Friday, February 25, 2005

Historical Arguments

I thought I would specifically deal with some of the arguments for doctrinal development. These men that hold to such a thing love to point to “examples” in history of doctrine developing. Their favorites are the doctrine of the Trinity, including the doctrine of Christ, and Justification, including the atonement. Sadly, one can hardly find a history book that is not polluted with this very idea. They speak of these doctrines as being ‘developed’ and finally agreed upon. In this post, I thought I would examine their arguments about the doctrine of Justification and atonement as developing.

Those who hold to development of justification and the atonement of Christ love to say, that Reformation’s idea on justification and the atonement cannot be necessary because no one held that until Luther. Thus, either one has to allow variant ideas on justification or one excommunicates every person prior to the Reformation. Yet, this is a false dichotomy. A choice that we need not make. While, people can trot out all sort of strange views from the saints of old about the sacrifice of Christ, it does not mean that the church at large understood Christ and his justifying work in such strange ways or that they had no clear understanding. For every Abelard, who believed Christ’s death was at best a moral influence upon us, there are 100 people, if not more, who rightly saw Christ’s death as a sacrifice. Athanasius states:

He became incarnate for our sakes, so that he might offer himself to the Father in our place, and redeem us through his offering and sacrifice . . . For Christ, our passover, is sacrificed.

Augustine continues along the same lines:

He offered sacrifice for our sins. And where did he find that offering, the pure victim that he would offer? He offered himself, in that he could find no other.

Southern France and Northern Italy seemed to always hold forth Protestant theology. Ambrose held that the “justification of the sinner and the remission of the sins were not human merit, but by the expiatory sacrifice of the Cross. (J.A. Wylie. History of Protestantism. Pg.19)” It seems that the church held to a correct view of justification and atonement from the beginning. It should be noted that Ambrose, Athanasius, and Augustine are three of the biggest doctors of the church. It seems likely that their teaching was followed widely. Now like many things the final verbiage was not settled. The Reformation drew important lines of distinction to make sure error was kept out. Yet, the Reformers themselves never thought of themselves as developing doctrine. They thought of themselves are returning to original Christinaity. They saw themselves are returning to the early centuries of the church. Calvin in the his Institutes quotes everybody from Augustine to Bernard of Clairvaux to prove his doctrine of justification is not an innovation or a development, but rather it is the plain truth that the church had always held.