Book Review - We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (Ancient Christian Doctrine)

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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. 


Notes

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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There are 8 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Brad, I appreciate the review and your attention to how the volume might speak to fundamentalists and dispensationalists.
But there are some inaccurate generalizations in the review I'd like to remark on.

First, it isn't self-evident that belief in "one holy catholic and apostolic church" excludes belief that Israel and the church are distinct peoples of God. Careful attention to how we define these terms--and how they were defined (not all that precisely) when the creed was written--shows that these ideas are not incompatible. Others could do a much better job of unpacking that thoroughly, but for now let's just point out that even dispensationalists believe that peoples of God are subsets of something else--and that this something else is "one." That is, OT and NT believers are species of a genus. I'm pretty sure many non-dispensationalists also distinguish in various ways between OT believers and NT believers. I wonder if the ancient fathers explicitly denied that OT believers and NT believers were distinct groups in some ways (while being in the same group in other ways). Some distinctions are implicit. For example, how could the OT believers be characterized as "apostolic"?

Anyway, my point is that "church" in the creed is clearly meant in either in the broadest sense (all who believe) or in the broadest NT sense ("apostolic") and in either of these senses, there is indeed "one." I don't think dispensationalists in general really have any problem with that.

Second, there is no contradiction between the idea of independent churches and the one apostolic and catholic (small c) church. Most who believe in independent churches also believe in the universal church and that local congregations are expressions of that universal church. "Independent" has only to do with how the decisions are made that govern that local congregation's affairs. Only the error of Landmarkism rejects the oneness of the church as a whole.
(And really, those who don't believe in independent churches are no better off. Unless they are prepared to say all other denominations are apostate and not the church at all, they have to grant that independent denominations are compatible with belief in one holy catholic and apostolic church.)

Third, you've misunderstood Bauder's (and others'?) appeals to boyhood experiences of fundamentalism. The argument for a fundamentalism worth saving is not "We need to save the kind of fundamentalism the good pastors of my childhood invented." Rather, the argument is more like, "We need to save the kind of fundamentalism the good pastors of my childhood demonstrated--a fundamentalism that had been around a good bit longer and that continued the spirit of contending for the faith that had gone on for millennia."
Your contrast between ancient warriors of the faith who "did battle royal" and the fundamentalists who did battle royal is puzzling. Are you denying that the fundamentalists who began the movement did real battle for the faith? Nobody is saying the guys who fought the battles of the early twentieth century are "better" than the guys who fought heresy in the early centuries of the church (well, almost nobody... this is not a majority attitude). But they did indeed fight for core doctrines of the faith as truly as the ancient fathers. Because modernism/theo. liberalism was attacking a broad swath of principles, they had to fight for quite a few doctrines all at once.

Fourth, I know of very few dispensationalists who make belief in dispensationalism a true "test of fellowship." (Actually, I think I know of only one, and I didn't get a chance to find out exactly what he meant.) Of course many dispensationalists would limit cooperation (i.e. fellowship) in various ways, depending on the project. It would be difficult to have a joint end times conference with amillennialists and premillennialists, for example. And I'm pretty sure most non-dispensationalist schools are as reluctant to hire dispensationalists as the disp. schools are to hire covenant theologians! This is not a fundamentalist or dispensationalist problem.

All of that said, I think the call to stop neglecting history in fundamentalist institutions is well founded... and my impression is that corrections to that neglect are already well underway. I think we need to stop neglecting it in our local churches as well (which I'm happy to say is no longer happening at Grace. We've been in the middle ages for a couple of months now in Sunday School).

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Brad Kelly's picture

Aaron,

Thanks again for the chance to review these volumes. My wife thanks you too since I did not have to spend the $40 per book I probably otherwise would have! Thank you as well for the push-back.

Quote:
First, it isn't self-evident that belief in "one holy catholic and apostolic church" excludes belief that Israel and the church are distinct peoples of God.

You are right that a discussion of the church and Israel requires careful definition. But I still think my reading of the historical and biblical data points to the fact that there are not two peoples of God. Looking in the future, how does any Israelite now or evermore obtain salvation? Is it by any other way than faith in Christ? Looking to the present, what does it mean that believers are the sons of Abraham? Looking to the past, what is the significance of the statement that Old Testament believers were not made perfect apart from us?

