Is the Term “Universal Church” Neoplatonic?

Is the Term “Universal Church” Neoplatonic?

Sadly, there is no “yes” or “no” answer to this question without some qualification.

The question is charged, because if someone says, “yes,” they can easily be accused of following a heathen philosopher rather than the Bible. But if they say, “no,” then if Plato was right about something, truth being objective no matter who says it, they would in effect deny the truth spoken. If Plato said, “the sky is blue,” assuming it indeed was, is the fact that the sky is blue to  be rejected simply because Plato stated it? Absolutely not. As Christians, we have no business endorsing informal fallacies (like the genetic fallacy) in our epistemology (our method of knowing).

The term universal is to be seen in formal contrast with the term particular. These terms, like them or not, represent concepts all people engage at every moment in their lives. To reject the terminology and what it represents simply because Plato used it would be absurd, since to do so would be to reject truths independent of Plato, i.e. things which are true no matter what a person thinks about them, says about them, etc. (Even if such truths were uttered by that terrible, wicked Plato guy).

Now, what does it mean to say something is universal? There are a few ways the term could be used, but for ease of explanation it is a general idea, essence, or form applicable to many diverse or distinct things. For example, if I said, “The automobile is a modern marvel,” I am using the automobile in a general sense. Automobile, in that sentence, is a universal since I am not denoting any one automobile in particular, but the automobile in general, the idea of it, the form of it, its essence, etc. I am naming the genus without enumerating particular species of automobile. It’s basic taxonomy which, if rejected, actually collapses all the sciences and makes science in general impossible, including the science of theology.

Taxonomy is not original to Plato, though he was one of the more erudite thinkers to first systematize a realist position, which I would argue just is what the Bible assumes through and through. But realism’s truth doesn’t depend on Plato. After Plato, his pupil, Aristotle, departed from his teacher’s extreme realism—where the universal is radically separated from the particular, i.e. in the world of the forms (and this did lead to Gnosticism). Instead, Aristotle thought of the universal, the essence, or the form as being formally joined with the particulars themselves, such that we come into contact with the universal through the particular, e.g. by means of sense perception. For Plato, the essence of a thing was in heaven, not in the thing. Aristotle saw this as a problem. If the essences of things are in heaven (the world of the forms), then we wouldn’t be able to know what any one particular thing is in itself. We’d all have to be agnostics concerning the true identity of the most basic things around us. Bridging the gulf between the universal and the particular was Aristotle’s homework.

Aristotle, contra Plato, believed a substance (a particular thing) obtained whenever form actualized matter. And for this reason, the form of a thing and the thing are inseparably joined. This is opposite both Docetism and the later Gnosticism.

So, there are two players which heavily influence the general thought patterns of people living at the dawn of the New Covenant era. To give you an idea of how influential this language was and is, the categories found in realism, especially moderate realism, are absolutely essential in the systematic orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, to deny the universal and the particular as categories altogether would be to utterly destroy our ability to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in any sensible fashion, i.e. one divine essence subsisting in three distinct relations. To deny the universal (unity) and the particular (plurality) as categories altogether is not only to reject common experience, but to also reject any hope for making sense of what the Scriptures teach.

So, is the “universal church” a synthesis between heathen metaphysics and Christian ecclesiology? Not any more than the terms we use to speak of the Trinity or the incarnation (homoousioshypostasis, etc.) are adaptations of heathen philosophical terminology. If the doctrine of the universal church is heathen on the basis of its appropriation of the category “universal,” then all of Christian prolegomena, theology proper, and Christology are amalgamations of heathen and Christian thought. But this is not so! All truth is God’s truth. Thus, if the categories universal and particular are true, then they are not true because of Plato or Aristotle, they are true because of the one true God who has made Himself known through what has been made (Rom. 1:18-20).

The doctrine of the universal church, while perhaps easier to articulate with creaturely categories like “universal” is not original, not even in part, to Plato. Linguistically, it redeems Aristotle’s correct observation that the form and particular are joined. For this reason, we should understand the universal church not as a visible institution on earth, but a universal which instantiates in distinct local assemblies. This is especially apparent in Hebrews 12:22-23, when it says—

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect… 

As much as those who deny the present existence of the universal (general) church, gathering, assembly by relegating this text to a future-only state of affairs, we need only follow the verbs, i.e. “you have come,” is in the perfect tense. This is very much a present reality, though not yet consummately visible to us. It’s an already/not yet kind of thing: “For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him (Heb. 2:8).”

To conclude, if there be any doubts concerning the appropriation of terminology used in the heathen world for the sake of theological articulation, then I would invite you to consider the fact that the whole of Scripture appropriates preexistent human language which would have been interchangeably used in heathen or pagan culture. This is true in both Old and New Testaments. But this doesn’t mean the Bible depends on heathen culture to do what it does. It means God uses familiar language in order to break into His world through special revelation, which we can only understand if it’s put in our terms. And God, far from leaving the language in its pagan context, actually redeems it and un-perverts it, as it were. To deny the validity of terms on the basis of heathen use would be to invalidate all 66 books of the canon.

