Home > Brandenburg, Truth > Historical Theology and the Majority Position

Historical Theology and the Majority Position

September 13, 2010

Back in the day, well, of Noah and his family, so way, way back in the day, the truth took a very small minority and yet it was still the truth.  We see this again and again in Scripture.   We don’t see the truth attract a majority of people.  The smaller group always believes what’s right.  I think most who are reading this already knew this.

So when we look at history to calculate what people have believed, we don’t expect the right position to be held by a majority of people or even necessarily a majority of professing Christians.  We want to see if anyone at all took a particular position.  Some will depart from the faith (1 Tim 4:1); not everyone.  A total apostasy counters Christ’s promise that the ‘gates of hell would not prevail against His church’ (Mt 16:18).   We would expect to find evidence of someone holding the right position.  If we can’t find our view anywhere in history, we should be concerned.  However, if we find that our belief represents a minority in history, that does not work against that position being the right one.  Based on what we see in Scripture, the minority view is more likely also the right view.

God said He would preserve His Word.  He didn’t say He would preserve history.  So when we study history, we have take several factors into consideration.  First, we are often getting someone’s slant on what happened.  Many times the victor lives to tell the story and he tells it like he wants it to be remembered.   Second, men can lie, because they are liars.  God never lies, but men do.  Third, we would expect true believers to be persecuted, and if that’s the case, they might not be able either to write their thoughts or have them preserved.  Fourth, not much history is available period before the advent of the printing press, so that alone might result in a skewed perspective of what happened before 1440.   The dark ages really are dark ages.  Considering all of these factors, we do our best to sort through all materials available and make a judgment on the validity of the sources.  We can assume that the Holy Spirit will bear witness to the truth.

With the above criteria in mind, how does one approach, for instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)?  That confession represents a lot of professing believers in the 17th century.  Should we just assume that all the positions of the Westminster divines were true because the WCF is so accessible and so predominant?  Like with any position we’re studying, we start with what the Bible says about it, comparing Scripture with Scripture.  After we’re sure the Bible teaches a doctrine, we look to see if other people believed it.  If we can’t find it in the WCF, then we look elsewhere.  When we look at other sources of historic information, if we find that belief expressed by others, we consider the integrity and veracity of the non-WCF group or person who believed differently than the WCF.  There may be a good explanation why they differed, and why the WCF may have had the position wrong.

The Westminster divines were free to write and publish their confession.  It was printed and widely disseminated.   Other groups in less favor with various governments found it exponentially more difficult than the Westminster group to propagate their doctrine in written form.  They lived with much greater opposition and with fewer opportunities, in part because what they did preach and teach was, in fact, the truth.  Satan and his system oppose the truth.  I recognize that this makes sense as a typical argument for fringe thinkers espousing heterodoxy.  That’s why we must weigh the quality of the source and compare its conclusion to the exegesis of Scripture from which we start.   That must first stand up to the scrutiny of a literal hermeneutic.

The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches a position of the perfect preservation of Scripture in the language in which it was written, a view that necessarily results in a belief in only one Bible.  That’s also the only position found in history before the 19th century.  I can’t point to any statement of doctrine that disagrees with that bibliology before the 19th century.

The WCF also says the church is all believers, but not everyone took that traditionally reformed position on the church.  Something entirely different is seen in the Schleitheim Confession, which predates the WCF, as well as in the first century writings of Clement of Rome (96AD).   The first use of the words “catholic church” don’t appear until 106AD, just once with Cyprian of Antioch, and then later only in The Martyrdom of Polycarp in 155AD and the Muratorian Fragment in 177AD.   Universal church postdates local only ecclesiology.   The WCF supporters may have outnumbered the proponents of the Schleitheim Confession, but this is a case where the majority is wrong.

Our approach to historical theology is not to believe the position held by the most.  We should believe what the Bible teaches and then look to see if we can find that in history.   We shouldn’t be surprised if a smaller number believed the truth than didn’t.

