In 2017 a professor from the university I attended wrote a blog post titled “Is Nicaea Enough?” I’ve been thinking about that subject a lot recently. Nicaea is, in fact, enough. Here’s my take on it.
But First I Want To Say…
Too often “Christians’ ‘ view other “Christians’ ‘ with suspicion as if their real intentions are to destroy the Christian faith. I don’t believe that’s the case with his intentions and I hope he can say the same about my intentions. My hope and prayer is that out of my response would come: 1) a deeper unity between Christian brothers and sisters from different traditions within the Christian faith, and 2) more faithfulness to Christ our God.
I’d encourage you to pause right now, open another tab on your computer, and read his article first before continuing on with mine. The link is right below here for your convenience.
Okay great now that you read his article let’s dive into my response.
But wait, did you actually read it? If you didn’t go back and read it now. It won’t be enough to merely read my response, to do so would only give you a limited and biased perspective. And the same goes for merely reading his article without also reading some sort of perspective that’s different from his. Doing this will bear no fruit for the Christian faith. We all have blind spots and reading from a broad spectrum will help us see things which we might not otherwise have been aware of. In order to make a prayerful and critical right judgement about what you are reading, you need to lay out all that’s on the table, not just one perspective.
Without Further Ado
From this point on I will, for the most part, be addressing Matthew directly with your peering eyes into the conversation, well I suppose the beginning of a conversation.
Starting off you make the claim that bibilogy is not only a matter of orthodoxy, but the determiner of orthodoxy; you also list a number of other doctrines that are not mentioned in the creeds as essentials. I would contend that this is a Protestant anachronism upon orthodoxy as understood in the early church. Indeed the idea that the creeds were a summary of what Scripture taught is to read the history through the lens of a 16th century doctrine.
The Impossibility of Sola Scriptura
The books that came to be canonized in the 5th century as the New Testament were measured against orthodoxy, what was called the rule of faith, not the other way around. That is, the content of the creeds was not determined by the scriptures, but the content of the creeds (The Rule of Faith) determined what would be canonized scripture, and how scripture was even to be read. As a side note, this impetus of Protestantism was tested out by some early Pentecostals who rejected the creeds (rule of faith) as the final authority of which to read scripture by, and this is the origin of One-ness Pentecostals who have rejected the Trinity. While it may be argued (and I would make the argument) that the Trinity is certainly found in passages from the New Testament (Jesus’ Baptism for instance ) the item of significance here is that it was their understanding that the creeds were to be read, decided, and finally arbitrated by the scriptures that led them to a rejection of the Trinity.
This may be an exception to the rule for those who’ll hold scripture above the rule of faith, but I think it demonstrates where the logic of sola Scriptura can lead and has led. The trajectory of this doctrine from Luther (who according to Justo Gonzalez did not believe the Bible itself was the Word, but that scripture was less corrupted than tradition and therefore was a better witness to The Word, hence his reasoning for the doctrine) to the birth of the Evangelical movement in the 18th century to finally the fundamentalist movement of the last century or so has further headed in such an extreme direction to the point of identifying explicitly scripture with God. Seldom are we completely aware of the implications of our own ideas, but looking at the trajectory of this doctrine over the last 500 years it would seem that oneness Pentecostals have shown us where it can lead. It would thus seem the Rule of Faith as the final authority, as the early church held, is of vital importance for the maintenance of orthodoxy.
The rule of faith, of which the creeds are examples of, existed before there was a New Testament Canon for almost 400 years. The concept of Scripture as the final authority could not have existed because it presupposes a canon of which they did not have. In addition to that before 49-51 C.E. the early church had not yet written any of the books that would later form our 27 New Testament canon. But as Craig Allert so vidly points out, “Before there was even Scripture, there was the faith; the early church did not set the limits of the scriptural canon as the paramount task of nascent Christianity. Its first goal was to settle the content of the faith, and it did this using means other than the Bible.” (A High View of Scripture. Pg. 82.). Here Allert references Vincent of Lerins, a church father who died in 450 C.E., as using a different criteria than the Scriptures for deciding what Christians should believe, “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Commonitory 27.70 NPNF 2 11:152). In other words Vincent claimed what should be essential is what all Christians, in all places, and at all times have believed.
Again Craig Allert, a self identified Evangelical, in his book on New Testament canonization says, “No matter how one looks at the history, it is difficult to maintain that the church had a closed New Testament canon for the first four hundred years of its existence. This means that an appeal to the “Bible” as the early church’s sole rule for faith and life is anachronistic.” (A High View of Scripture. Pg. 144-15)
Famed Historical Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan says the same thing as Allert a couple decades earlier in his volume 1 of his church history series called The Christian Tradition, “Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the sixteenth century, for “in the ante-Nicene Church…there was no notion of sola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of of traditio sola.”” (The Christian Tradition: The Emergence of The Catholic Tradition. Pg. 115)
Ignatius of Antioch also makes a statement which clearly is outside a doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In his letter to the Philadelphians he writes of an experience he had with what appear to be Jewish Christians similar to the Judiazers encountered by Paul. There he records these interactions as follows, “When I heard some people saying, “If I don’t find it in the original documents, I don’t believe it in the gospel,” “I answered them, “But it is written there.” They retorted, “That’s just the question.” “To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him.” In other words as New Testament scholar Veselin Kesich wrote, he reminded them “that the Old Testament was not the original, primary document for Christians, the final authority which verifies the Gospel.” ( Formation and Struggles. Pg. 137.) This same sentiment is echoed by the late Rowan Greer in his co-authored book, “Early Biblical Interpretation,” when he claimed that the authority of the scriptures were seen as secondary in the early church to the authority of Christ himself, the center and content of the Christian Preaching.