Quote:
Second, there is no contradiction between the idea of independent churches and the one apostolic and catholic (small c) church.

Another issue that requires careful thought- there are so many like this covered by the 5th volume! It is certain that the Bible presents a local church and a universal church. If I were more careful, I would have stated the problem is on emphasis. Go too far either way and you are going to fall off the path. It is well and good to say that Independent Fundamental Baptist churches believe in the universal church, but in what ways is this belief demonstrated? Can IFB churches in the same city that do nothing to cooperate or fellowship really say they believe in the communion of saints? I'm not sure in what way they can.

Quote:
Third...Are you denying that the fundamentalists who began the movement did real battle for the faith?

Not at all. Yet, I am working from a shoddy memory here, I don't think either of the good doctors appealed to such men. Did they refer to any of the contributors to The Fundamentals or men of that era? I don't recall. (And thank you for making the effort to republish The Fundamentals on SI- that is a good work and just the sort of thing that is needed.) In any even, such a discussion can quickly devolve into an "I follow Cephas, I follow Apollos" debacle. I guess my point is that in an argument to sustain and continue the fundamentalist movement more profound illustrations could have been mined.

Quote:
Fourth, I know of very few dispensationalists who make belief in dispensationalism a true "test of fellowship."

I think a lot could be said about this subject as well. Your paragraph is an accurate description of the way things are, but should they be? Why shouldn't amillennialists and premillennialists (and even posties!) have joint prophecy conferences? If we are really concerned for the truth, shouldn't we be talking with one another? If we want to believe and defend the truth I would like to be pretty sure it is indeed the truth I am believing and defending! Do we hold the truth or does the truth hold us? In what ways can we fellowship but not cooperate? If someone is told they can't teach or worship at a certain place because they don't hold to a particular interpretive grid or end-time scenario, how much solace does "fellowship but not cooperate" hold?

Again, I thank you for the chance to review the books and for the interaction. While some of these things are probably too big for internet forum debate, the discussion should be had. And I do think you are right...I think there are glimmers of hope.

Grace & Peace

Charlie's picture

Thanks for your review. I do wish that you had devoted more space up front to the actual contents and approach of the work, and then given your reflections on its application.

One of the insights that emerged in the mature Reformation is that the true church is not primitivist. A primitivist has a church history that goes like this: Apostles----ruinous apostasy----my group. A bit suspect, if you ask me. The Reformation, on the other hand, is the story of groups of people who acknowledged both their unbreakable tie and debt to the generations before them, and the necessity of a critical reception of all that material. After the first generation of Reformers, even medieval scholasticism was viewed as a resource to be critically appropriated.

Even if one does not accept the conclusion that the historic, universal church militates against independent churches and dispensationalism, it's quite obvious that those from a dispensationalist and independent church background don't really know what to do with church history. There are few who even bother to work in the area, fewer still who do it well. Even then, their interests and approaches to the figures are usually uncommonly narrow or pragmatic. It's also been my experience that most from this background, even if they do manage to learn some history, have a hard time integrating it in a meaningful way into their contemporary theological enterprise. I don't think the disconnect between history and theology is accidental.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Bob Hayton's picture

[img=500x397 ]http://www.fundamentallyreformed.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/TomsDoub... ]

Sorry, I couldn't help but post this cartoon. It's funny but raises a good point. If we really believe Matthew 28:19-20 and Matthew 16:18, we can't act like what's in the picture is really true. Yet this is how so many tend to operate (if not explicitly they do so implicitly). I guess the Baptist version of this posits a mysterious invisible thread that goes through all of this back to Christ - but that is historically dubious at best.