It is well known that the term elohim was a term used to denote pagan “deities.” Even the Bible itself does this (Ps. 82:1; 86:8). Scripture redeems that term and applies it to the one true God. The method of the Bible is not to flee from language just because it has been perverted through pagan use. The method of the Bible is to redeem good words. Paul in Colossians 2:3, says it is Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If one were to read Cicero’s De Finibus, which precedes Paul by about 100 years, they would find this very same phrase. Yet, while Cicero says, “all wisdom and knowledge are hidden in moral virtue (para.),” Paul, who was apparently familiar with Cicero, redeems that phrase by telling us all knowledge and wisdom are hidden in Christ, who is Himself the very perfection of virtue. It would have made a strong appeal to the Colossian Christians at that time. Obviously, Paul appropriates heathen terminology in Acts 17 during his Mars’ Hill discourse. We should be careful about anathematizing words and concepts used in the heathen world simply because they were used in the heathen world. In doing so, we might throw the truth-baby out with the bad heathen bathwater.

Finally, we have to understand that Jesus was not fearful of the leper. Why was this so? Because Jesus was not corrupted by the leper, the leper was purified by Jesus. When we escape terms simply because they’ve been perverted by pagans, we refuse to put this principle into practice. Gratia naturam perficit; grace perfects nature. Nature does not corrupt grace.

Landmarkism & Why I Do Not Subscribe

Landmarkism & Why I Do Not Subscribe

This article is a response to Landmarkism. The tone is irenic. I am indebted to men who espouse Landmarkism for much doctrinal fellowship, friendship, and sound counsel.

Landmarkism is an ecclesiological (doctrine of the church) position. Landmarkers typically hold two key distinctives: (1) the Baptist church is the only true church; (2) there is no such thing as a universal church. Period.

It appeared in the 19th century under the influence of well-intentioned men like James Robinson Graves, Ben Bogard, and Amos Cooper Dayton. It was largely in response to the downgrade, which reached a boiling point in the 19th century. Some historians allege it was the downgrade that contributed to Charles Spurgeon’s ill-health, and ultimately, his premature death! The downgrade consisted of many compromises in Christian orthodoxy, and it transcended denominational lines. One of the central doctrines at stake was the inerrancy of the Bible. Both conservative Baptists and Presbyterians combated the threat of a Schleiermachian-influenced liberalism.

In my opinion, Landmarkism sought to retreat, rather than combat, liberalism by claiming exclusive ecclesiological rights for Baptist churches… without much argument. A denial of the universal church only ensured that no one, except Baptist congregations, could rightfully think of themselves as “the church.” Consequently, rather than dousing the already agitated theological landscape through careful theological thought and skillful polemics, Landmarkism opened yet another front in the war already plaguing evangelicals. Graves was disciplined out of his Baptist church for being schismatic, and Dayton was forced to resign from the Bible Board.

Despite the good intentions behind this position, I cannot endorse it in good conscience. For more on Landmarkism, see my video here:

 

In this brief article, I would like to present various problems/obstacles Landmarkism encounters. Below are three glaring issues I see in the movement, which I perceive to be insurmountable:

It Cannot Account for General Uses of the Term Ekklesia (Church) In Scripture

In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” 

What is the church? To say, “the church, in this context, really means the local church only,” is to forfeit the plain meaning of the words.

There must be one bride of Christ. Our Lord, after all, is not an adulterer! Therefore, this church must be one. Landmarkers may respond, “The bride is eschatological, or future, to us, but not present (cf. Rev. 19; 21).” While this is a positive departure from the original position, since it at least grants a universal church (albeit future only), it cannot account for the language of Ephesians 5:26, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.” The bride cannot be future only, since Christ washes and cleanses her in the here and now.

If Consistently Held, It Ends In Admitting Satan Prevails Upon Christ’s Church Frequently

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Local churches close their doors all the time. Oftentimes, it’s because sin has prevailed upon the congregation in some way. Either the congregation divides over doctrine, or cultural practice, or it slides into apostasy. This is precisely what Christ said would not happen to His church.

There needs to be a category preceding the local church which can help account for us, and I believe that category is given to us here in Matthew 16 and in Ephesians 5, the general assembly (cf. Hebrews 12).

What About Christians Who Do Not Belong to a Baptist Church?

Landmarkers will frequently admit there can be christians who are not part of the Baptist church. But if we return to Ephesians 5:25, we see that the very object of Christ’s atoning work is the church, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her…” If the only church is the local church, then Ephesians 5:25 is telling a half truth. Either Christ died for His church and then some, or He died only for His church. If the former is true, then limited atonement is false (1 Pet. 5:13; 2 Jn. 1; Is. 45:4). If the latter is true then the church cannot be local only. There are, after all, saints who no longer worship in local churches, i.e. those in heaven.

Conclusion

Now, I do not want to be misunderstood here. I fall in line with mainline Particular Baptist orthodoxy on this locus of theology, namely, that while there is a catholic or universal church, it is most certainly not a visible institution as Rome perceives it to be (cf. 2LBCF, 26.1; Savoy 26.1). To understand the universal church as a present, visible institution on earth is a fatal ecclesiological error, and it has led to the mistake of sacral society-like establishment of church-state governments.

