Rebuilding the Foundations
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This defense of David Bercot against an article by "JPH" on tektonics.org is written for the education and benefit of the reader of this article. I have been told JPH stands for James Patrick Holding. I am answering the article here for the sake of those interested in a defense.
I am not going to post this as a reply on tektonics.org because the nature of the article makes it clear that the writer is not interested in reason or truth, but is instead bent of defending his tradition. As Tertullian of Carthage put it some 1800 years ago, "controversy over the Scriptures [with heretics] can produce no other effect than to help upset either the stomach or the brain" (Prescription Against Heretics, ch. 16
As we get started, I remind you that the first paragraph of this article has a link to the article I am answering.
In the first three paragraphs, JPH gives a loose summary of David Bercot's book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. Apparently someone accused Bercot of saying the apostles' churches fell away immediately as the Mormons and a couple other groups claim. JPH clears Bercot of those charges. It is a pleasant and friendly start to an article in which he attempts to refute Bercot's main arguments.
JPH writes in a friendly tone throughout his refutation. There is no faulting him for his attitude.
Holding begins his refutation by discussing Bercot's argument that the early churches are much more likely to have pure doctrine than we are 20 centuries later. In paragraph 4, he writes:
Bercot's logic: These men were closer in time to the apostles, and closer in language, and closer in culture. Therefore their understanding of the Scriptures is more likely to be correct [101-2] and deserve scrutiny. (101-2 are pages in Bercot's book.)
In paragraph 5 JPH continues his refutation with the suggestion that the early fathers did not understand Jewish thinking.
This is just shy of irrelevant. If the Greek fathers did not understand Jewish thinking, which I suppose is possible, that would undermine their credibility a little bit. But that would only suggest what we already know. The Greek fathers are not the Scriptures, and we should examine what they say as well as find out what they say. Bercot must agree with this because he follows through with arguments from Scripture in defense of the various early Christian doctrines he covers.
I will add that it is questionable whether understanding Jewish thinking is important because the Jews, for the most part, rejected Jesus as the Christ. Paul tells us that a partial hardening came upon his race and that the Old Testament has become unveiled through Christ to Christians. The Jews, on the other hand, have a veil over their eyes until they come to Christ themselves (2 Cor. 3:14-16).
Either way, JPH goes on to prove either that he himself does not understand Jewish thinking or that Jewish thinking does not help because he butchers the Scriptures on the matter of baptism, as is the habit of evangelicals.
In paragraph 6, JPH undermines his own argument by choosing a topic on which he interprets the Scriptures terribly. Baptism is a subject on which the Scriptures are very clear, and JPH gets it wrong.
He argues that Bercot and the fathers interpret the Scriptures wrongly because of the rift between Jewish thinking and the "pagan thinking" (par. 5) of the early church fathers. The problem is, he chooses verses which clearly say what Bercot and the early Christians say, and which clearly refute what he himself teaches no matter what mindset one adopts.
Here's what he writes, and his confusion is deep that he jumps straight from a comment about faith and works to baptism, a subject completely unrelated to faith and works:
Where this shows most deeply is in Bercot's attempt to understand the relationship between faith and works. He makes the same errors concerning baptism that we have covered in Link 1 below -- including the same false interpretations of John 3:5, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, Acts 2:38, and 1 Peter 3:21. His justification for these interpretations is no more or less than that it was how the patristic writers interpreted these verses. (par 6)
I included his link in that quote so that you can read for yourself the different ways that he twists what those five verses say. Basically, his link begins by using verses on faith to decide what he will believe about baptism, then concludes by doing everything he can to twist what the baptism verses say. His rejection of the plain meaning of these verses on baptism are the standard among evangelicals.
No particular insight of understanding of Judaism is needed to understand what John 3:5, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, Acts 2:38, and 1 Peter 3:21 say.
The evangelical doctrine that leads to rejecting the obvious meaning of the many New Testament verses on baptism is known as "salvation by faith alone." We will discuss that below because it comes up in JPH's article.
At this point, I ask you simply to read the five verses I just covered, then read the Book of Acts. You will see the apostles applying the truth of those passages by immediately baptizing everyone who hears the Gospel. The evangelical attempts to twist all this are simply too absurd to require an answer.
