By P. Andrew Sandlin
It is a mistake often made by the sincere but naive to assume that affirmation of formal Biblical authority (presupposing the Bible’s inspiration and infallibility) guarantees right belief. To this way of thinking, right belief about the Bible equals right Biblical belief. Few theological assumptions could be more mistaken. Nonetheless, this was the very cry of the so-called radical reformers, and eventually the Unitarians and other antitrinitarians,1 who wanted to pass their heresy off as valid on the grounds of the reformers’ clarion call of sola scripture. It was far from the reformers’ minds, however, to overturn ancient catholic orthodoxy enshrined in the ecumenical creeds.2 They were convinced that medieval accretions to catholic orthodoxy polluted a vibrant Biblical Faith. To them, “Scripture alone” meant “No human authority—including the church—competes with Scripture.” It did not mean, “Let’s summarily overthrow historic Christianity by a sixteenth-century recovery of primal Christianity in terms of an historically unconditioned reading of the Bible.” They were convinced—and they were right—that the Bible requires, by explication and implication—historic, orthodox Christianity.
Where Protestants and Roman Catholics Agree
While the error of much of post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism is to subordinate the Scripture to the Roman sector of the church (which is in no way identical to the church catholic3), the error of many modern Protestants is nonchalantly to cast aside historic Christianity in favor of heretical innovations. Of course, Roman Catholics anathematize Protestants on the grounds that the latter deny the true Faith by denying the church, just as Protestants anathematize Roman Catholics on the grounds that the latter deny the true Faith by denying the Bible. The fact is, while there are clear differences between the two sectors of the church which it would be a grave error to paper over (as, unfortunately, some modern evangelicals have tried to do), historic Protestants and historic Roman Catholics have one thing in common that neither modernistic Roman Catholics nor modernistic Protestants do—orthodoxy. Historic Protestants share with historic Roman Catholics what they cannot share with modernistic Protestants; and historic Roman Catholics share with historic Protestants what they cannot share with modernistic Roman Catholics—orthodoxy. Beyond catholic orthodoxy—for instance, on the precise nature of sin, salvation, and the church—they vigorously disagree. But such vigorous disagreement between us historic Protestants and historic Roman Catholics is far preferable to the vigorous disagreement of each of us with modernists and cultists who deny such orthodox tenets as original sin; the Trinity; the dual natures of Christ; his virgin birth, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, and bodily second Advent; the physical resurrection at the end of human history; and so forth.
Liberal Protestantism and Orthodoxy
Contemporary mainline Protestantism is almost wholly given over to just this denial, characteristic of modernism or liberalism.4 As Gresham Machen demonstrated in 1923,5 liberalism is not an extension of or improvement on—or even a deformation of historic Biblical Christianity; rather, it is another religion altogether. It assaults the Faith at its very heart—its supernatural claims—and treats Christianity as a wax nose it can reshape at whim to conform to the modern temper. If influenced by process philosophy, liberals disavow the “static, Greek” conception of God assertedly expressed in the early Christian creeds, opting rather for a “dynamic” view of God, that is, one who exists within and changes along with the world and human history. If influenced by historicists, liberals deny any transcultural doctrinal orthodoxy, holding that all dogmatic and theological formulation (conspicuously excepting their own) is historically and culturally relative: to them, doctrinal truth cannot exist in history. If liberals are radical feminists, the creeds represent a false patriarchal (maybe misogynic) God whom the modern “enlightened” world simply cannot abide. If advocates of Unitarianism, liberals jettison the miraculous element of the Faith—which is to say, they deny the Faith. Liberalism (like cultism) is the antithesis of Christian orthodoxy.
The Inescapability of Orthodoxy
Orthodoxy is a “given,” an inescapable axiom, a “that without which it is not possible.” As Gerhard Ebeling (not himself orthodox), notes:
[T]he conviction of the preacher which causes him to take the biblical text in hand, that is, that God’s word is present and perceptible there, is also transmitted to him historically, specifically through the Christian church in whose tradition he stands. To this tradition he owes not only the transmission of the text as such but also the transmission of the claim of the Bible to unique authority. No matter how much the preacher may have made the acknowledgment of this claim his own, the very fact that this is so and that he steps forth as a preacher betrays his attachment to the tradition of church history. He is baptized in the context of Christian baptism, instructed in the context of Christian instruction, and called to his office in the context of the tradition of church vocation.6
Christians of any vocation, not just ministers, do not appear in a historical vacuum, but are enveloped in a Christian context. Even liberal and other heterodox churches retain Christian symbols and language (albeit disingenuously and hypocritically) because they cannot escape the effects of orthodoxy no matter how hard they may try. For this reason, heretics must presume orthodoxy in order to deny it, just as atheists must presume God in order to deny him.
Orthodoxy and Historical Continuity
The modern temper, however, deeply resents the constraints orthodoxy poses to human imagination. Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy hammered out in the patristic era was necessary in part because men who professed to believe the Bible could not make certain Biblical statements about God and Christ conform to human reason. In the main, orthodoxy tries to preserve in summary form the Biblical evidence about the nature of God without reconciling it to the bar of autonomous human reason. Thus in the Chalcedonian Creed we learn that Jesus is God of very God and Man of very man, even though this is repugnant to human reason—the Bible, not human reason, is the final authority. Orthodoxy is Christianity’s built-in prevention to autonomous man’s attempts to reshape the meaning of the Bible under the pressures of historical change. That is, orthodoxy is a mechanism of theological, ecclesiastical, and practical continuity. Dismissal or aversion to the creeds of the church erodes this continuity and thus the Faith itself.
