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HISTORY of Christian Theology

Approaches Used to Determine Correct Doctrine

What is true? This question has perplexed society long before Pilate rhetorically asked Jesus, “What is truth?” It is the basis for our modern branch of science called Epistemology. Christians have not escaped the turmoil fomented by this question. Like so many others, Christians have wrestled with this issue down through the Ages.

As we embark on this venture to examine the history of Christian theology, it is important to understand the tools that people used to gage the veracity of ideas and doctrines so that we can better understand the perspective of the adherents to those various beliefs and to more fully appreciate one another’s faith.

We begin by briefly addressing the following seven concepts that have influenced individual’s and societies’ conclusions regarding the truth of religious teachings throughout history:

  1. One’s Worldview
  2. Scripture
  3. Tradition
  4. Reason
  5. Experience
  6. Moral Influence, and
  7. A Balanced Approach

Understanding how others determined which doctrines were orthodox and which ones were heretical enables us to see how various concepts developed over time as well as assists us in sharpening the focus of our own personal perspective.

world view

I. Our Worldview Shapes our Opinions and Conclusions

Even though individuals often do not realize it, everyone has a worldview. This perspective is the lens through which we understand and interpret life. A person’s worldview greatly influences his or her attitudes, beliefs, anxieties and decisions. It is probably the most important issue one needs to consider when searching for truth and understanding of other people. For success in this endeavor, it is vital that one identify and understand one’s own and other’s distinct worldviews. Additionally, if you want personal growth, one should realize that it is difficult to make any dramatic lasting change in your personal life without modifying your worldview. That is what faith and religion often does. Theology is basically the collective worldview of a religious community which greatly influences the personal perspective of the members of that tradition.

Religions greatly impact the worldview of their followers and how they evaluate the beliefs found in other traditions. In order to facilitate understanding and constructive dialog between various religions, it is helpful to understand the perspective of different belief systems. Even though each tradition has both a greater breadth and depth of nuanced theology, the following is a very general summary of the worldview of the major world religions and belief systems:

  • Eastern religions are centered on the cycles of existence;
  • Islam stresses the importance of God and human forgetfulness;
  • Judaism is founded on God’s covenant relationship with his people;
  • Mormonism emphasizes human growth and development to become like God;
  • Eastern Orthodox Christianity focuses on their members’ union with God;
  • Western Christianity is engrossed with the issue of forgiveness of sin, with the Roman Catholic tradition placing weight on obtaining grace through their sacraments, including works of penance, while Protestants rely on free grace.
  • Modern secular belief is based on an atheistic nihilist view with reliance on science.

What is important to believers in one tradition may not matter much to followers of another religion. For example, Western Christianity’s major debate regarding free will verses predestination holds little interest to Orthodox theologians. As we proceed through this course of study of the history of Christian theology, it is important to keep these various worldviews in mind.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell documents how “cultural legacies are powerful forces” impacting our world today in ways we hardly expect. It is why Orientals are good with math, why some individuals with the same intelligence succeed while others fail, and until recently it was the cause of most commercial airline crashes. This cultural legacy informs the worldview of each community’s descendents for generations. Even as Western society jettisons its Judeo-Christian moorings, their influence is still evident in our modern secular world. In order to understand our world today, one needs to grasp the ideas and values that are the foundation on which much of our society is built. Understanding our religious heritage will open our eyes to the influence it continues to exert on our lives and help us evaluate our modern beliefs and attitudes.

II. What Does the Bible Say?

Historically, the most important tool Christians universally utilize to judge the veracity of any doctrine is scripture. Yet, many Christians do not realize that the Bible they cherish has undergone several complex developments over time and has been and continues to be subject to vast differences of interpretations among the various Jewish and Christian sects and denominations. We will address the development of the Bible in later posts. At this point, we will introduce the reoccurring issue regarding the interpretation of the Bible, which subject will be revisited in more detail several times as the story of Christian theology unfolds.

