Guarding the Good Deposit and Ministering Sound Doctrine

As a Baptist, I am staunchly in favor of religious liberty for all and the individual freedom of conscience required for that collective liberty. I’m also in favor of congregational rule in local churches. And more generally as a Protestant, I definitely confess sola scriptura. This does not mean, however, that I’m against confessions and creeds or their derivative authority.

I’ve written elsewhere about what it means for confessions and creeds to have derivative authority – that is, authority that is derived from its faithfulness to Scripture, the ultimate authority – and how that relates to the Protestant commitment to sola scriptura. Here I only wish to highlight the fact that Scripture itself suggests that Christ’s ministers are to disciple believers via passing on sound doctrine. In other words, confessing sola scriptura does not negate the (derivative, secondary) authority of tradition, but rather it is in these supremely authoritative scriptures that we find an analogy to tradition’s authority in Jesus and the apostles commanding Christians to disciple believers precisely by carefully passing down a summary of their teachings.

1. Christ Passes on Sound Doctrine

I could go all the way back to the OT and Deuteronomy 34 here, but I’ll stick with the NT for now. Jesus conveys the importance of tradition and its role in discipling his followers in many places; here, I’ll highlight two. First, on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, Jesus schools his followers on how to read the Old Testament. We are not given the details of this discussion, but instead Jesus gives his apostles a “rule” to follow regarding how to read God’s Word. What we have in the NT is the administration of that rule via the apostolic deposit, i.e. the NT itself. The rule’s application has been inscripturated and thus serves as the rule itself – to be in accordance with Jesus’ rule is to be in accordance with the NT. Nevertheless, Jesus’ instructions here can serve as an analogy to the authority of doctrine. Doctrine is derivatively authoritative insofar as it is faithful to the inscripturation of Jesus’ rule – the Bible.

We also see Jesus commanding his disciples not only to baptize new believers but to teach all of Christ’s followers to obey “everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). This summary statement includes what the apostles later write under the inspiration of the Spirit in the NT. He was telling them to pass on what he had taught them, which I would venture to say included how to read the OT Christologically, what to believe about Jesus, and how to follow him. Of course, now that Christ’s teaching is inscripturated, Matthew 28 just is referring to the NT. There is no outside equally authoritative tradition. My only point here is that Jesus’ command gives analogous credence to the idea of holding believers accountable to a summary of Christian teaching.

This is a direct command from Jesus to pass on something that is not Scripture itself but rather a faithful summary – Jesus’ faithful summary! – of Scripture. We do not have the Luke 24 conversation recorded. Arguably, we do not have everything that Jesus commanded (John 20). These instructions are passed down via the NT, and our subsequent administration of it must find itself in accordance with this inscripturated application of the rule. In other words, Jesus’ rule, in both Luke 24 and Matthew 28, is administered in his inspired Word. Our job now is to make sure what we pass down is in accordance with this supreme authority, the inspired Word of God in the Prophets and Apostles.

2. Paul Commands Timothy and Titus to Pass On Sound Doctrine

In the Pastoral Epistles, we find numerous instructions by Paul to both Timothy and Titus to pass on what they have learned to others. For example:

…remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3).

…the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:9-11).

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed (1 Tim. 4:6).

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching (1 Tim. 4:16).

Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing (1 Tim. 6:2-4).

O Timothy, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (1 Tim. 6:20).

Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:13).

By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:14).

…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:14-15).

[An overseer] must hold firmly to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).

We could add to this references to “the faith” and either guarding it or departing from it, as well as the hymns (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:16) and references to trustworthy sayings. In any case, from the list above it is apparent that Paul had trained Timothy and Titus in sound doctrine and expected them to pass it on to those they were discipling, and so on (2 Tim. 2:2). He seems to be referring to a summary statement about who Jesus is, what he’s done, and how to know him. There also may be some hermeneutical guidelines (e.g. a rule of faith) a la Luke 24 in mind in these passages, especially when Paul references speculation and Jewish genealogies and myths. Of course, what Paul is referring to as “the good deposit,” “the faith,” “sound doctrine,” “the teaching,” etc. is what then became inscripturated in the NT. Once again, there is no inspired authority outside of Scripture. But our point here is that these instructions by Jesus and Paul give us analogies to the ministerial role of tradition subsequent to the writing of the NT.

