In the first post of this series (see Part I), I introduced the question: “Should Christians use extra-biblical language in order to formulate Christian doctrine?” I mentioned that throughout church history there is a reoccurring tendency to say no, we should not use words that do not appear in Scripture when we articulate Christian doctrine. Ironically, this pseudo-biblical position has invariably been the position taken by a majority of notable heretics. The irony in the strategy employed by these false teachers is that they try to avoid biblical truth by only using biblical language. In a later post, I plan to show that this position is actually a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. But it may be helpful to first frame the debate in a more developed way by giving some further historical background.
There are numerous historical examples of heretics who have attempted to avoid biblical truth under the guise of strictly biblical language. A couple examples should suffice to illustrate the point.
Sabellians: The Sabellians (following Sabellius, 3rd century), denied any real distinction between the Persons of the Godhead. In this way, they promoted a form of modalism. They taught that God did not exist eternally in three distinct persons but that one God existed in shifting and vacillating modes. In doing this, they still affirmed the words of Scripture but they denied the concepts rightfully intended by those words. They filled familiar words with false meanings. The orthodox, sought to combat this error by clearly distinguishing the true doctrine of God. They did this by using theological words that did not appear in Scripture in order to clarify what they meant when they used the biblical terms. They made the claim that a trinity of persons eternally subsists in the unity which is God. This extra-biblical language enabled them to distinguish themselves from the error of the Sabellians who hid themselves in verbal ambiguities.
Arians: The Arians (following Arius, 4th century) claimed Christian orthodoxy, yet they denied the eternality of the Son of God and said that he was a created being. The orthodox church resisted this error and sought to clarify true biblical doctrine with a more developed definition of the concepts involved. One of the main points in the Arians’ argument then was that they were only using the language of Scripture. They said those who introduced terms like ‘Trinity’ or ‘consubstantial’ or ‘person’ or ‘essence’ were deviating from the simple faith of the Bible.
John Calvin comments insightfully here: “Because he could not oppose manifest oracles, Arius confessed that Christ was God and the Son of God, and, as if he had done what was right, pretended some agreement with the other men. Yet in the meantime he did not cease to prate that Christ was created and had a beginning, as other creatures. The ancients, to drag the man’s versatile craftiness out of its hiding places, went further, declaring Christ the eternal Son of the Father, consubstantial with the Father. Here impiety boiled over when the Arians began most wickedly to hate and curse the word homoousios [“same substance”]. But if at first they had sincerely and wholeheartedly confessed Christ to be God, they would not have denied him to be consubstantial with the Father. Who would dare inveigh against those upright men as wranglers and contentious persons because they became aroused to such a heated discussion through one little word, and disturbed the peace of the church? Yet that mere word marked the distinction between Christians of pure faith and sacrilegious Arians” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I chp. XIII. 4)
Other examples could be added to this list such as modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses and sometimes open theists. Historically, the Socinians have also used this strategy to deny doctrines related to the Trinity as well as other areas of Christian theology. The Campbellites used this strategy while promoting the doctrine of baptismal regeneration.
It is concerning, then, when evangelicals naively adopt an understanding of language that in former times was essentially limited to heretics. I have personally encountered this errant position numerous times through the years, even among church leadership. For instance, I was once speaking to a man about the over-arching plan of God in history. He interrupted me and said that he did not believe the word “over-arching” was in the Bible. Because of this, he thought I was moving into dangerous territory by claiming things about God that God did not actually say. I tried to explain that the term “over-arching” was not important in itself, but what was important was the genuinely biblical truth about God’s sovereign will and plan that this word “over-arching” was meant to help convey. I went on to say that extra-biblical terms can be helpful in teaching but can also be discarded or replaced if and when they are unhelpful or communicate something inaccurate. Nevertheless, the man remained unsatisfied, insisting that we should just use the specific words found in the Bible.
I could tell of several similar encounters over the years but I know that my expereince is not unique. In American church history, a definite shift occurred in which some evangelicals adopted this misguided philosophy of language from those who were formerly considered unorthodox. As historian Mark Noll says, “After the Revolution, Bible-onlyism emerged with great force. In contrast to the late-colonial period, when professions to follow just the Scriptures had been a staple of heterodox exegesis practiced by liberals, now the appeal to Scripture alone was linked to traditional theological orthodoxy” (America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, p. 373).
While there is more that could be said here, this historical background illustrates how this question has (1) repeatedly resurfaced in the history of the church and (2) how a denial of the appropriateness and value of extra-biblical terminology is a consistent characteristic of heresy, not piety as the proponents of this view suppose. We should be able to recognize this kind of argument for what it is when we hear it in our congregations. We should also be able to recognize that it is, at the very least, historically suspect. It should give us serious pause when we hear such a popular, though controversial, scholar as N. T. Wright use this same line of argumentation, such as he does in his article “Jesus and the Identity of God.” In the next post, I intend to continue my critique from a different angle.