I also want to be very clear about my personal policy on ecumenism. Landmarkism is not the only way to avoid inviting Presbyterians or liberal Lutherans from taking over my church’s pulpit! I have confessional standards which serve as a kind of rubric for who and who I would not allow into the pulpit at Victory. Remaining doctrinally pure by no means requires we deny the existence of Christ’s one bride which has a present subsistence, albeit not a visible institution.

I hope this helps to parse my own thoughts on this issue. I want to again reassert my gracious tone and heary love for those who would disagree with the preceding content. I personally do not see this particular issue as a test of fellowship. And it is my opinion that it should not be in any case. Ut ferrum ferro acuite. May iron sharpen iron.

John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

This is part 1 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

John Lightfoot was a 17th century paedobaptist theologian. He was a member of the Westminster Assembly and vice chancellor of Cambridge. He is especially known for his rabbinic scholarship, the capstone of which was his work Horae Hebrai, or A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica.

He played a role in the Particular Baptist’s own defense of credobaptism. He wasn’t the only paedobaptist resource the Baptists would appeal to. John Owen was another. There were several key angles in the disagreements between credobaptists and paedobaptists, but at least one worth mentioning with respect to Lightfoot. The Particular Baptists rejected fleshly circumcision is a sacramental seal of the covenant of grace under the old testament. Conversely, paedobaptists, seeking to preserve the unity or continuity between old and new covenants, saw the old covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace. For them, this meant that circumcision, being a sign of the old covenant, simultaneously served as a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11).

However, the Particular Baptists saw a substantive difference between the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision and the covenant of grace. While fleshly circumcision was a condition (Gen. 17:14) and sign of old covenant membership, it was not a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace. For the Particular Baptists, those two covenants were/are actually and truly two distinct covenants. In their appendix on baptism, which should be placed at the back of the 1677/89 Confession, they say:

If our brethren do suppose baptism to be the seal of the covenant which God makes with every believer (of which the Scriptures are altogether silent) it is not our concern to contend with them herein; yet we conceive the seal of that covenant is the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the particular and individual persons in whom He resides, and nothing else… 

In demonstration of their catholicity on this point, they would often appeal to paedobaptists who believed something similar, a la Owen and Lightfoot. In the above mentioned appendix, they quote Lightfoot at length in response to the paedobaptist argument from Romans 4:11. Below, I have transcribed verbatim what they reproduced from Lightfoot in the Confession’s appendix—

Circumcision is nothing, if we respect the time, for now it was without use, that end of it being especially fulfilled; for which it had been instituted: this end the Apostle declares in these words, Romans 4:11 σφραγῖδα etc. But I fear that by most translations they are not sufficiently suited to the end of circumcision, and the scope of the Apostle whilst something of their own is by them inserted.

… 

Other versions are to the same purpose; as if circumcision was given to Abraham for a Seal of that righteousness which he has being yet uncircumcised, which we will not deny to be in some sense true, but we believe that circumcision had chiefly a far different respect.

 

Give me leave thus to render the words; And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith, which was to be in the uncircumcision, Which was to be (I say) not which had been, not that which Abraham had whilst he was yet uncircumcised; but that which his uncircumcised seed should have, that is the Gentiles, who in time to come should imitate the faith of Abraham.

 

Now consider well on what occasion circumcision was instituted unto Abraham, setting before thine eyes the history thereof, Genesis 17.

 

This promise is first made unto him, Thou shalt be the Father of many nations (in what sense the Apostle explaineth in that chapter) and then there is subjoined a double seal for the confirmation of the thing, to wit, the change of the name Abram into Abraham, and the institution of circumcision. v. 4. Behold as for me, my Covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. Wherefore was his name called Abraham? for the sealing of this promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. And wherefore was circumcision instituted to him? For the sealing of the same promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. So that this is the sense of the Apostle; most agreeable to the institution of circumcision; he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith which in time to come the uncircumcision (for the Gentiles) should have and obtain.

 

Abraham had a twofold seed, natural, of the Jews; and faithful, of the believing Gentiles: his natural seed was signed with the sign of circumcision, first indeed for the distinguishing of them from all other Nations whilst they as yet were not the seed of Abraham, but especially for the memorial of the justification of the Gentiles by faith, when at length they should become his seed. Therefore circumcision was of right to cease, when the Gentiles were brought in to the faith, forasmuch as then it had obtained its last and chief end, & thenceforth circumcision is nothing.

Baptist Orthodoxy, Creedal Christianity, & Catholicity

Baptist Orthodoxy, Creedal Christianity, & Catholicity

The excuses for deriding Baptists are legion. The London Baptists of the 17th century were assailed by Prebyterian paedobaptists for being Anabaptistic, or for supposedly believing that rebaptism was necessary, contrary to several instances of clarification. The derision received by those Baptists, who had quite well crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s theologically speaking, was not deserved for several reasons, one of which was the overabundance of clarification the paedobaptists received throughout their correspondence with the London Baptists: That they were, in fact, not Anabaptists, despite some obvious similarities.

