Consensus Theology Stinks
By Stephen R. Lewis
The Consensus Model Shaped
Theology and Exegesis
Many today would listen to the text of Scripture through the history of exegesis and track its interpretation first back through the consensus (general agreement among members of a given group or community) of the magisterial Reformation tradition, then comparing that to the Fathers1 and then finally back to text in the New Testament (NT) itself, letting its relevance for today speak for itself. Many successfully achieve the first two parts of the purpose in that they track the interpretation back to the Reformation and then to the Fathers. However, when they proceed to the NT usage of the subject, their validation remains in the Fathers—they quote from them as if they were not sure of how biblical exegesis relates to the subject at hand. If they had gone back to the Text itself or simply verified the Fathers’ interpretation of the passages in question, their work would have been much more valuable to us who prefer biblical exegesis based on a literal, historical, grammatical, rhetorical interpretation.
There is a quote by Virgil Vaduva, which is an adaptation from a quote from Michael Crichton’s 2003 lecture at California Institute of Technology. He hits at the heart of the issue of consensus:
I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus theology. I regard consensus theology as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear that the consensus of theologians agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.
Let's be clear: the work of theology has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Theology, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable (by reference to the real world.) In theology consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest theologians in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.
There is no such thing as consensus theology. If it's consensus, it isn't theology. If it's theology, it isn't consensus. Period.2
The more I study the history of the church and its doctrines, the more I suspect the process by which the church arrived at the conclusions that were then handed down as orthodoxy. Why is it enough to say Luther or Calvin is correct about any doctrine or that the church has always believed thus and so, and not require sound biblical research to defend the same? But one must only take a look at a passage like Isaiah 55 to recoil from thinking that our generation—or any past generation—has arrived.
The Early Church Imposed
Greek Philosophy on the Bible
Within the first three centuries following the apostles, theological errors arose not from evil intentions of the church leaders but from their desire to find answers to everyday pastoral questions and to help people understand the text. Instead of going back to the text (existent, although hard to find) to form their theological views, they turned to the writings of previous generations. Gradually, the vagueness of the early Christian (post NT) works gave way to error.
As the use of the Bible faded out, theology—developed by consensus at Church Councils—became increasingly dogmatic and philosophical. By the time of the invention of the printing press, theology—deeply rooted in Greek philosophy—was already complete. Orthodoxy had been defined and little room was left for studies of the original text. Theologians focused their studies on the works of someone else who studied the works of someone else who studied the works of someone else (and so on) and to debate the opinions expressed by their predecessors.3
Today many scholars make the theologian’s labor into a descriptive one, in which he harvests the consensus of the centuries in order to gain the truth.
If we make the theological enterprise a descriptive one, as many would have us do, we face a difficulty in deciding which people we are going to describe. What constitutes a person who is part of the consensus? Is this everyone who calls himself a Christian? Is this all people who are widely recognized as Evangelicals? In our circles, is this someone who calls himself Free Grace? Or are these people whose writings are approved by someone we trust? The Reformers knew all too well the results of seeking authority in tradition. It is amazing, and in no small measure frightening, that we could so easily have forgotten that.
Many Evangelicals Today Allow
Consensus Theology to Supersede Scripture
The Reformers knew all too well the results of esteeming tradition and the consensus of men above the Word of God. It was precisely for this reason that Sola Scriptura became a Reformation distinctive. Unfortunately, many Evangelicals today, especially in scholarly circles, place priority on consensus, not Scripture. By seeking authority in a consensus of many opinions, they effectively elevate the words of men above the words of God. And this is done in the name of humility. Depending on consensus for authority leaves oneself blind to the errors of the consensus and without the ability to correct them.
In light of this paper we need realize that this isn't only a potential problem for Catholics, Orthodox, and Reformed folks. This can be a problem for Free Grace (FG) folks as well.
Free Grace people sometimes have our own traditions and these traditions sometimes blind us to the clear meaning of Scripture. Take the response of some in the FG camp to the writings of Zane Hodges as an example. Some rejected out of hand his view on assurance as being of the essence of saving faith. Others rejected, out of hand his deserted island illustration and his suggestion that all who simply believe in Jesus have everlasting life that can never be lost. Still others in the FG movement rejected his explanation the Gospel of John because it contradicted their tradition. These people did not carefully read and consider his Biblical arguments. If they had, their traditions would have given way to Scripture.
We must beware of our own consensus theology. We need to be careful that just because everyone in our network of churches or seminaries agrees, then we must be right, regardless of what the Scriptures say. We must beware of allowing the theology of anyone, Zane Hodges, Lewis Sperry Chafer, R. B. Thieme, S. Lewis Johnson, John Calvin, or whomever, to take precedence over the teachings of Scripture.
Relating consensus to the NT, were not the Jewish leaders locked into opposition to Jesus Christ because they could not think outside their box? Their efforts at preventing the acceptance of a false Messiah prevented them from seeing the true One. Jesus kept showing evidence, but they were too firmly entrenched in their traditions. How do we know whether the consensus to which we appeal is right?
No one should discount the role of history in helping us understand how the earliest interpreters understood the Scriptures. Yet believers today must renew their commitment to the Scripture itself. The real issue must not be whether a doctrine is affirmed by every Christian everywhere, nor whether it is officially orthodox according to the historical creeds, nor whether it is unofficially orthodox according to the fashions of contemporary Christian thought. This approach might be characterized thus: “Jesus loves me; this I know, for the early church fathers/church councils/creeds tell me so.” The only real issue is whether a doctrine or belief is Biblical. There is no more sound approach to the formation of our beliefs. It is time we rescued Christian theology from the theologians/philosophers and put it back in the hands of biblical exegetes and biblical theologians.
1Editor's Note: The Fathers, or Church Fathers, are the theologians and writers who followed the apostles until around AD 450.
3There were occasional innovators who worked with portions of the text (e.g., Luther worked in Romans), but their students had a strong tendency to study the innovators’ work rather than follow the example in studying the Word.