What Is Needed To Decide?

What Is Needed To Decide? November 17, 2017

There are two things to consider: first, that bundles of Christians are abandoning evangelicalism because it is argued evangelicalism is a recent development in the church and, second, that evangelicalism is out of sync with historic, creedal, orthodox Christian beliefs. What about development of doctrine in the church? Is it only found among evangelicals? Or is this found also in Catholics and the Orthodox?

By the way, in this slot on Fridays normally John Frye posts for us but he’s taking a break from blogging here, and I want to express my thanks to him for his long time efforts to communicate pastoral theology to the Jesus Creed audience. Give John some props, folks.

Back to Stewart’s two points: many leaving, evangelicalism as out of sync.

Is it?

This is the question Kenneth Stewart is asking in his new and challenging book,Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.42.58 AM  In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis, where he makes a case that evangelicalism is neither recent nor out of sync.

Stewart contends that a cardinal feature of all evangelical movements is this: “the supreme authority of the Word of the Lord in all matters of faith and life” (41). He also contends this can be found throughout church history.

If this is the case two things need discussion: how the “Word”-iness of the evangelical faith could exist before the Bible as the “Word of God” was collected into a canon, and how much the Bible itself needed “guides” to keep the church in line with the gospel faith of the apostles.

The classic gospel statement of 1 Cor 15:3-5 affirms the authority of the Scripture, and by this he meant what we call the Old Testament. Into the 2d Century we see the same claim to the authority of the Old Testament. Along with it: the sayings of Jesus were authoritative, and these were collected into the Gospels. Along with all this — and in some ways before it — we have the letters of Paul gathered together. Papias, Irenaeus … both show the authority of Word-iness, whether eyewitness (he doesn’t cite Bauckham here) or oral or written. By mid 2d Century the churches are reading from what looks like our Gospels, the Epistles and the Old Testament. … and on and on… until we have a functioning canon of the New Testament and Old Testament.

Were there guides to keep the readings in line? He mentions the work of William J. Abraham, who

has theorized that the young church relied on a
range of additional resources for this purpose. Abraham specified (1) a rule of faith” (or of truth), (2) creeds (such as the Nicene), (3) rites such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, (4) liturgical traditions, (5) icons, (6) ecclesiastical regulations, and (7) saintly leaders or thinkers. All of these, on his reckoning, could also be termed canonical (49).

Stewart questions this:

What is debatable, however, is the sense in which more than half of the items specified by Abraham ever constituted a canon in the sense of a “rule” that encapsulates salient features.23 In my judgment, we can properly have this confidence in only two of the items named: the rule of faith (accessible in the early creeds) and the rites instituted by Christ for his church (which found their basis in Jesus’ own commands) (49).

He opts for rules of faith: 1 Cor 15:3-5; Rom 10:9; Phil 2:5-11; 2 Tim 2:8. These kinds of statements flourished in the early church, grew, and were expanded and clarified into what is now called The Creed. This rule of faith approach is the guide that led the church, and it is both a summary of the NT writings but also a guide to which writings were authoritative or apostolic or genuine.

What, then, of development of doctrine in the church?  Can evangelicalism provide that kind of stability in the faith so that one can be assured it is the faith of our fathers. Evangelicalism is famous for accessibility and adaptability; does it have stability too?

Stewart shows that the deep traditions of the church’s theology have always had the capacity to adapt and shift and adjust and to be accessible to new generations as it adapts externals. Persecutions, tolerations of the church, and then empire endorsement — each led to shifts. West and East.

He sees an example in the teachings of Jesus on marriage and divorce; remarriage was accepted.

He sees another example in the Three-in-One God, that is, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

We find, therefore, in this case—as in the previous instance of a moral-ethical question—that over time, Christian understanding has matured and that there has been gradual clarification of what was held implicitly all along. There has evidently been doctrinal development in the sense that the church has moved from lesser to greater clarity in its way of affirming the great Christian realities reflected in the Christian Scriptures and highlighted in the early Christian rules of faith (59).

So theory developed about development, beginning with the famous lines of Vincent of Lerins.

In the catholic church itself especial care must be taken that we hold to that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all men. For that is truly and rightly “catholic,” as the very etymology of the word shows, which includes almost all universally. This result will be reached if we follow ecumenicity, antiquity, consensus.

Vincent taught consistency; he taught progress but not alteration of the faith. This is found in the Orthodox tradition as well among Protestants. In fact, Protestants argued they were preserving the authentic faith against innovations in the Catholic tradition. John Henry Newman used Vincent’s principle of progress to admit the Catholic innovations but also to contend they were legitimate developments. Both Protestants and Catholics disagreed with Newman.

But now both Catholics and Protestants have acclimatized themselves to developments (James Orr, for example). Note this:

Conversely, Protestantism, which until Newman was overwhelmingly of the opinion that the only kind of theological development since the apostles and the patristic period was of a negative and degenerating type, has come to accept—through the services of Rainy and Orr—that there have been actual leaps forward in Christian theological understanding. Fuller comprehension of the two natures of Christ, of grace and predestination, and of the atonement of Christ have indeed come about sequentially with progressive understanding that moves forward by epochs. The difference between these two altered conceptions is that while Roman Catholicism has come to accept that theological advance has gone forward beyond what may be directly supported from the Scriptures, evangelical Protestantism has accepted only that theological advance encompasses a fuller and more sensitive interpretation of what the Scriptures in fact support (68).

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