said for church polity, with respect to congregational government, regenerate church membership, and the balance of form and freedom in worship practices. This is not to say that implications of Scripture or church tradition are never important, but it is to say that when the Bible clearly teaches otherwise we are called to jettison them and hold on to what is explicit in the prophets and the apostles.

Baptists are also doggedly biblical is in our worship services. We, perhaps more so than any other Protestant tradition, insist on the primacy of the Word in worship, and especially of the preached word. This is of course not to say that other traditions do not emphasize the preached word – Presbyterians particularly come to mind as being similar in their liturgical focus. But it is to say that Baptists have a long history of great preaching and of seeing preaching as the culmination of the worship service.

2. Another way that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists is in our commitment to evangelism and missions. Baptists have a long history of urging hearers of the Word to respond to the message that has been preached. The Word of God calls for a response, both to believers and unbelievers, and so it is wholly appropriate to invite sinners to repent, believe, and be baptized if they have not trusted in Christ, or to repent, believe, and continue in their walk with God if they have trusted in Christ. There are ways to twist this practice into something that is not biblical, and Baptists in the past have fallen prey to these. But that is not to say that the heart of the matter – the call to respond to the Word of God as it is preached – is not biblical. That most certainly is.

Baptists have also been at the forefront of the modern missions movement at virtually every step. While other Christians certainly affirm the need to share the gospel with all nations, it is Baptists who have continued to place this front and center in their local and denominational life.

There are surely other ways that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists, but these are two that come immediately to mind.

The Benefits of Baptists Reading Scripture Publicly

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” -1 Timothy 4:13

Yesterday, Matt suggested some of the benefits that accrue to Baptists reading the creeds together in our worship services. Today, I want to follow up on that post by highlighting some of the benefits of the systematic, public reading of Scripture in our corporate worship gatherings. I see three main benefits to this practice:

It is biblical.

When the apostle Paul gave instructions to Timothy about what he should do in Paul’s absence, among his top priorities was “the public reading of Scripture” in the church’s worship gatherings (1 Tim. 4:13). The Greek wording used here is briefer than most English translations. Paul simply says, “Until I come, devote yourself to the reading (τῇ ἀναγνώσει). Because “exhortation” and “teaching” follow closely on the heels of this initial command in verse 13, it is fairly obvious that Paul has in mind here the reading of Scripture. And because these latter activities imply a public context, so also the first. Indeed, “reading” in an ancient context was “normally done aloud and thus involv[ed] verbalization” (Louw-Nida 33.68). This same word is used in 2 Corinthians 3:14, where it refers to the Scripture readings of the Jewish synagogues, and Paul also uses this word when he commands the churches to read his own writings publicly (Col. 4:16), implying that his apostolic teaching possessed an authority on par with the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

It is historical.

So the early church apparently took up the synagogue practice of reading, explaining and applying Scripture in their corporate worship. This practice continued after the New Testament era as well, as evidenced by Justin Martyr’s description of a typical Christian worship service in the second century:

And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (Apology, 1.67)

In short, it was the practice of the apostolic and patristic church to read Scripture publicly. Over time, lectionaries (lists of Scripture readings for each week) were developed to aid the church in the systematic reading of Scripture. These took shape around the developing church year, which framed the church’s life around the life of Christ. The typical pattern was to read from each section of Scripture every Lord’s Day: the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles, and the Gospels. The practice of lectionary readings based on the church year continues to this day in more liturgical Christian traditions.

It is instructive.

Sadly, many Baptist and evangelical churches feature few if any Scripture readings in their services outside of the preacher’s sermon text. Many have noted the irony here: evangelicals, who are largely defined by their high view of Scripture, seem to give less attention to Scripture in their worship services than many mainline churches, who do not always share that same high view of Scripture. I’m persuaded that something needs to be done about this.

Evangelicals need more Scripture readings in their corporate worship services.

And I think we need to be more systematic about it than we sometimes are. We need more than a few verses scattered here or there. We need something more intentional, more deliberate, more comprehensive. In an age of astounding biblical illiteracy and increasing biblical infidelity, I am convinced that our churches desperately need to hear and read together the full range of the biblical narrative: the praises and laments of the Psalter, the stories of God’s faithfulness to Old Testament Israel, the exhortations of the epistles, the warnings and promises of the Apocalypse, and the glories of Christ in the Gospels. Reading Scripture together gives us the concepts and categories necessary for interpreting reality and our place within it. Without this conceptual apparatus provided by Scripture we often fall back on cliched expressions and simplistic ideas. Recounting the history of God’s redeeming acts is a practice with deep biblical and historical roots, but it is also a richly instructive practice. It gives shape to our corporate life together as a people called and commanded by God’s Word.