Over the last one-hundred years or so, criticism of the Baptist tradition has shifted away from sacramentology toward a more general ecclesiological criticism, not altogether unrelated to the regulative principle of worship (RPW). It is no secret that Baptist churches, especially in the United States, have become laughing stocks in the eyes of serious alt-traditional laypersons and theologians alike. The reasoning for this ranges from the arbitrary implementation of “programming” to female Sunday School teachers to ordination of female “pastors” and, perhaps the eldest criticism of these last hundred years—a tendency to privatize the interpretation of the Scripture thereby neutering catholicity and openly rejecting creedal theology of any sort. And while the latter has most certainly informed the former aberrations of Baptist practice in America, it exists in sleeper cells within the most conservative circles of Baptists, from the Reformed Baptists to the independent fundamentalists to the Landmarkian tradition of Baptistic thought (all of these may overlap in various ways, FYI). To be clear, I’m not blanketing these groups, but only saying the rejection of creedal Christianity does lurk in all of them, either explicitly or implicitly, as assumptions.

It is the rejection of catholicity and the accompanying anti-creedalistic, “my only creed is the Bible,” mentality that serves as contemporary modern-day laughing stock material for serious theologians from other theological traditions, from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism to Lutheranism.

A Qualifier

Now, I couldn’t care less what individual Presbyterians and Lutherans think about my tradition, nor do I mind the jesting (sometimes, it’s even fun). But the fact is, some of them do make a valid point about the practical behavior of Baptist churches today. Baptists are even pointing this out about themselves, e.g. Drs. Craig Carter, Matthew Barrett, James Dolezal, et al. As a Baptist, I myself can say that there are conservative and liberal Baptists whom fail to obey the Apostle when he writes, “But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:24-25).” Nor do they follow in the creedal tradition of the Apostles. Nor do they take care to follow the implications of the Apostle Peter’s words, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20).”

I will elaborate below on some of these observations, but there is a fundamental concept lacking in the general Baptist milieu, and that is the concept of orthodoxy and what makes the orthodox, well, orthodox. Our 17th century forerunners understood orthodoxy and the resulting catholicity very well. One of the several goals of the Second London Confession was to demonstrate a measure of catholicity between the Particular Baptists and their paedobaptist brethren.

A final qualification: When I mention fundamentalism henceforth, I am not referring to the very needful late 19th to early 20th century fundamentalist push-back against liberalism. The Princeton fundamentalists, for example, were good, theologically astute men. And there were Baptists in their ranks from C. H. Spurgeon to B. H. Carroll as well. Also, I am not referring to the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. In terms of holding to essential Christian teaching, every Christian ought to be a “fundamentalist.” I am instead referring to the independent Baptist fundamentalism of the 50s and 60s, which began with good intentions. But because of their theological pre-commitments (or lack thereof), that movement has ended in a gross confusion of law and gospel. Much of its preaching does not consider the text of Scripture, but (ironically) man’s opinion about what Scripture says—and this has a lot to do with the error(s) to be discussed below.

The Intention of the 2LBCF Framers

If you purchase and read the reprint of the confession and catechism from Solid Ground Christian Books, you will find a preamble titled, ‘To the Judicious and Impartial Reader.’ It is in this originally included document that the framers of the confession make known their intentions. They say, “We did… conclude it best to follow their example in making use of the very same words with them both in these articles (which are very many) wherein our faith and doctrine are the same with theirs.”

There is a running joke in theological circles, and with many online, about the plagiarism of the Second London Confession, which is only a revision of the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession of Faith. We Baptists, unapologetically, copied the confessions of the independent congregationalists and the Presbyterians. But it wasn’t because we were trying to be funny or intentionally unoriginal (well, maybe the second thing a little), it was because we were trying to maintain catholicity. Their further explanation makes this clear when they clarify their method, which was “to manifest our consent with both [documents] in all the fundamental articles of the Christian religion, as also with many others whose orthodox Confessions have been published to the world on the behalf of the Protestants in diverse nations and cities.”

Most of the Second London merely repeats (in substance) what the Savoy and Westminster say. There are obvious differences in the chapters on the church and baptism. And there is some practical illumination added which did not exist in the other two. Yet, I would venture to say that what defines (but does not determine, a function which belongs to Scripture alone) Particular Baptist orthodoxy is the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89).

The Modern Baptist Rejection of Confessions and Creedal Statements

“No creed but the Bible” is a popular sentiment among Baptists. I will first demonstrate how this statement is, on its face, illogical and objectively false. Secondly, I will examine the claim in light of the Baptist orthodoxy of the 17th century. Thirdly, I will attempt to show how, “No creed but the Bible,” leads to things like unfettered church programming, bad doctrine, female ordination, and the contemporary influx of cultural Marxist thinking we now deal with today (not to mention all the LGBTQ stuff).

First, the claim, “there is no creed but the Bible,” is irrational. That statement alone is a creedal statement which is not found in the Bible. To say, “there is no creed but the Bible,” is to adopt a creed and thus become the very thing the statement is supposed to avoid in the first place. It’s self-refuting.