3. Ministers Pass on Sound Doctrine

These examples demonstrate that both Jesus and Paul (and I’d argue we could include the other apostles) commanded Christians to pass on sound doctrine. There’s no time to expand on this here, but, to clarify briefly, they also are clear that this “deposit” is faithful to the Word God has already given to his people in the OT and to the Word he was giving at the time to the apostles. In other words, this “deposit” was only authoritative insofar as it was faithful to God’s inspired and inerrant Word, both as it already existed in the OT and was being written in what we now call the NT. Of course, that sound doctrine and teaching was subsequently inscripturated in the NT. We do not have any source of inspired authority outside of Scripture. But, by way of analogy, ministers are still called to pass on sound doctrine that is in accordance with Scripture.

Tradition, then, is not at odds with Scripture per se, but is rather the God-ordained means of stewarding the faithful summary of Scripture. Tradition is a steward, or minister, of Scripture’s main point. It is a minister of how to read Scripture. It does not stand over Scripture, but like any good minister is used to pass on what has been entrusted to it. In this sense, it is authoritative, but only secondarily and derivatively. We could say the same thing about pastors and congregations; the authority that God has entrusted them is ministerial, and only effective insofar as they are faithful to the ultimate authority, God’s Word.

What Makes a Doctrine “Biblical”? On Method

I know some grow weary of debating the doctrine of the Trinity, and I understand that frustration. Social media and the blogosphere are not the best platforms to sort out a doctrinal debate as significant as our understanding of the Trinity. I do not intend here or in future posts to continue “debating” with anyone; instead, I hope to provide some constructive arguments for how we, as Protestant evangelicals  (and, for me, free church Southern Baptists) should go about formulating and articulating doctrine. I also hope in subsequent posts to use this method to demonstrate the inherent biblical nature of the classic doctrine of the Trinity, especially with respect to the doctrine of eternal generation.

The basic question at stake is, “What makes a doctrine biblical?” That question is of course important to Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike, but it is particularly important for us Protestants, affirming as we do sola scriptura. What I would like to do here is articulate an appropriate theological method that is faithful to sola scriptura in a robustly theological and historical manner (which, by the way, is how the Reformers originally articulated the idea). In contrast to a stark biblicism that sees theology as essentially an individual project whereby the reader exegetes a handful of passages and then makes theological conclusions, this method is, I think, more careful to understand that theology is not autonomous, it is not presupposition-less, it is not a-historical, it is not merely a matter of proof-texting or collecting a handful of texts, and it is not unmoored from other Christians’ reflection throughout space and time. With that said, then, what does an evangelical theological method look like?

(Note that this is a sketch and not intended to be exhaustive.)

