Back to Historic Christianity? (Pt. 1)
The material on this page was written in the 1970s to respond to the criticisms of Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research Institute”). The text of this article is published here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.
From: Answers to the Bible Answer Man – Appendix
Bible Versus Tradition
In recent weeks the Bible Answer Man has referred to “historic Christianity” as the standard by which all Christian truth should be judged. On a radio broadcast, referring to Witness Lee and the local churches, he said, “They are perverting historic Christianity.” In a speech delivered at Melodyland he exhorted the Christians of the local churches to turn “back again to historic Christianity.” He has never yet told us to turn back to the Bible, for the Bible is in fact an embarrassment to him. When we expound Isaiah 9:6; John 14; Romans 8:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:45b; 2 Corinthians 3:17; or 2 Corinthians 13:5, he never answers us according to these verses. Rather he will say that our view is heretical, or that our teaching was condemned by some council, and that we need to return to the “historic Christian church.” Does the Bible Answer Man not realize that by taking such a position he is in the succession of the ancient Pharisees? They were the ones who said to our Lord, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” (Matt. 15:2, NASV). They did not say to the Lord, You and Your disciples are not keeping the Word of God. They were not concerned with whether or not He kept the Word of God. They were concerned with whether He transgressed the tradition of the elders. So it is with the Bible Answer Man. By paying even slight attention to what we say, he should be able to tell that what we care for is God’s Word. But this apparently makes no difference to him. What he condemns us for is that we transgress the tradition of the historic Christian church. By taking such a position, the Bible Answer Man stands squarely in line with the Council of Trent, the most authoritative of all the Roman Catholic councils. In the year 1546 this Council decreed that the Word of God is contained in both the Bible and in tradition and that the two are of equal authority. The Council further declared that it is the duty of every Christian to give them equal respect. Though the Bible Answer Man would surely deny that he does give equal respect to the Bible and to tradition, his practice speaks louder than his words. In actual practice he continually avoids meeting us on the ground of God’s pure Word, and continually decries that the local churches are not in the tradition of the historic Christian church. This is the neo-catholicism of the Bible Answer Man.
What Is the Historic Christian Church?
We must ask ourselves the question: What is the historic Christian church? Since the Bible Answer Man continually exhorts us in the local churches to return to historic Christianity, it places a certain obligation upon us to ask ourselves what it is that he is exhorting us to return to.
The Early Church Fathers
In asking us to return to the historic Christian church, is the Bible Answer Man exhorting us to return to the teaching and doctrine of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (i.e., the fathers prior to the Council of Nicea)? If so, he is requiring our allegiance to a source which is vastly inferior to the Word of God. Philip Schaff points out that:
Luther had no idea of a golden age of virgin purity of the Church…His view of the absolute supremacy of the Word of God over all the words of men, even the best and holiest, led him to a critical and discriminating estimate of the fathers and schoolmen…He placed their writings far below the Scriptures; and the more he progressed in the study of both, the more he was impressed with the difference. To reform the Church by the fathers is impossible; it can only be done by the Word of God (History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII, p. 534).
Schaff also points out Calvin’s view of the Fathers:
Those holy men were ignorant of many things, frequently at variance with each other and sometimes even inconsistent with themselves (Schaff, Vol. VIII, p. 530).
An outstanding theologian of the last century had this to say concerning the early church Fathers:
I believe the Trinity and the incarnation along with the atonement, and…the resurrection, as already accomplished in Christ, to be the great foundation and distinctive truths of Christianity; but it is not in the Fathers of the first four centuries, that I should seek for the proof of, or any certain faith in, them. I certainly judge the Ante-Nicene Fathers to have failed (as doctors) in the assertion of the true and full divinity of the Lord (The Collected Writings of J.N. Darby, Vol. XV, pp. 291-292).
If we are looking for the truth, we surely cannot lean upon the Fathers. Anyone in the least acquainted with them knows that they seriously disagreed among themselves, and even on a doctrine as important as the Trinity openly disagreed with and contradicted each other. Take, as an example, the theology of Origen on the doctrine of the Trinity. He chooses the worst possible language to express his point of view. I do not know what his heart and intentions may have been, but he held that the Son was wholly inferior to the Father, and that the Father was as much superior to the Son and the Spirit as the Son and the Spirit are to others. He had a wild imagination, teaching a doctrine of the preexistence of souls whose station in this life is according to their conduct in a previous life. One theologian says his theology was close to Mormonism mixed with universalism. Yet he is called a “Father.”