CAVEAT: I am not saying baptism saves by itself, apart from faith. Baptism is the response that the Bible calls for from those who hear and believe the Gospel. Thus, when someone hears the Gospel and responds by being baptized, they are saved. In their confusion, evangelicals have replaced baptism with the "sinner's prayer," so they have to relegate it to some other role. They have chosen "public testimony of conversion" to be the new role of baptism, but a simple reading of Acts shows that the apostles baptized immediately and without an audience (e.g., Acts 16:25-35, where the jailer's family was baptized at home between midnight and morning).
From my perspective, it seems God has often (occasionally?) honored the sinner's prayer by saving believing persons who did not know about or understand baptism. I think that it is obvious that many who have been baptized against the pattern of Scripture, as merely a public testimony, have nonetheless received the Holy Spirit and lived holy lives. However, the fact that God has shown mercy, overlooked the evangelicals' ignorance about baptism, and saved people anyway does not give JPH license to trample on Scripture and try to make those five verses say something other than what they say.
I remember what Bercot said in regard to John 3:5 in Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up. I read the book several times in the 1990's. Bercot said that if John 3:5 was not referring to baptism, then Jesus was a terrible communicator because everyone believed that he meant baptism for the next 1500 years.
That is not just a good point, it is a winning point. Anyone who opposed his point should be embarrassed. It is a testament to the corrupted reason and logic of evangelicals that they keep arguing against such excellent reasoning anyway. They are not ashamed to say—or in this case, write—the most outlandish things as though they were reasonable.
JPH's next point is that the existence of early heretics disproves Bercot's assertion that Christians nearest the time of Christ are much more likely to be interpreting the Bible correctly.
But if Bercot wants to use the "closer is better" argument, then how would he respond to someone who said that heretics were equally close in time and culture? He acknowledges that waywards like the Gnostics existed, but does not seem to grasp how his own argument is refuted by their existence. (par. 7)
There is a huge difference between the early church fathers and the gnostics. Gnostic teacherss made no claim to be holding to the teachings of the apostles or the Scriptures. In fact, the gnostics claimed to be wiser than the apostles. As Irenaeus of Lyons said about them:
But, again, when we refer [the gnostics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 2, par. 2)
You can learn about the Demiurge and the Pleroma at my Christian history site. It is enough to know that the gnostics rejected the authority of the apostles and Jesus. They claimed that they received secret truths passed down from Mary Magdalene or Lazarus or some other secondary follower of Christ. The apostles, they taught, were only given the truths that Jesus wanted entrusted to the public. This allowed the gnostic teachers to make up any doctrine and claim that it was revealed from the true God.
The early churches were not like the gnostics. The churches that the early church fathers belonged to were strongly apostolic, and they held to a rule of faith that they believed was delivered by the apostles. We make the same claim to be following the apostles today, but we are so divided and so distant from the apostles that our claim can easily be dismissed.
The early churches were united. They agreed on all the central doctrines. They claimed that they agreed because all the apostles agreed. They claimed that Mark gave the Gospel to the Alexandrians, Peter and Paul to the Romans, Thaddeus to the Syrians, John to Asia Minor, and all the churches of all these areas now preached and held to the same truths because they had carefully preserved them (e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. I, ch. 10).
There is no comparison between the early fathers and the gnostics. The early fathers were doing everything they could to preserve the teaching of the apostles, while the gnostics were trying to overthrow them.
JPH returns to the Jewish vs. Greek thinking on the subject of swearing and capital punishment. He has already proven that his claimed Jewish thinking cannot help him understand plain scriptural teaching on baptism, so we will forego addressing these other two subjects.
In paragraphs 10-13, JPH complains about Bercot's disdain for modern seminaries and other parts of evangelical tradition. It follows that those of us who reject evangelical traditions would have disdain for the institutions that teach them, so this is irrelevant. Not only that, but JPH has "sympathy for Bercot's position" (par. 13).
JPH further exposes his ignorance of the fathers themselves by referencing a "helpful reader" who him this argument. He lists three "problem" beliefs of the early church fathers.
I am not at all convinced, and no one has ever produced a valid quote for me, that Clement of Alexandria suggested or believed in salvation after death. Origen most certainly did, but he does not appeal to apostolic tradition. Instead, he relies on some very unusual interpretations of Scripture (De Principiis, Bk. I, ch. 6).