The Catholic Church maintains that scripture can only be properly interpreted through the lens of Church tradition, while Protestants downplay the role of tradition and generally stress what they view is the clear meaning of scripture, and insist that the Bible alone is the sole source of authority regarding Christian doctrine. Even within Protestantism there are disputes regarding the extent to which teachings and practices that are not expressly stated in the Bible can properly be incorporated into the Church’s religious life. Luther held that many practices, such as the wearing of vestments or the use of stain glass images, are irrelevant to salvation so it doesn’t matter whether one engages in those practices or not, while John Calvin applied a strict approach that prohibited anything that was not sanctioned by scripture. Regardless of these variances, the Bible remains the most important source of truth for most Christians.

a. Literal verses Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture

The main on-going dispute regarding the interpretation of scripture is whether it is to be understood literally or allegorically. But this is a false narrative. It is not an either-or proposition, but is an issue of degree. Hardly any Christian believes that the Bible is simply a history book without any added meaning, or that it is simply an allegorical tale. Throughout history Jews and Christians have simultaneously understood their scriptures literally and symbolically in varying degrees with differences primarily arising from the meaning they ascribe to the events and messages it contains. One’s worldview greatly informs that understanding.

The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, was basically written by Jews. The dispute between literal and allegorical reading of scripture was a hotly contested issue at the time of Christ. Sadducees, who were the aristocratic priestly class, rejected every religious concept and practice that was not found in a literal reading of scripture. They rebuffed Pharisaical use of allegorical interpretation and the oral law that had developed over the centuries as a hedge around the written law, ostensibly to protect Jews from violating it. Sadducees solely and strictly followed the prescribed law dealing with the temple and considered a belief in an afterlife and spirits as foolish superstitions, while Pharisees placed so much emphasis on their oral traditions that they warranted repeated rebukes from Jesus.

Philo of AlexandriaAncient Jewish culture developed within the broader context of oriental culture that used imagery and figurative language extensively, so to some extent their writings should be read in that light. Even though the Jews practiced the ceremonial law as it was literally prescribed, most Jews at the time of Christ also viewed scripture from a symbolic perspective, such as Abraham foreshadowing Israel going down to and returning from Egypt. Rabbinical Judaism that utilized extensive allegorical interpretation flourished after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This is greatly due to the influence of a Platonist Jewish philosopher named Philo from Alexandria in Egypt who was a contemporary of Jesus. This approach to scriptural interpretation carried over into the early Christian community from their Jewish roots. As they read their Hebrew Bible, they found many types for Christ such as the Pascal Lamb, King David, and Jonah spending three days in the belly of a fish.

Christianity was born into a Greco-Roman world that greatly influenced Christianity and its believers. Christianity’s allegorical approach to interpreting scripture also had roots in this Greco-Roman influence, particularly Platonist philosophy. The expansion of Greek culture by Alexander the Great over time led to the dilution of its classical roots and a deterioration of its society, eventually leading to its conquest by Rome. As Greece floundered, philosophers became the moral compass for society. These philosophers, particularly the Stoics and Platonists, attempted to explain many of the classic Greek myths about the gods that were hardly edifying, in an allegorical manner in order to find some moral lesson. Alexandria, with the world’s largest library, was the seat of learning and of this allegorical school of thought. Alexandria had a large Jewish population–over twenty-five percent–that participated in this academic culture. Indeed, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, the Septuagint, which early Christians used, was written by Jewish scholars in Alexandria around two hundred years before Christ. This Greek allegorical approach was adopted by rabbinical Judaism, and appealed to many gentile Christian converts due to their Greco-Roman roots.

However, the Alexandrian allegorical school of thought had its rival in Antioch, which followed a more literal reading of scripture. This led to a great deal of conflict in the early Christian Church requiring numerous councils and synods to address issues raised by these different approaches to understanding scripture. Over the centuries this tension between a literal and allegorical interpretation of scripture never completely disappeared and periodically took center stage.

b. Variations in Translations

In the late Middle-Ages the predominate scholastic approach to reading scripture tilted heavily towards the allegorical approach, which often included multiple layers of interpretation of scripture. However, the Renaissance and its Christian Humanist movement launched a quest to understand scripture according to the historical meaning found in their original languages. This cutting-edge biblical scholarship greatly contributed to the Protestant Reformation and a tendency to latch onto just one, more literal understanding of Biblical texts. Ironically, three hundred years later, Protestants found their literal beliefs in scripture challenged by 19th Century scholars using an historical critical method of Biblical scholarship.

