Everyone knows that the Lord has placed pastors and teachers in His church for the purpose of edifying His body. But not all of us agree on the historic scope which these teachers occupy within the Kingdom of God. Many feel that the early church fathers had a settled authority during their own times, but none for our own. It is my purpose to debunk this delusion, that others may see the real validity of a historical continuity in all matters of Christian faith.
I believe that if we belong to Christ’s body, we will apply ourselves to having fellowship with the saints of old. We will not be content with a “new age” Gospel, but will perceive in the apostolic message an excellence above all worldly teachings, which we ourselves will attempt to follow.
As Christians, it is our business to learn what these teachers of the past delivered before we go out and attempt to preach Christ’s message to the world.
Unfortunately, I learned this truth a bit late. As a Fundamental Baptist, I was taught that the local church ministry was sufficient for all purposes of discipleship. Of course, the idea of an “indigenous church” permeated the entire ministry. But few if any took seriously the teachings and writings of the saints of old.
There was talk of the “blood trail.” There may have been vague speculations as to the continuity of various doctrinal issues. But one thing strikes me as certain now, which I failed in my ignorance to see back then. Namely, the modern church is (as a general rule) completely dissociated from the historic teachings of past ages. We no longer identify with men who gave their lives to deliver the faith to us in its purity. We claim that “the Bible alone” is sufficient–not perceiving, however, that the New Testament canon itself was decided on the authority of the same church whose teachings we now neglect. Something is not right with this picture.
This mistake many of us make is in thinking that a study of the Bible will always result in the same conclusions. This is not at all the case. There is a wide disparity of belief within Christianity regarding many important issues. And this disparity has become more pronounced now than at any time in past history, because we’ve disconnected ourselves from the historic witness of Christ’s body.
Let’s face it. When someone argues that the “Bible alone” is sufficient, he is only telling half the truth. Yes, the Bible is the only authoritative source for all matters of doctrine. But the Bible doesn’t speak for itself. It has to be studied and interpreted. Thus, it is the interpretation which really matters.
Now, where many people disagree it is clear that only one party can be right. For if the truth has many forms and flavors, then there is really no such thing as “correct” doctrine. This theory would make all truth purely subjective; in which case there could not be such a thing as genuine Christianity. For where the tenets are subjective, there is no certainty. And if our doctrines are uncertain, then our entire religion must be thrown into doubt.
But this is obviously a lie. For if the teachings of Christianity were subjective and changeable, then the apostles and elders of the church would have delivered the Gospel message in many different forms. Far from being the case, however, they deliver the message in one form only. A sharp distinction is always made between “truth” and “error.” It is our business to watch against “false teachers,” and to beware of heresies.
Where are these warnings coming from, if not from the presupposition that there is an authoritative truth, and that such truth alone is preserved by the church, to be perpetuated throughout all ages of history? A wise man will see that this is the correct view.
That means, that while the Bible is an authoritative guide, something more is required in order to guide us into a correct method of interpretation. And here is where the pastors and teachers of the historic church come into play. For as the Universal Body of Christ exists in all ages, then the saints of old have an equal authority for all ages. Of course, when I say “authority,” I mean that their witness can never be set aside as outdated. For as long as the church continues to exist, it will always preserve the same faith.
However, when diverse faiths prevail, the cause is not truth, but error. For error always creates diversity of doctrine. And when such diversity prevails, the only solution is to return to the teachings of the orthodox church, which alone have historical consistency.
During the early centuries of Christianity, there was wholesale assent on the fundamental issues. Take the resurrection, for example. The idea of an allegorical, “non-physical” resurrection was held by none but heretics, because the church had kept its continuity of doctrine intact from the beginning. We find in the earliest non-inspired documents evidence concerning the nature of the resurrection. The Epistles of Clement, the Apostolic Constitutions, the writings of Ignatius and Justin Martyr, all bear witness to a form of “sound doctrine” which had passed along from teacher to disciple from the very foundation of the church.
But in recent years, due to the increasing departure from the historic teachings, men have arisen within and without the church to revive the very doctrines that were pronounced heretical by the historic synods and conventions.
Should the decisions of these synods be honored? I think they should. Of course, the question always arises, “how far should the decisions of the early councils be adhered to?” For example, the honoring of icons was ratified at an ecumenical council. Does that mean that we should worship statues of Jesus? Of course not. For this was obviously a later incrustation upon the “faith delivered to the saints.” Naturally, an ongoing process of Reformation must be effected as well.
But all this just touches the tip of the iceberg. Fact is, the creeds and confessions stand united on all the issues necessary to the edification of the elect. No man can reasonably deny this fact. The formulation of creeds was a process that had its start in apostolic times. And the statements of the later creeds support those contained in the earlier ones. This ought to tell us that an agreement of doctrines must take place throughout every age of Christian teaching. When we depart from the historical moorings of Christ’s church, we become schismatics–or worse, outright heretics.
So what is my suggestion? I propose that during these trying times, as the whole Christian world gets turned upside down, we steadfastly adhere to the orthodox system of doctrine. This will be our invincible stronghold against all the incursions of predatory heresy.
It matters little whether you agree with every minor detail of the ancient writers. There are shades and gradations of opinion. There are differences of viewpoint and belief. Notwithstanding, there is still only “one faith,” and it is a pure faith. It is a knowable faith, and a faith that must continue to be delivered. So let us do what we’ve been called to do. And though we be harassed and persecuted by men, we shall gain honor and victory when Christ comes to reward His saints.