Second, our Baptist forerunners did not speak in terms of “no creed but the Bible.” A diligent student will not be able to find that kind of language in extant Baptist literature preceding the last 100-150 years. It is easy to find, however, the authoritative subjection of councils and creeds to Scripture in Baptist thought, “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined… can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit (2LBCF, 1.10).” But this is hardly a Baptist distinctive. This same paragraph is found in the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration, neither of which were Baptist. I do not know any Christian, excluding Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, who would deny this statement. The highest churches in Protestantism from Anglicanism to Lutheranism agree with this. Yet, all of those traditions are creedal. I will explain below what it means to be creedal in connection to the meaning of catholicity (little “c”) below.

Third, “no creed but the Bible” has made provision for what the Apostle Peter denounces as private interpretation. This has led to an utter neglect of creedal Christianity and catholic doctrine. It has made the individual mind the supreme judge of interpretive decisions. Essentially, Baptists have entered into a vacuum of theological thought. And they get to determine how to fill that vacuum. Sometimes, by God’s grace, they turn out okay (usually by relying on creeds and confessions, but not overtly admitting they do so). But other times, they end up forcing one of their members to shut down a business for legalistic reasons, or they come up with clinically insane doctrine that would make a 17th century Baptist vomit all over the London cobblestone sidewalks.

The fruit of “no creed but the Bible” is a downplaying and broadening of confessional statements, i.e. the BFM, 2000 in concert with the corrupt cooperative program; and an outright rejection of any kind of human accountability or authority, i.e. Beth Moore fighting her heart out for “women pastors,” regardless of the counsel she’s received or the historical orthodoxy of her own professed Baptist tradition. “No creed but the Bible” has brought about some pretty rotten fruit, from Billy Graham to the “Jesus Movement” of the 1960s and 70s, and the subsequent empire of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel enterprise. It’s brought about charismania, rampant hypocrisy, and the church growth movement. It’s birthed forth rock concerts in church services and “digital church.” And of course, the emergent church of the 90s and early 2000s is another offspring of “no creed but the Bible,” or at least the principle sentiment behind it. All this considered, either Baptists spawned Pentecostalism, or Pentecostalism has influenced modern Baptists. It’s a “chicken/egg” conundrum that some historian somewhere will probably one day solve.

Creedal Christianity & Catholicity

Creedalism and catholicity are everywhere either asserted or exemplified in the Bible. For example, Paul recites a creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7—

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.

There are those, of course, who deny the creedal nature of this statement. But there are several reasons leading one to conclude, beyond all doubt, that these verses indeed included an early creed which predated Paul’s ministry. The words for received and delivered refer to receiving traditions from elders and passing them on to others. For more reading on the creedal nature of this passage, visit this link.

Paul passes on a creedal statement to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:16 which he calls “the mystery of godliness,” something equated to the gospel itself elsewhere. This text was no doubt something easily committed to memory, a summary of the essential faith, “God was manifest in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory.”

The response, of course, is that these creeds are inspired by God whereas the Nicene or the Apostles’ Creeds are not. This is true, but this does nothing but make these creeds infallible. It does not forbid us from making creeds in like manner anymore than the existence of Psalms or the epistle to the Hebrews prevents us from singing hymns or preaching sermons. In fact, it sets an infallible, authoritative precedent for the construction of creeds and confessions of faith, and actually obligates the church to follow the same method in point of practice. This just is the biblical way.

These creeds are to be used as a tool to maintain catholicity. I have to be careful here because the word catholic is often associated with Roman Catholicism. However, Rome does not own that term, nor do they have sole rights to its meaning. In fact, the term was used long before Rome was what it is today. In the Nicene Creed, we read, “ We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” And when this creed was framed, Roman Catholicism in no wise looked how it looks now. Balthasar Hubmaier, an Anabaptist leader in the 15th and 16th century, calls it “the universal church.” Interestingly enough, he goes on to exposit the doctrine of the universal church from the Nicene Creed (cf. Hubmaier, Catechism). Thus, the creedal expression and the concept of catholicity are consistent themes throughout Christian orthodoxy, even being found in the Anabaptists—who some consider to be fringe Baptists.

Modern Baptists have gotten away from all of this, whether it be the modern fundamentalists or the more liberalized and contemporary sectors of the SBC. Both extremes share one thing: a “no creed but the Bible” mindset. It’s “them and their Bibles” and there is no accountability for their interpretation, their application, or their teaching on the Scripture. There is no fundamental meaningful doctrinal standard for modern Baptists, and that’s why “Baptists” are all over the board in these recent days. The term “Baptist” has nearly lost all meaning.

I propose that the solution is a return to creedal and catholic Christianity, in the same spirit with which our Baptist forefathers penned the Second London Confession of Faith. It is pretty bad when Anabaptists, who are often considered fringe Baptists by many serious theological thinkers, are more orthodox than most modern Baptists. And if I had a decision to make between most modern SBC or “fundamentalist” churches on the one hand, and Hubmaier’s church in the 16th century on the other, I’d probably be going to Hubmaier’s church where at least I can be sure historical, creedal and catholic Christianity is taken seriously.