Which translation is used by students of the Bible often impacts their understanding of the text. This has been true throughout history. In the 2nd Century, Justin Martyr, in his dialog with the Jewish philosopher, Trypho, had to debate which translations of various scripture were correct. For example, Justin quoted Isaiah from the Greek Septuagint as saying, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Trypho in turn argued that the word “virgin” should be translated as “young woman.” The translation of this simple verse makes a big difference.

In the late 4th Century, Jerome accomplished a monumental task of translating the Old and New Testaments into Latin, and scholars remain impressed with the quality of his work. This translation, known as the Vulgate, became the official Catholic translation of scripture. However, it did not take long for major doctrinal issues to flow out of his work. Augustin of Hippo, who made the greatest impact on Christian theology after the Apostles, relied on Jerome’s translation of Roman’s 5:12, which reads: “Propterea sicut per unum hominem peccatum in hunc mundum intravit, et per peccatum mors, pertransiit, in quo omnes peccaverunt.” (“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.”)(emphasis added). Augustin, who was not fluent in Greek, accepted Jerome’s translation that “in whom (Adam) all have sinned,” to be correct, and accordingly developed his theory of original or inherited sin based on this translation. Most scholars today agree that the correct translation of this verse into Latin should be, “Quia, propterea quod” (“for that all have sinned” or “because all have sinned.”)1 In spite of this tenable origin, the concept of original sin, which the Greek-speaking Orthodox branch of Christianity does not follow, is the foundation of much of Western Christian theology, both Catholic and Protestant.

Erasmus interpretation title page
Erasmus portrait

This example is not an isolated issue with the Vulgate translation. In 1516, one year before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the chapel door, the renowned Christian Humanist, Erasmus, published his translation of the New Testament with parallel texts of the Greek and Latin translations side by side. This work was well read by the intellectual community and brought both praise and criticism because it raised challenges to some of the Church’s fundamental doctrines. For example, he translated John the Baptist’s exhortation to repent found in Matthew 3:2 to read, “Turn to me,” instead of “Do penance.” The implication was glaring. John was calling people to reorient themselves to God and not to participate in the Church sacrament of confession. Luther, along with other reformers, read Erasmus’ translation, and other such works, which helped inform their perspective of correct doctrine and fuel the Protestant Reformation.

In addition to the quality of its translation, we also face the issue of the accuracy of the transcription of the Bible. For millennia, the Bible had to be tediously copied by hand, and occasional mistakes and even intentional editorial edits were bound to occur. For example, it is undisputed among scholars of all faiths that the verse found in 1 John 5:7, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one,” was not in the original Greek text but was added in the 12th Century. So, even when one believes that the Bible is the word of God in its original form, the Bible we read today is not exactly the same, which can lead to misunderstanding and disagreement among believers.

c. Deism and Natural Religion

The Protestant Reformation was followed by religious wars for much of the 16th and 17th Centuries. This relentless flow of blood gave many persons, scholar and uneducated alike, cause to question religious faith, especially while science, based in reason, was making unparalleled leaps forward. By the 18th Century more and more people questioned the authority of state churches such as the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches. Indeed, they questioned the authority of the state in general leading to the American and French revolutions. On the other hand, people often looked down on the low churches without a strong hierarchical order, such as Quakers and Baptists, for being carried away with enthusiasm. People began to gravitate to the security they found in science and reason. They questioned the reality of the supernatural, where God purportedly intervenes in the affairs on earth through supernatural grace. They viewed claims of miracles and the mystery of the trinity as nothing more than superstition. Yet, they loved Jesus’s moral teachings and believed that there was a God who would reward good behavior and punish wickedness after one is deceased. Deism and the concept of Natural Religion was born.

