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CH101 Reviews - David Bercot Books
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I struggle with this book by David Bercot - as a critique of the evangelical church in America I would give this book 4 stars, but as an historical glance at the primitive church it would only receive 2 stars. Yes, Bercot allows the early fathers to speak for themselves, but he fails to give the reader any historical context. He also only allows them to say the things he wants them to say - in other words, there are many other things these early fathers said that are not included because they either contradict his thesis or are not as flattering. I could lift numerous passages from the Gospel of Truth (we think Valentius was the author) that would sound great; I could also find numerous passages from almost any of the fathers Bercot used that would be far less flattering. Historical context is everything.
After my critique of a similar work someone sarcastically wrote to me, “…You think nobody can possibly read the early fathers and understand them. I guess we all need a Ph.D. to be able to understand anything.” I certainly do NOT want to give anyone the idea that only pinheaded Ph.D.s can read/understand the early fathers, but it is not an easy task. Most of us have some idea of what the apostle Paul means when he tells women not to cut their hair, and tells the men not to wear their hair long. While commentaries on 1 Corinthians are fairly easy to find, very few people have scholarly works sitting on the shelf to help them understand what Tertullian means when he describes how to deal with “sinners” in the church,
…when you lead the penitent adulterer into church to beg the intercession of the brethren, place him on his knees in their midst, covered with sackcloth and ashes, in an attitude of humiliation and fear, in the presence of the widows, in the presence of the priests, moving all to tears, kissing the footprints of all, embracing the knees of all. On Purity 13
Because I do not want to come across as demeaning, I want to be careful not to critique each and every issue I disagree with in this book. I will mention the places where I agree with Bercot, and I will try to illustrate why I disagree on some issues. My overview of Bercot is that he takes a very simplistic reading of these early writers. My primary methodology will be to give examples from these writers that either contradicts, or shows a different angle, from what Bercot reports.
Bercot’s introduction is the martyrdom of Polycarp - it is almost impossible to criticize the use of this inspiring passage. In chapter 2, however, Bercot reveals what to me is a telling predilection when he says,
“…these men were not church fathers! Most of them were fairly ordinary, hard-working Christian leaders with above-average education. They would have been highly indignant at being called ‘church fathers.’ The only ‘church fathers’ they recognized were the apostles.”
This statement is silly. I guess Bercot is anticipating, and playing to, an anti-Catholic bias in his audience. Maybe for Bercot and his audience the term “church fathers” is a four-letter word. The second century fathers certainly would not have considered themselves to be “fathers” - they only became fathers in the next few centuries! As a good friend suggested, these men could not have been “fairly ordinary” in the ancient world if they had an “above-average education.” The overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate. Indeed, most of these early church fathers were far from ordinary men - they had great minds (Justin, Tertullian, Clement and Origen); they were obviously not ordinary since they were leaders in the church; and they ARE now known as “fathers” precisely because they were extraordinary.
In Chapter 4 Bercot begins his direct critique on 20th century North American evangelicalism (remember this book was written in 1989). I basically agree with many of his comments regarding divorce and abortion - if he were writing now he might criticize the basic evangelical position on homosexuality. I have my own concerns regarding feminism and the effect this issue has had on American Christian men, but Bercot’s comments on women in chapter 4 reveal his lack of understanding of both the biblical text and the ancient world.
I realize this borders on being an academic pinhead for some people, but Gordon Fee released his commentary on 1 Corinthians in 1987 where he showed, quite convincingly, that the “women shall keep silent” passage in 1 Cor 14 almost certainly was not in the original Pauline letter. Because of this it is problematic to use the complimentary text from 1 Timothy since most non-conversative scholars doubt Pauline authorship of that NT letter (the fact that I DO hold to Paul’s authorship does not change my mind that this is NOT a good argument from the biblical text). Bercot’s comments regarding women in the ancient world are stunning - is he really saying that women were seen as equals in the Greco-Roman world?
“But Roman women were hardly known for their submissive character. As one Roman commented, ‘We rule the world, but our women rule us.’” When I read this I found myself thinking, “Who said that?” I followed the footnote and found that Bercot is citing a secondary work…and only gives us the page number! Bart Winer said this on page 176!? This is Bercot’s ONLY scholarly notation for making such a claim.
[ - comments added Dec 13, 2009 and updated Oct 11, 2010 - ]
The New York Times calls Winer's book, Life in the Ancient World "a children's book." Bercot should at least tell the reader who in the Roman world said this. You can see this "citation" in Winer's book using Google Books. Winer uses quotation marks, yet does not tell the reader who said this. We must remember, it is a children's book. Winer did not properly cite his work, and Bercot should not use this as a reference. Bercot is using a children's book as a reference!
He says that the early church went against the ancient culture by denying women any role in leadership. I would say that the apostle Paul went against Greek, Roman, and Hebrew culture by OPENING the doors of leadership to women. It was the early church that went against the Pauline tradition left to us in the New Testament.
Chapters 5 and 6 are basically just “good preaching.”