On Tradition & Innovation (traditum & nuovo modo)

On Tradition & Innovation (traditum & nuovo modo)

In reaction to the communist attack on American values, including some within the evangelical mainstream, some Christians have sought to anchor their societal and religious identity in something older than the now. This is not a new trend, by any means. The struggle between the old and the new existed for first century Jewish Christians, and it was a constant balancing act among the heathens of the Roman empire. The traditionalist Romans, which for many centuries were the majority, sought to preserve the oldness of the empire—their religion, their ritual, their military strength, their code of ethics, and their philosophical underpinnings, etc.

The New Testament church, as it began to spill over the boundaries of Judea, was quickly recognized as something new and unfamiliar. The two universal Roman persecutions under Decian and then Diocletian were not so much interested in squelching Christianity for personal reasons, but for the sake of preserving the empire and its traditional ways. Older was better; anything new must be extinguished or exiled.

The principle convictions of the Roman empire was not at all wrong. There was nothing wrong with wanting to preserve what they loved, or what made Rome Rome. In fact, every empire has done this, to one extent or another, through world history. Every empire has to do it if it wants to survive. What made it wrong was, perhaps, their approach and their reasoning. They were, after all, rejecting the true God in favor of idols. And in doing so, they went to war with the very kingdom of God.

Why do I recount the church’s early history? 

People in many areas of the country are tired of newness. Newness, ironically, is getting old. And the reason it is getting old is because it’s not newness itself that is wrong, but the nature of the newness. This newness has brought us all sorts of garbage—from abortion, to pornography, to a rejection of basic reality through foolish, relativistic sophistry. It has gutted academia of all honorable clout, and it is actively pursuing the hearts and minds of our youth. Entitlement is the anthem, the “noble” cause, newness has brought us in these recent years. The concept of Critical Race Theory and the outflowing social justice and reparations has been the latest vehicle by which the new communists have tried to actually affect, you guessed it, communism.

We’re tired of it. Christians are tired of it. Husbands are tired of it. Fathers are tired of it. Wives and mothers are sick of it. The Patriarchy is bending the shackles placed upon it by the K-12 indoctrination system, and reaching back in time to recover its ancestors’ ways.

This is a very good thing.

Yet, There’s a Twist

As desirable as it is to recover the doctrine of the past, we have to make sure we do so circumspectly and intelligently. There is a right and a wrong way to utilize history. Sometimes, the beauty of history, with all its warts, tempts us to adopt all of its ways regardless of reasons. We often try to appropriate history in our own lives for no other reason aside from, “It’s history!”

Tradition is history put to the test. It is history experimentally tried in contemporary life. For example, Christian doctrine is referred to as tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Traditions can be beliefs, rituals, or other kinds of customs. But they are traditions, not because they were recently invented, but because these beliefs, rituals, and customs have been passed down. They are historical inasmuch as they come from the past.

It should be no mystery that at least some traditions are bad traditions. The Scripture makes this plain when it says, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ (Col. 2:8).” The tapestry of history is woven together with light and dark threads and gives way to images of glory and nightmares of terror. Tradition is covering yourself, as for warmth, with one piece of that tapestry or another. Which historical doctrine or practice will you apply to your life? Sometimes, the question comes to us in this form: Which historical doctrine or practice will you keep and maintain? The second question assumes a very important fact, that we are all born into a traditional context. We’re already pre-covered with one part or other of the tapestry of history, good or bad, either warts or porcelain skin.

Tradition, therefore, isn’t some smorgasbord of truth, exclusively considered. It is a buffet of good and bad foods. And the individual, in concert with other individuals, either within the church or within a civil society, i.e. nation, must discern which traditions are healthy and which are rotten. Adults, especially Christians, often choose to adopt traditions they come into contact with through theological literature, videos, or personal relationships at school or church. They receive traditions, or should receive them, after some process of analysis, the end of which is to discern good from evil, falsehood from truth. 

Unfortunately, when Christians receive new traditions, it’s often because they are attracted to them for reasons which may or may not justify their beliefs. For example, if a Protestant jumps to Roman Catholicism because they like the smell of the incense and cathedrals, they’ve not justified their move because, in addition to smells and bells, they’ve also adopted an entirely new (to them) theological system.

There is also the issue of those who are generally unable to discern right traditions from wrong ones. Young children do not reason through, nor do they empirically verify everything their parents teach them. But this is because children are under the tutelage of their parents for a reason, i.e. to train them up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6). And though it may not fall on the child to discern tradition at that particular stage of life, it most certainly is up to his or her father. If a father educates his family in bad tradition, not only will he not train the child up in the way it should go, but he will actively lead them astray—a scenario to which we might apply Mark 9:42, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.”

There are, thus, good and bad traditions concerning which we are responsible for discerning according to objective ethical and aesthetical truth.

The New Nationalism & the Rejection of Conscience

Because of the above, I’m dumbfounded there are some who do not believe tradition, family or otherwise, should be subject to personal or individual inquiry. A set of particular traditions just are good. And, naturally, the traditions of which we speak are usually thought of in terms of nation or country of origin. Traditions are good, the nation in which they were formed is good. There is no reason, per se, as to why these things are good. But in order for such and such nation to survive and thrive, and in order for the people who practice such traditions to continue on, these traditions must be engaged and protected. Note here we are not talking about tradition as a good, universal idea or form. We are talking about specific traditions developed over time along certain ethnic or national lines. I will touch on the goodness of tradition as a general concept or universal below.