  1. Gary
    September 15, 2010 at 9:23 am

    How do you see Clement of Rome as taking the local only position? Wasn’t he butting into another curches business? Please explain your thoughts on 1 Clement 59:1 as translated by J.B. Lightfoot:

    But if certain persons should be disobedient unto the words spoken by him through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in no slight transgression and danger.

    If Clement held the local church only position, why should those “certain persons” be obedient to his letter?

    It is my understanding that Ignatius of Antioch was the first to use the words catholic church in his letter to the Smyrnaens.

    I guess this means that local only postdates universal, right?

  2. Gary
    September 15, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Oh I forgot to date Ignatius’ letter. It’s around 110 AD.

    Just because a denomination or group of people is persecuted does not make them right.

    If that’s one of the criteria for being right, then hey, Clement and Ignatius where martyred and they both believed in a universal church.

  3. September 15, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    The phrase that you quote from Lightfoot’s translation affirms Roman superiority only if it can be proven that Clement speaks upon his own authority, not because his letter had Scriptural warrant for its contents. The previous verse (58:2) demonstrates that he means the latter.

    Regarding the dates, you are correct that Cyprian was not the first to use the term, so I changed that in the post above. Cyprian contains the earliest known statement “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” “outside the Church there is no salvation.” He wrote first on the subject in “On the Unity of the Catholic church.” We’ve still got a predate of Clement before Ignatius.

    The point of the persecuted church is that you would assume that believers would be persecuted because Paul wrote “all they that live godly will suffer persecution,” but also to explain why it was difficult for them to write any history.

    We don’t see universal church in Clement or in Scripture. I don’t even think that Ignatius meant it how the Cyprian/Augustinian crowd would understand it. But you are correct in that point of Ignatius, and I made that change. It doesn’t change my overall point of the post.

    Thanks for coming by though.

  4. September 15, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Ignatius’ writings appear to have been heavily interpolated. How do you know Ignatius actually wrote the “catholic church” phrase? Please note the following (a footnote in my paper on Spirit baptism at http://sites.google.com/site/thross7:

    It is quite likely that this affirmation of the existence of a catholic church was a later interpolation into Ignatius’ epistle, if Ignatius actually wrote to the Smyrneans at all. There are three different recensions of Ignatius’ letters, a long, middle, and short version. The long version is generally recognized as a spurious fourth century forgery which projects later hierarchicalism and other developing Roman Catholic heresies into earlier centuries. The short recension only exists in Syriac, and contains only the letters to the Ephesians, Romans, and Polycarp, in a version shorter than either the long or middle recensions. The middle recension, the version quoted above, is found in Greek in only one manuscript, the eleventh century Codex Mediceo-Laurentianus. Scholarship is divided about the genuineness of either the middle or short recensions, with some maintaining that all the letters are extremely heavily interpolated and others arguing that “Ignatius bishop of Antioch did not exist” (pg. 66, “Ignatian Problems,” Journal of Theological Studies, C. P. Hammond Bammel, 33:1 (April 1982); see the article, pgs. 62-97, for a discussion of various theories on the authenticity or forging of the allegedly Ignatian epistles.) Even if one assumes that Ignatius actually wrote something similar to the middle recension, and his writings were then corrupted and falsified into the long and short recensions, there is no reason to conclude that the eleventh century Greek codex of the middle recension referring to a “catholic church” does not itself have numerous dogmatic interpolations designed to support later Roman Catholic dogmas—such as Smyrneans 8:2, the verse in question, and its reference to the catholic church—hJ kaqolikh\ e˙kklhsi÷a.
    “There are, in all, fifteen Epistles which bear the name of Ignatius. These are the following: One to the Virgin Mary, two to the Apostle John, one to Mary of Cassobelae, one to the Tarsians, one to the Antiochians, one to Hero, a deacon of Antioch, one to the Philippians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Magnesians, one to the Trallians, one to the Romans, one to the Philadelphians, one to the Smyrnaeans, and one to Polycarp. The first three exist only in Latin; all the rest are extant also in Greek. It is now the universal opinion of critics, that the first eight of these professedly Ignatian letters are spurious. They bear in themselves indubitable proofs of being the production of a later age than that in which Ignatius lived. Neither Eusebius nor Jerome makes the least reference to them; and they are now by common consent set aside as forgeries, which were at various dates, and to serve special purposes, put forth under the name of the celebrated Bishop of Antioch . . . [among the other epistles, a spurious long form, a middle recension, and a short recension exist, and] there was . . . a pretty prevalent opinion among scholars, that [no form] could . . . be regarded as absolutely free from interpolations, or as of undoubted authenticity. . . . This expression of uncertainty was repeated in substance by Jortin (1751), Mosheim (1755), Griesbach (1768), Rosenmüller (1795), Neander (1826), and many others; some going so far as to deny that we have any authentic remains of Ignatius at all, while others, though admitting the seven [middle recension] letters as being probably his, yet strongly suspected that they were not free from interpolation. . . . [T]he question [was reignited] by the discovery of a Syriac version [the short recension, first published in 1845] of three of these Epistles among the mss. procured from the monastery of St. Mary Deipara, in the desert of Nitria, in Egypt. . . . some accepted the [view that only these three short letters] represented more accurately than any formerly published what Ignatius had actually written . . . [while] others very strenuously opposed [this position in favor of the middle recension]. . . . [T]he Ignatian controversy is not yet settled” (Church Fathers—The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, “Introductory Note to the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians,” ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. elec. acc. in Accordance Bible Software, prep. OakTree Software, ver. 1.1). While the reference to a catholic church by Ignatius is dubious, Pope Cornelius, writing against the Anabaptist Novatian, and developing a proto-Roman Catholic principle not found clearly before the third century, affirmed that there “should be but one bishop in a catholic church” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:43:11).
    Let it also be briefly mentioned that it is indisputable that the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” was not written by the apostles, and its present form, with its profession of faith in a “catholic church,” is a development of the era after the union of proto-Popery with the Roman state. The “Apostles’ Creed” developed from the Old Roman Creed, which simply affirmed faith in the “holy church.” It was “in the late fourth century that catholic began to appear in [various] Western creeds” (pg. 385, Early Christian Creeds, J. N. D. Kelly. London: Longman, 1972. 3rd ed.), in large part to contrast the Roman church with dissident movements including the “heretical” Anabaptists of the age among the Donatists and Novatians. The earliest physical evidence for the Apostles’ Creed itself is contained in the tract De singulis libris canonicis written by the monk Priminius between A. D. 710-724. Both Pope Leo the Great (d. 461) and Gregory the Great (d. 604) appear to have been ignorant of the Creed, and among scholars “very few will be likely to deny that [the received version of the Apostles’ Creed] is to be sought somewhere north of the Alps at some date in the late sixth or seventh century” (pg. 398, 410, 421, Early Christian Creeds, ibid.).

  5. September 15, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Also, my website documents presents the case for local-only ecclesiology in 1 Clement.

  6. Gary
    September 15, 2010 at 9:57 pm


    10 years is not that big of a time span between the letters.

    I was thinking of catholic with a little c, not a capital C. I agree that the two churches were independent of each other and was not trying to give it a Catholic Popeish twist.

    Clement butting in on Corinths personal in house problems and God using the Roman church to help (spoken by him through us), is a good example of a catholic (little c) church.


    I agree with you in regards to Ignatius’ letters.
    It has been quite some time since I last read them. I just remembered him being the first to use the words “catholic church”.

    One good example of what I would consider a possible later interpolation is in chapter 6 of his letter to the Smyrnaeans. There he is stating that the eucharist is the actual flesh of Christ! You can’t get much more Catholic (capital C) than that.

    Thanks to both of you for the discussion. Good night and God bless.

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