I do think Brad overdoes some of his criticisms, but the framers of the Creed saw no die hard distinctions between the OT people of God and the church - at least not to the degree that dispensationalists do. What does belief in the one holy catholic and apostolic church really imply for our practice today? What should it teach us. I don't think Brad explains what exactly it does - and I think that is a great question we all should explore more. I think the NT picture of churches is one of interdependency rather than independence (of the sort we have today). And Brad's rejoinder that there are often 2 independent Baptist churches in one town who have nothing to do with the other (yet claim to believe in the universal church) is spot on. We take the Biblical commands for unity (seen in the texts in my tagline at the bottom of my posts) and then just ignore them, focusing instead on the cautions against yoking up with error. We can't focus on one without the other. Shouldn't injunctions to have meaningful unity or to maintain meaningful unity mean something? Far too often, we have 3, 4, 5 or even more independent churches having nothing to do with one another in any kind of practical way.

Full-sized version of the picture http://www.fundamentallyreformed.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/TomsDoub... ]here . I commented on this and gave the credit to the artist http://www.fundamentallyreformed.com/2011/10/10/monday-morning-humor/ here .

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Bob Hayton wrote:

Sorry, I couldn't help but post this cartoon. It's funny but raises a good point. If we really believe Matthew 28:19-20 and Matthew 16:18, we can't act like what's in the picture is really true. Yet this is how so many tend to operate (if not explicitly they do so implicitly). I guess the Baptist version of this posits a mysterious invisible thread that goes through all of this back to Christ - but that is historically dubious at best.

The curse of the 21st century- I saw the cartoon and had to share it on FB!

removed_jh's picture

So many things to think on and study ... but one question comes to mind. Is it the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth ... or just ... the early church or first few hundred years?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Two points worth following up on in Brad's response above...

Brad wrote:
You are right that a discussion of the church and Israel requires careful definition. But I still think my reading of the historical and biblical data points to the fact that there are not two peoples of God. Looking in the future, how does any Israelite now or evermore obtain salvation? Is it by any other way than faith in Christ? Looking to the present, what does it mean that believers are the sons of Abraham? Looking to the past, what is the significance of the statement that Old Testament believers were not made perfect apart from us?

Many dispensationalists have worked through these questions in the past and there are several ways of answering them. Dispensationalists as a whole do not teach that salvation has ever come any other way than by faith, though I've seen a few use language that could be taken that way.
But the point remains that just about everybody believes NT believers are distinct from OT believers in several ways... and the creed still describes it's "church" as "apostolic."

Brad wrote:
It is well and good to say that Independent Fundamental Baptist churches believe in the universal church, but in what ways is this belief demonstrated? Can IFB churches in the same city that do nothing to cooperate or fellowship really say they believe in the communion of saints? I'm not sure in what way they can.

You seem to be assuming that the unity of believers must be visible in some way in order to exist or that belief in this unity must be demonstrated in order to be real. I don't think either of those premises is very strong.
I'd argue further that several churches working together in a city or region also fails to visibly demonstrate unity with the universal church. Hard to say what sort of activity would visualize unity with all believers everywhere.... except maybe biblical worship of God that happens when the group gathers. Smile
(I think Eph. 4 explains where the real unity lies and Who is able to see it)

Edit to add... the church is the pillar and ground in so far as it faithfully passes on the apostolic teaching, which we have in perfect form in Scripture. So, to sort of work the analogy a bit, the church is pillar and ground but the Scriptures are the stone and dirt, the substance without which there is no real pillar or ground.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Brad Kelly's picture

Jeffrey,

Quote:
Is it the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth ... or just ... the early church or first few hundred years?

I would say neither. And both. If the church is a building can the modern church afford to completely ignore the early church? What are we built on? Can we legitimately claim to be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with no intervening stories?

To put it another way...what would Justin Martyr say if he walked in to your church service this Sunday? Would he recognize it as a Christian worship service?

What would Tertullian say if he attended a chapel service devoted to the discipleship merits of March Madness? Presuming he was able to speak after the apoplectic shock.

And why would I mention Justin and Tertullian in connection with worship and entertainments? What is their significance to such things?

Why wouldn't we consider, or why shouldn't we consider the probable opinions of such men? If we have license to ignore such considerations, for how long into history does such license extend?

My personal opinion is that belief in "one church" means I should care about what that one church has believed and practiced throughout its history, and if I do not have such concern I am not sure how I can claim to believe in one church.

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