  1. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine relies on the illumination of the Spirit. Our ability to understand and interpret the Bible in its fullest sense – as the Word of God for the people of God – is dependent upon the Spirit who inspired it illumining our hearts as we read. We must start by asking for the Spirit’s help.
  2. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis.  The study of doctrine is grounded in exegesis. If we miss this point, we’ve missed the point of doctrine. In theology, we are attempting to understand what God has said to us in a systematic fashion – that is, in an orderly way, not just by working through individual books but by organizing these disparate texts in a way that demonstrates their coherent and unified message about particular topics. That task always begins with exegeting particular relevant texts. So, when we talk about the Trinity, for instance, we are in part asking about what the Bible says about God, and for this there are a number of texts where we need not only to repeat what they say but be clear about what is being said. 1 Cor. 8:6 is a good example. Understanding this verse requires the tools of exegesis (historical background, literary criticism, lexical knowledge, grammar and syntax, etc. etc.), and in turn our exegetical conclusions inform our theological stances. The key point to note here, though, is that “biblical” means more than just exegeting particular texts. There are a number of other ways in which we rely on God’s revelation to us in his Word to formulate doctrinal conclusions. Further, there are some (many?) doctrines that require more than just exegesis of individual texts alone. Therefore,
  3. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine pays attention to the patterns of biblical language. The latter phrase is taken from David Yeago’s excellent little essay, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma.” In it he argues that doctrinal decisions in early Christianity, and particularly as solidified in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, were a) reliant upon and in accordance with Scripture and b) doing so via paying attention not just to proof-texts but to patterns of biblical language. The theologians’ task was and is to use appropriate conceptual terms to render accurate theological judgments about these patterns. For instance, with respect to the word “homoousios,” it is not biblical in the sense that it is not found anywhere in the Bible. But the pro-Nicene theologians saw that the New Testament speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God, individually and collectively, and that in doing so it continues to affirm Old Testament monotheism. How do we render an accurate judgment about this pattern of language – not just a judgment about an individual verse or a collection of verses, but a pattern – that testifies to the divinity of three person and to the oneness of God? Homoousios. Notice my emphasis here on “pattern” and not just collecting verses; while the Fathers would point to particular verses in noting these patterns, it was never just about individual verses themselves or just collecting them, but about the pattern of language noticed across these verses when seen together. So, for instance, the Fathers noticed that the Son is called by the same names as the Father (and the Spirit). This nominal pattern (among other equally biblical reasons) led them to conclude that the Son is God in the same sense that the Father is God. They share the same names. This is a pattern, not just pointing to a particular verse, or just collecting a few verses that seem to indicate Jesus’ divinity. No, it is more than that; it is attending to patterns and shapes. Speaking of shapes,
  4. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is narratively shaped. The pro-Nicene theologians, and indeed the New Testament writers and apostolic fathers like Irenaeus, saw that the Bible has a particular shape or structure to it. This structure, commonly known as the “economy” of Scripture, is centered on the life and work of Jesus Christ, the gospel, the good news of God’s work of redemption. Notice that for us evangelicals, this is just a way of saying that the Bible is focused on the gospel – the evangel – of Jesus Christ. Particularly important in this regard for our purposes, though, is knowing how to speak of the Son in his incarnation versus in the life of the Trinity ad intra (immanent; before redemption; the life of God before creation). This was especially crucial in the fourth century, as the Arius, Eunomius, Asterius, and other anti-Nicenes used texts that spoke of Jesus’ submission to the Father to argue for the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. the pro-Nicenes countered that no, one must read Scripture in a way that pays attention to its gospel shape, especially when speaking about the Son. Does a particular text speak about the Son’s incarnate form or his life with Father and Spirit ad intra? (Luke Stamps has already noted just such a reading in Nazianzen.) I will come back to this in a future post, but it is worth noting here that for the pro-Nicenes a text speaking about the Son’s submission was always one which spoke of the incarnate Son, not of the immanent Trinity. This talk of the economy and reading according to the Bible’s structure was part of the rule of faith. This is because, for the Fathers and for us,
  5. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is a ruled doctrine. The rule of faith is notoriously difficult to pin down, but in my opinion Irenaeus’ hermeneutical method gives us a good example of what it looked like for many early Christian readers. For Irenaeus, the Bible should be read with three things in mind (see on this O’Keefe and Reno, Sanctified Vision): the economy of Scripture, the hypothesis of Scripture, and the narrative recapitulation in Scripture. The economy we have discussed. The hypothesis of Scripture is its main idea. Irenaeus compares it to a mosaic; we might use the analogy of a puzzle. Just like the puzzle box top gives us a picture of how the pieces are supposed to fit together and the picture they are supposed to collectively form, so the hypothesis of Scripture tells us what its big picture is and how its pieces (texts) fit together to form that picture. For Irenaeus, that picture is Jesus. Every text fits into the puzzle in a particular fashion to create and point to the big picture, which is of Christ. (I cannot take the time to go into this here, but this is because the Son is the ultimate revelation of the Father, and we know the Son through the Spirit’s inspiration of God’s Word. See here for more.) The third foundation is recapitulation. By this Irenaeus means that every story, person, event, etc. finds their culmination in the person and work of Jesus. This is essentially recognizing that the Bible is typological; stories are shaped and patterned similarly, and each of those patterns leads ultimately to the story of Jesus. Notice that these foundations are a) thoroughly Christological and b) thoroughly biblical. Irenaeus is relying on texts like John 5:46 and Luke 24:27, 44 to inform his method, but he also demonstrates its validity in actual interpretation (see e.g. his On the Apostolic Preaching). This rule was passed down and informed subsequent readers of Scripture, and likewise for us, then,
  6. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is informed by tradition. I know that some of my Baptist brethren may, if they haven’t already, be cringing at the mention of “tradition” and “Scripture” in the same breath, much less at the fact that I am doing so positively. But hear me out. Tradition is not inspired; Scripture is. Tradition is not inerrant or infallible; Scripture is. Tradition is not ultimate in authority; Scripture is. But to the extent that tradition is faithfully and accurately representing what God has given us in his Spirit-inspired Word, it is *derivatively* authoritative. Thus the Creeds, for instance, are *derivatively* authoritative; that is, they have authority only insofar as they accurately represent the ultimate authority, Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying, Father-revealing Holy Scripture. Scripture is ultimate; the Creeds derivative. But that brings us to the second term, “authority.” If the Creeds faithfully distill the teachings of Holy Scripture, then they have a derivative *authority.* They teach us what all Christians everywhere ought to believe about God, salvation, the Church, & the last things. Again, this is not equating them with or placing them on equal footing with Scripture. We must understand “derivative” as Protestants. But the Creeds have been tried and tested for almost two millennia. Their derivation from Scripture is seen ubiquitously by Christians throughout space and time. We should thus be incredibly cautious when we begin to think that we have a new exegetical point overturning them. The Creeds are not infallible, nor are they inerrant per se. But that doesn’t mean they should be seen as merely “valuable” but not “authoritative.” I am a Protestant evangelical Baptist. I believe in sola scriptura. But sola scriptura has never meant nuda scriptura or the rejection of derivative creedal authority, either in what we confess or in how we interpret Scripture. I think of tradition as guardrails. It’s there for a reason. Sometimes guardrails can be adjusted, or moved, but to ignore or do away with them entirely is not wise. Speaking of guardrails,
  7. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is refined by dogmatic, philosophical, logical, and experiential questions. Sometimes when we make judgments about patterns of biblical language, these patterns reveal rather clearly the judgment we ought to make. Other times, though, other kinds of questions have to be asked, namely those of the systematic and philosophical variety. Another way of saying this is to say that sometimes choices are presented to us doctrinally that need systematic and philosophical help to answer. Both Luke and I have written on this previously here, so I’ll point you there. Finally,
  8. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is worked out in an ecclesial context. No man is an island, and no Christian does theology apart from the rest of the body of Christ. As we pursue theological precision, we do so with the communion of saints throughout space and time. This means reading the Bible in an ecclesial, and especially a liturgical, context, and asking how other Christians have read the same passages and formulated their own doctrinal conclusions.

