Defending The Historic(?) Christian Faith

NLGRC

Introduction

I was recently notified of a class on Roman Catholicism being taught by Norman Geisler at Southern Evangelical Seminary. Given that so many of his associates and students have become Catholic over the years (including the co-author of his latest book on the subject!), this was not a big surprise. What caught my eye, though, was the tagline that said the class would be “comparing and contrasting it with orthodox Christianity.”

I’ve critiqued Geisler’s attempts at grounding orthodoxy before (here and here), and I doubt that anyone would say that Geisler’s quasi-Thomistic, pseudo-Calvinist, Dispensational, Fundamentalist Baptist doctrinal collage is the measure for orthodox Christianity, but that’s kind of how it often comes across when he is involved.

The statement reminded me of another terminological issue I have with Dr. Geisler and many of the projects with which he is involved either directly or indirectly. Here, my issue is not with the truth or falsity of Geisler’s doctrine, but rather his claim that it represents “the historic Christian faith.”

“The Historic” Christian Faith

Geisler’s equation of his beliefs with “the historic Christian faith” is evident from several of the institutions with which he is involved or has substantially influenced. For example, two seminaries and one academic society that Geisler is associated with share the same basic mission and doctrinal statements. I know from personal experience that their wording (and, more importantly, their interpretation of those words) match Geisler’s.

SES

Here is the doctrinal statement from Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES):

SES.Y

VES

The second is from Veritas Evangelical Seminary (VES):

VES.Y

ISCA

Finally, the same sentiment is reflected in the purpose statement of the International Society of Christian Apologetics (ISCA), an academic society Geisler founded:

ISCA.Y

Note that in all three cases above, the institutes assert that they are defending “the historic Christian faith.” The third qualifies the  phrase as being equivalent to the institution’s own beliefs, as does that of Ratio Christi (an organization started at SES after Geisler left, but which was started by his students):

Ratio Christi

ratiochristi_DS

 

 You Keep Using That Word . . .

The famous line from The Princess Bride that forms the heading for this section is more than appropriate here. The use of “the” and “historic” in this phrase implies that (1) there is only one Christian faith, and that (2) it is reflected in Christian history. Given this understanding, Geisler’s continued insistence that he and the institutes associated with him defend the historic Christian faith flies in the face of the facts.

This can be seen by comparing the various doctrinal statements of the above institutions with the actual faith of the historic Church. Since Jesus Christ founded the Church about 2,000 years ago, one would expect that “the historic Christian faith” would at least reflect the majority views of that 2,000 year period. Instead, what we consistently find in “Geislerian” doctrinal statements is a post-Reformation / Baptist view.

SES

The SES doctrinal statement, for example, contains numerous doctrines that only came into popularity during (blue) or after (purple) the Reformation; others are as late as the 19th or 20th centuries (red), and some are merely choices from among several historic options (yellow):

SES.DS

 

VES

The VES doctrinal statement includes plenty to ensure that only Protestants – perhaps only Baptists / Evangelicals – can enroll (highlighted):

VES.DS

ISCA

Or consider the more minimalist doctrinal statement of the ISCA. Although it was adopted to allow a wide range of Christian scholars to participate, it clearly was meant to exclude non-Protestants (highlighted):

ISCA.DS

The idea that this doctrinal statement (as understood by ISCA) can be equated with “the historic Christian faith” is amplified in ISCA’s Bylaws:ISCA.BYLAWS

Not only are these beliefs clearly post-Reformation in origin, it actually reflects 21st Century thought – for whatever the doctrinal statement actually says, it must be understood as the ISCA framers meant it. Ironically, the protestant ISCA Framers require a doctrinal “magisterium” in case anyone dissents from the statement as they mean it (which reflects the argumentative strategy Geisler often uses in his attack on the beliefs of others, e.g., members of ETS and scholars like Michael Licona). Yet the need for a “magisterium” is used by Geisler to attack Catholicism! (A lesser but also interesting irony is that the 2014 ISCA president Don Williams is an internationally recognized expert on the likes of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien – none of whom ISCA would accept as members!)

Likewise, the doctrinal statement of the Ratio Christi directors (who judge the theological fitness of its leadership) seems to be identical with the above Evangelical distinctives:

rc_DS2.JPG

Conclusion

The issue here is not whether Geisler or the institutions connected to him are wrong in their doctrinal statements. Nor is it that they do not have the right to use such statements to weed out those they do not wish to have as part of their organization. Rather, it is that they claim to defend the historic faith of a 2,000 year old Church while including late doctrinal innovations in their doctrinal statements. To do so when their unique views are clearly in the minority (both historically and presently) seems misleading.

While it has been argued by members of these organizations that the historic Christian faith that is being defended and the particular doctrinal statements they adhere to do not necessarily equate, I doubt they would say the same thing if, say, a Mormon organization arose making the same claims.

From personal experience I think they would say that “the historic Christian faith” is what (they think) is taught in the Bible, and it is therefore “the historic Christian faith.” But that is not what those words typically mean – words that are being used for a reason. If Geisler or these groups truly believe in a legitimate distinction between the historic Christian faith and their own statement of faith, why have none of them made it explicit?

