Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dr Wallace’s Problems with Protestant Ecclesiology

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.

* * *

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—homolegoumenaantilegomenaapocrypha, 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.


  1. Dan Wallace is the man when it comes to text criticism!

    But this other stuff, while not totally egregious, is not all that good.

    Thanks for the post, John!

  2. Dr Wallace is very influential, and there are commenters on this site now saying, "How could the Spirit allow the Church to become so "catholic" so quickly if this were not authentic apostolic Christianity?"

    Well, it was a pagan interest that enabled the church to become so "catholic" so quickly. And that's not good either. We need to be discerning.

  3. Yeah well, if a guy as smart and as well informed as Dr Wallace thinks different to you, your position can't be that convincing.

  4. How can anyone make a definitive appeal to the early church? The only definitive early church we can appeal to is the one described in the book of Acts and the one addressed in the Epistles.

  5. I am contemplating teaching a course on church history at the church I pastor. Does anyone recommend a good lay text book? Also, is anyone familiar with a good DVD series on church history?

  6. MSC,

    For a broad overview:

    1. Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995).

    2. Justo González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 and 2, (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

    3.Mark Galli and Ted Olson, eds., 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2000).

    #3 includes more than just traditional church history. The brief biographies are helpful sketches of important figures.

    For more advanced reading:

    4. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978).

    Kelly also has a nice work on the Popes.

    5. Henry Bettenson and Christ Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

    6. Hugh Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).

    For material on the Reformers, I have enjoyed Dillenberger. James Swan over at Beggars All can recommend better sources.

    I'd also ask Jason Engwer for additional suggestions.

  7. Hey John Bugay, I was the poster who wrote that the Early Church was "catholic" (not RC, mind you). We see in the disciples of the Disciples such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, both from the First Century, a belief in the sacraments including a "high" view of the Eucharist, apostolic succession, episcopal ecclesiology and liturgy. Are you suggesting these "catholic" elements were actually "pagan". Were Clement and Ignatius therefore "pagan". If so, why did Christian everywhere, filled with the Spirit of Truth, embrace their teaching?

    I have never seen a serious patristic scholar such as J.N.D. Kelly suggest what you are arguing.

  8. Hi Todd, thanks for your comments.

    We see in the disciples of the Disciples such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, both from the First Century, a belief in the sacraments including a "high" view of the Eucharist, apostolic succession, episcopal ecclesiology and liturgy.

    I'm not sure about the ecclesiology. It seems in the earliest documents that the church was much more democratic (Didache and Clement both discussing what appear to be popular elections of rulers), and that the episcopal government arose later, due to various sociological circumstances (efficiency of Roman government, prominence of urban centers and their churches, rise of Islam in ruining the Eastern churches, etc.).

    (Of course, sophisticated proponents of episcopal government certainly argue that God used and ordained the sociological factors.)

    Are you suggesting these "catholic" elements were actually "pagan". Were Clement and Ignatius therefore "pagan". If so, why did Christian everywhere, filled with the Spirit of Truth, embrace their teaching?

    I'll let John address whether these were "pagan" or not.

    I don't think we can conclude, however, from just what a handful of church fathers wrote in the first and second century, that this was what Christians "everywhere, filled with the Spirit of Truth" believed and embraced.

    We don't know what many of the earliest Christians believed. What one small set of learned, literate, elite Christians believed does not necessary tell us what other Christians, especially those without any written documents or evidence, believed. The earliest church documents are neither geographically nor socially representative of the Christians we know existed at the time. Inferences about the whole population are problematic.

  9. 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.

    It certainly does matter what century one is in, unless Dr. Wallace thinks that liturgy in an Orthodox Church hasn't changed over 2000 years.

    Monolithic liturgy is a myth.

  10. Thanks to Matthew for his great suggestions on church history.

    A couple I have found helpful are

    Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity: Volume I: to A.D. 1500. San Francisco. HarperSanFrancisco. 1975.

    (Latourette also has a second volume covering 1500 forward.)

    MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: the first three thousand years. Pengiun Group; New York. 2009

    And, of course, Paul Johnson's "History of Christianity" is always a good start.

    I found Johnson's book fairly fast paced so that one did not easily get bogged down.

    And I've just ordered F.F.Bruce's "New Testament History". As it hasn't arrived I could only vouch for it based on his reputation.

    I'm glad to find the offerings of others here, too.


  11. Hi Constantine -- Bruce's New Testament History was a required text for a fabulous course (offered through Covenant Seminary), "New Testament History and Theology". I haven't read the whole thing, but I've read big chunks of it, and cited some pieces of it, and it lives up to his reputation.

  12. Hi Eric Todd, thanks for stopping by. I'd like to give you just a couple of quotes. I've been reading about this, and I plan to write about it in more detail, but I'll put this up here for you to consider:

    Marshall, I.H., "Luke: Historian And Theologian", Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, © 1970, 1979, 1988:

    The term “early catholic” requires some clarification. A number of writers have argued that in the later books of the New Testament there is a growth towards the type of Christianity found in the second century and later in which a great significance is attached to the church as an organized institution with fixed orders of ministry and carefully regulated sacramental practice. This institution dispenses salvation and stands over against any other groups which offer salvation on different terms. It is the church assuming a settled existence and establishing its place over against such heresies as Gnosticism (81).

