We have a great tendency in churches right now to criticize anything not new. (We also have a tendency to criticize anything not old. We just have a tendency to criticize.) I think we look back at prior preachers, pastors, theologians, writers, leaders of the church, and say that they have nothing to offer us, after all times have changed. Also, history reveals their faults better than mirrors are revealing our own, and we often have access to the whole scope of their writings, making it easy to find places of disagreement. So, we discard the work of people who studied the Word of God, oftentimes with more diligence, and at the least with the same diligence, that we have. We believe that God illuminates His word to us today, we ask for Him to speak to us through the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. Is it too much to assume that He has also done so in previous generations? My generation, my own life, I have been quick to demand people realize I am capable of hearing the Lord and discern His will, handle His word. I'm beginning to see that so have previous generations, and I've got to realize that I can learn from them.
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The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies » The Ancient Church Fathers: senior partners in a conversation
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The Ancient Church Fathers: senior partners in a conversation
February 27th, 2009 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries, Baptist Life & Thought
I vividly remember a conversation in the early 1990s I had with a person transitioning from Fundamentalism to something further to the left theologically. It was, for me, a defining moment. The topic of the Nicene Creed had been raised and this individual stated that such a document was of no authority in his life since it was written by men and had no divine input.
Such a statement then and now strikes me as both arrogant and false. It fails to understand the profound biblical import of the document concerned. Also at one fell swoop, the entire cast of characters in the history of the Church is disposed of and all that matters is the individual’s own mind and his or her Bible. Of course, I know where this person was coming from: nuda Scriptura, which is essentially an exaltation of autonomy at the expense of all tradition that ultimately leads to a radical individualism well-nigh indistinguishable from a Paine or Emerson—well, the individual would have given this caveat, a commitment to biblical authority. Essentially, though, his view was crafted in the same crucible that saw the rise of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and the entire nineteenth-century reaction against a learned ministry.
The inimitable Victorian Baptist Charles H. Spurgeon, though, well answered this errant position: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” [Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1].
And, if I were to have that discussion today, I would ask the person to ponder these wise words of J.I. Packer: “Tradition–is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it. I am bold to say that evangelicals, even those of Anabaptist polity, should be turned by their own belief in the Spirit as the Church’s teacher into men of tradition, and that if we all dialogued with Christian tradition more we should all end up wiser than we are. [“Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 25 (1982), 414].
How then to read the Ancient Church Fathers in whose era the Nicene Creed was framed? As Evangelicals who adhere to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (something quite different from nuda Scriptura), we cannot read them as authorities alongside Holy Scripture. But we cannot utterly discard them either. Rather, just as the Bible admonishes us to honour the aged among us, so we need to consider the Fathers as senior conversation partners in our theological task—as Packer says, “not infallible, but neither…negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard” them.
Will this get me back in seminary? Well, to be honest, I'd love to get back in seminary. A desire to learn isn't the issue. It's more about awaiting God's provision. Meanwhile, I've got books by Spurgeon to learn about preaching, I'm reading a commentary that coalesces some of the early church writings about the books I'm preaching through.
In other words, I'm learning to learn. We've got to get there, because we're facing a future that seems scary, but contains challenges that our forefathers in the faith have seen and can give us guidance through.
After all, what's Hebrews 12:1-2 teach us but to fix our eyes on Christ, and listen to the crowd of witnesses?