Does majority rule in theology?

In this week’s installment of Theology Unplugged, a podcast I highly recommend, Reclaiming the Mind Ministries president Michael Patton made the following comments about full preterists (like myself):

Now I would say, you can believe that, and you can make your arguments — and many people do from Scripture. I’m not persuaded at all by them — but at the same time I would say that this is an unChristian way to believe about a particular issue in the end times. It’s an unChristian way or, another way to put it, unorthodox; it is outside of the sphere of orthodoxy within historic Christianity. Now, the next thing we ask is, ok, if it’s outside of the sphere of historic Christianity, does that make… [you] automatically a nonbeliever, someone who is outside the grace of God, someone who is unregenerate as we sometimes put it, or someone who does not have a relationship established with the one true God? And I would say no.

Now, as much as I appreciate his not calling me unregenerate, I am disturbed by this emphasis on Church tradition. He, a Protestant, uses “orthodoxy” (doctrine that falls within the “sphere of historic Christianity”) as a blunt object to determine what is Christian and what is not. Upon what grounds does he do this? What’s amazing is that he doesn’t offer a rationale for determining exactly which beliefs of historic Christianity are diagnostic for the label “Christian”. Infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, apostolic tradition/succession — none of these extremely ancient teachings were ever repudiated by the Church of Rome or the East , and were thus held by all Christendom until Protestantism came along. Are all those who deny any of those to be termed “outside the sphere of orthodoxy” and hence guilty of “an unChristian way to believe”? The doctrine of the personhood of the Holy Spirit so essential to orthodox trinitarianism wasn’t even affirmed by the Church at large until after these ancient beliefs, at least two of which I believe Michael Patton denies!

Nor, apparently, can we fall back on the ecumenical councils to define orthodoxy for us. For one thing Patton finds beliefs outside the pale of orthodoxy that were never condemned by the whole Church. For instance, Patton states in no uncertain terms that Pelagianism is unorthodox and hence not “Christian”, yet that battle with Augustine was not fought at an ecumenical council and has yet to be repudiated by the Eastern Church. Conversely, he mentions the hypostatic union as an example of a belief about the Trinity that is not diagnostic of orthodoxy, yet it was confirmed at an ecumenical council.

So what is he saying? That someone, somewhere in Church history had to believe it for it to be in that sphere of his? How arbitrary is that? It seems to be the case that Protestants (Reformed groups especially) selectively draw from Church tradition, and then pretend that the points from tradition they agree upon are infallible because they are drawn from Church tradition, yet at the same time Church tradition may be cast aside where necessary, and people like Michael Patton here don’t have a consistent rationale for which is which. In the same way I contended in the case of the Scriptures, Church tradition either contains errors or it does not. If it does contain errors, it may not be used as a silver bullet to dismiss anything that sounds strange but is irrefutable with Scripture. This is what they do with full preterism.

I refuse to be held captive to a “majority rules” hermeneutic; the “church” of Judaism as it appeared in Jesus’ day hadn’t been a good steward of the truth they had been granted in Old Testament times. Jesus showed them they had been wrong about the Messianic Kingdom, and I can’t see why anyone would insist that the late first-century Church had to understand it all, either. Someone was seriously misled somewhere, at least: either Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John were mistaken about the imminence of the Kingdom and Christ’s return or the Church of the latter first century by-and-large misunderstood the eschaton that had occurred. For obvious reasons, I choose the latter. And this makes my thinking “unChristian”?

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