Where Liberals and Too Many Conservatives Agree
Oddly, this is a dismissal and aversion both liberals and all too many conservatives commit. Modern liberalism’s mad rush to preserve the “relevance” of Scripture and conform it to modernity finds the Christian creeds constricting. But no less do many modern conservatives. An inherited orthodoxy requiring some sophistication to grasp and preventing a theologically democratic free-for-all bores many conservatives who erroneously think sola scriptura means the right of every man to decide what he wants the Bible to mean to him (the infamous home Bible study refrain: “Dearie, in that verse what is God saying to you?”). Hatch states of the heritage of this way of thinking in our own country:
The first Americans to underscore the right of private judgment in handling the Scriptures were, oddly enough, ministers who opposed the evangelical tenets of the First Great Awakening…. [T]heological liberals became increasingly restive with strict creedal definitions of Christianity…. Well into the nineteenth century, rational Christians, many of whom swelled the ranks of denominations such as the Unitarians and the Universalists, argued against evangelical orthodoxy by appealing to the Bible…. Charles Beecher defended his rejection of his father Lyman’s orthodoxy by renouncing “creed-power” and raising the banner of “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.”7
This certainly must sound strange to the ears of modern evangelicals and fundamentalists. They are accustomed to hearing that the creeds are “Catholic” (and therefore bad), and that believing the Bible alone assures the right belief apart from recourse to the Christian Faith. Of course, it is never the Bible alone they believe, despite their assumptions and protests, because they bring to the Bible certain presuppositions about the Faith and life that shape their understanding of the Bible. A “Bible-only” slogan which avoids historic Christianity is a convenient way to insulate themselves from the evidence of their own misguided presuppositions. The validity of Christian orthodoxy is a much safer presupposition to bring to Bible study than the dismissal of that orthodoxy—and therefore the substitution of a new, private, and usually therefore perverse, orthodoxy.
It was precisely the creed-damning, Bible-only clergy in America’s nineteenth century that abetted the erosion of the Christian Faith and therefore Christian culture.8 Their ostensible preference for “the Bible alone” in dogmatic formulation actually meant, “the Bible interpreted according to my autonomous, rebellious presuppositions.” It is in this sense that modernists are no less sinful than the most ecclesiocentric Romanists and Eastern Orthodox—while the latter two prefer the autonomy of the institutional church, the first prefers the autonomy of the individual mind (or emotions). Just as “heart-felt” conservative revivalism abets a “heartfelt” liberal conquest (because the locus of truth is transferred from objective Scripture and confessional orthodoxy to the subjective human imagination or emotion),9 so a creedless conservatism lays the foundation for a heretical liberalism or cultism (because the structured historical dogma designed to delimit Christian belief is abandoned in favor of “individual freedom,” meaning theological antinomianism). Alternatively, when the Protestants accented the individual priesthood of believers, they meant that Biblical understanding is not mediated by the Roman magisterium; they did not mean that individual Christians could overthrow the Faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Today new heresies (actually old heresies in modern clothing) crop up even within the bosom of the orthodox Faith. There are the “evangelical” opponents of Christ’s eternal Sonship, the “consistent” (read: heretical) preterists who deny the physical resurrection and Christ’s physical second Advent, fundamentalists for whom the humanity of Christ is repugnant and embarrassing, noted “conservative” theologians who question God’s omniscience (since it supposedly conflicts with human “freedom”), Pentecostals who duplicate the modalist heresy (God exists not in three persons, but three “modes”), and assorted other varieties. Virtually every one issues from a theological hothouse isolated—and intentionally so—from historic Christian orthodoxy. Every one posits an antinomian dogma under the innocent-sounding guise of being faithful to the Bible.
Twin Truths: Scripture and Orthodoxy
In bold contrast, we must at all times simultaneously affirm twin truths: the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of the living God, the only ultimately objective rule of faith and practice; the Bible, not the individual, church, or dogma is infallibly authoritative. But, the God who inspired the Bible is the all-conditioning covenantal God who oversees the preservation of the correct understanding of the cardinal elements of his word in history by means of catholic orthodoxy.10
We must at all costs honor the Bible, God’s infallible word. But it is not honoring to the Bible as God’s infallible word to dishonor Christian orthodoxy.
1. Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma (Chicago and London, 1984), 323-331.
2. idem., Obedient Rebels (New York and Evanston, 1964).
3. Eugene Osterhaven, The Spirit of the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, 1971), 40.
4. William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, 1976).
5. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, 1923).
6. Gerhard Ebeling, The Problem of Historicity (Philadelphia, 1967), 9, 10.
7. Nathan Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll, ed., The Bible In America: Essays in Cultural History (New York, 1982), 62, 63.
8. On the social effects of creedal orthodoxy, see Rousas John Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (Fairfax, VA , 1978).
9. Peter J. Leithart, “Revivalism and American Protestantism,” Christianity and Civilization: The Reconstruction of the Church, No. 4, 1985, 51 f.
10. This is the position of Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1981), 1:114, 115.
Article from Chalcedon.edu