Thomas JeffersonThe Advent of Deism significantly impacted the way many persons viewed and read the Bible. Deists thought that natural religion, verses “revealed” or “positive religion” as found in the churches of their day, was the universally true faith based on morality and reason. They felt that at the root of all religious belief was this basic moral foundation that is corrupted by institutionalized religions with their creeds. There was no room for authoritarian priests, miracles and incomprehensible dogmas. Reason and goodwill ruled in their minds. As the philosopher Hume mused, it takes a miracle to believe a miracle. Many of the founders of the United States, such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, subscribed to Deist beliefs. Thomas Jefferson, even being a religious person, cut out of his Bible every reference to miracles and the supernatural.

d. Pietism, Romanticism, Schleiermacher and the turn to emotional experience

Around the same time Deism was cutting its teeth, another quite different movement began in Lutheran Germany. After Luther’s death, Lutheranism gravitated towards scholasticism similar to the Catholic scholasticism that Luther had earlier criticized for emphasizing intellectualism more than one’s relationship with God. At that time, Lutheran ministers were trained to basically provide scriptural proofs for Lutheran tenets. This tracked the cultural trend of making reason the new arbiter of truth. By the late 17th Century, religion was becoming more a matter of the head than the heart. This concerned Lutheran minister Philipp Jakob Spencer, who felt that true piety required a personal relationship with God. In 1675, he published his book, Pia Desideria (“Pious Desires”) which led to the Pietist movement in Lutheranism. Scriptural reading shifted from an academic exercise to one that focused on inspiring readers and listeners.

This movement spilled over into the general Protestant community and inspired other preachers such as Jonathon Edwards and George Whitefield who were instrumental in the American 18th Century 1st Great Awakening and also John Wesley who formed the Methodist movement that was influential in the early 19th Century 2nd Great Awakening. Current-day evangelicalism and Pentecostalism can trace some of their roots to this Pietist movement stressing an emotional connection with the divine.

Just as the spectrum of the Christian community expanded to include the rational Deists at one end and the emotional Pietists on the other, the intellectual community was experiencing a similar expansive dichotomy. The 17th and 18th Centuries formed the Age of Enlightenment, an era of reason giving birth to the scientific method with its amazing discoveries. Philosophy blossomed with philosophers like Kant linking faith with reason. On the other hand, many intellectuals feared that society was losing its humanity, the creative essence that makes us human and connects us with the divine and the universe. European Romanticism was their answer. Romanticism was a cultural artistic movement that fostered creativity in art, music and poetry. They valued the beauty of nature and our connection with it. Romanticism was more of a religion of nature as opposed to the Deists’ natural religion of the mind. They valued the freedom and inspiration found in the expression of human creativity. To this day, we value the fruits of this movement which produced some of our most cherished art and music.

Romanticism painting

The theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Modern Christian Liberal Theology (“liberal” has no reference to political ideology), was born in Germany near the end of this age on November 21, 1768. His work paved the way for the development referred to as “higher criticism” that rocked Biblical understanding in the early 19th Century.

e. Liberal Theology and the Critical Reading of Scripture

The Age of Enlightenment ushered in an era where reason challenged scripture as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Kant introduced the concept of rational faith, Schleiermacher defined piety in terms of experience and Hagel viewed history as the means by which divinity and humanity developed a sense of mutual self-consciousness. This process gave birth to Liberal Protestant Theology where the Bible is read in a whole new way.

As an ordained Reformed minister, Schleiermacher appealed to his elite friends with his 1799 work, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, wherein he asserts that despite his Romanticist friends’ aversion to religion, they were actually in touch with true religion―feelings that connect us with the infinite. Schleiermacher rejected all of the dogmas, priesthoods and rituals of institutional religions as corruptions of Christ’s original pure religion. In essence, Schleiermacher’s theology consisted of a quest for unity between human consciousness and the divine infinite source of all existence. We are able to overcome our sin-consciousness that is attracted to finite things through our contact with Christ’s perfect God-consciousness. As we gain an impression of Jesus’s personality and feel an indication of his perfect unity with the divine, his perfect God-consciousness displaces our own flawed sin-consciousness, which redeems our soul from our fallen state. This quest to discover the real historical Jesus in order to gain a greater appreciation and impression of his personality became a central theme of his followers.