Reading Scripture publicly doesn’t have to look the same in every church. Not every church will seek to follow the church year with a companion lectionary. Some may opt for a more lectio continua approach: reading straight through books of the Bible week by week. We may include single readers, corporate readings, and responsive readings (why not all three?) But we need to do something to demonstrate corporately that we are indeed a people beholden to this book and that our lives are indeed shaped by its grand narrative and the glorious work of its Author and chief Protagonist.

The Benefits of Baptists (!) Reading the Creeds Together

“No creed but the Bible!”

This expression has, at times, been used by Baptists as a self-descriptor. Motivated by factors as diverse as anti-Catholicism and soul competency, and historically derived from Campbellites, this anti-creedal creed is not, in fact, expressive of Baptist identity or helpful in Baptist discipleship. Historically, the earliest Baptists affirmed the three ecumenical creeds (e.g. in the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed) and used language similar to historic creeds and confessions in their articulations of their faith. In subsequent centuries, explicit affirmation of the early Christian creeds has waned, but Baptists continue to use historic creedal and confessional language in their own doctrinal expressions, especially with respect to the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

This historical perspective is a precursor to my main point here, namely that Baptists’ use of the creeds in worship is helpful for the transformation of a church’s members into Christ’s image. This practice is admittedly not widespread among Baptists today, and in my view this is for at least two reasons. First, the rise of “soul competency” as a Baptist distinctive under the influence of E. Y. Mullins has impacted the way we view creeds and confessions. The primacy of the individual, and especially of their free will, leads many to view creeds and confessions as unduly coercive. Second, Protestants, and especially Baptists, continue to shy away from anything that is “too Catholic,” by which we usually mean anything that feels like it fits in a Roman Catholic Mass.

While we certainly want to affirm the Baptist emphasis on religious liberty and individual responsibility before God, we also want to remember the biblical principle of “guarding the good deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) and “entrusting to faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2) what we have learned from our predecessors in the faith. These instructions from Paul to Timothy concern right belief – doctrine. Doctrine is to be passed down from generation to generation, according to Paul. From a theological perspective, as Alistair McGrath and Scott Swain and Michael Allen, among others, have argued, tradition can and should have authority in the Christian life, albeit one that is subordinate to the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice – the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Scriptures. The authority that the creeds have on the Christian faith is second to the Scriptures, to be sure, but to the extent that they are faithful to those Scriptures they are to be viewed as accurate, and therefore authoritative, articulations of the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

As far as the fear of Rome is concerned, one wonders what we would be left with if Protestants rejected everything tied to pope or council. From Augustine to Gregory to Anselm to Aquinas there are a whole host of doctrines and practices that Protestants preserved from Roman Catholic thought and life that ought not be jettisoned. In other words, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly if there are practices and doctrines that are antithetical to the the Reformation – namely those related to soteriology, bibliology, and ecclesiology – then we ought to avoid them. But in my mind knowing and saying the Creeds is not one of those, an opinion that is shared by many (most?) other Protestant denominations.

So, to the point, then. What are the benefits of reciting the Creeds on a regular basis in public worship? At least three come to my mind.

1. Catechetical – The Creeds are summaries of the Christian faith. They are a means, perhaps the primary means, of doing as Paul instructed and passing down the good deposit of apostolic teaching.

2. Hermeneutical – The Creeds help us to read Scripture rightly. They assist us in seeing both the nature of God and also the structure, or economy, of the salvation he accomplishes for us. These two – who God is and what he does – are crucial for a right reading of the Bible, and the Creeds in their structure and content teach us how to read well.

3. Catholicity – The Creeds, and particularly their public recitation in corporate worship, remind us that we as local churches and in particular denominations are not alone in following the Lord Jesus Christ. Five hundred years after the Reformation when visible fragmentation of the church exists on a denominational level, corporate recitation of the Creeds fosters visible catholicity, or unity, with other Christians.

