Near Emmaus recently directed my attention to a discussion at New Leaven about a book by C. Michael Patton arguing for a cessationist position on spiritual gifts. (You can download a free .pdf of the book here.) New Leaven has had a number of posts on the continuationist/cessationist argument that are worth reading. And, if you’re interested in pursuing the subject some more, Brian has posted his own thoughts on why he is a continuationist here.
But, my primary interest here is not about the cessationist debate itself. (I actually didn’t think there still was one.) My interest is in the use of historical authorities in theological argumentation. At one point in his argument, Patton cites Augustine in support of his position. The point of the post at New Leaven was to suggest that Patton was being selective by quoting Augustine, who is amil, when Patton himself is premil. Now, this criticism could have been unpacked a bit more, since there’s nothing necessarily wrong with favorably citing one part of a person’s theology even if you disagree with other parts. So, I offered the following comment to make the concern a bit more apparent:
…the implicit rhetorical thrust of appealing to a theologian of Augustine’s stature is to show that he’s on Patton’s side. And, that’s where the problem comes in. Since a theological claim like this is nested within the broader fabric of a person’s theology, we shouldn’t simply pull out one strand like this and wield it selectively. And, since Patton and Augustine are operating with quite different theological frameworks, he needs to exercise due diligence to make sure that he is handling Augustine’s theology carefully. Just using the same words does not entail theological agreement.
What I found fascinating about this were the comments that came after I posted this comment. The majority of the comments criticized the post (and apparently my comment) because they thought we were saying that you had to agree with everything a person believes before you could refer favorably to anything they’ve written. They seemed to think that this implied some form of “guilty by association” – i.e. you believe A, and A is wrong, therefore I can’t use anything you’ve said.
But, that misses the point of the argument entirely. This has nothing to do with whether you can use the ideas of people you don’t agree with. (I do this all the time.) So, I tried (probably unsuccessfully) to clear things up a bit more with a later comment:
….If Patton is using this as a theological argument (i.e. Augustine’s on my side), then T.C. is right to ask about whether he’s doing justice to the theological framework within which Augustine makes the claim. The point isn’t that you can’t agree with one part of a person’s theology and disagree with some other part, we do that all the time. The point is that before you do this, you need to make sure that you’ve understood both issues within the person’s overall theology. Only then can you be sure that you’ve understood either claim adequately enough to agree/disagree with it or use it in a theological argument.
The point is that we need to be very careful about assuming that we know what a person means when he says X. And, we need to realize that X does not stand alone. It is nested within an entire theological system that provides the context within which X makes sense as a theological assertion. You can’t simply pull X out of that framework and say, “Look, he agrees with me.” Maybe he does. But that cannot be assumed. The simple fact that you and he may be using the same words does not mean that you are necessarily in agreement. This is what people refer to as “historical proof texting.” You need to do the extra work to make sure that you’ve understood the statement as the author intended it, which means (at least) understanding it within the context of their whole theology, before you think you understand it well enough to use it in a theological argument.
This is what makes historical theology such an important discipline. When historical theology is done well, it forces us to understand people and ideas within the historical, social, ecclesial, and cultural contexts that provide the only framework within which we can understand their theological assertions. It’s hard work. But it’s well worth doing. And, unless we’re willing to do it, we should probably refrain from citing (or critiquing) these theological giants.
The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies has a couple of good lectures available online.
- Everett Ferguson, “Why Study Early Christian History and Literature“
- Robert Louis Wilken, “Going Deeper into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters“