Wait . . .What? Baptist Dispatches From Deep In Church History, Part 2

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

I like to think I don’t just believe things because I grew up with them.  I like to think I am clear thinking and will follow facts to their conclusions, however uncomfortable.

For any low church, evangelical Baptist like myself, diving into church history can be a jarring experience.  As we wade back through the years past the hymns and alter calls and past the 95 Theses, we suddenly find ourselves starring face to face with bishops, councils, creeds, liturgy and all kinds of uncomfortable, “papist” tomfoolery right there in our own spiritual DNA.  What are us Baptists to make of this?  Are we just a Christianized hybrid of Enlightenment rationalism with a little down home democracy thrown in as some “high church” folks allege?

I’ve been wrestling with this for months (actually on and off for years . . . dang education and books).

At last, I’ve distilled the  the primary issues my evangelical Baptist faith is obstensibly unable to answer from church history into five questions.  Over the next few weeks, we will look at them one at a time and I will offer a summarized rebuttal explaining why despite them all I choose to remain a low church, evangelical Baptist.

This is Part 2.  Here’s Part 1.

***Please note I haven’t cited all my historical quotes due to laziness. If you want them let me know.

Issue 2:  Where did the Bible come from?  The Bible cannot be the ultimate source of authority when its books were determined by the church.  There was vast disagreement about what belonged in the Bible in the early church that was only settled by councils four hundred years after Jesus.  And those councils certified books not accepted by Protestants today.  In fact the exact 66 book Protestant Bible did not exist at all until 1500 years after Jesus.  If the Bible is the ultimate source of truth shouldn’t we at least be able to know for sure what’s in it?  There is no way to tell without an authoritative church to judge and interpret.  Therefore, “scripture alone” is a logical fallacy and cannot be true.  


This is the first of two posts related to issues surrounding biblical authority.  It is a valid and difficult question.  So how does a Baptist who measures all beliefs and practices against the bible alone respond to the charge that the church determined what’s in the bible?

In short . . . I believe that is a simplistic and triumphalist interpretation of history.

As I stated last week, the historical record is unequivocal that an authoritative heirarchy of bishops rose early in the church.  And yes, it’s true determining the books of the bible was a long and arduous process.  However, I believe this, long arduous process actually supports a doctrine of sola scriptura, or scripture alone as the highest authority.  If bishops and councils were the ultimate authority, why did they not just declare right off the bat what was and was not in the bible?  Why wait centuries?  For example, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t declare a dogmatic list of books (a canon) until the 1500’s – and only then as response to attacks of the Reformers!  So rather than a synod of bishops dictating what belonged in the bible, what we see instead is a communal journey of receiving God’s revelation through careful analysis and community conversation.  We see various churches and leaders arguing for different books throughout various regions of the world – a process that hasn’t really ended.  We still have a variety of canons today.

So how can we be confident we have the right scripture?  Isn’t this all a little haphazard?  Yes and no.

I’ll let Roman Catholic apologist Mark Shea describe the process of canonical reception.  He calls it the “roots and fruits” test.  He writes, “The Church said in essence, “Does the book have a widespread and ancient tradition concerning its apostolic origin?  Check.  Does the book square with the total paradosis (Greek for “tradition”) we all learned from the apostles and the bishops they gave us?”  Exactly.  While Shea is defending church authority, I see his reasoning as an excellent exposition of how apostolic authority is enshrined in scripture.  Those books that were from the apostles and internally matched apostolic teaching were kept, the others discarded.  Furthermore, I would add to Shea’s definition that books over which disagreement persisted were measured against those over which there was no disagreement.  And it is that same apostolic authority that remains the measuring rod for all life and faith.

Next, It’s important not to overstate the disagreements.  There was from the very beginning universal agreement on the four gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the vast majority of the Old Testament.  Uncertainty raged only around a handful of books.  A few of these ended up being included such as Hebrews, Jude, and James.  Other important early works such as 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, which some early Christians considered scripture were excluded.  Why? No widespread attestation to a direct apostolic connection.  In other words, not enough “roots and fruits.”  The fact that the church universally agreed to exclude these important and useful books only because of a lack of apostolic connection should give us great confidence those books included are indeed reliable.  To reiterate, books were selected because they bare internal witness to God’s unique revelation to the apostles during that critical turning point in salvation history.  There are, in Paul’s words, able to make us “wise for salvation.”

