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We have previously reviewed the first four volumes of IVP’s Ancient Christian Doctrine series (see the reviews here). This series is a commentary on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed drawn from the writings of the patristic period of church history (AD 95-750).
Volume 5 concludes the series by commenting on the final portion of the creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church…and the life of the world to come. Amen.” The series editors perhaps took a risk by assigning this volume to Roman Catholic Angelo Di Berardino, but Di Berardino is a responsible contributor who does nothing to slant things toward a view of Roman exclusivity. Focusing on the doctrinal pillars of the church and end times, this is probably the volume that fundamentalists will have the most difficulties with, but also the one that they most need to consider.
Before addressing areas of contention, it should be pointed out that there is much to encourage fundamentalists in this volume. The observant reader will notice that each of the four marks of the church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—have a unifying characteristic. Doctrinal orthodoxy is the pillar of unity (p. 61). Doctrinal truth and fighting against error mark the holy church (p. 69-70). The church is catholic (or universal) because it teaches right doctrine and loves truth above any man or philosophy (p. 74, 76). The tradition of the apostles is only found in Scriptural proof (p. 80). Speaking a bit anachronistically, the right preaching of the Word is the mark of the church that unites all others.
Baptism, eschatology and praying for the dead
Fundamentalists will note the progression of teaching on baptism and eschatology. The earliest testimonies about baptism and the millennium resemble closely the views of many contemporary fundamentalists. Yet the views of the majority of Christians rapidly transformed to a more redemptively efficacious and covenantal view of baptism and a “spiritualized” view of the millennium. Also of interest will be the several pages of quotes that speak of praying for the dead and the forgiveness of their sins. As this issue is considered, it is helpful to go back to the beginning of this volume and consider the hazards of a systematic theology divorced from biblical theology.
What would be the basis for praying for the dead or to the saints? It is certainly not seen in Scripture. The foundation for such a practice is actually found in the first portion of the volume: a robust belief in the communion of the saints. If there is only one church and if our worship is in union with all those who already entered their rest (Heb. 12:22-25) why would we not pray to and for those who have departed? If we ask the living to pray for us, how much better is it to ask those who have already entered the presence of the Lord to pray for us? It is good logic, even if poor theology.
While dispensationalists will smile at Augustine’s discussion of seven “ages” (p. 188) and Irenaeus’ mention of “dispensational arrangements” (p. 220); it is clear early and often that the tenets of dispensationalism had no place in the early church.1 Belief in “one church” means belief in one “people of God.” This is in keeping with Jesus’ understanding of His mission (John 10:14-16); the apostolic understanding of Jesus’ mission (Eph. 2:11-18; Heb. 11:39-40); and the plan of God for the fullness of time (Eph. 1:9-10). Dispensationalism, before anything else, is a system of interpreting and understanding the Scripture. To make it a test of orthodoxy is to assert that for 1900 years the church did not know how to properly understand and interpret the Bible. To make dispensationalism a requirement of fellowship is to mark oneself off from the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.
Fundamentalism’s place in church history
If I may transition from reviewing to editorializing, this is the volume that fundamentalists should consider before any of the other four in the series because this book, more than any of the others, holds up a mirror to several of the major challenges fundamentalism faces.
In his comments Di Berardino demonstrates the permanent relevance of history:
One could write the history of the ancient church as a continuous battle against swarms of heresies and schisms. It was a church in continuous tension between unity and division, which it overcame partially through the centralization of power in the hands of bishops… . In the process of ensuring ecclesiastical pax, the laity became more and more marginalized, when they, in fact, had exercised a significant role in early times. (p. 56, 57)
One should not have to think very long or hard about the relevance of this to contemporary fundamentalism. Through social media, the laity of fundamentalism is increasingly being heard. Will old power structures be reasserted? Or will a way forward be found that embraces and incarnates true servant leadership?
The danger of a robust belief in “one church” and “the communion of the saints” was discussed earlier. But fundamentalism faces this doctrinal danger from the opposite direction. Biblically speaking, what is an “independent church”? What would the apostles say to such a description? Historically speaking, what qualified as an “independent church”? Arians, Sabellians, Gnostics, to name a few. Ideas have consequences, and with an insistence upon an “independent church,” fundamentalism is built for obsolescence. In no creed is the church “one, holy, catholic, apostolic, independent.”
In the commentary on the ecclesiastical portions of the creed, Di Berardino naturally makes frequent use of Cyprian and Augustine. What is not mentioned is that a number of such works by Cyprian and Augustine were written against “purity movements” of their day, one might say the fundamentalists of their day. A fundamentalist might say that Cyprian and Augustine were wrong and that the moral purity of the church should be protected at all costs. But someone who controls history has seen to it that 1600-1800 years later we are still reading the words of Cyprian and Augustine and not the words of their opponents. Might there be a reason for such providence? Cyprian and Augustine were not against personal holiness. They were opposed to those who would condemn churches for failing to hold to standards not found in Scripture.
What is the mechanism for fundamentalists to assess themselves historically? We are told of a fundamentalism worth saving; we are exhorted to reclaim authentic fundamentalism. The illustrations of such a fundamentalism worth saving or reclaiming are the same: churches and pastors “when I was a boy.” That is not conservatism. That is nostalgia. Are stories of pastors who were nice to ornery kids really supposed to compete with the accounts of men who gave expression to the tenets of orthodoxy, who did true “battle royal” for the faith? Is the touchstone of our faith a mere one hundred years old?
Fundamentalism is changing. But what is the prospect for meaningful change? What is the prospect for meaningful change when fundamentalist Bible colleges and seminaries survey 2000 years of church history in one semester, or perhaps two? Is a fundamentalism that largely ignores the first 1900 years of the church’s existence worth saving or reclaiming? No. Not if the creed is right. Not if there really is only “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
For all the criticism about traditionalism, the failing of fundamentalism is that it has no tradition. Mr. Badger accurately diagnoses the problem: “They didn’t bother themselves about the past—they never do; they’re too busy.”2 The Ancient Christian Doctrine series is a helpful tool to redress this issue. For any pastor, educator, and Christian who desires grounding in the “one faith,” this five volume set cannot be ignored.
Angelo Di Berardino is president and professor of patrology at the Augustinian Patristic Institute (Augustinianum) in Rome. He is the editor or author of authoritative works on the early church including Encyclopedia of the Early Church and Patrology: The Eastern Fathers from the Council of Chalcedon to John of Damascus. He also serves as the Italian-language editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.
1 This illustrates a point that is made by dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists alike: everyone recognizes there are dispensations in Scripture—but recognizing dispensations does not make one a dispensationalist.
2 Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
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