In other words, public recitation of the Creeds is a means of discipleship. The Creeds are, as Swain and Allen put it, tools in the school of Christ, instruments that teach us how to believe, read, and love.

You Don’t Have to Go

You don’t have to go. Increasingly, I hear of younger Southern Baptists leaving for the Anglican Church. Two of my friends (along with two acquaintances) in seminary and doctoral work made the shift from the SBC to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). I have met others who have made the same jump, as one friend put it, “from Nashville to Canterbury.” In my conversations with these men, two factors were mentioned time and again: the aesthetic and theological beauty of the liturgy and the principled evangelical ecumenical spirit of the Anglican church planting movements in North America. More recently, Preston Yancey expressed much the same sentiments, as did Bart Gingerich over a year ago in an American Conservative article on millennials and liturgy.[1] As a younger Southern Baptist who is also drawn to liturgical worship forms, I have to ask – is this move necessary? Is the only option for SBCers who feel affinity with liturgy and principled ecumenism to leave, for Canterbury or Geneva or Wittenberg? I believe the answer is no. Younger Southern Baptists, if you are drawn to liturgical forms, if you find attractive the principled evangelical ecumenism of other manifestations of Christ’s body, you can have that in Nashville. You can stay in the SBC. You don’t have to go. One of my co-bloggers here, Luke Stamps, and I have written an article on how Baptists can appropriate and learn from the Christian tradition. I’d encourage you to read it. A few salient points that are fleshed out in the essay:

  1. Early Baptists held to a robust but principled ecumenism. An example is the Orthodox Creed, which affirms the Three Ecumenical Creeds. Moving to the present day, our denomination’s confession, the BF&M 2000, includes a positive statement on our relationship with other denominations.
  2. Liturgical forms and repeated patterns of worship are biblically appropriate and philosophically and theologically beneficial for spiritual formation. Every tradition recognizes this, including Baptists – the task is to think through the best worship practices and what spiritual benefit might be gained from incorporating more historic forms.
  3. A properly defined sacramentalism is not antithetical to Baptist history or theology.

I’d also encourage you to take a look at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY and Redeemer Fellowship (both the Kansas City and St. Charles, IL iterations). These provide real life examples of how confessing Baptists can draw on historic Christian worship. And finally, I’d encourage you to think about how the Baptist emphasis on the Word is coupled beautifully with the Word-centered liturgy (read, pray, sing, confess the truths of, preach, and show the Word). Content and form, Word and sacrament, do not need to be bifurcated, but instead the visual and auditory forms of worship help us to understand the Word, to see and to hear Christ, and to be transformed into his image. This is the goal of any worship service – to order and present the elements of the service in such a way that Christians are drawn closer to Christ through his Word and by his Spirit to the glory of the Father. Historic Christian worship, often referred to as “liturgy,” is a time-tested means of building such a service. And it has been and is able to be incorporated into Baptist life, thought, theology, and practice. You don’t have to go.   [1] I do not wish to insert myself in the various arguments of either post, but only wish to use them as an example of my point – some younger SBCers are drawn to Anglicanism because of a) liturgy and b) a principled evangelical ecumenism.

The Journal of Baptist Studies 7 (2015)

The latest edition of the Journal of Baptist Studies is out. You can read it here. As you can see from the table of contents listed below, this edition focused on the four marks of the church from a Baptist perspective. The essays were originally presented in the Baptist Studies session of the 2014 ETS annual meeting. I’d encourage you to take a look.

Editorial, p. 1

Contributors, p. 3

Articles

“Baptists and the Unity of the Church,” by Christopher W. Morgan, p. 4

“Baptists and the Holiness of the Church: Soundings in Baptist Thought,” by Ray Van Neste, p. 24

“Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity,” by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps, p. 42

“Baptists and the Apostolicity of the Church,” by James Patterson, p. 67

Book Reviews

Currid, John D. Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, reviewed by Kenneth J. Turner, p. 83

Freeman, Curtis W. Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, reviewed by R. Lucas Stamps, p. 86

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed., reviewed by John Gill, p. 91

Hays, Christopher M. and Christopher B. Ansberry, eds. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, reviewed by Matthew Y. Emerson, p. 95

Holmes, Stephen R. The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity, reviewed by Michael A. G. Haykin, p. 99

Sanders, Fred. Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love, reviewed by Christopher Bosson, p. 101