Church History, Scripture, And Interpretation

The ecclesiastical challenges pressing against Southern Baptist churches today are increasing in both number and importance. The previous year alone has catapulted a host of gospel-related, cultural issues into the laps of conservative evangelical churches, the likes of which we might have guessed were arriving at our front doors some day, but not arriving so quickly. Today it is almost impossible to keep up with the sexual revolution taking place in our midst as we watch history being made right before our eyes in both the court of law and court of public opinion. The local church is being called on by SBC leadership to respond to the array of issues before us by establishing clear, convictional, Scriptural principles on which the body will stand. No church is exempt from this – not even a relatively small but growing church in central Kentucky.

For some, and perhaps most Southern Baptist churches, the direction for establishing clear policies and principles in light of a rapidly changing culture will be clear; with the word of God as our center and the leadership of the SBC as a helpful guide (such as the ministry of the ERLC), SBC churches will stand together on the centrality and authority of Scripture over and above all else. However, there will be some who will respond to the tides of a change in a radically different way, taking a radically different approach. A recent example is the leadership of Pastor Danny Cortez with the New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, CA. Pastor Cortez approached his congregation concerning his change of heart on the issue of homosexuality. Have long stood on the biblical conviction of a one man, one woman covenant relationship for marriage, a conviction that was shared by the tradition of his church and his Convention, Cortez reversed his position and attempted to lead his congregation to a “third way”, that is, a way to let members of his church believe what they will about same-sex relationships without taking any formal, binding position. In light of Cortez’s self-proclaimed “radical shift” from his traditional position, I was reminded of these words from church history:

“…how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgement above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us as an inheritance…” 

The historical uniformity on sexuality as described and taught by the Church has been unwaivering. Thus, the words above, albeit in a modernized re-wording, are words evangelicals have spoken in concert with a host of other pertinent issues, the most important being the Scriptures themselves, as to why the evangelical church must hold fast to its one man, one woman position. In other words, evangelicals will make church history one of our bullet points on opposition to gay marriage. After all, if there has been a path through 2000 years of NT biblical interpretation that has remained remarkably unchanged in regards to sexuality, shouldn’t that carry significant weight with us?

Yes, as a matter of fact it should. But here’s the problem…

The quote above was from Dr. Johann Eck addressed to the Protestant reformer Martin Luther at the famous Diet of Worms of 1521. Eck’s general line of questioning invoked the power of church history and tradition; who was Martin Luther to stand against the history of the church? Since those of us who are Protestants are rather thankful for Luther’s determination to hold his “conscience captive to the word of God”, we can perhaps see the inconsistency of our own position, at least at a surface level. If we praise Luther for holding his conscience captive to the word of God in spite of the history of the church, shouldn’t we refrain from citing church history as an important and essential resource for biblical interpretation? What if 2000 years of church history is wrong on the issue of sexuality? Could it be that Pastor Cortez and others who have followed a similar path are to be heralded for their stand against history?

Not exactly. Consider these things:

1. Church history is fallible. Those of us who point to the long history of Scriptural interpretation that has shown remarkable consistency in its declaration of a one man, one woman marriage covenant do not assign an inerrant, infallible nature to our servants of old. In fact, Baptists today are considered to be a “non-creedal” people, partly because we reject any possibility of an infallible authority in spiritual matters save for the written revelation of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we need to be reminded of this. Nevertheless, all of the most respected evangelical historians I know strike a good balance of acknowledging the impact of the spiritual giants before us while also pointing to some problematic areas of their theology or methodology. In other words, if anyone accuses Pastor Cortez of error solely on the evidence of a particular interpretation in church history, it isn’t enough. We can’t assert “that’s not the way we have ever interpreted the Bible” and leave it at that. Having said that…

2. Church history is necessary. Although historical interpretations are not infallible, they are necessary and should carry significant weight. If we return back to our example of Johann Eck and Martin Luther, two things stand out. First, Luther himself understood and felt the weight of what he was saying and doing. Perhaps it is not a part of the story that is as well known, but Luther actually asked for an additional day of prayer and reflection when asked if he would recant. Then, on the second day, he again attempted to find a solution by acknowledging a third grouping of his works that were “harsh” in their language against the church and the defenders of the papacy. Luther asked for his works to be disproved by the prophets and the Gospels and he would gladly burn them in the fire and recant. Second, the manner in which history was used as an authority on all things spiritual was quite different from what evangelicals ascribe today. Listen to the words of Eck as he describes to Luther the nature of the orthodox faith as handed down through the church. He says, “we are forbidden by the Pope and the Emperor to discuss lest their be no end of debate.” No evangelical I know of is suggesting a prohibition on discussion and debate on the merits of historical theology. To that end…

3. Church history should make us better theologians. Since we have acknowledged the fallibility of church history but also have affirmed its necessity and importance, we conclude by suggesting that church history should make us better and more intentional theologians. Whims of theological insight and reflection should be carefully filtered through a historical lens; who knows what helpful biblical exposition has already been provided for consideration? Church history should be a source of humility to push back pride; has God given you unique insight to the truthfulness of His revelation that He has withheld for 2000 years? Perhaps, but probably not. In other words, in humility we should be slow to assume we have a new and better reading of a text.

To bring this full circle back to Pastor Cortez, is he necessarily wrong in his interpretation of homosexuality solely because his view contrast with the history of the church? No. But it should give him great pause and humility. Why has the church remained consistent on this issue for centuries? What has Cortez, or others, discovered in their reading to lead them to a dramatic change of heart and mind? The words of Luther now need to be their words – if they can prove by the prophets and the Gospels that the history of the church is wrong on the issue of sexuality, then stand your ground! But if the change of heart is due to a change of circumstances, then we haven’t learned much from history at all. And that is one of our greatest dangers.


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