Who Cares about Historical Theology?

Jason Stellman has posted an article in which he says:

It seems to me that all this effort on the part of Catholics to prove that the fathers are on their team, and (especially) all the effort on the part of Protestants to demolish these claims, is beside the point and can be a distraction from the real issue, which is what the Bible actually teaches.

(link to article)

While I agree that what the Scriptures have to say about any subject is infinitely more important than what the fathers, or Calvin, or anyone else had to say about the subject, there’s still importance in historical theology. Likewise, I agree that focus on what the fathers taught can be a distraction from the real issue, namely what Scripture teaches.

On the other hand, the study of what the fathers and the Reformers and others taught can be important. It can be important for several reasons.

1. One way to help Roman Catholics see that they are following a church that is lying to them is to expose Roman Catholics to the historical record. When we examine the historical record, we see that doctrines like the immaculate conception, transubstantiation, the bodily assumption of Mary, papal infallibility, and Purgatory are innovations, not doctrines handed from the apostles. Thus, the study of the patristic literature can serve as a tool for the evangelism of Roman Catholics, by helping to liberate them from the false gospel that requires their unjustified trust in Rome.

2. A second, defensive, use is also important. Frequently, Roman Catholics make claims that the core doctrines of the Reformation are themselves historical novelties. While, in principle, this doesn’t matter to us (since Scripture, not history, is our rule of faith), these lies about the historical record can be discouraging to Christians. In particular, Roman apologists try to suggest to those unfamiliar with history that by following Reformed doctrine one is saying that “the whole church went off the rails almost from the earliest time,” or something like that.

3. Historical theology is not our ultimate rule of faith, but it is a helpful guide. We do not believe that a universal apostasy happened or will ever happen, even if there are great falling away periods in church history. Moreover, we value the teaching of our spiritual ancestors, even those who made many mistakes. I suspect that Pastor Stellman realizes the value of historical theology, because I’ve noticed that his recent book, Dual Citizens, makes use of human authors. He does not rely exclusively on the Bible, nor should he!

I do think it is foolish to simply say “who cares,” to the historical record. Sometimes we will simply have to disagree with the errors of our predecessors, but we should do so carefully, not recklessly.

Pastor Stellman writes:

Rather than get into a patristic prooftext war—especially if we may very well lose it—wouldn’t it be wiser to shift the locus of the battle to Scripture, the place where we claim to believe all controversies of religion are to be solved?

Well, of course, we’ve already won the battle on the grounds of Scripture. There may be a tiny handful of Roman Catholic apologists that think they can prove their doctrines from Scripture, but those folks are easily shown to be wrong.

The problem is that Rome has persuaded many people to accept an additional rule of faith – one that in effect supercedes Scripture. It is useful to help Roman Catholics see that this additional rule of faith is one that doesn’t work, that cannot stand up to historical scrutiny, indeed one that is both established and maintained on lies and forgeries.

And don’t worry, Pastor Stellman, we won’t “lose” the analysis of the patristic writings, because we have nothing to lose. We’re interested in the truth of what happened in the early church, not transforming the early church fathers into a PCA presbytery in Greece. We “win” simply by letting the fathers be the fathers, because history is our friend.

That means we admit that certain departures from the purity of the apostolic teachings happened very early, while other departures happened much later. Precisely because Scripture is our rule of faith, we cannot “lose” a battle over whether Bernard taught the immaculate conception (answer: he definitely did not) or whether Bernard taught the personal sinlessness of Mary (answer: it seems he did). In one case we can point out that Bernard’s testimony is one voice among many against the idea the the dogma of the immaculate conception was really handed down in some kind of oral tradition format, in the other case we can acknowledge Bernard’s mistake.

All that said, all the historical knowledge in the world won’t save someone. One may be able to persuade a rational person that Rome is not who she claims to be, but unless that person trusts in Christ alone for salvation, they will be no better off in eternity. Mere knowledge of the truth is not enough.

-TurretinFan

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