Is “Old” the Criteria for Orthodoxy?

Jeff Cook, professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado, in a guest post on Scot McKnight’s blog, makes an argument that compares/contrasts Rob Bell and C. S. Lewis. Here is Jeff Cook’s logic:

  • Rob Bell is presenting ideas on hell
  • Evangelicals don’t like Rob Bell
  • C. S. Lewis presented similar ideas on hell
  • Evangelicals like C. S. Lewis
  • Therefore, Evangelicals are hypocrites for liking Lewis and not liking Bell

Cook makes the claim:

So I ask, Is there one idea in Love Wins that is not already grounded in word or metaphor in the writings of evangelicalism’s best-selling author? If not, then certainly Lewis—a far more substantial and influential thinker than Rob to modern American Christianity—has been worthy of our fire for decades now.

It begs the question what Cook is attempting here: does he sincerely want evangelicals to repudiate C. S. Lewis? Or is he suggesting that C. S. Lewis is in some way the standard for evangelical orthodoxy? Is “best-selling” the criterion by which theological positions are to be accepted or rejected? Yes, Lewis is much beloved by Christians (and non-Christians!) of all stripes. However, Cook fails to point out that many of Lewis’ views of hell did not go unchallenged. It could be said that Lewis was loved for his broad spectrum of writings but not necessarily for treatises on hell.

Cook makes an interesting defense along the way: he says Bell is “not claiming anything new.” This is yet another way of arguing for the “wide stream of Christianity” or “generous orthodoxy” that exists in the “historic orthodox Christian faith.” What Cook seems to be implying is that if a teaching is “old” it is orthodox. However, the issue isn’t whether a teaching is new or old but whether it is true. He also seems to argue that if someone claimed to be “Christian” and held a particular view, then that view is an accepted position in the Christian tradition. The difficulty with this argument, however, is that there are scores of individuals who long ago claimed to be Christian and held some very strange views that are/were declared heterodox by the collective witness of the church.

An early example of this is a man named Marcion (c. 80–c. 160). He was a “Christian” and was even an active teacher in Asia Minor. However, he disagreed with the leaders of the Christian churches in the largest cities. So he started another church movement that grew pretty substantially in the second century A.D. and created many problems for the early church. Here are some of his views:

  • Rejected the Old Testament as a Christian book
  • Believed there were contradictions between the Old Testament and the New
  • Paul was the only true apostle
  • The twelve disciples (which includes Peter, John) were false apostles
  • Believed there were two Gods: the God of the OT, and the previously unknown God of the NT
  • Believed that the OT God was the creator and the God of law, wrath and justice
  • Believed that the God of the NT is the Father of Jesus Christ, who is a God of mercy, love and salvation
  • Removed the birth narratives from the gospels
  • Baptism was only for the unmarried or abstinent and that it was administered before the end of one’s life
  • Water was substituted for wine in the Lord’s Supper
  • Held a negative view of the created world; promoted asceticism

It should be noted that before the Christian church had decided on what would be our Bible, he compiled the first “canon” of Christian scripture. We have what we have as the Bible today largely because Marcion made it necessary for the church to decide which of the documents of the early church was Christian “scripture” and what was not. Marcion’s “Bible” included an abbreviated version of Luke’s gospel and only ten of Paul’s letters (he left out 1–2 Timothy and Titus). Since Peter and John were “false apostles” their writings were of course not included. Marcion was excommunicated from Rome in 144 A.D. for these and other heretical views.

So, here was a “Christian” and a leader of a huge movement in the early church that ran counter to the held beliefs of the church at large. Should we accept his views as normative merely because he was a “Christian”? Certainly his views fit the criteria of “old”. Should his beliefs outlined above be considered part of the “wide stream”? Would not a “generous orthodoxy” include his views? Why were Marcion’s views rejected? Was it merely because powerful leaders in the church didn’t like Marcion? Was it personal? Was it born out of “envy and resentment of a very talented man”? Or is it because his views simply didn’t align with scripture and the testimony of saints, some of whom were first-hand recipients of the teachings of the apostles?

The “somewhere-some-Christian-has-held-this-view-at-one-time-so-it-must-be-orthodox” defense is flawed. The issue is not whether an author’s instruction comports with what some other individual “Christian” in the past has taught, no matter how beloved. The issue is whether his – or anyone’s – teaching lines up with scripture.

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2 thoughts on “Is “Old” the Criteria for Orthodoxy?

  1. Preach it brother!

    I’m interested in the comparison of Lewis and Bell. I wonder if our wide stream of technology would have presented Lewis in a different light than the patient, intimate form of waiting solely for printed materials to become available. Granted, Lewis and Bell have styles [and intents?] which are different, but they both grab and hold one’s attention. I am not sure if their media reflects them or visa versa; which I find beautiful because their passion out-shines that blurred line.

    All the while, God and Jesus remain the same. Constant. What have we to fear?

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