Sunday, September 18, 2022

Focusing Too Much On The Patristic And Medieval Eras

One of the most popular criticisms of Protestantism, and one that seems to go a long way in convincing people, is the allegation that various Protestant beliefs were absent or not popular enough during the patristic and medieval eras. We're told that justification through baptism was widely accepted during that timeframe, for example, or we're even told that it was universally believed. Or look at how popular it was to pray to the saints and angels. Look at all of the agreement on such issues among the apostolic churches. And so on.

I've often responded to that sort of objection by discussing the evidence for opposition to such beliefs during the timeframe in question. See here regarding justification and here regarding prayer to the saints and angels, for example. You can find many other relevant posts in our archives, like the ones with the Justification label here and the Prayer label here.

However, we should also address a larger context. Why is there such a focus on the patristic and medieval eras?

It's easy to discern some of the reasons why the Biblical documents are underestimated. They're often thought of collectively as "scripture", "the Bible", etc. and are treated as if they only have the significance of one source. But the Bible consists of dozens of documents written by dozens of authors over more than a thousand years. Sometimes even one author among those dozens, such as Moses or Paul, wrote such a large amount, and had such a large amount written about him by other Biblical sources, that we can go to many places within the Bible for clarification or to build a larger cumulative case. Critics of Protestantism often act as if we need to go to extrabiblical sources, specifically the extrabiblical sources of their choosing (while neglecting others), to get clarification of what a particular Biblical passage or group of passages means. But we frequently have enough clarity from the Bible itself to make the appeal to extrabiblical sources less significant than the critics make it out to be. That's especially true with issues like the ones I mentioned earlier, justification and prayer, since such issues are covered so much in scripture. We should take the extrabiblical evidence into account (all of it, not just the portions critics want to focus on), but without underestimating or overestimating its significance. On an issue like justification or prayer, the extrabiblical information is supplementing hundreds of relevant passages in scripture, with some of those Biblical passages being of a highly explicit nature. It's not as though the Bible is just giving us one or two ambiguous passages to go by.

We also need to give more attention than these critics of Protestantism typically suggest we should to the Reformation era and later centuries. The most recent centuries are, after all, just as much a part of church history as the previous centuries, the same church history the critics claim to be so concerned about. And these more recent centuries are significant for other reasons. Gavin Ortlund has made the point that, as a pastor, he often sees evidence that people are regenerated prior to their baptism. Many individuals, pastors, missionaries, and others in relevant positions have noted that sort of evidence, and it has to be taken into account. That doesn't mean we ignore what scripture, the church fathers, and other sources tell us about the issues involved. Rather, it means that this modern evidence is part of what we need to take into account, along with the other relevant evidence. There's also the issue of modern changes in the groups these critics of Protestantism belong to, such as changes in Roman Catholic belief and teaching in recent centuries. And we don't know how much longer this stage of history will go on. If the second coming of Christ doesn't happen for another thousand years or more, the patristic and medieval eras will have represented only a minority of church history. They're already a minority of history in general.

And that brings up another issue. Is church history all that's relevant? Advocates of baptismal justification often claim that it didn't go into effect until late in the Biblical era, such as after Jesus' resurrection. (See my post here for a discussion of some of the problems with that sort of view, specifically Tertullian's form of it.) Or it will be suggested that we shouldn't expect to see prayers to the saints and angels in the historical record until some similarly late point in time. But that sort of view has to be argued for, not just asserted. Even if there were some sufficient reason to think something like the form of receiving justification or the form of prayer in question wouldn't go into effect until so late in history, that would offer only a partial explanation of the evidence under consideration. It wouldn't explain why baptismal justification and prayer to the saints and angels is absent or contradicted in later contexts as well, not just the earlier ones.

Think of justification, for example. It shouldn't matter whether somebody cites Abraham in Genesis 15, the tax collector in Luke 18, Cornelius in Acts 10, or the Galatians in Galatians 3. As Clement of Rome noted, God has been justifying us through faith alone "from the beginning" (First Clement, 32). To dismiss Abraham and the tax collector as predating the time when baptismal justification went into effect, dismiss Cornelius as an exception to the rule, and claim that "hearing with faith" in Galatians 3:2 includes baptism is far from the most natural way to interpret the evidence. Rather, the later popularity of baptismal justification is motivating a long series of highly unlikely interpretations of the Biblical documents and other evidence.

None of this is to say that the patristic and medieval eras should be ignored or have only a small amount of significance. They shouldn't be ignored, and they have a lot of significance. But so do the other eras of history. And those other eras are more significant in some ways.

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