I left this note in to tell you how I found the reference for Origen's discussion of universal reconciliation. Usually, I search my PDF's of the Ante-Nicene Fathers 10-volume set and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 38-volume set. I could not think of good search terms, however, as Origen does not specifically say "universal reconciliation" or "universal salvation." I asked for help in the "Patristics for Protestants" Facebook Group, a place that can be a big help to any of you that might be interested in the early church fathers. Most of those who write there have, like me, actually read the writings in those volumes (or at least some of them). A fellow named Jacob Syme came through for me. I have never met him, nor even conversed with him online. I love the power of social media when it is rightly used.
Of course, neither Bercot nor anyone else has every claimed that every individual early church father was accurate in everything they wrote. That would turn their writings into Scripture, and neither David Bercot nor anyone else accepts the early church fathers as Scripture.
Origen's speculations actually become even greater proof of the power of the apostles' traditions in the early churches because on the subjects covered in Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up Origen was right with everyone else. Even Origen's wild speculations were careful not to transgress the rule of faith that had been handed down in the churches for the previous 150 years.
Bercot's aim was not to make prophets or apostles out of the early church fathers, but to find the places where they agreed. He compared the writings of nine early Christians in his book. If at least five of them agreed on something with no opposition from the others, then he wrote about it.
The fact that Origen had a bizarre understanding of the eternal purposes of God does not negate Bercot's argument. Bercot was focused on their areas of agreement, and Origen was in agreement on all the doctrines Bercot touched on in his book. In the same way, the fact that Irenaeus thought Jesus lived to be over 50 does not negate Bercot's argument.
The second of those "problem beliefs" is not even correct. The Shepherd of Hermas says that there is only one repentance after baptism for those that have committed major sins like adultery. It reads:
[The Angel of Repentance speaking] "And therefore I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail; for with difficulty will he live." (Commandment IV, chapter III)
What The Shepherd of Hermas is saying here is that all sinners can be forgiven once at baptism, and then if they return to a major sin while a Christian in the church, they should be granted only one repentance. The second time they commit adultery or return to lascivious living, there is no coming back.
The book does have Hermas saying that some teachers don't allow any other repentance other than one's original baptism (ibid.). These teachers are unnamed, and no one knows who they are.
The Shepherd of Hermas belongs to the mid-second century. Not long after, the Montanists came along, who were extremely ascetic. They definitely denied any repentance for major sins like adultery and murder after baptism, but they were heretics, put out of the church for their false prophecies.
Later, in the third century, the Novatians and Donatists taught the same. They had a reason for their doctrine, which is that they were perturbed about Christians who lapsed during persecution being readmitted to the churches after a time of penance. They, like the Montanists, determined that not only lapsing during persecution, but other major sins, should not be forgiven by the church. Again, they had to leave the apostolic churches in order to take that stance. It was not allowed within the churches of the apostles, who sought diligently to maintain a heavenly balance between mercy and the medicine of censure (Church of Rome presbytery, Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle 30, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V)
So yes, the idea that Christians could be excommunicated without any possibility of repentance was taught by groups like the Montanists, but the apostolic churches stood strongly against these severed groups.
You can see the conflict between the Montanists and the churches of the apostles in the writings of Tertullian, who wrote from about AD 190-210. He was drawn to Montanism at some point because he liked their strictness. He argued against the right of the apostolic churches to forgive sins because he disagreed with their practice of readmitting those who had committed adultery (On Modesty, chs. 20-21)).
That said, the real point here is that Bercot's argument is that the early churches strongly held to a rule of faith and to some central doctrines that they all agreed on. He addresses those doctrines and those only in his book. The fact that some early Christians speculated on other subjects is irrelevant to the point that on major doctrines the early churches agreed.
Again, I want to point out that the position of the early churches was that their job was to receive and preserve the teachings of the apostles, which is also preserved in the Scriptures. One of their biggest arguments was that each of the churches founded by the apostles had individually preserved the teachings received by their founder. When churches from Gaul to Persia and south into the Middle East and Africa all agree on the basics that the apostles taught, it is because they all preserved truth from the apostles. There is no other explanation. This is argued clearly in Against Heresies, written by Irenaeus of Lyons around AD 185, Book III and chapters 1-4 (click the links to read all the chapters). It is also argued in Tertullian's Prescription Against Heretics, ch. 28, written a couple decades later.