Cyril and Alexander, both of Alexandria, are two other famous fathers. Alexander was the coryphaeus of the fathers on the matter of the incarnation. He got his adversary, John of Antioch, condemned before he arrived for the Council of Ephesus. Then the same John assembled a council of the eastern bishops and condemned Cyril. Cyril had advanced twelve famous anathemas, which had been adopted as the faith of the church in the Council of Ephesus. Now in the face of condemnation, Cyril withdrew his twelve anathemas and accepted the creed proposed by John.
But these are not all. Tertullian taught that in death Christ experienced corruption. Cyril said this was impossible. Clement of Alexandria said the body of Christ did not require ordinary sustenance for its preservation. According to him Christ did not eat for the sake of His body; but Clement said that His body was held together by a supernatural power. According to Cyril our Lord only ate for the sake of His companions who were with Him.
Because the fathers of the first four centuries were closest to the apostolic times, one might imagine that they would be in closest touch with the truth of the New Testament. But “as a fact, we find that the earliest…Fathers are the most vague, loose, uncertain, and, if it must be said, heretical.” According to Darby, though Irenaeus is feeble and contains “some superstition,” compared to many other fathers he is a refreshment to read. Darby then continues by comparing the fathers with the Word of God:
What a difference from the wild imaginations of a speculative…Origen; the loose and loosely expressed doctrine of a Justin Martyr; or the turbulent orthodoxy and doubtful Christianity of an ambitious Cyril! What a difference, I say, in all this from that piety which flows from the personal knowledge of Christ by the Scriptures, and respect for the Word as the Word of God (Ibid., p. 294)!
Perhaps when the Bible Answer Man calls us back to the historic Christian church, he is calling us back not only to the Fathers but also to the creeds of the first few centuries. Those who cry, “the historic Christian church, the historic Christian church,” tell us we have the faith of the church in the creeds.
One of the creeds universally recommended in all ages has been the Apostles’ Creed. The very title is a deception. The fable connected with this creed is that each Apostle came forward to give one article. The fact is that the Apostles’ Creed, as we have it now, is not even as ancient as the Nicene Creed. It is purported to contain all the fundamental articles of the Christian faith necessary to salvation, to be the best popular summary of the Christian faith ever made, to have the fragrance of antiquity and the inestimable weight of universal consent, and to be a bond of union between all ages and sections of Christendom. The facts are that, far from being apostolic, this creed first appeared in its present form in the fourth or fifth century. Even then it had no “descent into hell” in it and no procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son. These two articles were added later, even though the Council of Ephesus had forbade any further additions. And even today this last article is rejected by the Greek Church and is the avowed cause of division between the Greek and Roman churches. I say it is the avowed cause because history shows fairly clearly that the real cause was ambition and rivalry. This creed, which is supposed to represent a common faith, has in fact divided the “historic Christian church.”
Not only has the Apostles’ Creed been a cause of division; there is not a trace in it that Christ is God. An Arian or a Unitarian could subscribe to it as well as one who holds the fundamental truth of the Triune God. This would seem to be a rather serious omission for a creed that supposedly represents the norm of faith. The Apostles’ Creed represents the Father as God and Almighty, whereas the Son and Holy Spirit are spoken of apart with no reference to divinity. Creation is attributed to the Father exclusively with no reference to the Word, Who is Christ. In fact, everything that is said of Jesus Christ in this creed is referable to what He was as a man.
