Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
In this posting, I’d like to compare two different trends in scholarship, especially historical scholarship with regard to the early church. As historian Geoffrey R. Elton said: “The historian’s task is to understand before he approves or condemns, and understanding requires a grasp of how things looked to those we study.” — (Cited in Scott Hendrix, “Luther and the Papacy,” Introduction, pg x.)
First, as I’ve outlined in my posting on Literature on the Early Papacy, there is a tremendous confluence of scholarship around “what was it like in the early Roman church?” Virtually every historian I’ve cited, every one I’ve been able to find who’s written on the topic in the last 50 years, agrees, there was nothing resembling a monarchical bishop in the city of Rome during the first 120 years of the Christian church there, much less a “pope.” Rather, the best historical evidence suggests there was “a presbyterial system of governance [that] prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city.” (Lampe, pg 397)
This flies in the face of the concept of “tradition,” which Yves Congar describes in “The Meaning of Tradition”:
“Tradition included the imitation of the master’s life and habits. The disciple not only received oral lessons from his master, to be memorized – a most effective practice for inculcating ‘tradition’… So it was with the apostles; they had not only heard Jesus teach, they had ‘followed’ him everywhere; they laid down rules in (their) churches … to believe exactly what they believed … Catholics believe that this method of communication is the one most essential to the Church, and that it would suffice if it alone existed.” (pg 18).
If Lampe’s thesis is correct, there was no “master” (pope) to imitate, there was no papacy to “pass on” for multiple generations in the early church. Those who cite “development of doctrine” with regard to the papacy want to make something appear out of nothing.
But on the positive side, there is an amazing confluence of opinion regarding the life of Christ.
Consider the work of Gary Habermas who is said to have “compiled a list of more than 2,200 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to the present. He has identified minimal facts that are strongly evidenced and which are regarded as historical by a large majority of scholars, including skeptics.”
1. Jesus died by crucifixion
2. Jesus’s disciples believed he rose and appeared to them
3. The conversion of Paul (from persecutor of the church to leading Apostle).
4. The conversion of James, the brother of the Lord (originally a severe skeptic)
5. The empty tomb.
In his work “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus,” Habermas says that virtually 100% of scholars believe the first four are “so strongly evidenced historically that nearly every scholar regards them as reliable facts,” and the fifth is believed by more than 75% (pg 48).
Take a look at the following link from the blog of Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg:
“Professor Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University, an internationally known expert on the resurrection of Jesus, reported on a forthcoming work of Richard Bauckham, prolific New Testament scholar for many years at the University of St. Andrews. In it, Habermas explained, Bauckham builds on research by evangelical writer Larry Hurtado and atheist historian Gerd Ludemann, both of whom have argued that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus must have emerged within two or three years of the death of Jesus (whether or not one believes it actually happened).”
It’s not that 100% of scholars believe that the resurrection happened. But they are virtually unanimous in saying that this is something that the early church believed.
Harvey Cox, who no conservative Christian would consider an ally, recently summarized the work of the Jesus Seminar: while setting out to disprove much about history, in the process they proved he was a first century Palestinian Jew who claimed to be God and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate; his disciples fanned out to the world with the story that he was raised from the dead. Cox said:
“Despite widespread discrepancies among the researchers, some things were not contested. All agreed that Jesus really had existed, and that he was a first-century Palestinian Jew living under the heel of a Roman occupation that – like many such occupations before and since – had split its captive people into feuding sects and warring factions. They also agreed that he was a rabbi who taught the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, and gained a following as a teacher and a healer in Galilee, especially among the landless and destitute, but that he aroused the ire of the nervous ruling religious circles and the tense Roman authorities. When he and some of his followers arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover holidays he caused a stir in the Temple, was arrested, interrogated, and executed by crucifixion, a form of death by torture reserved by the Romans for those suspected of subverting their imperial rule. But after his death, his followers insisted that he had appeared to them alive, and they continued to spread his message even in the face of harsh persecution.” (Harvey Cox, “When Jesus Came to Harvard,” ©2004, pgs 18-19).
Even “critical scholarship” is confirming the facts of the life and death of Jesus Christ. We have come a long way since the days when the someone like Bertrand Russell could say that Jesus didn’t even exist.
The New Testament itself has also undergone and withstood a similar historical investigation, and conservative viewpoints continue to be confirmed. For example, most of Paul’s letters are now accepted by most scholars as absolutely authentic. They can be dated within a year or two, and, when cross-referenced with Acts and with secular history, they provide a remarkably clear picture of the history of that era.
Paul Barnett says,
“The implications of this Luke-Paul nexus for historical analysis are considerable. It means, first, that Luke’s narrative about Paul must be regarded as reliable; Paul was Luke’s direct (oral) source. Paul’s letters and the book of Acts form the basis for establishing a chronological sequence for Paul’s mission. In consequence, secondly, we are able to plot the time and place Paul wrote (many of) his letters to the churches. To be sure, there are gaps. Yet a practical chronological sequence is possible.” (“Paul, Missionary of Jesus,” pgs 209-210).
And this is precisely one of the factors that is going into the historical studies that I’ve cited elsewhere.
And with regard to the “development of the Canon of the New Testament,” more such studies are being pieced together:
“There is reasonable evidence to see the origin of the Pauline corpus during the latter part of Paul’s life or some time after his death, almost assuredly instigated by Paul and/or a close follower or followers, and close examination of the early manuscripts with Paul’s letters and of related documents seems to support this hypothesis.” (Stanly E. Porter, “Paul and the Process of Canonization,” in “Exploring the Origins of the Bible, Craig A. Evans and Emanuel Tov, Editors, pg. 202.)
Catholic apologists think they sense blood when they can ask questions about the Canon of the New Testament. But with all of Paul’s letters in one place, the question of a need for an “infallible interpreter” to come up with a “canon” is a real non-starter.
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In his introduction to Ladd’s “New Testament Commentary,” Donald Hagner summarizes this confluence: “Evangelicals – at least many of them – have become more open to many of the conclusions of critical scholarship (in regard to, for example, the authorship and dating of New Testament writings and the implications for the development of the New Testament) in the twenty years since Ladd wrote (in 1974). They continue, however, to share the basic convictions embodied in Ladd’s approach to biblical theology.” (pg 19)
Ladd’s approach simply involved a “commitment to the historical study of the New Testament, but with an openness to its theological truth.” (18) “Biblical theology must be done from a starting point that is biblical-historical in orientation. Only this approach can deal adequately with the reality of God and his inbreaking into history.” (13)
As J. Gresham Machen said, “The student of the New Testament should be primarily an historian. The centre and core of all the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads up to an historical climax. The Bible is primarily a record of events.”
Conservative Protestants have nothing to fear from a study of history. The same cannot be said of the history of the papacy. The more we know about it, the more it crumbles. And of course, the papacy is foundational to all of the Roman church’s claims to its own authority.