But still . . . we need to acknowledge there is some gray area around the edge of the biblical canon . . . and I think that’s ok.

As R.C. Sproul is famous for saying, “the canon is a fallible collection of infallible books.”  It’s important here to remember what the purpose of scripture is.  It’s not to provide us with an engineering textbook of formulas for every possible situation we will face in life.  Rather, it is only to provide us with knowledge of God’s redemptive plan for the world that we might have faith in Christ.  Is our ability to live a life of faith drastically affected if we never read Jude or 1 Maccabees?  As helpful and insightful as those books may be, I think the answer is no.  God promises to give us all the information we need to have life in him and he does.  We don’t need to press any farther than he does.  

Finally, to those who argue, sola scriptura is not taught in the bible, I must offer a hardy disagreement.  The biblical warrants for the doctrine are many, but I’ll mention two primary examples for brevity’s sake.   First, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 does at the very least strongly suggest scripture as the primary and ultimate guide to faith.  Paul instructs Timothy that it will prepare him to be, “complete, equipped for every good work.”  As an aside, this text should ease our concerns about the exact boundaries of the canon, because at the time of its writing the New Testament was not yet complete.  Secondly, Jesus consistently appealed to scripture as his ground of authority – usually with the refrain, “It is written.”  Jesus clearly expected God’s words in written form to be heard, passed on, understood, and obeyed.   

Again, it’s hard to stop.  So much more could be said.  The above however should provide at least an outline of why I believe God intended for the bible alone to be our primary authority and roadmap to salvation.  Yes, tradition is important, critical even.  We couldn’t live as Christians without it.  It is through tradition, working alongside scripture that we answer with confidence the challenges of our age with the faithful voices of the past.  Indeed, we all read the bible through the lens of one tradition or another.  But tradition must always be critiqued in light of scripture.  Tradition cannot and should not be ultimate.  It’s not reliable enough.  Sola scriptura.




14 thoughts on “Wait . . .What? Baptist Dispatches From Deep In Church History, Part 2

  1. It is interesting that the Scriptures declare that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, not the Scriptures alone (see 1 Timothy 3:15).

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, you are correct in raising this citation. It’s one you don’t often hear preached in Protestant churches. That being said, I think one’s interpretation of the verse is contingent upon one’s a priori view of church authority. Thus as as a Protestant, I would argue the church is the pillar of truth because it is the home of gospel preaching and soul regeneration, not because its the home of an infallible Magisterium that can develop doctrine. Furthermore, it’s important to note this interpretation was favored by such early greats as Irenaeus and John Chrysostom.

      1. The infallible Magisterium is an innovation of the Roman Catholic Church manifested many centuries after Irenaeus and Chrysostom wrote down their reflections as members of the undivided Church. The Church’s authority is reflected in the continuity of Her conciliar episcopal leadership, and the acceptance by the priesthood of the laity of the doctrines formulated primarily in the Ecumenical Councils. The model remains that of the Apostle’s council in Jerusalem in c. AD 50.

      2. I largely agree. However, I believe bishop’s role did develop later and the Apostle’s held a unique place and that the Apostolic Fathers did not see themselves as such even if they were successors in some sense. We don’t see a synod of bishops deposing another bishop until 268 and there is no ecumenical council until 325. I believe this reflects a gradual process of power being increasingly vested in clergy. Power that was eventually backed by the Roman state. The earliest churches were governed by elders or groups of elders often selected by the congregations themselves. Let me reiterate, I believe tradition and councils play an invaluable role as deposits of wisdom and safeguards but they must ultimately be measured against scripture. This is admittedly a subjective process, but such is the human condition. Thanks for the conversation.

      3. I find it interesting that the Gospel was being preached and souls were being regenerated through Baptism and the Eucharist long before the New Testament was written. Doesn’t this affirm that the authority of the Church exceeds the authority of Scriptures alone?

      4. Perhaps you’re right. I certainly wasn’t there. I would say that the church begin practicing baptism and the eucharist at the apostle’s command and under their teaching. After the apostle’s death they continued that process as well as the process of circulating and reading apostolic letters along with OT texts. So for me, sola scriptura is really just another way of saying apostolic doctrine is final and that doctrine can only be reliably established from the NT. Tradition is important but it must be chastened by what we know of the apostles from the NT, at least I think so.

