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The number of Christian denominations (over two thousand and increasing) is not an achievement that merits commendation. The proliferation is disturbing for many reasons, one of which holds great implications for how we learn and experience biblical truths.
Many modern evangelicals think the church thrived in truth and Spirit during the first century, then went apostate or failed until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Many believe this revival was the rebirth of true Christianity and the King James Version of the Bible was the most “true” translation and maintain that belief to this day.
The “church fathers” followed the apostles in studying, expounding and preaching the Gospel, only a couple of generations after Christ’s ascension. You may have heard of Augustine, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Irenaeus and others. Like the apostle Paul, they were classical scholars, “doctors of the church.” Like Paul, they were educated in the Greek and Italian masters such as Plutarch, Homer, Virgil and Herodotus. They were academically trained in rhetoric, logic, philosophy, literature and history.
The church fathers did not have the Scriptures we use today. The apostolic writings (the Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation) were not collected into the accepted New Testament cannon until the third century. The early church used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible we call the Septuagint. Ptolemy, two hundred years before Christ’s birth, commissioned a Greek translation to be placed in the famous Alexandrine library. We call it “the Septuagint” because the way he did it was to assign seventy two Hellenistic Jewish scholars to independently translate the entire Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. They did not compare notes until finished. Remarkably, all of the independent translations were virtually identical. The Septuagint became the early church’s Scriptures and remains the accepted Old Testament for the Eastern Orthodox Church today.
Using the Septuagint and their classical academic disciplines, the church fathers provided a framework for biblical interpretation guided by what was known as the Rule of Faith, a creed or statement of the essence of the Christological and apostolic teachings that formulated during the time of the apostles.
Martin Luther, did not intend to begin a new denomination or historical epoch later known as “The Reformation.” He was an expert in Augustine’s teachings, being an Augustian priest. Calvin and all the “reformers” also extensively studied Augustine, Chrysostom and all the church fathers. The Reformers, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches did not argue about everything. While each had their own ways of expressing doctrines, they agreed on the essentials of redemption through Christ, Christ’s divinity and humanity, and the triune nature of God (for which Tertullian, born 160 AD, coined the word “Trinity.”) The foundations of all the accepted doctrines were based upon both the Scriptures and the church fathers’ commentary on them. The Reformers respected these studies and commentaries and even Calvin believed theological interpretations must find support in the writings of the church fathers.
“Sola Scriptura” or the position that everyone could be their own interpreter of the Scriptures is a modern development and not a position adopted by the Reformers, who strove to keep their interpretations in harmony with the church fathers. The relativism of morality and truth that secular society espouses has crept into the churches who denounce it in the culture. The proclamation, “Since I have the Holy Spirit in me, my interpretation of the Bible is just as good as anyone else’s” is dangerous and arrogant for it disrespects the wisdom and enlightenment of the early church fathers and early Reformers. It ignores the reality that the universal church, the body of Christ, has an unbroken history of infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Such thinking gives birth to apostate churches and cults, voices of the spirit of the antichrist.
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe...We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 1:1-2, 2:1, NIV). Of this, Paul wrote, “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16b). Christ’s mind is not split; He has only one. We (“hemeis”) have (“echo” or hold in possession and care) the singular mind of the Word. Paul was disconcerted over the denominations already developing within just one generation of Christ’s ascension: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’. Is Christ divided?...By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13a, 3:10-11, NIV).
“The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones...In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him” (Psalm 89:5, 7, NIV). Who are these “holy ones”? Are we able to learn from them? If so, are we willing? Even if they, the apostles, the church fathers, and all who continued to build upon the rock solid foundation of Christ reveal something that chips away at a personally cherished belief or way of understanding?
Without the availability of the New Testament, the church fathers looked for Christ throughout all the Hebrew Scriptures. The Word, the Emmanuel, is found there and in all the heavens and the earth. God only spoke one Word. The billions of other words are reflections of the One. I am suspicious of other words that are not grounded in the teachings of the apostles and the early church fathers who immediately followed them. Yes, like us, they were people who stumbled along the arduous journey of faith. Like us, they had their disagreements and contentions. Yet we must be struck with the incredible honor and respect given them by God Himself. Describing the New Jerusalem of the heavenly realm, John recorded, “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:14, NIV).
Our resplendent recorded Christian heritage stretches back more than 3000 years, and, before the words, back into eternity. Our history is tainted with ecclesiastic abuse, violence and atrocities. When we examine the perpetrators of such, we find people who did not seek to ensure their sincere beliefs and actions harmonized with those of the church fathers. These were the ones who practiced Sola Scriptura or “I am my own interpreter,” to their destruction and the suffering and destruction of others. We need not and must not be like them.
If what we build on the “foundation already laid” doesn’t quite hold
steady, we must not build a new foundation to support our own edifices,
however strongly we believe in them, however great the numbers of people
who come to them. Neither you nor I have the exclusive rights or monopoly
on this Mind or the wealth of the heritage to which we, as a body, are
heirs and caretakers. As individuals, we are weak and dependent upon the
rest of the body for our lives. The toe and the eye work together in mutual
respect. The toe or the eye dismembered from the body are dead members.
The body of Christ, His universal Church, His bride, not any one denomination,
holds the mind of Christ.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
in the Christian Faith ~
Spiritual Resource Services © January 9, 2004
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