Well this turned out to be rather long. If I’d known it’d go over 2k words I might have just asked Derek Rishmawy to write it, or propose it as an article somewhere.

I’ll conclude by summarizing a Protestant evangelical Baptist method thusly: it is illumined by the Spirit, rooted in biblical exegesis, governed by patterns of biblical language, shaped by the biblical economy, guided by the biblically-derived rule of faith, guarded by biblically-derived tradition, refined by systematic and philosophical reflection, and located within the communion of the saints.


The Four Gospels and the Rule of Faith

Steve Walton has helpfully summarized Simon Gathercole’s plenary address to the British New Testament Society here. Walton’s entire summary is worth reading, and I can only imagine how beneficial Gathercole’s actual paper is. Gathercole cleverly draws our attention to 1 Cor. 15:3-4, a text that many refer to as the first “rule of faith,” to show that the four canonical Gospels alone among their rivals give a full throated picture of Jesus that mirrors this early ecclesial confession. In other words, only the four canonical Gospels contain the following elements together:

  • the identity of Jesus as ‘the Christ’
  • Christ’s saving actions fulfil Scripture
  • the atoning death of Jesus
  • the resurrection of Jesus.

This is, to me, the most crucial and profitable argument one can make in demonstrating the uniqueness of the Fourfold Gospel corpus. When I lecture on the issue in my Jesus and the Gospels course, I hammer home one main point – the Gospel writers do not simply narrate the events of Jesus’ life, they also provide the Spirit-inspired (and therefore correct) interpretation of those events. Their interpretive lens is the OT, and they give four distinct but unified portraits of Christ. This is what distinguishes them from the non-canonical gospels – their use of the OT as an interpretive lens. (Or, in the lone case of the Gospel of Peter, which does refer to the OT, the particular conclusions about Jesus which the four Gospels draw when using the OT distinguish them from GPeter.)