T. PIERCE BROWN
In the 70 years we have been involved with the propagation of New Testament Christianity, we have noticed a phenomena that may be of interest or value to many. It is the fact that when some New Testament doctrine has been misunderstood, perverted or misused, those who try to correct it often go to the opposite extreme and start a doctrine that is just as bad or worse.
For example, every early in the church, baptism was recognized as being so important that some begin to assume that it had some merit or power in itself to remit sins. It was assumed to be a regenerating act that would be administered even to an unconscious dying drunkard and would wash away his sin. When concerned Bible scholars like Martin Luther saw that without faith it was impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), some who accepted that great truth went so far as to say that salvation is by faith alone. Luther taught that one can only be saved by faith, but also taught in both his larger and smaller catechism that baptism was essential for salvation, for properly done it was an act of faith. He clearly taught that if a person was baptized without an act of faith it was invalid, and as he put it, like a “bath-keeper’s baptism.” In his larger catechism we find these words, “Baptism is no human trifle, but instituted by God Himself, moreover, that it is most solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved, lest any one regard it as a trifling matter, like putting on a new red coat.”
However, most of those who followed him have denied the importance of baptism, and have assumed that since it has no merit or regenerating power of itself, it has nothing to do with salvation. We do not have to run pastJerusalemto get away fromBabylon.
Again, we had a good friend many years ago who taught that one must be baptized by a sound gospel preacher in order to be saved. His argument basically was that Jesus had given the Great Commission only to his disciples, so only a true disciple had the authority to baptize. We pointed out that he actually gave it only to the eleven apostles according to Matthew 28:16-19, but that did not impress him.
In vain we tried to show him that although Jesus only gave what we call the Great Commission to those disciples, at no time did he indicate that the power of his word was limited by the person who transmitted it. We asked him, “If an atheist happened to give a person a copy of the Bible or a tract that had the plan of salvation plainly marked, would that invalidate the truth, or leave the person who obeyed it still lost?” We tried to impress upon him that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans1:16) regardless of who transmits it or helps a person obey it. The power is not in the person who presents it or transmits it. We emphasized that if his theory was true, no one could have any assurance of salvation from the apostles on down. In Paul’s day there were some preachers who were hypocrites and preaching Christ out of envy and selfish ambition (Philippians1:15-17) but their unsavory and unsaved condition did not prevent those who obeyed that preaching from being saved.
Our point now is that some, seeing the ridiculous conclusion my old friend and others may have had, went the opposite direction and concluded that it did not matter who baptized a person, or for what purpose or with what belief he had when he was baptized. As long as he was baptized with the grand motive of pleasing and obeying Christ, he could be baptized in order to get into his favorite denomination. He could be baptized to indicate that he was already saved. He could properly be baptized while he fully intended to be a faithful member of some man-made denomination whose doctrine and practice was unauthorized by Christ. In fact, they even taught that he could be baptized and have membership in no church at all, though the Lord said that those who were being baptized for the remission of their sins were being added together in his church (Acts 2:47).
Again, the accepted hermeneutic of most scholars of which we are aware has been for many years that we can understand or interpret the Bible correctly by the proper understanding and use of direct commands, approved examples and necessary inferences or implications. Because some were ignorant of how to apply those principles and made what we consider ridiculous mistakes, others simply discarded what they disdainfully term “the old outmoded hermeneutics” and advocated the adoption of some “new hermeneutics.” The primary problem with that is that we cannot discover what the new hermeneutic is and how to apply it. The best we can discover, whatever it is it leaves every person with the idea that whatever he decides to believe or do, as long as he has a good honest reverent heart, it will be satisfactory.
It may be of some value for us to mention a few of the mistakes made by those who misunderstood the “old hermeneutic.” There is an approved example of Jesus being baptized in a river. Therefore, in order to follow Jesus one must be baptized in a river. When discussing this with a friend who had that idea, she first said, “running water.” We replied, “We can open the faucet and the drain in the baptistery if you want running water.” Then she said, “It was a river.” We replied, “It was not just a river. It was theJordan. If you need to follow the example of Jesus in that respect you must go to theJordan.” We are not sure she ever saw the fallacy of her false assumptions, but her mistake did not invalidate the proper use of an inspired approved example.
The same kind of mistake has been made with respect to a direct command or a necessary implication (usually called necessary inference). At least one small group inIllinoisread in Mark 14:15 that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in a large upper room. And in verse 23, “He took a cup.” So they concluded that we were only authorized to take the Lord’s Supper in an upper room, using only one container. We were unable to determine if they thought they must follow a man bearing a pitcher of water (v. 13) before they could go to the upper room. But their ignorance of how to apply a hermeneutic principle does invalidate its proper use.
We could multiply examples of how an effort to correct some mistake has led some to go to the opposite extreme. What lessons should we get from this? There are many, but one or two simple ones must suffice at this time.
First, do not assume that because a doctrine or practice is wrong the opposite must be right. What is right is not to be determined by how different a certain doctrine or practice is from a previous one. It is to be determined by a careful and proper consideration of what God demands. We must also be able to discover the difference in what God demands, and what God permits. In the above examples, God permits persons to be baptized in theJordan River, and take the Lord’s Supper in an upper room. An intelligent examination of the facts clearly shows that not all the early Christians did that or were expected to, so we can know that we are not required to do either. If we discovered in any case of conversion that the inspired teacher took the trouble to make sure they had theJordan Riverbefore they would baptize a person we could make it an important point. If any record indicated that before anyone could properly take the Lord’s Supper, they must have an upper room, we could make a more definite statement about its necessity.
We need to realize that the solution of the problem will not come by merely trying to take a half-way position between two opposing ideas and compromising with both. It will only come by making an intelligent, honest and thoughtful assessment of what God clearly has shown that he wants.
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.