I would like to share a theory that I have been playing around with concerning the sources of doctrine and practice. I have come to realize that there are two types of sources people tend to favor, I will call them Origin Sources and Structured Sources.
Origin Sources try to get back to the original source of the belief or practice or as close to the origin as possible. You can see this play out a few different ways. One is by seeking Scriptural foundations (II Timothy 3:16-17). Another is by looking at the early church in Acts as an example to model.
Structured Sources don’t ignore their origins, but they do build on them. For example, if I were to study the deity of Christ I could study seek the source (read the Gospel of John, for example) or I could pick up a theology book and turn to the chapter on that subject. In that theology book I may find a structured, logical presentation of the doctrine and even discussions of its development.
Which of these is superior? I am not sure either is inherently superior to the other.
I thought of an analogy involving water. If you wanted to drink the purest water you can find, where would you turn? Well, we see essentially the same two sources.
You can find water at its source, before it could be polluted or contaminated. Remember that in the case of a river the cleanest water is at its head before it has picked up sediments and run off from its tributaries. That is essentially the same as Original Sources.
You may also get water that has been processed and filtered to have any contaminates removed. By sufficiently treating the water chemically or filtering it mechanically we could theoretically be left with only H2O molecules. This is essentially the same as Structured Sources.
Which source of water is superior: pure from the source or pure from filtration? Chemically speaking I suppose you could say both could be equal if the water is tested and proven to be similar. The choice is largely up to you if you would rather buy a bottle of water that is labelled as being straight from a natural spring or another bottle that is labelled as being filtered thoroughly through reverse osmosis .
Returning to our discussion on matters of belief and practice, which type of source is superior? I would contend that both Original or Structured Sources are acceptable as they should produce similarly sound positions. I can trust the Original Sources of the Scriptures, the example of Christ, and the model of the early church. I can also trust doctrinal positions and presentation that has been filtered through the centuries and tried in the flames of debate and controversy.
Why is this important? In large part because the body of fundamental doctrines and practice has been purified and forged throughout the centuries since Christ. Through that time we have developed systematic positions based on Scripture that have stood up to the tests of time, analysis, and debate. There is little need to seek to reinvent the fundamental doctrines or practices because they are tried and true. We may test them, which I would recommend for your own benefit, but they will prove true.
There is danger in rejecting we have founded on Structured Sources to seek primarily from Origin Sources. Often I see articles claiming something has been re-discovered about the Christian faith that has been lost for centuries. Examples that have made headlines in recent years include the spurious Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Gospel of Judas. I would also include the various Restorationist movements that seem to multiply and thrive in America since the early 1800’s. One of the earmarks was a desire to seek the Original Sources and while rejecting Structured Sources.
There is an error that is bred into this line of thinking is that all sources except the Original Sources are corrupt and unfit for use. For example, the Charismatic movement ignores centuries of theological analysis of the subject of spiritual gifts, especially in regards to tongues, to reinterpret the teachings of the Original Sources. In essence they claim that a vital (in their estimation, anyway) doctrine was lost to Christianity for centuries until rediscovered. Even that position they will defend by saying it is a sign we are in or approaching the End Times. Personally, I cannot see how an omnipotent God could allow vital truth to completely disappear from the earth as even in the darkest of days there is a faithful remnant to be found (examples: Genesis 6:5-9, I Kings 19:13-18).
It is that very thought process concerning “lost tenets” of Christianity that I have been contemplating for some time now and has led me to further develop the water analogy I shared earlier. I strive to hold to the traditional Baptist position of basing as much of what we believe or practice on the sure foundation of the Scriptures. The Original Source of the Scriptures is, and does merely contain, the very words of God, and are thus as reliable as God Himself. But how we interpret and apply the clear teachings of the Scriptures may be largely built upon Structured Sources.
Is that an issue? Not necessarily, and that is point of this article. The harmony of Original and Structured Sources is vital to our faith. These two sources work in unison to present us with the purest teachings on which to build our faith. We must both trust in God’s Word (Original Sources) and that which is tested and proven true (Structured Sources). But we also cannot forget that the most untrustworthy link in our chain of understanding of God’s message is not the sources but is instead ourselves. Our understanding and logic is faulty because we are fallible beings.
To conclude, no matter what path we take we are seeking truth. To quench your physical thirst you will seek good a pure water to drink and its source may vary. When we seek the most fundamental or orthodox points of Christian doctrine we likewise must realize that it is truth that we seek. How that truth is arrived at is not unimportant, but the most important element is the pure truth we seek and hold. Just realize that we may find that truth through differing but not incompatible means.