Do not Add to His Words: Yes, But…31 March 2015
Joel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in Late Antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.
Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)
…the Bible Doesn’t Teach the Authority of the Church
Actually, it does!
But in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. I Tim 3:15
Could anything be more forthright than this? The Church supports the Truth. If the pillar falls, then so does the whole edifice, Scriptures and all!
The earliest Church believed and acted under the assumption that they had the authority to decide matters of faith, doctrine, and practice. This is why the Apostles felt they had the right to cast lots for Judas’ successor (Ac 1), introduce the diaconate (Ac 6), and allow Gentiles to come into the Church without circumcision (Ac 15). Under this same paradigm and sense of authority, the Church of the fourth and fifth century clarified what books were to be read in Church, and affirmed the Trinity to be dogma.
We could never have even begun to argue from Scripture had not the Church given it to us. If we had been given a different canon or a tampered translation we wouldn’t know the difference. We would argue from that which we were given.
…the Church Was Corrupted After the Apostles
Many of us are told that after Constantine’s rise to power, the Catholic Church was started and pagan doctrines crept into the Church. At that point, true Christianity was supressed.
Without going into a long discourse on Church history, this is a complete myth. It is the same argument used by Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses to support their own case. All these groups, like ourselves, believe there were true Christians that taught their beliefs in the second century. Eventually, somewhere in the fourth century, corruption set in and the true Muslims, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses (or “Evangelicals”!) were persecuted and driven underground.
But Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelicals can scarcely offer a single name as an example of someone who taught their beliefs in the second or third century. Who were these true believers? What were their names? Why don’t we publish and circulate their writings today? After all, there are a lot of Christian writings from this period. It shouldn’t be too hard to trace who corrupted what, when, and how.
Aside from this, if the Church was corrupted then we would have to admit that Jesus was wrong. Hear him now:
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Mt 16:18
I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. Jn 16:12,13
…lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Mt. 28:20
If we believe the Church fell away then we are confessing that Hades triumphed over the Church. The Spirit of God failed to lead the Church into all truth. Jesus was with the Church only until they lapsed into Catholic heresy, then was with no one until over a thousand years later, when pure Christianity was restarted in the Reformation.
…the Bible Condemns Tradition
It is true that certain verses we know well condemn the traditions of men. But we generally ignore the other Bible verses on this subject.
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. I Co 11:1-2
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. I Th 2:15
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. I Th 3:6
Rather than condemning tradition, the Bible compels us to hold fast to it! This sentiment is expressed throughout Scripture, including the Old Testament.
Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set. Pr 22:28
Thus do I send my teachings forth shining like the dawn, to become known afar off. Thus do I pour out instruction like prophecy and bestow it on generations to come. Sirach 24:30-31
The whole of Scripture is laced with commendation for people faithfully transmitting Wisdom from father to son, from Adam down to our time, both by word and by writing.
We ourselves, regardless of our church affiliation, practice traditions. These traditions include church government, administration of the sacraments, when and how we worship, to name but a few. These practices and beliefs have been handed to us by our “fathers” in the faith and they received it, in turn, from others. Even our preferred translation of the Bible is determined by tradition. Some of us accept only the King James Version, others the New American Bible, or the New International Version, or other Protestant versions. Even the chapter and verse numbering, as well as the naming of the books, is dependent upon tradition.
Tradition is inescapable regardless of who you are or what you believe. The question is…are you practicing the Tradition of the Apostles or the traditions of men? Most of our Evangelical traditions and doctrines only date back one or two centuries. What about reading the early Church writings to try to learn traditions that are nearly 2000 years old?
…God is Doing a New Thing
This is often used by a minority both to justify radical contemporary movements within Evangelicalism and to disregard history as relevant to our faith. For these people, appeals to the Bible as history or to the need to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (St. Jude 3) often carry little weight.
If we need to focus on the present and be freed from the chains of the past, then why not redesign the canon or rewrite Scripture? In fact, why stop there? Why not include elements of Buddhism or Zoroastrianism in our faith? Why not experiment with drugs in worship? After all, God is doing a new thing.
Each generation of avante garde Evangelicals push this principle to new limits, shocking many. And it should! The very historicity of our Faith necessitates that the new things we enter into be completely faithful to that which is ancient.
…this Would Mean that the Church is Infallible
Actually, not really. At least not the way we have been taught to understand infallibility. Generally, especially when discussing Catholicism, we understand ecclesiastical infallibility to mean that the Church can do whatever it wants and get away with it.
Rather we should understand infallibility to mean that the Church is trustworthy. Although apostasies occur, the Church prevails and hands down the truth. All we need do is find this Church, unbroken since the time of Christ, and sojourn with them.
This call to trust the historical Church may not appeal to some of us who have been raised to be skeptical of men or organizations, but it is something that is a central part of all of us, and it leads many of us to say…
…that’s Not What my Pastor Says
No, it is not likely that you will hear about either the Apocrypha or the authority of the Church from many of your favorite Bible teachers or apologists. Those who did would probably lose their jobs very quickly!
But if, in dealing with these difficult issues, you have sought help from a commentary or professor you trust for an explanation to keep your theological world together, then this should be enough to demonstrate what I am saying. We already trust men in the form of churches, denominations, seminaries, and publishing houses. We have heroes and saints of the past and present we look to as examples. None of us regard them as inerrant, but still we trust their judgment and see them as models of faithfulness. We run to them when we have problems and are confused!