In 1835, the German scholar David Strauss created an uproar when he published his book, The Life of Jesus, in which he asserted that much of the scriptural account of Jesus’s life is simply myth. Other German Scholars, mainly based in the University of Berlin that Schleiermacher helped found, published various scholarly works using linguistics to show that the Bible was not what it was purported to be, such as the Pentateuch, which traditionally was referred to as the five books of Moses. According to their analysis, these first books in the Bible came from four different sources after the Jews had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon around 537 BC, not from one source, purportedly Moses, 1500 years earlier. They pointed to various issues such as the use of two names for God, Yahweh (Jehovah) and Elohim, to prove their hypothesis.

These scholarly works challenged the faith of many traditional Christians, inspired the liberal theologians, and elicited responses from conservative critics. Liberal Christian leaders like Horace Bushnell, a congregationalist pastor and writer, and French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, stressed that the Bible should not be read as a set of propositions of specific truths, but figuratively as inspirational stories and poetic reflections of life. However, many traditionalists were unfazed by the claims of higher criticism and simply pointed out that Moses’s original books were subject to numerous transcriptions and translations, which easily could have produced the results these German scholars relied upon in reaching their conclusions. Interestingly, years earlier, the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, taught that the term Elohim referred to God the Father while the term Jehovah referred to the premortal Jesus, both being separate distinct beings. Regardless, these scholars’ astounding allegations provoked a dramatic reaction from conservative Christians, especially as many mainstream Protestant denominations began to adopt liberal theological ideas.

f. Fundamentalist claim of Inerrant Scripture

In 1909 the devout Presbyterian founder of Union Oil, Lyman Stewart, conceived of and funded an effort to combat the growing influence of the German intellectual movement known as Liberal Protestant Theology and its “higher criticism” which was gaining favor among many intellectuals in the mainline Protestant denominations. They published a twelve-volume set of essays written by various pastors and professors regarding what they deemed to be basic Christian doctrines and called the work, The Fundamentals. They maintained that certain tenets of the Christian faith were so fundamental, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, Christ’s eternal divinity and his vicarious atonement, that no one could be a real Christian unless he or she accepted these truths. Among these asserted irrefutable articles of true Christian faith was the inerrancy of the Bible.

The conservatives threw down the gauntlet that was picked up by liberal theologians, and an intense debate raged on for a couple of decades. In 1922, the liberal Baptist pastor named Harry Fosdick delivered a fiery attack on conservatives titled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” which was answered by Princeton University professor J. Gersham Machem’s essay “Christianity or Liberalism.” It all came to a head in 1925 with the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee regarding the teaching of evolution in the public schools. It actually was a publicity stunt set up to embarrass fundamentalist Christians. It proved disastrous to them in large measure due to the satirical reporting of atheist journalist H. L. Mencken. He was successful in portraying fundamentalist as ignorant back-country yokels who were completely out of touch with the times and reality.

One eventful exchange during the trial occurred when the state called the defense attorney, three-time Democrat presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, to the stand as an adverse expert witness. Bryan, one of the most prominent religious figures of his day, was asked if he believed the literal word of the Bible. After affirming this belief, he backtracked when asked if he believed the world was created in six, twenty-four-hour days. He admitted that he believed the reference to “days” in the creation story found in Genesis actually referred to time periods, not literal days. His credibility was shot, along with fundamentalists who insisted on an inerrant Bible.

Scopes Trial

We are now brought full circle back to the first issue raised of whether the Bible should be read literally or allegorically. The Scopes trial ended, but the debate still rages on. Regardless, most Christians believe the Bible to be the word of God to the extent it is translated correctly and that it expresses truth both literally and allegorically in varying degrees. For Christians, the Bible remains the most important and widely used instrument to establish orthodoxy. However, despite the oft repeated refrain of sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), it is not the only arbiter of truth that Christians have utilized.

We will explore these other methods in the following essay. (Click below for more):

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The Human Factor

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What is True? continued

1 Fillion, La Sainte Biblia, commentee, Vol. VIII, p. 46.

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