  2. Hi Ben,

    Great post. Two quick thoughts:

    1) The thing that shook me up about sola scriptura when I was an evangelical at seminary was Luther’s determination to remove several books from the Bible. The reason he didn’t think books like Hebrews should make the cuts were the same agruments that were used against them 1200 years prior. It seemed to me I had no definite way to say to Luther/those like him why Hebrews should be in the Bible without the apostolic authority of councils to back me up.

    2) I tried memorizing Psalm 119 to prove to myself sola scriptura. It didn’t work. Psalm 19, 119, 2 Tim, all of those verses say that the BIble is totally awesome, but it never says sufficient. The analogy came to me that Scripture is something like Vitamin C or something the body needs. Its amazing, you can’t live without it, its praises should be sung forever, but if I just ate oranges my whole life I wouldn’t survive. Just because something is amazing doesn’t mean it’s sufficient.

    Again, appreciate the post and look forward to reading more.

    1. Anthony, thanks for reading. I’ve read and enjoy several of your posts as well. Know that I deeply appreciate the Catholic Church. You guys absolutely kill it when it comes to beauty and the intellect. I’m jealous. So know what I say I say with the utmost charity and respect. Yes, Luther’s comments threw me for a loop as well. However, I think it’s important to remember 2 things – 1) the debates raged only around a small handful of books 2) the debates were never fully settled even after Carthage. Even Cardinal Carejtan (not sure on the spelling), the interviewer of Luther, rejected the Deuterocanonical books. I think we just have to accept a little gray at the canon’s boundaries. If the ancients couldn’t settle it, how can we expect to? I don’t deny the church community played a role in the canon’s final shape, but the majority of books were never really in question because they were and are so clearly apostolic. Thus, because history and tradition are so complicated, it seems safest to me to use the canon with gray areas and all as the ultimate measuring rod for doctrine and practice. It’s not the only measuring rod by any means. Certainly, we need other food besides oranges as you put it. Tradition, sacraments, church life, mentorship, etc. are vital. But in the end the bible is the surest and thus the highest court of appeals when it comes to answering those key questions pertaining to the path to salvation. As I said in the post, I reject the common evangelical idea that it is a moralistic handbook for all life. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not able to give us Christ and point us towards holiness. Yes, this is subjective, but I’ll get into that in my next post ha. Peace and Happy Thanksgiving.

      1. Hi Ben,

        Sorry I had missed this, didn’t see your response until now. I had actually forgotten I had posted this about Vitamin C ha-ha and now turned it into a post. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the blog, and it’s good to stumble onto yours.

        I’m out of my league on the history after Carthage and don’t have much to contribute. Need to do more reading! I think perhaps the only useful thing to say is that we’re not that far apart when we talk about the Bible being the highest court of appeals. There’s a quote from Benedict I can’t find that would be useful, here’s Pope Francis talking some about link between Tradition and Scripture. http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-the-unbreakable-unity-between-scripture-and-t

        For me the perpiscuity part of scripture is most problematic. There’s a quote here from Christian Smith’s book which helped me articulate this: http://www.evangelicaltocatholic.com/what-are-the-essentials-of-christianity/

        Here’s a scenario I struggled with as an evangelical, and you may have a more nuanced view than me: Let’s say there was access to a printing press and the early church was able to give a Bible to everyone who wanted one and told them to appeal to that book to solve their differences. No apostolic authority, no councils, no bishops, just the Bible. It seems like there would have inevitably been schism after schism and the ability to call something a “heresy” that was no obviously heretical as the early Christians struggled to understand things like the Trinity, would have been impossible. That seemed like a nightmare, but it was the type of structure I believed in as an evangelical.


        I’ve been up since 2 because I’m sick and now have to get ready for work. Yikes.