The Nicene Creed
But the advocates of the historic Christian church may say, “It is the Nicene Creed we call you back to.” In this creed, promulgated by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the writers did clearly set forth the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, although they presented the truth that He is the only begotten Son of God, there is no mention at all of His being the firstborn Son of God. Indeed, I doubt if those who call us back to the creeds even realize there is a distinction between Christ as the only begotten Son of God, and Christ as the firstborn Son of God. The Nicene Creed does not present to us the one unique God of the Bible who is triune. Rather it presents to us three distinct divine Persons, separate from one another, who are to be believed in: “I believe in one God the Father Almighty…and in one Lord Jesus Christ…and I believe in the Holy Ghost.” There is nothing in this creed of the interpenetration of the three of the Godhead that we find in the Bible: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?” (John 14:10, NASV). In these words of our Lord we see the interpenetration that existed between Himself and the Father, but there is nothing of this in the creed. In fact, in the Bible there is such an interpenetration of the divine three of the Godhead that the Lord can say, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NASV). It is because of this interpenetration of the Father and the Son that John says in 1 John 2:23: “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (NASV). Why then, I ask, does not the Nicene Creed present to us the God of the Bible as triune instead of tritheistic? Those who call us back to the “historic Christian church,” of which the Nicene Creed is supposed to be the standard of Christian faith par excellence, seem to forget that Luther delivered us from authorities and standards outside the Bible. Why does the Bible Answer Man not appeal to the Scriptures which record Christ’s sayings and contain the Apostles’ writings? Would this not be the best way to find out what we should believe and what the first Apostles taught? When the matter of Christian truth arises, why does the Bible Answer Man not direct us to the Bible? Why does he rather prefer to say, this or that teaching is what has always been taught by the historic Christian church?
But I would still point out one more deficiency in the Nicene Creed. This deficiency has to do with what is said concerning the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed says:
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.
This is the sum total of what the Nicene Creed says about the Holy Spirit. Is this all that is to be believed concerning the Holy Spirit? It is clear that the authors of the Nicene Creed saw nothing more concerning the Holy Spirit than that He is the giver of life, that He proceeds from the Father [and the Son], that He is to be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, and that He spoke by the prophets. Apparently they saw nothing of the sevenfold Spirit of Revelation 1:4; 4:5; and 5:6. But the “seven Spirits” referred to in these verses are clearly the Holy Spirit, for in Revelation 1:4-5, when the churches are addressed, the grace and the peace which are to the churches is from the Triune God: “Him who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ.” Nothing is said in this creed concerning the fact that the positions of Christ and the Spirit are changed in this salutation, the Spirit being put in the second place and Christ being put in the third. No doubt this indicates that the days of which Revelation speaks are days of the Spirit and, moreover, the Spirit intensified seven times. There is nothing in this creed concerning the change in the Spirit’s composition following the glorification of Christ (John 7:38-39); nothing of the truth that the Lord is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17); nothing of the truth that the seven eyes of the Lamb in Revelation 5:6 are the seven Spirits of God (indicating once again the interpenetration of Christ and the Spirit); and nothing of the truth that the speaking of Christ is equivalent to the speaking of the Spirit according to Revelation 2:1 and 7. In the local churches we not only believe that the Spirit gives life and speaks by men (the only two attributes of the Spirit which are mentioned in this creed) but that according to John 7:37-39 He is the Spirit of the glorified Christ; that according to 2 Corinthians 3:17 it is the Lord who is the Spirit; that according to Revelation 1:4 and 5 the Spirit has been intensified sevenfold; that according to Revelation chapters two and three the speaking of Christ results in the hearing of the Spirit; and that according to Revelation 5:6 the Lamb and the Spirit are so closely identified with each other that the eyes of Christ are said to be the Spirit Himself. Thus, any discerning reader can see why we insist on being called back, not to the “historic Christian church,” but to the Bible itself.
But what about the so-called ecumenical councils of the first several centuries? Are these not authoritative guides for Christians in the matters of faith and practice? When one looks into the history of the councils, he finds that the so-called doctrinal and ecclesiastical purity of the post-Apostolic period is a myth.