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8 thoughts on “Defending The Historic(?) Christian Faith

  1. ISCA item 3, “grace alone through faith alone based on the finished work of Christ alone apart from any good works on the part of human beings.”

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 Christ’s work was finished upon his ascension and installation as the high priest of his God. This also resulted in the law being changed by adding a word to it. Heb. 7:12 It is this word of law which has been added that Paul references in Rom. 2:13, 5:20, Gal. 3:19 and Stephen references in Acts 7:53.
    The soteriological system that ISCA pontificates and defends is just as defective as any other false soteriological system. The assumption that Jesus Christ died in anyone’s place is poppycock.

  2. Well said!

    I have a difficult time with the use of the word “historic” to describe today’s protestant movement in any of it’s forms. If anyone can lay claim to representing the “historic Christian faith” it would be the Orthodox Church. The have changed very little. The Creeds are the historic, extra biblical documents of the church, not Calvin’s Institutes or any of the many systematic theology books sitting in my library.

    It would be more accurate to say “this is how we understand the gospel and the faith. True, it is different than the early historic understanding of the faith, but we believe our understanding is more accurate. Here’s why…”

  3. Hey Doug, nice article. Kind of along with this… remember the first ever gathering for ISCA when the initial group had to come up with a name and by-laws? If you remember, Geisler was running the meeting and the first order of business was to come up with a name of the society. The second order was to develop a statement of who could/couldn’t join. One person objected and said that these should be switched, since who you let in to the society may change the name to be adopted (a logical and reasonable suggestion). Geisler shot down the motion. Another objected along the same lines. Geisler, again, shot down the motion. None less than L. Russ Bush also objected. At this point Geisler (visibly annoyed), shouted that no more discussion would take place and that he would brook no more objections to the order of business. It was quite the sight seeing an 80 year old throw the equivalent of a temper tantrum in such esteemed company. Anyway, your analysis indicates that Geisler assumes what needs to be proven. He assumes he represents the “historic” Christian faith, in the same way that he “knew” who would be allowed in ISCA before it was even voted on.

    Sorry for the long post, it just brought back memories…

  4. “Since Jesus Christ founded the Church about 2,000 years ago, one would expect that “the historic Christian faith” would at least reflect the majority views of that 2,000 year period.”

    I wish to be brief and only focus on this one quote from the above article, as it is in essence the crux of the entire mindset of the article here. Simply put, this is the logical fallacy known as the “argumentum ad populum” or the appeal to popular opinion, just in a nuanced way here. The majority opinion in the church throughout history is in no way shape or form what our mindset and theology today should line up with, which is the primary inference that may be correctly drawn from the above quote from this article. In short, when we look at even just the Bible itself, the proper view was the minority view even throughout the New Testament era as it was being developed, and even during the time of Jesus Himself.

    So the next time you wish to bash a solid evangelical group of ministries (which in and of itself should raise a number of red flags in the thinking Christian’s mind), be sure to use good logic and proper argumentation methodology in your discourse!

    Trevor Ray Slone, M.Min.
    Secretary of the International Society of Christian Apologetics (ISCA)
    Host of the apologetics radio show “Think it Through” – thinkitthroughapologetics.com
    Author of “Doing Apologetics Without the Need for Apology: Biblical Principles for Confrontational Relationality”

  5. Trevor,

    Thank you for taking the time to write. I am afraid that while you have identified the crucial statement of the article, you have missed the crux of the issue. I did not commit the ad populum fallacy, for I did not appeal to the popularity of a doctrine as a reason for accepting it. I did not even argue that the historic doctrines should be accepted. I also did not use popularity to argue that these doctrines were true, nor that the more recent doctrines were false. As I always told my students in the Critical Thinking courses I taught for 10 years at Southern Evangelical Seminary, a fallacy is only made when an element of an argument is illicitly offered in support of a conclusion. By missing the point of the argument, you have mislabelled it as fallacious.

    As I stated in the article (more than once): what I was arguing is that several of Geisler’s views should not be termed “historic” whether they are true or false. For example, one might argue that America was not “historically” liberal. That does not imply that one should not be liberal (it could, in fact, imply that one should be because liberalism is the more progressive view). Rather, the statement seems to be pretty clearly based on majority views of Americans over time, and at least would not imply America’s more recent political stance. Thus, as far as my article goes, your complaint that, “The majority opinion in the church throughout history is in no way shape or form what our mindset and theology today should line up with” is moot, and the rest of your statement that such an idea is “the primary inference that may be correctly drawn” from my article is false.

    Now, if you would like to provide a more useful critique, here’s the direction I’d go:

    The real issue here is what “historic” means. Most words can take on more than one meaning, and there may very well be some fault in my identification of “historic” as “the majority view of history.” I suppose it could simply mean “a view that arose in the past” – but that would be be a fairly useless qualification in these contexts. Further, I am a long time associate of Dr. Geisler, professors that studied under him, Southern Evangelical Seminary, and was a founding member of ISCA. In all these contexts, “historic” always conveyed to me the idea of “pedigree” (or something like it). It was used to make these doctrinal statements appear to reflect long-time Christian beliefs. If I misunderstood authorial intent all these years, I would be happy to be corrected (for, as revealed by the ongoing inerrancy debate, what Geisler thought when he wrote a word is its only legitimate meaning!).

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