This view of inherently good particular or national traditions has led to what some might call extreme nationalism. Nationalism is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, there is a kind of nationalism necessary for all people to espouse. What extreme nationalism does, however, is it divorces reason from the ethics of national and familial tradition. Particular, man-made tradition just is good. To question it is wrong. Why would it be wrong to question a given national or familial tradition? Because of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you (Ex. 20:12).” But how does this blanket application of the fifth commandment square with what Scripture says elsewhere? In Luke 11:48, Jesus chides the religious elite (traditionalists) for approving of and even following in bad traditions passed down from their ancestors: “In fact, you bear witness that you approve the deeds of your fathers; for they indeed killed them, and you build their tombs.”

Extreme nationalism neuters human reason and dashes to pieces the judgment of conscience, the very faculties responsible for distinguishing man from beast, and instead demands that he accept tradition apart from discerning its truth or goodness. All of this leads to irrationalism. For example, when asked whether or not he is Christian or pagan (because of mixed signals on his website), the author of an extreme nationalist blog and meme gallery, Europa Invicta, responds—

Neither one nor the other, and both at the same time! I received a Christian education, yet I don’t believe in God as Christians imagine him to be, though I am not a heathen either. However, I have a lot of affection for both traditions because there is so much cultural heritage in Europe thanks to previous generations of Christians as well as the vision that neo-Pagans have for the world and human relations. Let us say that here, too, I try to celebrate our respective legacies to transcend them in a positive common vision.

Interestingly, while he readily accepts pluralism with regard to religion (which consequently spawns and shapes tradition and culture), this is not the case with skin color, ethnicity, or nationality. The site features several memes depicting white people, with different colored hair, which read, “We have all the diversity we need.” But what more can be expected when traditions are chosen, not for any objective moral reason, but in terms of preference, and then made arbitrarily exclusive of other people?

This doesn’t mean, of course, that it is wrong to have a kind of hereditary and cultural pride. But when those things are seen as substantial identifiers of human persons, national identity becomes more preferable, desirable, and indeed more obligatory than truth itself. In the case of Europa Invicta, the intellectual tradition of Christianity specifically is rejected in favor of pluralism (Christ is not God in a pantheon of other gods). But, according to the traditionalist who assumes the finality of tradition, this is perfectly acceptable because, again, traditions are the finibus (ends) of mankind, not truth. And if these traditions are identified with truth itself, then they must displace their contraries, among which would be Jesus Christ, who repeatedly chides the traditions of men in favor of the superior will of His Father.

An Overreaction to Tradition

Some, having more favor for the nuovo modo (new way) than the paths of old, banish tradition, almost indiscriminately, to the dark, cobby halls of antiquity. There is a tug-o-war between the old and the new. But this actually need not happen if we are to understand tradition and innovation as two distinct genera, both of which are inherently good. Bad traditions or innovations would degrade from the goodness of either. So, for example, aspirin may be a good innovation, but methamphetamines intended for human consumption are not. 

Aristotle helpfully innovated on Plato in some very important ways. But nominalism and subjectivism threaten to undo both. Innovation (progress) is good, but there are those things which actually threaten and diminish true innovation, or perversions of it, which are not truly innovative at all but evils under the guise of progress, e.g. the leftist notion of “progress” isn’t progress at all.

Tradition is also inherently good, but there are bad habits and false religions, often called traditions, which erode the truth and goodness of true tradition. For example, religion is a good expressed through tradition, but what if the religion is pagan idolatry? To the extent it fails to be a good and true religion, it is evil. And to the extent it is evil, it fails to be a good tradition. This privation in the goodness of tradition, which too often plagues society, is often referred to in a positive way as “bad tradition.” But ontologically, bad tradition is nothing more than a privation of the good. And good tradition is but the application of goodness and truth in human belief and practice.

Furthermore, those who favor innovation to the detriment of tradition fail to observe that without tradition there can be no favorable or good innovation, or at least we cannot know whether or not an innovation is good without tradition. This is because the principle of innovation always lives in the past. An innovation either seeks to improve upon some pre-existent thing. Or, it operates upon the foundation of some pre-existent thing. The past is the reference point for innovation. For example, Da Vinci dabbled in the dream of flight. But flight was only significant to Da Vinci because of some pre-existent thing, i.e. human travel. Flight would have been an improvement on human travel and indeed has been, but it also would have operated upon principles discovered and applied far beforehand, making tradition necessary to Da Vinci’s innovative aspirations.

So, to respond to bad tradition by favoring innovation over tradition altogether is to misunderstand the metaphysics of either. They are really two sides of the same coin when both are understood as mutual goods, either of which may be perverted through sin.

Conclusion

Tradition and innovation are good things with bad imposters. We cannot ignore the reality of corrupt or perverse traditions, of which we must be discerning. Neither, however, can we cast tradition (sic et simpliciter) aside in favor of innovation, for two reasons—(1) because that’s impossible, as shown above, to do so; and (2) it would be to forego the good, beautiful, and true, which tradition is inasmuch as it exists. Likewise, neither can we dispose of the innovative in favor of tradition. For traditions are not immutable, nor do they transcend development. They themselves are developments or innovations in terms of their particularity and originality, of our knowledge of them, and of our eruditeness in skillfully applying them.