The Council of Nicea, which drew up the Nicene Creed and which one author tells us must be believed to be considered orthodox, was in fact not convened for Christian reasons at all. It was called together by the Emperor Constantine for political reasons. It was convened at Nicea in June of 325 A.D. and is considered to be the first general council of the church. About 318 bishops were present along with a large number of lesser dignitaries. It was presided over, not by one of the bishops, but by the Emperor Constantine. We are told by the historians that the bishops sat in profound silence while great officers of state and other dignified persons entered the hall, and awaited in trembling expectation the appearance of the emperor. The emperor, who was supposed to be a Christian, took his place openly before the whole world as the head of the church. But, as Andrew Miller points out in his Church History, at the very moment he was seated as the head of the first ecumenical council, he retained the office of the Pontifex Maximus – the high priest of the heathen. This title he never gave up, and he died the head of the church and the high priest of the heathen. History also tells that in the same year that he convened the Council of Nicea, he gave orders for the execution of his oldest son Crispus and for the suffocation in a hot bath of Fausta, his wife of over twenty years. The reader may judge for himself concerning the fitness or rather unfitness of one so polluted with blood, to sit as president over a Christian council.
According to Philip Schaff, the acknowledged dean of church historians, “Nicea…has the honor of both opening and closing the succession of acknowledged ecumenical councils.” This means that the first and the last of the acknowledged ecumenical councils were both held at Nicea, and called by that name. The second Council of Nicea was held in 787 A.D. under the Empress Irene. The purpose of calling this Council was to decide the question of image-worship. About 350 church dignitaries were present. After assenting to the decrees of the first six councils, they passed the following canon, acting, according to them, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit:
With the venerable and life-giving Cross shall be set up the venerable and holy images, whether in colours, in mosaic work, or any other material; within the consecrated Churches of God, on the sacred vessels and vestments, on the walls and on tablets, in houses and in highways. The images, that is to say, of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ; of the immaculate mother of God; of the honoured angels; of all saints and holy men – these images shall be treated as holy, memorials worshipped, kissed, only without that peculiar adoration which is reserved for the Invisible, Incomprehensible God. All who shall violate this, as is asserted, immemorial tradition of the Church, and endeavour, forcibly or by craft, to remove any image, if ecclesiastics, are to be deposed and excommunicated; if monks or laymen, to be excommunicated (Miller’s Church History, p. 294).
But not only was this council content to form and solemnly commit the so-called Christian church to a practice absolutely abhorrent to the Scriptures – they also solemnly acclaimed:
We all believe, we all assert, we all subscribe. This is the faith of the apostles, this is the faith of the Church, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith of all the world. We who adore the Trinity worship images. Whoever does not like, anathema upon them! Anathema on all who call images idols! Anathema on all who communicate with them who do not worship images (Ibid., p. 295).
Councils Were Convened by Emperors
All of the so-called ecumenical councils, which the advocates of the “historic Christian church” would call us back to, were councils called and held under the supervision of heathen emperors. I have already pointed out that the first Council of Nicea was called and presided over by the Emperor Constantine, high priest of the heathen. The Council of Constantinople was convened in 381 A.D. by Theodosius the Great, and held at the Imperial City. The Council of Ephesus was convened in 431 A.D. by Theodosius the Second in connection with the western co-emperor Valentinian the Third and held under the direction of the ambitious and violent Cyril of Alexandria. The Council of Chalcedon was convened in 451 by the Emperor Marcian. The second Council of Constantinople was convened in 553 A.D. by the Emperor Justinian without the consent of the pope. And the third Council of Constantinople was convened under the direction of Constantine Progonatus in 680 A.D. By simply pointing out that these ecumenical councils were all convened by heads of state, it should be clear that they were not free from political and ecclesiastical impurity.
The Council of Ephesus and Mary-Worship
I must point out that the Council of Ephesus, one of the most respected of the so-called ecumenical councils, gave its full sanction to the worship of Mary. Although the term “mother of God” had been freely used without scruple by Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen, it was the Council of Ephesus that gave this phrase official sanction. The Council of Ephesus was mainly concerned with the heresy of Nestorianism. According to Philip Schaff, “the overthrow of Nestorianism was at the same time the victory of Mary-worship.” Then he goes on:
The opponents of Nestorius…could scarcely find predicates enough to express the transcendent glory of the mother of God. She was the crown of virginity, the indestructible temple of God, the indwelling place of the Holy Trinity, the paradise of the second Adam, the bridge from God to man, the loom of the incarnation, the sceptre of orthodoxy; through her the Trinity is glorified and adored, the devil and demons are put to flight, the nations converted, and the fallen creature raised to heaven (Vol. 3, p. 421).
