A Church Historian and a Baptist

I had a startling question a month or so ago from someone: What did Athanasius have that Origen lacked and which permitted Athanasius to recover the apostolic doctrine of the Trinity?

That is one nicely tangled up question.

One can see that it derives from our ideas of the Reformation: What did Luther have that Tyndale, for example, lacked and which permitted Luther to recover the apostolic doctrine of justification? This kind of question demonstrates a disposition toward doing church history. The idea is that the original was the true and that the task of the church is to keep from drifting from it.

There is nothing wrong with saying that. The problem is when you think that what the church keeps it keeps without doctrinal development. So the problem is that you do not say enough. Let me put it this way: Why didn’t we have the reformation until the 15th century? Was it because then people at last realized they were being unfaithful and had departed from the apostolic doctrine of justification? Sure, but there is another aspect to this recovery. That is the fact that doctrinal development had to take place for the church to be able to distinguish the transformation of salvation considered as a whole from the change of relationship that is justification. The categories for making the distinction did not exist. That does not mean they were unimportant categories, but that they required some time to discover. The development in thought necessary to making the distinctions in the doctrine of salvation, in advancing the doctrinal formulation to that moment available were not in place all along. They precede the time of the Reformation, but not by much.

You can’t just read Scripture and make all the distinctions necessary to arrive at the Protestant doctrine of justification without significant philosophical development in the background. It is more obvious in the first question: you can’t just read Scripture and come away believing there is one God in three persons with inseparable operations, a distinction between the being and the economy and all the rest. You can’t even walk up to Scripture, as we have recently learned, and understand the eternal generation of the Son; you have to have a concept of eternity as out of time, and you will not get that from Scripture. You have to have a category for the uniqueness of the Son which requires some distinctions that are not made in everyday language.

If you read the book of Job you will notice that dialogue never involves abstract reasoning. It was written of a pre-speculative society: Job, his friends and Elihu did not know how to perform abstract reasoning. And we notice that God, whom you can be sure was not pre-speculative, did not tax them with abstract reasoning: it would have been incomprehensible to them. We get abstract reasoning from that interesting moment in Greece, and you could say that in the ancient world a philosopher was one who had achieved and could employ abstract reasoning. This did not transform its societies overnight, but began to permeate the ancient world in the fullness of time.

The apostolic apprehension of the Trinity, the reality which they had contact with and expressed, needed doctrinal formulation: Scripture is not a collection of precisely formulated doctrines buried away in otherwise impractical genres. Scripture reveals God to us, and his rescue, and why we are being rescued to begin with, but we have to do something with what Scripture reveals before we have theology. Just read the Bible first and then read a Systematic Theology and you will notice that they are not the same kind of book at all. And it is misleading to think that Scripture is different from a Systematic Theology because it is somehow inferior in its organization. It is organized on a different principle. In fact, Systematic Theology has no organizing principle until the 12th century or perhaps I should say the 13th, when it is conceived or discovered, and first employed.

What Origen lacked, to answer the first question, was at least a concept of personality. But it would be misleading because it suggests the apostles had a concept of personality, which they did not. Scripture does not have the word ‘person’ because no human being had that concept in the first century. It was not available, and it had to be developed in order to make sense of what Scripture was affirming. The doctrine of the Trinity does not contradict or add to Scripture, but the doctrine of the Trinity is a way to maintain the commitment to the coherence of what God has revealed within the bounds of what today we call the canon.

If one is a Baptist and aspires to church history, one is going to be asked, I have found, how one can be a Baptist and be in any way a reputable church historian. The idea is that Baptist polity has no historical antecedents. It is the same question that is asked about the Reformation: how can you be part of a church that was not there all along?

The answer to that requires at least two considerations. You have to realize that Baptist polity or Protestantism do not arise as a radical discontinuity with the past: they distinguish themselves from something, but in the context of similarities. You do not, in fact, distinguish anything unless there is an implied similarity, as Plotinus pointed out. The doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, of man in its main aspects, of salvation in many aspects, of the Holy Spirit etc., are a great part of what is continuous. These things can be traced through history. So a part of the problem with the question is that it posits too radical a discontinuity.

The other aspect of the answer is to say that doctrinal development has a logic to it. You cannot talk about the relationship of the human and the divine in Christ until you have settled the question of his relationship to the divine in the first place. If Christ is God, then we can begin to consider whether he is also man, but it makes no sense to urge the second question before you have settled the first. Once the question of Christ’s deity is settled, the question of the Holy Spirit’s arises, but not before. And so on. Baptist belief is the answer to a complex set of questions, some of which, the crucial distinctive ones, never arose till after the first 1500 years of the church. These cannot have arisen without certain social and theological developments which brought the particular set of questions into focus, many prior ones having been answered to get there. The London Baptist Confession of Faith provides the answers to a set of questions that represent a new collection never before obtained.

To be frozen in time is sometimes urged as the more historical position. To me that is the least historical position. When you have once settled a theological matter, you will generate another series of question which cannot be ignored. Doctrine must develop if you are to keep the deposit faithfully, because you will have to provide answers which maintain the coherence of Scripture and allow you to formulate accurately the advanced implications of what it reveals. And that is why, if you are a church historian or a historical theologian (which is mostly what I’ve here been doing), it is by no means inconsistent also to be a Baptist.

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2 thoughts on “A Church Historian and a Baptist

  1. Excellent thoughts. I have found this phenomenon in the study of beauty, but had not articulated it as well as you have. The Hebrew writers never define beauty in the abstract. Their approach to beauty is entirely adjectival, one might say; beauty is never considered as a noun. It takes the Greeks to put it into the abstract, and as Augustine later channels Plato, and Aquinas channels Aristotle, we then have a Christian concept of beauty. It required this progress of doctrine, using philosophical categories, to then make sense of the beauty which is only described by the Hebrews and first-century Jews in Scripture. Some biblicists then argue that the concept is Greek and unbiblical, but that thinking is essentially the error you are pointing out.

  2. History is vital. One of the main sources, if you are interested, for me has been Henry Chadwick. If you read his Very Short Introduction to Augustine you’ll get that kind of thing and a lot more clearly.

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