Early in church history, interpretations of Scripture began to diverge.
As new understandings began to emerge, the church fathers had to determine which of these views were problematic. Irenaeus and Vincent of Lérins proposed one powerful tool to find the correct interpretation. They argued that the true teaching of Scripture would be found in the church across time (semper), across persons (ab omnibus), and across distance (ubique). Though strikingly simple, this tool offers remarkable power and precision.
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
This principle weighs the consensus biblical interpretation, utilizing the concept of the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 11, which portrays how we can learn from those who have gone before us.
Of course, this principle is not an exercise of simple “nose-counting” to determine what Scripture truly says. That would approach blasphemy, as if the word of God depended on a majority vote. The Scriptures caution against such an approach. They warn 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.
Therefore, it is helpful to add two concepts to the tool the early church proposed. Not only will the true faith be found across time, distance, and persons, but this will be especially true of 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.
And not only is persecution a sign of this godliness, but so is purity. While the Scriptures describe heretics as living lustful lives (2 Pet. 2:13-14), the true church will be characterized by pure living and separation from the sins of the world, and out of that 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:
- Diffusion: across distance
- Breadth: across persons
- Endurance: across time
- Purity: with holiness
- Suffering: with adversity
We gain much by weighing more heavily the persecuted, faithful “cloud of witnesses.” It helps us break out of an overly individualistic interpretation style that exalts autonomy, and eliminate bias and blind spots.
Even for those who do interpret scripture in a group context, this principle is helpful. 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.
The Persecuted Cloud of Witnesses
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.
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The Persecuted Churches
The persecuted groups include the ante-Nicene church, the Waldensians, the Lollards (followers of John Wycliffe), and the Anabaptists. In contrast, the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant churches, allied to the state, have been persecuting churches at many points in their history.
Clarity of Scripture
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.
The Protestants employed the “cloud of witnesses” interpretative principle in certain areas but often avoided it in many topics regarding church governance 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. 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, and separation from the world, they chose to adopt Roman Catholic views and reject the early church’s position.
Consistency and the Ethics of Christ
In contrast, the early Anabaptists much more consistently adopted the positions of the early church regarding ethics and church governance. They affirmed the regula fidei and the historic creeds, but also chose to obey Jesus’ teachings in ways very close to the early church.
Regarding many of the difficult subjects we face today, like fashion, entertainment, the headcovering, government involvement, remarriage, many churches today 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 and disparage their doctrines, imagining that they do service to God.
On the other side, the cloud of witnesses offers strong testimony on how we should treat these important issues. The faithful, persecuted church—beginning with the church described in Acts and progressing through the centuries—therefore offers illumination, conviction, and encouragement. Those movements serve to remind us that the path to proper biblical interpretation and application is sown with red—the suffering of those who went before us.
Adapted from King Jesus Claims His Church: A Kingdom Vision for the People of God by Finny Kuruvilla.