Historical Theology and the Majority Position
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.