The advocates of the historic Christian church would call us back to the councils, one of which installed Mary as the mother of God. It is from the Maryology of the Council of Ephesus that the Maryolatry of later ages developed. Today millions of Roman Catholics assume that Mary has the perogatives of deity. Devotions to her are without question the most spontaneous of any in the Roman Catholic Church. Thousands of Roman Catholics voluntarily attend novenas for the Sorrowful Mother. National shrines, such as those at Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, are dedicated to her and attract millions. Thousands of churches, schools, hospitals, convents and shrines are dedicated to her glory. Some of the titles given Mary are in themselves a revelation of the way Roman Catholics feel about her: Mother of God, Queen of the Apostles, Queen of Heaven, Queen of the Angels, the Door of Paradise, the Gate of Heaven, Our Life, Mother of Grace, and Mother of Mercy. The advocates of the historic Christian church would call us all back to a Council which propagated a doctrine so contrary to Scripture as to issue in idolatry.
Councils and Fathers Forbid Marriage
1 Timothy 4:1-3 says:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons…men who forbid marriage (NASV).
These words refer to the period in church history to which the Bible Answer Man would call us back. The practice of forbidding the clergy to marry was developed and crystallized in the fourth and fifth centuries.
First, the clergy were forbidden to marry more than once on the ground that Paul’s word that an elder should only be “the husband of one wife” forbade a second marriage. Then the practice of clerical celibacy advanced another step when the Council of Elvira, meeting in Spain in 306 A.D., forbade marriage to clerics of all ranks upon pain of excommunication. The Council of Arles, meeting in 314 A.D., passed a similar canon. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea meeting in 325 supported these prohibitions of clerical marriage in its third canon.
The great teachers of the Nicene and post-Nicene period, “Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom, by their extravagant laudations of the superior sanctity of virginity, gave this legislation the weight of their authority” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 412). Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, took the lead to “cut down the wood of marriage by the ax of virginity.” Thus we see again that the Nicene period of church history, far from being characterized by doctrinal purity, was rather represented by men who paid “attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1).
Those who insist that all Christians should return to the theology and declarations of the creeds and councils of the “historic Christian church” are in fact calling us back to a standard which helped produce the chaotic situation that exists in Christendom today. As I have already pointed out, the sinful practice of Mary-worship can be traced to the sanction given it by the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. The practice of worshipping images was sanctioned by the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea. The Apostles’ Creed is excessively inadequate in declaring the deity of Christ, and the Nicene Creed is equally inadequate in declaring the truth concerning the Holy Spirit. All of the so-called ecumenical councils had political overtones, being convened by the political authority of the time. The so-called church fathers could not agree among themselves, even concerning the most basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Augustine pointed out that the councils were not reliable, one often contradicting and qualifying another. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter thirty-one, article four, states:
All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice (Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III, p. 670).
History shows all too clearly that church leaders and church councils can and do make mistakes, some of them serious. We in the local churches affirm that the Scriptures interpreted by the Holy Spirit are the only source of Christian truth. To be called back to the historic church of the first few centuries is in fact to be called back to the source of all the confusion which exists in Christendom today. If we are going to be called back, we insist on being called back to the Bible itself. We do not agree that there are two sources of authority: Scripture and church tradition. Neither do we agree with the practice of interpreting the Bible in the light of later tradition, as the Bible Answer Man seems to prefer. This is a practice which will cause the truth of the Bible to be made void. It was in fact the church fathers along with the councils and the creeds that introduced the Dark Ages, which lasted for a thousand years. The source of the Dark Ages was exactly the councils, the creeds and the fathers who began to substitute their ideas for the truth of the Bible. The fact is that the so-called church which developed from the fathers, the councils, and the creeds became so darkened and corrupted that it required the intervention of God through Martin Luther in the sixteenth century to call the church back to the Bible. Luther was told that he had no right to call into question the “orthodox faith” which had been confirmed by the sacred councils and defined by the church. To this he replied:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
It is not to the fathers, the councils and the creeds that we must return. It is to the Bible itself. There are those today who would say to the Christians: to the fathers, the councils and the creeds. But we in the local churches say to all the Christians:
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa. 8:20).
This is the last of a series of five articles