      2. Yes, I agree that perpiscuity of scripture can be problematic. I read Smith’s book and largely enjoyed it. However, we read to remember the point of scripture, which is to point us to Christ. It isn’t necessarily meant to answer all our questions or make for neat systematics. Also, I don’t think we can really get away from the subjective. I’m about to write a post on this, but even if I agree some other authority needs to interpret the bible I still need to weigh and judge that authority, and there have been many times in history when that authority has been wrong. It seems to be part of the human condition that we are in many ways stuck within ourselves without perfect knowledge. On your second point, I too am scandalized by the individualization and “know nothing” ism of evangelicals. That’s one of the main reasons I begin reading on history a couple of years ago. However, I’m ultimately not convinced (for now) becoming Catholic is the answer. First, what mechanism do I have to judge between the ancient churches? I honestly don’t think it’s possible to make an accurate judgement, or at least it would take a lifetime of study to do so. Second, though the councils met and determined creeds, it didn’t have much impact on the ground much of the time. It was after Nicea that Arianism almost overran the Church. So are these councils really that different from something like the Lausanne Conference where reps from all over the world met and set common goals, etc? 4) I agree we need external authority and tradition, but that they both must be chastened by the apostolic message of the bible. For example, during the MIddle Ages the laity couldn’t receive the cup and only received communion once a year or so. That developed as a tradition and bishops taught it but it needed to be chastened. Yes, this is a subjective process but I don’t think we can get away from that anyway. So I see the councils, creeds and even the Catholic Church itself as a major part of my heritage. Baptists are hugely indebted to all of them, but in the end I guess I don’t think the Great Church of antiquity totally exist in one church any more, but that each branch carries a piece of it. It seems both the RCC and the SBC are profoundly shaped by time and circumstance. At least those are my thoughts right now … but who knows. As an aside I also went to SBTS for one semester then took off ha. I hope you are feeling better. Take care.

  3. Hi Ben,

    I’m impressed by your response. I don’t have the historical knowledge to add much, and I didn’t know about the laity only received the Eucharist once a year, though I know people used to be much more (too) careful about not taking while in mortal sin (we have the exact opposite problem now). When did you leave SBTS? I left in March of 2012.

    Each branch certainly carries strengths. Catholic ambivalence about foreign mission evangelism over the last few decades certainly doesn’t exist in the SBC.

    Re: perpiscuity and authority, have you read Joshua Lim’s story? He went from evangelical to Reformed to Catholic and his story was posted at the same time as mine. There’s a paragraph that’s stuck with me about moving on from pure Bible alone but not being Catholic. I’m not sure this is where you’re saying you’re headed, though, so it may not be that useful. You’re still SBC right?

    Against this anabaptist problem, the proposed ‘Reformed’ solution was quite simple: the Reformed confessions had to be restored to their proper place. Yet, it was unclear how such a recovery could not immediately devolve into the in-fighting typical of Reformed denominations (indeed, it seems impossible to even get to the point where such a devolution could occur). At least on this point, it seems that Charles Finney had a degree of truth on his side: the confessions do seem to function, at least in practice, as something like a ‘paper pope.’ It is either this, or the confessions hold no authority at all. The via media, that Reformed churches and their confessions only have a ‘ministerial’ authority does not solve anything since it is unclear what this even means, as is only more evident in controversies in P&R denominations that ceaselessly result in more and more denomination splits. If the confessions do not have, at least in practice, the same authority as the Magisterium, it does not seem that they have any authority at all. The moment someone disagrees with the confession or a given interpretation of the confession on biblical grounds, they no longer need to submit themselves to that governing body. In other words, one can consistently use Luther’s “Here I stand” speech in order to avoid church discipline–and it would be hypocritical for any Protestant denomination to condemn one who appeals to his own conscience and Scripture. And that this has actually happened throughout history is not difficult to substantiate. http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2012/05/joshua-lims-story-a-westminary-seminary-california-student-becomes-catholic/

    1. You’re right on that confessionalism is problematic in that way. I”m honestly pretty turned off by it because of that kind of posturing. But I”m also not convinced joining the RCC solves the problem. A person still has to interpret the creeds, church documents and a church leader’s teachings. And I have to decide if a clergyman is wrong about a certain Catholic teaching and whether or not I will obey him on a particular issue. I would also have to make a subjective judgement on whether or not the RCC view of authority is right or if the Orthodox view is stronger. Both make compelling cases and claim apostolic origin. Plus, Catholics still have tons of divisions under the umbrella of church authority. So I’m not convinced you can get away from the subjective nature of human religion. That being said, I’ve decided to remain Baptist for now for mostly for positive reasons rather than negatives ones against other group. I still find the classical Baptist principles of regenerative church membership and freedom of conscience too compelling to give up just yet.

  4. I’m pretty impressed with the post and the responses to comments. It seems clear to me that the early churches assigned authority to the apostles and the apostles alone. Tertullian is just one example, but he has a really clear statement about it: “No others ought to be received as preachers except those Christ appointed … Nor does the Son seem to have revealed [God] to any other than the apostles, whom he set forth to preach” (Prescription Against Heretics 21).

    Irenaeus writes, “We have learned from no one else the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they proclaimed at one time in public, then, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (Against Heresies III:1:1).

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