The Testimony of the Persecuted Cloud of Witnesses
Early in church history, divergent interpretations of Scripture were recognized and judged as problematic. One powerful tool to find the correct interpretation was proposed by the church fathers. Irenaeus and Vincent of Lérins proposed that the true teaching of Scripture would be found in the church across time (semper), across persons (ab omnibus), and across distance (ubique).122 While remarkably simple, this tool offers remarkable power and precision.
The principle weighs the consensus biblical interpretation of the "cloud of witnesses." Hebrews 11 portrays how we can learn from those who have gone before us, especially those who were mistreated, persecuted, and shunned by the world. The Scriptures promise that the godly will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). The godly, being endowed with the Holy Spirit, will naturally be able to interpret the Scriptures best.
It must be clear that this principle is not an exercise of simple "nose-counting" to ascertain what Scripture truly says. That would approach blasphemy, as if the word of God depended on some kind of majority vote. The Scriptures caution against such an approach by warning us that in the last days, men will go from bad to worse, and that teachers will tickle ears to gain a greater audience. Paul warns that teachers will arise to twist the word in order to gain followers after themselves. We must be cognizant that even at the close of the New Testament canon, Jesus rebukes five out of seven churches in Revelation. Today, false churches and teachers abound to an even greater degree.
While the Scriptures describe that heretics live lustful lives (2 Pet. 2:13-14), the true church will experience suffering and persecution (John 15:20). Jesus promises that a faithful remnant will never be extinguished but will resist the gates of Hades (Matt. 16:18). Integrating these insights, faithful biblical interpretation will be associated with a fivefold norm:
1. Diffusion: across distance
2. Endurance: across time
3. Breadth: across persons
4. Purity: with holiness
5. Suffering: with adversity
By weighing more heavily the persecuted, faithful "cloud of witnesses" there is much to be gained. It breaks us out of a solo scriptura mentality, which tends to fracture the church and exalt autonomy. It in fact represents an aspect of Tradition I thinking and helps us to eliminate bias and blind spots. Every generation is susceptible to "group-think," and by studying believers outside of one's culture and time period, we may more clearly see timeless truth. This exercise requires humility, acknowledging that God has worked through saints outside of our limited circle.
Examples of the "cloud of witnesses" principle in action best illustrate its use. By the end of the second century, the church had developed the regula fidei, or rule of faith, similar to the Apostle's creed of the fourth century. Useful in combating anti-trinitarian and gnostic heresies, the rule was affirmed by the persecuted church and thoughtfully drawn from Scriptures. The contents of the regula fidei were affirmed by the medieval church, the Anabaptists, and the Protestants. Given such a broad reception, especially from the early church and persecuted church, this interpretative principle would strongly suggest that the contents of the regula fidei are a faithful interpretation of Scriptures.
The persecuted groups include the ante-Nicene church, the Waldensians, the Lollards (followers of John Wycliffe), and the Anabaptists.123 In contrast, the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant churches, allied to the state, have been persecuting churches at many points in their history.
The persecuted churches are typically those that hold the clarity of Scripture most dearly: they tend to take the Bible at face value and not allow clear teachings to be accommodated to culture or prevalent expectations. When the word of God confronts a structure or institution, the suffering churches tend to modify or withdraw from the structure or institution. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches instead tend to employ the "principle of accommodation," modifying the teaching in some way to fit existing structures and institutions. Again, the Sermon on the Mount serves as the classic litmus test. The persecuted churches have usually obeyed Jesus' prohibition to not swear oaths at all and to love their enemies, that is, to reject the taking of human life, even in war. They have also embraced the plain readings of Jesus' teachings on divorce and wealth found in the Sermon on the Mount. Conversely, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have been much more lenient about divorce and wealth, have supported participation in state warfare, and have allowed their members to take oaths.124
The Protestants employed the "cloud of witnesses" interpretative principle in certain areas but generally avoided it in wide swaths of ecclesiology and ethics. On the positive side, Calvin took great pains to show that doctrines such as salvation by faith were the doctrines of the church fathers. His careful argument implied that the Roman Catholic church had left the historic faith, innovating in this departure. Sadly, however, Calvin and the other Protestants ignored or rejected a great deal of the early church's teachings on other matters. On matters of oaths, war, infant baptism, and separation from the world, they chose to adopt Roman Catholic views and reject the early church's position.
In contrast, the early Anabaptists much more consistently adopted the positions of the early church regarding ethics and ecclesiology. They affirmed the regula fidei and the historic creeds, but also chose to obey Jesus' teachings in ways very close to the early church.
In the last chapter we saw that interpretative systems are like packages where seemingly divergent subjects are bundled together. Regarding areas like jewelry, fashion, entertainment, the headcovering, home life, education, separation from the world, oaths, war, government involvement, remarriage, and infant baptism—the cloud of witnesses offers strong testimony. The suffering, persecuted church—beginning with the church described in Acts and progressing through the centuries—therefore offers illumination, conviction, and encouragement. On the other side are the churches that have embraced the power of temporal government, the fashions and entertainments of the world, "just war," beautiful cathedrals, and prestigious institutions. Those churches will mock the persecuted churches, disparage their doctrines, and even kill their members, imagining that they do service to God. The period of the Reformation illustrates this story in microcosm as the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches turned violent against the Anabaptists and Waldensians.
Kuruvilla, Finny. King Jesus Claims His Church: A Kingdom Vision for the People of God (Kindle Locations 1486-1538). Anchor-Cross Publishing. Kindle Edition.
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