Dr. Daniel Wallace has recently put up a blog post lamenting “Protestant Ecclesiology”. Of course, he starts off by affirming his Protestant identity: “I am unashamedly a Protestant. I believe in sola scriptura, sola fidei, solus Christus, and the rest. I am convinced that Luther was on to something when he articulated his view of justification succinctly: simul iustus et peccator (‘simultaneously justified and a sinner’).”
That’s a good start, to be sure. But then, he brings in a not very good concept when he says, “Jaroslav Pelikan had it right when he said that the Reformation was a tragic necessity. Protestants felt truth was to be prized over unity, but the follow-through was devastating. This same mindset began to infect all Protestant churches so that they continued to splinter off from each other. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of Protestant denominations. One doesn’t see this level of fracturing in either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Not even close.”
The real tragedy of the Reformation was not that “Protestants splintered”. The real tragedy of the Reformation was that Rome had become what it had become. The Protestants of the time didn’t “splinter”. They did what had to be done. They headed away from Rome. They were unified in their agreement: what the Roman Church had become was a tragedy.
While I greatly admire the work that Dr. Wallace has done regarding our understanding of the manuscripts of the New Testament, I tend to think that he has done a bad thing here, lamenting “Protestant Ecclesiology”. The Reformers did what they had to do at the time; the results are in the Lord’s hands.
Meanwhile, some of what he says, I think, is manifestly unhelpful.
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Dr. Wallace notes that “three events have especially caused me to reflect on my own ecclesiological situation and long for something different.” I’d like to take a look at these.
First, he cites a positive reaction from his associations with “Greek Orthodox folks”:
It doesn’t matter what Orthodox church or monastery I visit, I get the same message, the same liturgy, the same sense of the ‘holy other’ in our fellowship with the Triune God. The liturgy is precisely what bothers so many Protestants since their churches often try very hard to mute the voices from the past. “It’s just me and my Bible” is the motto of millions of evangelicals. They often intentionally forget the past two millennia and the possibility that the Spirit of God was working in the church during that time. Church history for all too many evangelicals does not start until Luther pounded that impressive parchment on the Schlosskirche door.
In Protestantism, one really doesn’t know what he or she will experience from church to church. Even churches of the same denomination are widely divergent. Some have a rock-solid proclamation of the Word, while others play games and woo sinners to join their ranks without even the slightest suggestion that they should repent of anything. Too many Protestant churches look like social clubs where the offense of the gospel has been diluted to feel-good psycho-theology. And the problem is only getting worse with mega-churches with their mini-theology. This ought not to be.
To be sure, I wish more Protestants had a firmer grasp of church history, prior to the Reformation. But that’s not to say that the sameness of Orthodox liturgy is always a good thing. God didn’t make two billion unique individuals only to paste them all into the same mold when it comes to worship. I admit that there’s some benefit to be gained from being able to see what a fourth century liturgy was like. But by the fourth century, Christian worship had already evolved a great deal from its first century origins (and from its second and third century struggles as well). Eastern Orthodoxy has its attractions, but it is wrong to focus on these without considering the doctrinal weaknesses that are inherent in that church as well.
Second, he points to a lack of accountability within some Protestant churches he has encountered:
a man whom I mentored years ago became a pastor of a non-denominational church. Recently and tragically, he denied the full deity of Christ and proclaimed that the Church had gotten it wrong since Nicea. He got in with a group of heretics who were very persuasive. The elders of the church had no recourse to any governing authority over the local church; they were the governing authority and they were not equipped to handle his heterodox teaching. It smelled wrong to them and they consulted me and another evangelical teacher for help. It took some time before they could show the pastor the door, and they were bewildered and troubled during the process. The congregation wasn’t sure which way was up. Doubts about the cornerstone of orthodoxy—the deity of Christ—arose. This cancer could have been cut out more swiftly and cleanly if the church was subordinate to a hierarchy that maintained true doctrine in its churches. And the damage would have been less severe and less traumatic for the church.
This is a tragedy, but again, even individuals who do have “a hierarchy that maintains true doctrine”. In fact, this man’s relatively swift exit from the church, at the hands of “the elders of the church”, may be seen as a blessing. Consider the anguish that someone like Peter Leithart, and a like-minded group in the Northwest Presbytery, is continuing to cause the PCA.
But worse than that, consider the ultimate “hierarchy that maintains true doctrine”, Rome. Consider how that “hierarchy” has gone off the rails, and the infinitely greater trouble it has caused the church of Christ than even that wrought by individuals like Leithart.
A more effective response to this would be to assure that not only elders, but whole congregations full of “non-denominational” Protestants, continue to understand Biblical teaching on “the full deity of Christ”.
Third, he appeals to “the shape of the canon in the ancient church”:
a book by David Dungan called Constantine’s Bible makes an astounding point about the shape of the canon in the ancient church. Dungan discusses the passage in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (6.12) when this church father famously spoke of four categories of literary candidates for the canon—homolegoumena, antilegomena, apocrypha, and pseudepigrapha. Dungan mentions that for Eusebius to speak of any books as homolegoumena—those twenty books that had universal consent in his day as canonical—he was speaking of an unbroken chain of bishops, from the first century to the fourth, who affirmed authorship and authenticity of such books. What is significant is that for the ancient church, canonicity was intrinsically linked to ecclesiology. It was the bishops rather than the congregations that gave their opinion of a book’s credentials. Not just any bishops, but bishops of the major sees of the ancient church. Dungan went on to say that Eusebius must have looked up the records in the church annals and could speak thus only on the basis of such records. If Dungan is right, then the issue of the authorship of certain books (most notably the seven disputed letters of Paul) is settled. And it’s settled by appeal to an ecclesiological structure that is other than what Protestants embrace. The irony is that today evangelicals especially argue for authenticity of the disputed letters of Paul, yet they are arguing with one hand tied behind their back. And it has been long noted that the weakest link in an evangelical bibliology is canonicity.
It’s on this score that I think Dr. Wallace’s comments are weakest. It’s been known and acknowledged many times that the “unbroken chain of bishops” that Eusebius was talking about, simply didn’t exist much further back than the middle of the second century. The “unbroken chain of bishops” was rather an apologetic tool, developed in the second century, to deal with growing Gnostic movements that were encroaching in various cities. Eusebius was merely looking to the status of the church in his day, and assuming that this existed all the way back to the first century.
As Jason Engwer has noted here (and others have noted elsewhere), “We have many lines of evidence for the widespread acceptance of the books of the Protestant canon, such as Eusebius' comments about the degree of acceptance of the books among the churches.” In fact, Oscar Cullmann wrote extensively about the relationship between “tradition” and the canon of the New Testament (see here and here, for example). Eusebius isn’t the only early church writer who talked about the canon. So Dungan’s point about “the shape of the canon in the ancient church” really isn’t “astounding”. It may be new to Dr. Wallace (though given his work in textual criticism, it’s hard to believe this concept is new to him), but the reality of it is that he is conflating a number of issues – “succession”, “canon”, early church ecclesiology, and other issues that require far more explanation than he can give in a short blog post by a single author.
Most importantly, for the canon of the New Testament, is something noted by Herman Ridderbos, and cited by Andreas Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger in their The Heresy of Orthodoxy, pg 171, citing Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, pg 25:
When understood in terms of the history of redemption, the canon cannot be open; in principle it must be closed. That follows directly from the unique and exclusive nature of the power of the apostles received from Christ and from the commission he gave to them to be witnesses to what they had seen and heard of the salvation he had brought. The result of this power and commission is the foundation of the church and the creation of the canon, and therefore these are naturally unrepeatable and exclusive in character.
As Ridderbos says, “The attempt to retain some form of ongoing oral tradition as a supplement to the written canon (as in Roman Catholicism) in fact relativizes the latter and makes illusory the church’s intention in adopting the canon in the first place. By accepting the canon, not only has the church distinguished canonical from noncanonical writings, but it has established in general the limits of what it is able to acknowledge as the apostolic canon. The written canon, then, is the boundary between the history of redemption and the history of the church” (26).
In other words, the fixing of the canon necessarily excludes from the “apostolic witness” what “the unbroken chain of bishops” proposes to bring to it. “The establishment of the Christian written canon indicates that the Church itself at a definite time drew a clear line of demarcation between the time of the apostles and the time of the church, between the time of the foundation and the time of the superstructure, between the apostolic church and the church of the bishops, between the short apostolic [tradition] and the ecclesiastical tradition. This occurrence would be meaningless if its significance were not the formation of the canon (citing Cullmann on Tradition).
In short, Dr. Wallace’s problems with Protestant ecclesiology aren’t solved by an appeal to Eusebius.