In a similar vein, St Basil of the 4th century said, “Of the dogmas and proclamations that are guarded in the Church, we hold some from the teaching of the Scriptures, and others we have received in mystery as the teachings of the tradition of the apostles. Both hold the same power with respect to true religion.” (On the Holy Spirit. Pg. 104)
While certain statements from the church fathers may appear to support a doctrine of infallibility (which is fundamental to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura) and have certainly been used to try to support a modern Protestant understanding of scripture, any such claim does not take into account the particular hermeneutic of the church fathers which is radically different, as you know, from our Historical-Grammatical hermeneutics which find their origins, although not there culmination, in the Protestant reformation and european renaissance.
A belief in the infallibility of scripture, as well as an affirmation that the text of Scripture had a spiritual sense were not in opposition to one another. In fact their hermeneutic, their belief, that scripture, in fact, did have a spiritual sense allowed for their belief in the infallibility of Scripture. For the church fathers, these two were entailments of each other. However modern Protestants tend to lack such belief in a spiritual meaning to be found in the text. Although Hans Boersma, of whom I’ve been told you’re a fan, is greatly interested in the theological meaning of the text and there is an increasing amount of interest on the topic among Evangelicals. This spiritual meaning though legitimate is not inherently found in the text, it is put into the text by the Holy Spirit not in the writing of the text, but in its post production. As John Behr has said, “For the West, inspiration is to be found in the text, but in the church fathers it is found in the interpretation of the text.” This, of course, seems to be saying something similar to C.S. Lewis when he himself said, “In Christ, a human soul-and-body are taken up and made the vehicle of Deity, so in Scripture, a mass of human legend, history, moral teaching etc. are taken up and made the vehicle of God’s Word [Christ].” (From a letter to Lee Turner, July, 19, 1958)
My point being here that one cannot use the church fathers for the anachronism of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura. Their hermeneutic is intrinsically non scripturally based, it is rather based on Christ, Scripture like all the rest of creation must bow the knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Therefore even in moments where the Fathers claim a certain understanding of scripture it is an understanding of scripture that does not lay in its own intrinsic authority, since Christ alone has all authority (Matthew 28:18), but in the authority of Christ whom scripture is read and shaped through. In other words even if one affirms both the infallibility of scripture and the hermeneutics of the church fathers (that scripture was to be read in a Christocentric manner) that made their belief in its infallibility possible, one cannot use their understanding of scripture to support the doctrine of sola scriptura since their hermeneutic is founded on another authority rather than scripture. In fact, it should be pointed out that a belief in sola scriptura and the christocentric hermeneutic of the fathers are mutually exclusive since one is founded on Scripture as the final authority and the other is founded on Christ as its final authority.
A Matter of Orthodoxy
Now onto the issue of orthodoxy, or rather what is the criteria for the concept of orthodoxy itself. Despiste efforts to make orthodoxy defined by what is biblical, this project falls quickly into an idolatry that makes scripture the determinative of God, rather than the other way around. For the church fathers God in Christ determined Scripture and the shape it took as aforementioned. Christ and by extension God was their foundation. Scripture was seen through that foundation, but it did not chain God to a book. The early church’s orthodoxy was tied to their worship, which was of God alone. That meant that whatever doctrines were constitutive of orthodoxy were doctrines of God. Scripture did not make it into the creeds, that is as a matter of orthodoxy because the church did not worship scripture. The Trinity, the Full Humanity and Full Deity, the Virgin Birth and the Bodily Resurrection alone, (The doctrines of God) were matters of orthodoxy. Only do doctrines begin to get added to the list of what makes you othrodox when things outside of God begin to be worshipped.
Sexuality, Gentiles, and the Tax Collector
It would seem that at the end of the day your impetus (besides your deeper intention to be faithful to Jesus) is to respond to those in mainline denominations who hold a progressive understanding of human sexuality. While I ultimately have a conservative/Traditional understanding of human sexuality myself, it’s certainly not a matter of orthodoxy. It should also be pointed out that most of Christianity has a traditional understanding of human sexuality without holding to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Moreover, orthodoxy is certainly not an abstract propositional doctrine we must assent too. For the term orthodoxy has the double meaning, as Kallistos Ware has pointed out, of “right belief,” and “right worship.” In other words orthodoxy in my understanding cannot be separated from one’s orthopraxy. It is something to be embodied, to be lived out in one’s behavior. To believe in the Trinity is to live a life of love. To live out behaviors that our unloving is non-trintarian and therefore heretical. Human sexuality cannot be placed into the category of essential doctrines in order to avoid the hard work of orthodox living, that is living a life of love.