In paragraph 17, JPH says this about faith and works in the fathers:
It's true that many church fathers advocated some type of salvation through works, but not all of them did. Clement of Rome and Mathetes explicitly and repeatedly advocate concepts such as sola fide and the substitutionary righteousness of Christ. They never even mention baptism in their discussions of salvation. There was no one view of salvation held by all of the church fathers.
None of this paragraph is true. It is true that it is possible to snatch passages here and there from the fathers to make them appear to say what they do not say. This can be done on any subject and with any group of writings. It is called "quote mining" and it is a common practice of the intellectually dishonest.
Quote miners, however, only deceive the ignorant. Those who have actually read the church fathers are not fooled, however.
The church fathers were agreed on salvation and the role of faith and works in that salvation. It is only by digging down into inconsequential details that one could say the fathers disagreed on salvation.
That said, let's show that JPH's claim above is inaccurate.
Clement, as bishop of Rome in the first century, wrote one of the most authoratitive letters of the fathers around AD 95 to the church at Corinth. As pointed out by JPH, it does indeed say:
And we, too, being called by his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have done in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men. (1 Clement, ch. 32)
However, he also says:
Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those that wait for Him, in order that we may share in His promised gifts. But how, beloved, shall this be done? If our understanding be fixed by faith towards God; if we earnestly seek the things which are pleasing and acceptable to Him; if we do the things which are in harmony with His blameless will; and if we follow the way of truth, casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity, along with all covetousness, strife, evil practices, deceit, whispering, and evil-speaking, all hatred of God, pride and haughtiness, vainglory and ambition. (ibid., ch. 35)
If you were to read the first two chapters of Polycarp's letter to the Philippians, written at most a few decades after Clement's letter, you would find the same maddening contrast right at the start of his letter. In chapter one, he says that we rejoice because we are saved by faith apart from works, but in the second chapter he says that God will only raise us up if we keep his commandments and do his will.
JPH wrote that later fathers, like John Chrysostom, seemed to advocate sola fide (salvation by faith alone) and salvation by works (par. 18). The truth is all the fathers advocate both sola fide and salvation by works. Doesn't Paul do the same, saying in Romans 3:28 that we are saved by faith apart from works, but then telling us in Romans 8:13 that we will perish if we don't put the deeds of the body to death? Isn't he advocating both faith alone and salvation by works in Ephesians 2:8 and 5:3-7?
This is because sola fide and salvation by works are both true. We are born again by faith apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9), thus becoming equipped to do good works (Eph. 2:10). We then live by faith and the Holy Spirit so that we actually do good works, by which we will be judged on the last day (1 Pet. 1:17; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-7).
Galatians 6:7-9 is a microcosm of the truth that we are saved by faith alone, live by the Holy Spirit, and then are judged by works. 2 Peter 1:3-11 gives that truth in 9 verses. Romans 7:18-8:13 gives that truth in about 20 verses. Each of those show a clear pattern:
Again the three passages above clearly describe that pattern of salvation. Writers like Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and John Chrysostom, along with Paul, Peter, and James, are simply all declaring that same pattern. Sometimes they talk only about our past conversion, and they say salvation is by faith alone. Sometimes they look at the judgment and say salvation is by works. Sometimes they look at the whole pattern, and they say, "You see then that a man is justified by works and not faith only" (Jas. 2:24)
The last point we must cover is all the quotes from the early Christians that JPH cites at the end. These quotes show that early Christians thought the Scriptures were plain enough to be understood on their own.
That is indeed what the early church fathers taught. There is no reason to object to their quotes. One of them, by John Chrysostom, says, "The necessary things are all plain." True!
However, JPH's rejection of John 3:5, Titus 3:5, Acts 2:38 and other verses on baptism establishes the problem that we need the early church fathers to resolve. Evangelicals are generally too bound to tradition to accept the plain, easily understandable words of Scripture. It is one thing to understand Scripture; it is another to be able to accept its plain meaning when it is understood. JPH has given a great display of the way in which evangelicals explain away the plain meaning of Scripture in order to justify their traditions.
Thus it is not the church fathers whose traditions lead them away from the plain meaning of Scripture; instead, it is the evangelicals who refuse to believe the plain statements of Scripture.