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As a pastor I don’t have a lot of time to read academic journals, but I do subscribe to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Westminster Theological Journal. Some articles strike my fancy more than others, but I always find something beneficial.

Case in point: Robert Letham’s article “Catholicity Global and Historical: Constantinople, Westminster, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century ” in the Spring issue of WTJ (Vol. 72, No. 1). (As an aside, Letham’s volume on The Holy Trinity is one of the best theological books I’ve ever read). In this article, Letham makes two related points.

1) The global church, if it is to be truly catholic (universal), must be apostolic; that is, grounded in Scripture as understood by orthodox church tradition.

2) The evangelical church, if it is to be apostolic, must make more of an effort to be catholic; that is, aware of the breadth and depth of the historic teaching of the church.

For example, Letham argues that the Westminster Assembly did not conceive of its work as defending a narrow tradition.

The Assembly's Reformed context establishes its Catholic credentials, for the Reformers were at odds not with the Catholic tradition but with its immediate representatives. Evidence abounds from Luther, Calvin, and their contemporaries. In Westminster's case, this is abundantly demonstrated from the minutes, where the records have shown beyond the slightest doubt that every theological question was debated from a foundation of exegesis of biblical texts, in dialogue with the history of exegesis reaching back to the early days of the church. So pervasive is the focus on the exegesis of the Bible that it would be futile here to list the tests on which debate turned--the evidence is literally overwhelming. However, it was not carried on in isolation; it took place self-consciously as part of the great tradition of the church. (52)

Today’s evangelicals do not make the same efforts toward catholicity. As a result, we end up repeating old mistakes.

Might it not have spared a lot of turmoil if Pinnock, Sanders, and Boyd [i.e., advocates of open theism] had been aware that what they paraded as an exciting new development was merely a rehash of Socinianism? Would it not have helped if they had been aware that their claim that the church was held captive by Greek philosophy sprang from ignorance that this theory had been refuted many times over? (55)

And regarding the first point, Letham warns that before we chuck historic Christianity (because we now live in an exciting global context) we should remember that the catholic faith did not come from America or Europe.

There are those who claim that we are entering an entirely new era requiring a massive paradigm shift in the church's thought and action. In this case, historical theology is merely a curiosity. It may have a part in an ongoing conversation but the debate has moved on. The past is effectively sidelined since a conversation, as it progresses in subtle and dynamic ways, renders obsolete and irrelevant the comments made five minutes ago. Many voices praise the idea that the church will be freed from its captivity to Western Europe and North America. This misses the point that the foundations of the church were laid by Egyptians (Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine), and a Syrian (John of Damascus), so say nothing of the apostles (Middle-Eastern Jews)--these hardly look like Western Europeans, let alone North Americans. (55)

Here’s Letham’s conclusion:

Global Christianity in the twenty-first century, to be truly catholic, must be apostolic--grounded in Scripture and built upon the teaching of the church. It is worryingly evident that many who have leaped onto the bandwagon of globalism--mainly in this country--are ready to move beyond the foundation. On the other hand, it is my impression that for too many in the evangelical and Reformed churches, an appreciation of the historical catholicity of the church is lacking. Only when these distortions are corrected will it be possible meaningfully to reaffirm with Constantinople I, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." (57)

If you can get your hands on the latest issue of WTJ, read Letham. And while you’re at it, Paul Helm’s article on the misrepresentation of B.B. Warfield is also very good.

Above all, go read some old books, even older than the Reformation once in awhile.

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10 thoughts on “Catholicity and Apostolicty”

  1. Robert Wille says:

    Care to provide a list of representative works? Or maybe point us back to one you’ve already provided?

  2. Samuel says:

    A quick google search found me this page: which has downloads for two of the articles in the current issue, including the Letham paper. I look forward to digging in, and possibly subscribing to this valuable resource.

    I’d echo Robert’s comment—I would love to hear your recommendations on some pre-Reformation works to consider reading.

  3. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I’m sure there are readers out there who are more well read than I am in pre-Reformation texts. But here are a few I have benefited from:

    The Apostolic Fathers (Michael W. Holmes edition includes the Greek text)
    Eusebius, The History of the Church
    Augustine, Confessions (or City of God which I’ve never gotten all the way through)
    Athanasius, On the Incarnation (includes C.S. Lewis’ famous introduction on reading old books)
    Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule

    Some secondary literature to consult:

    Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity
    Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church
    Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers
    Hughes Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures (7 vols.)
    Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines

  4. This is so important to consider. And, if I may, I want to say that my own theological circle, Baptists, are even more neglectful than the “Westminster” tradition. I had a brother in my office the other day who is attending a conservative Anglican communion now because he likes hearing their liturgy because, in his words, “It seems so rooted in history.” His complaint about Baptists? He said that if you only ever attended a Baptist church, you would get the feeling that church was invented less than fifty years ago. I was saddened because, well, he was pretty much correct.

    I’m trying to help correct that through our small groups by teaching a class on the Church Fathers and the history of the Reformation. How would you suggest we help folks at the church become more aware of our brothers who have gone on before?

  5. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Sounds like you have a great start by teaching your class!

  6. Nathan says:

    I’ve really benefited from Dr Nick Needham’s church history series “2000 Years of Christ’s Power.” He is very thorough and readable, and he won’t bog you down in little details.

  7. Ted Bigelow says:

    Here is another vote for Robert Letham’s masterful work, “The Holy Trinity.” Beg, borrow, or just buy it. You will be repaid far more than you invest, and your soul will be delivered from the thousand trivialities of theology and the contemporary church scene, as your soul is fed.

    Thanks, Kevin, for pointing out this article. Great blessing.

  8. Cory Hartman says:

    I am reading through Jaroslav Pelikan’s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. It is some of the richest, most nourishing, most horizon-expanding stuff I’ve ever read. Pelikan defines tradition as that which the Church has believed, taught, and confessed on the basis of the Word of God. A pithy line from his introduction: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

  9. Hi Kevin

    John Sanders was aware of the affinity between the Socinian view of divine foreknowledge and the open theist view before the publication of The Openness of God. He doesn’t think that it is sound scholarship to link the two together.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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