Rethinking Apologetics

Rethinking Apologetics

No, I’m not renouncing classical apologetics in substance.

No, below is not anything novel or original to me.

No, I’m not arguing for a rejection of 1 Peter 3:15.

The Bible is clear, we ought to be ready to give an apologia, a defense, for the hope that is in us. We ought to furnish our minds with reasons for why we believe what we believe. This is not in question. But the subject-matter of what we usually refer to as apologetics has historically been located within the corpus of Christian theology, and was not traditionally thought of as a separate science as it largely seems to be today. The modern science of apologetics has essentially tried to make natural theology and the proofs found therein a stand-alone trade which may or may not be exercised prior to or in concert with the Christian faith. One of the terrible symptoms of this bad assumption has been the droves so-called apologists who do not have a connection with a local church, let alone are they accountable to eldership. We can think of the parachurch complex which feeds into the notion of a churchless ministry, or a ministry that supposedly transcends the church. This is fruit borne from a fractured, rather than a carefully distinguished view of theology.

Today, the “defense of the faith” is something other than Christian theology, and so it is no wonder the modern apologist is hard pressed to see the relevance of something like the church to the unmoved mover, or metaphysics to the sacraments. Apologetics has been relegated to some school of philosophy which may or may not have anything to do with the Christian religion. And this tends to abstract the subject-matter of Christian apologetics from Christian contemplation and practice. We are far from practicing “apologetics” as Anselm did, for example. His famed ontological argument was framed within the context of a prayer. It almost seems as if Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs are just the first infantile steps in a long journey of theological thought and an ever-progressing doctrinal maturation.

Efforts have, of course, been made to reconcile apologetics to the rest of Christianity, especially by the presuppositional camp which does this by abolishing natural theology altogether and collapsing articuli purus (pure articles) into articuli mixtus (mixed articles), or those doctrines which are revealed through nature (Rom. 1), e.g. Cornelius Van Til’s argument for the knowability of the Trinity through nature in his Introduction to Systematic Theology. But this only recasts theology in the mold of apologetics instead of the other way around, dragging the faith down to the level of reason, for lack of a better expression. Presuppositionalism is a rationalism cloaked in piety.

Both classical and evidential (inductive) apologetics both run the risk of becoming sheer exercises in either philosophical speculation or the natural sciences respectively. Neither of which will do. But, while evidential apologetics may originate from the thought of the Enlightenment empiricists, cf. William Paley, Bishop Butler, etc., classical apologetics springs from the fountain of natural revelation which the scholastics, both medieval and Reformational, understood not as apologetics per se, but as a particular locus within theology. Natural theology is the prelude to revealed theology, not in terms of a causal prelude, but in terms of what we do first. We know the world before us logically prior to knowing God. God is, after all, known through what is made (Rom. 1:18-20). And this natural theology, far from standing alone, has been integrated into the preambles of the Christian faith, or what is known in theology as prolegomena.

To illustrate what I mean: Take two authors separated by centuries and some pretty vast theological chasms—Thomas Aquinas and Herman Bavinck. Both men begin their respective theological work with an exploration of prolegomena. For Thomas, this begins with the first question in the Summa Theologiae, and for Bavinck, it begins in his first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics, which is entirely occupied by prolegomonic discussion. It was within the context of theology, namely prolegomena, that what is now called apologetics usually took place. For Thomas, it’s his very famous five proofs, which were chiefly intended to be devotional and edifying for the believer, even serving to introduce the reader to the nature of Thomas’ God. For Bavinck, though he worked at a very different point in history, prolegomena asks and answers many of the same questions Thomas had, though there are some obvious differences.

The point I’m trying to make is that neither of these men understood apologetics to be a stand-alone science abstracted from the flow of dogmatics or systematics. And though Bavinck begins using the term apologetics overtly in his work, along with his contemporaries across the ocean at Princeton, such terminology arose largely from circumstance as that generation of scholars dealt with the downgrade, a la., theological liberalism. Thomas never mentions the term, and I would wager it is never used among the Reformers or the post-Reformed. Why? It’s not as if the subject-matter of what we now call apologetics didn’t exist. And it’s not as if the term apologist was never attributed to some of the patristics. But the proper place for that subject-matter was not somewhere other than theology, in some other field of research called apologetics. For the old dead guys, what is now called “apologetics” was the preamble to theology.

I have a book on my shelf called Primitive Theology, and it’s a collection of essays from Dr. John Gerstner on apologetics. I love the title given to that volume. And I submit that primitive theology is the term according to which we ought to think of the subject-matter of what we now call apologetics. Looking at nature and concluding: “Therefore, God,” is primarily theological, and ought to be seen as a prelude to the Christian faith. Natural theology introduces us to God, who is more fully and sufficiently revealed in Scripture. Natural revelation, then, gives us a natural theology. Special revelation (Scripture) gives us a supernatural or “revealed” theology.