Christ’s teaching of confronting a brother or sister about their unhealthy or sinful behavior I think has been greatly misunderstood. When Christ commands his disciples to treat the unrepentant sinner as you would a gentile or tax collector, it needs to be understood, in light of how Christ treated gentiles and tax collectors. (Thanks to Colt Meyer for pointing this out to me) He ate with them, which was culturally a sign of friendship and acceptance, not of their sin, but of them as persons despite their sins. This was one of the biggest criticisms of Jesus from the Pharisees. So when Jesus says treat them as gentiles and tax collectors, he means the exact opposite of kicking them out! Indeed when this passage is understood in light of the surrounding passages it becomes even clearer.
In the preceding story Jesus says, “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” The story directly after Jesus’ instructions on what to do with an unrepentant sinner is given in response to Peter’s question, which is itself a response to how Jesus taught the disciples to deal with an unrepentant brother or sister. When Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Jesus then goes into another parable explaining that we indeed must forgive.I think Peter asked that question because he knew how Jesus treated tax collectors and gentiles and wanted to find an excuse around Jesus’ clear command. The whole idea behind these three stories in chapter 18 of Matthew is not about removing the sinner from the community but indeed about going out of one’s way to include them into the community. “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4 In other words it is God’s kindness and I think ours that leads people to repentance.
Indeed community is the very context in which healing occurs, whatever kind of healing that may be. We know from neuroscience that the number one drive for human beings is the drive to belong. This is something that I think is rooted in the fact that God is an eternal community, and thus is implanted in the image of God. To reject someone and thus suppress their drive to belong, to be a part of a community, is to reject the image of God and thus to reject God. Excommunicating someone from the community (repressing their drive to belong) will not bring healing but only more brokenness.
The way we as the church have treated homosexuals is not only bad orthopraxy but bad orthodoxy. Exclusion from the church based on one’s sexuality is not I believe how Christ wants us to live. We in the church who are heterosexuals have a lot of repenting, and healing, to work towards. Until then we won’t be able to seek to promote the traditional view of homosexuality. Having a traditional view has become synonymous with hating homosexuals, unfortunately often for good reasons. Although not everyone who has a traditional view hates homosexuals often the two come as a package. Our voice cannot be heard in the current state of affairs, a state that we as the church created.
Additionally, conservatives and liberals seem, at least as a whole, to presuppose that if being gay is a choice (indeed this is the question around which the whole debate seems to hover over, “Is it a choice?”) then it’s sinful, or said in the negative, if it is not a choice, then it’s not sinful. Both sides may have different answers regarding whether its a choice or not. My point is that while they may have different answers they both have the same underlying belief: If it is not a choice then its good. I think this is due to a latent cultural determinism that believes that the way things are, are the way God created them to be.
I think this is a false assumption, one that I fear will doom both sides of the debate to a never ending stalemate. If however, as I believe, it’s not a choice, but nevertheless unnatural, how we handle the issue becomes much more complicated. It’s not simple, which both sides I would argue think it is. The conservatives say, “Clearly this is what scripture teaches!” and the liberals say, “they are born this way, so it’s clearly designed by God that way!”
At the end of the day, human sexuality is more complicated than either side wants to admit; and we cannot use a false anachronistic orthodoxy to simplify things and exclude those who are diligently trying to follow Jesus in the messiness of life. We must hold to the Worship of God alone, and live a life of love, seeking the wisdom of God to dialogue and try to find the best way forward, the way of faithfulness.
I knew Matthew Emerson from my days back in college at Oklahoma Baptist University. He’s one of the professors in the theology department, and although I’ve never had a class with him my encounters have always been pleasant. He’s got mad skills in Zombie Nerf Combat. I mean like he’s on a whole other level when it comes to surviving the zombie apocalypse at OBU. But besides his epic Nerf credentials, I certainly have a level of respect for him based on friends who have known him much better than I have. He seems to me to be a man of upstanding ethical and moral character, something you always hope to see in a follower of Jesus, but unfortunately seldom do. While Matthew and I may not know one another well, I hope my response will spur on a charitable conversation by two followers of Jesus done out of respect for the intention behind both our perspectives, which I believe is to honor and follow Christ. That’s’ where I want to begin and end.
I want to give a special thanks to my friends who were gracious enough to read my response and give me helpful feedback. They certainly didn’t agree with everything I wrote about but their different perspectives made this article better. So thanks to Father Everett Less (Anglican), Chris Thructhley (Roman Catholic), Braden Norwood (Baptist), Father Thom (Eastern Orthodox). And lastly thanks to Andy Richardson (Anglican) for taking the last look for me.