By Dr. Stephen R. Lewis, Excerpted from “Greek Philosophy Tainted Early Church Theology. What about Today?”
Popularity Is Not a Test of Truth
If we stop and think about it—there have been so many things society has held as true when in fact they are merely a consensus. Think about the many years that we believed that the earth was flat, that slavery was OK, that there was no remission for post-baptismal sins, or even global warming. All of these have one thing in common—they all are based upon a consensus and not on what is true.
Should We Only Consult the Bible as a Last Resort?
Many today would listen to the Biblical text through the history of exegesis. They would first track its interpretation through the consensus of the magisterial Reformation tradition, then compare that to the Fathers, and then, finally, go to the NT text, 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 NT 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.
The more I study the history of the church and its doctrines, the more I am suspicious of 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?
It is because of this type of attitudes that what was vague in the early church fathers’ writings on any particular subject became creed without any Biblical verification.
Philosophy Over Exegesis?
It appears that throughout church history the philosophers had a much stronger influence on the development of systematics than did the exegetes.
The converse should have been true.
Systematic theology should have emerged from the process in which the first step is exegesis and the second, Biblical theology. Only after the completion of these two steps should the Biblical data have been organized into a comprehensive, coherent system.
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 to form their theological views, they turned to the writings of previous generations. Gradually, the vagueness of the early Christian (post New Testament) 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 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.
Sola Scriptura was a Reformation distinctive for a reason: 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.
This Is Our Problem
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 Evangelical folks as well.
As Evangelicals we sometimes have our own traditions. And these traditions sometimes blind us to the clear meaning of Scripture.
For example, take the response of some of us have had to the writings of Zane Hodges.
Some rejected, out of hand, his view on assurance as being of the essence of saving faith.
Others rejected, out of hand, his desert island illustration and his suggestion that all who simply believe in Jesus have everlasting life that can never be lost.
Still others in Evangelicalism rejected his explanation of 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 they must be right, regardless of what the Scriptures say. We must beware of allowing the theology of anyone—Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or whomever—to take precedence over the teachings of Scripture.
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 and put it back in the hands of Biblical exegetes and Biblical theologians.