    In Acts, there is no special stress on the church as an institution. Men became believers through hearing the word and responding to it. What matters here is not the activity of the church but the truth of the message. It is continuity with the apostolic teaching that is of supreme significance. For Luke this is preserved by a continuity within the church. The church sends out its missionaries and confirms the work of those already engaged in preaching the word. Thus the mission in Samaria is legitimated by the apostles, and the work in Antioch is confirmed by Barnabas (Acts 11:22f.), who was not one of the Twelve but was an apostle in the same sense as Paul (Acts 14:4). The church at Jerusalem is represented as having authority over the missionary churches to whom it sent its decree (Acts 15:22-29; 16:4), but it is not clear how Luke conceived of this authority in detail; it is noteworthy that the council at Jerusalem was held at the instigation of the church in Antioch, and that its purpose was to correct the false impression given by unauthorized men claiming to represent the church at Jerusalem (212).

    … Luke reflects the early period when Jerusalem was thought of at the centre of the church. Later the mission churches became increasingly independent. What matters for Luke is not so much the church itself as the apostles who were guardians of its doctrine.

    The church of Luke cannot be said to dispense salvation by means of the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is not in Luke a means of salvation but a fellowship meal in which the Lord’s death was remembered. Baptism is the outward sign of receiving the Spirit and becoming a Christian, but Luke demonstrates plainly that the reception of the Spirit was not rigidly tied to baptism …

    It is also of course true that Luke assumes converts will join the church. The function of water-baptism is precisely this. But again there is nothing that smacks of “early Catholicism” in this, for there is no evidence that in the apostolic period any other understanding was ever entertained. To be a Christian was to be a member of the church. What matters for Luke is that Christians come together and share in the common life of the church – in fellowship, in prayer and in mission. Consequently, the term “the Way” which he has taken over as his characteristic description of the church appears to refer both to the teaching of the church and to the members. These are the two things which are important for Luke. It is the apostolic teaching which constitutes the church. And if there is no salvation
    extra ecclesiam it is not because the church possesses the gospel but because salvation is through Christ and His word is committed to the apostles. … (212-215)


  13. Marshall (and others) work through Acts exegetically and come to the conclusion that there is no "early catholicism" in Acts.

    Allen Brent, "Ignatius", talks about the notion of "catholic church":

    Ignatius nevertheless envisages his individual churches united in a "common name" and also a "common ministry", with both "homonoia" uniting them internally and also externally between churches who share that name and ministry as "extending throughout the world". This English phrase is expressed by one word in Greek, "katholikos", from which our word "catholic" is derived. ...

    As we shall see later, if the letters of the middle recension are genuine, Ignatius is using here for the first time the expression "catholic church". Our argument has been that this expression has been developed by an Ignatius who breathes the air of the pagan political culture of his own time, which has an impetus to create a collective and international identity for Hellenistic city-states endeavouring to define their cultural ideal over against the imperial power. Ignatius' imperative for Christian unity mirrors the political imperatives of his pagan contemporaries.

    We have already mentioned more than once the role of pagan religion in asserting and celebrating the universal definition of Hellenic identiy. The panhellenion involved a temple to Zeus Panhellenios and the celebration of rites in his honor, over which the emperor Hadrian presided. But we have also noted Hadrian's similar association with mystery cults such as those of Dionysius, and of an international association and of participants in those rites. These too expressed the life of the city-state, since their magnificent processions would be witnesssed as a great cultural event by all citizens immediately prior to their entrance into the shrine where the secret rites of the initiation were performed." (69-70)

    These are of course the city-state "gods" and even household "gods".

    Everett Ferguson (Backgrounds of Early Christianity) notes that "the martyrs and the saints received the homage once given to the heroes and nature and household spirits (gods). The similarity between the cult of heroes and spirits in ancient Greece and Rome and the cult of saints in medieval Christendom (Roman and Greek) has often been observed. The old hung on: ... When Christianity replaced paganism, the saints took over the functions of the specialized local deities (182).

    So from Acts (Marshall, above), where there is no syncretism with paganism (no "early catholicism", to Brent writing about Ignatius's almost infatuation with the pagan rites, to their wholesale adoption, is a period of several hundred years. But the scholarship is at a point now that will fill, and is filling in, all of the gaps. We have a very clear picture of how the early church adopted the cultural paganism, and how that became "catholic".

    Of course, you may protest, that this is very incomplete. But this account is becoming more complete as we sit here at our computers.

    If you are a person who desires to follow the Living God, consider how he admonished the Israelites not to mix or intermarry with the local cultures. They were to remain separate.

    I don't have all the details filled in. But they are there and they are filling in, and we'll see it sooner rather than later, I am sure.

  14. John, you write, "Dr. Wallace’s problems with Protestant ecclesiology aren’t solved by an appeal to Eusebius." To that I would add that they are not solved by appeals to Greek Orthodoxy or ecclesiastical hierarchy. There were some real problems mentioned, but they were not approached with biblical solutions. A belief in sola scriptura requires a biblical response.

    Thanks for your post.

  15. Eric Todd,

    Many of our posts at this blog have addressed patristic Christianity. We've provided a lot of documentation that the patristic Christians widely contradicted Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. See here. Those posts include documentation of patristic support for Protestant beliefs.

  16. I've posted some replies in the thread at Daniel Wallace's blog. The posts are awaiting moderation, but should be up soon.

  17. Lots of interesting views on this page. I wish I had time to engage with some of you, which I do not.

    I am encouraged that Evangelicals like you are reading the Early Church Fathers. As for those of you who adduce them to buttress certain idiosyncratic Protestant beliefs not consistent with orthodox Christianity, I would respond that the Church has always been challenged by heterodoxy and that Christian orthodoxy is not found in any one Father, but rather in the consensus of the Fathers, in the Creeds, Ecumenical Councils, early Church liturgies, art and icons and, most infallibly, in Scripture. These provide an objective, consistent witness of Apostolic Christianity and help us understand the “essentials” and “non essentials”. As St. Vincent of Lerins argued, orthodox faith is “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by everybody ". Belief and praxis that fall outside of that definition is either benign theologoumenon or heresy. So citing a few Fathers ad hoc does not support your case for orthodoxy; rather, you need to show that their view was widely accepted.

    Christian orthodoxy is an objective truth believed by the Church, something to be discovered, not something to be argued polemically based on citing a few sources that support one’s particular view. I suspect that many of you who embrace a Sola Scriptura epistemology do not read the Fathers and Church history in the same way that we Orthodox Christians do. For an interesting discussion of between Evangelicals and Orthodox on Sola Scriptura and other aspects of the faith, see

    For the best patristics discussion on the web, I suggest visiting and engaging with other patristics scholars on their forum.

  18. Jason, your comment posted. I hope he interacts with it.

  19. Eric Todd -- I think it's important to stress that your comment about "the consensus of the Fathers" is a bit misplaced. There were far more wars among early Christians than "consensus". Yes, there were creeds, but these were very mimimalist statements. Councils such as Ephesus were a real black eye on Christianity (even though, yes, they "defined" some doctrines which were later changed).

    "Christian orthodoxy", as you say, is an objective truth given to us from God in Scripture. What various generations of Christians have done with that, while we need to take it into account, should not be normative. Only the Scriptures are normative.

  20. Jason -

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to Dr. Wallace. His generalisms about EO need to be responded to. I'm glad the Lord has equiped men like you for the task.

    Many a country preacher is un-duly influenced by seminary men, and if Dr. Wallace falls away from Protestantism, he could lead an Army with him. Those silent readers contemplating turning away from Scriptural Christianity should at least be confronted with a well reasoned response.

  21. MSC -

    I second the books recommended by Matthew Schultz. Justo Gonzalez is particularly good, IMHO, in the Early Church. Bruce Shelley is an easier read, but Gonzalez is engaging. You can usually find him in a used book store for a cheap price. Enjoy!

  22. the consensus of the Fathers

    I'm not sure this concept can survive a sustained critique. The fathers were all over the map. The "consensus" usually turns out to be whatever it is Eastern Orthodoxy believes today, read back into selective portions of the early fathers, especially those they give more weight. It's similar to how politicians appeal to "freedom," "equality" or equally vacuous concepts that mask the specific content and serve only to foward their complex position without explicating it or feeling a need to seriously argue for it.

    There's also the problem of determining who counts as a "father" and who does not, and weighing which of the fathers are more or less "orthodox" in their beliefs. In my experience, the Eastern Orthodox tend to come to early church history with a preconceived notion of the "church" and "orthodoxy" and impose it on the early writings. Only those early witnesses who already cohere to modern Eastern Orthodox belief are considered "orthodox" and "fathers" worthy of being learned from. It's a fundamentally circular exercise. Of course the "early church" is going to look Eastern Orthodox if you start by choosing fathers who already believe what you do!

    Finally, some of us here already read Eastern Orthodox patristic scholars. I don't see a need to go to those sites when we can read their published scholarship instead.

  23. Eric Todd,

    I've been reading the fathers for years, and I've read a lot of patristic, historical, and other relevant scholarship. In the material I linked you to, I cite many scholars, including Eastern Orthodox ones. I also give examples of widespread rejection of Eastern Orthodox belief among the fathers.

  24. In addition to Matt's fine recommendations, I'd recommend books and sermons by Michael Haykin.

    In the past, I believe Haykin has recommended something called (I think) the Lion Handbook's History of Christianity as well as its companion volume featuring Christian biographies.