“This was one of the secrets of the early Christians. They were able to reject the ungodly attitudes, practices, and entertainment of their culture…” p.42
It becomes clear reading these chapters that Bercot is Wesleyan, or anti-Reformed, in his theology. Bercot wants to challenge evangelicals to shun what Bonhoeffer coined “cheap grace.” I agree with this challenge, but do not like using these early writers for support. Each of these early church fathers had their own challenges: Clement of Alexandria did cite the New Testament quite a lot, but he also cited, and was heavily influenced by, Plato as well. Although he attacked the Gnostics, he embraced some aspects of Gnosticism. Tertullian stays away from Greek philosophy, but he holds a very strict view on repentance and restoration - he actually joins the Montanists (the group Bercot calls heretical on page 37). Yes, Tertullian joined the sect that had women serving in leadership. He eventually left the Montanists because they were also too “liberal,” and started his own group.
At the end of Chapter 6 (pp.66-67) Bercot tells us that the Gnostics preached salvation by grace alone. I have read and studied 15 or more Gnostic texts, and I have read numerous scholars whose expertise is Gnosticism - I have never heard Gnostics referred to in these terms. Gnostics believed that salvation was obtained through learning gnosis, knowledge. This knowledge helped them traverse through the heavenly levels by equipping them with secret passwords. Salvation through grace alone? I have never seen or heard anything in Gnostic texts that made me think of salvation by grace alone.
Tertullian is one of the strictest second century fathers yet he says this regarding the struggle against sin,
“It is a fact that there are some sins which beset us every day and to which we all are tempted. For who will not, as it may chance, fall into unrighteous anger and continue this even beyond sundown, or even strike another or, out of easy habit, curse another, or swear rashly, or violate his pledged faith, or tell a lie through shame or the compulsion of circumstances? In the management of affairs, in the performance of duties, in commercial transactions, while eating, looking, listening — how often we are tempted! So much so that if there were no pardon in such cases, no one would be saved. For these sins, then, pardon is granted through Christ who intercedes with the Father.” On Purity 19
In Chapter 7 Bercot attacks the doctrine of Predestination. One of his targets seems to be Martin Luther. I have never read/heard Luther attacked for predestination and I have no idea if he held to this position. I agree with Bercot that the second century fathers did not promote predestination, but a significant part of his argument comes from a lengthy passage in Origen’s On First Principles. In this same document Origen presents his speculative theory of universalism. This is one of several issues that led to the “Origenist controversy” which caused problems for several centuries. For Bercot to use anything from this document seems ironic at best.
Chapter 8 is on baptism. Bercot basically maintains that evangelicals have marginalized water baptism. I agree with him for the most part.
Chapter 9 is on prosperity and the “name it, claim it” doctrine that was far more popular in the 80’s. Again, I basically agree with Bercot on his criticism, I just would not use these early Christian fathers as evidence. As I mentioned earlier, these men were NOT ordinary. Few believers had wealth in the second century - most were of the lower class. But there were wealthy believers who did not give away all of their possessions and were not urged to do so. One interesting point is that Bercot uses a quote from Clement of Alexandria’s “Who is the Rich Man Being Saved.” It might be interesting to hear a few of the points Clement gives in that treatise.
“Who is the Rich Man” is basically Clement’s commentary on the story of the Rich Young Ruler as told in Mark’s gospel. It is important to remember that giving away one’s possessions to live in poverty (or at least to live a very simple lifestyle) was not something new in the day of Clement, or during the time of Jesus for that matter. Neo-Pythagoreans, most notably Apollonius of Tyana, promoted a rigorous asceticism which included a rejection of material possessions. Clement does his best in all his writings to make Christian faith THE best philosophical system, so he tends to take some positions that appear to go against typical orthodox thought if it will help him accomplish his desired goal. He also has in mind the Montanist movement which also advocated the rejection of material worldly goods in favor of the heavenly kingdom that was to be quite immanent.
In chapter 13 Clement argues that the Lord enjoins us to “give drink to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, to take the houseless in, and clothe the naked,” but Clement goes on to say that this is impossible to do IF you have given ALL of your material possessions away:
Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. - Rich Man 14
The point is that Clement of Alexandria is presenting the case that it is not always good to give away all of your riches - there is a place in the faith for people with great wealth. This, of course, is why I find it ironic for Bercot to use this document without giving the reader any historical context.
In Chapter 10 Bercot focuses on the proper Christian attitude towards war.
Bercot does admit that “the early church made no law that Christians could not serve in the army…Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever strictly forbade Christians to serve in the military,” but he goes on to say that the empire was experiencing peace during the second century and soldiers were more like police officers. (p.97) This is an absurd argument.
Here is the historical context: every 20 to 40 years Christianity would get slapped around. Pastors and bishops would be arrested, thrown in jail, and some would be executed. Laypeople would be tortured and forced to sprinkle salt on the altar to the empire at the risk of being thrown to wild animals in an amphitheatre. Roman soldiers were known for their cruelty in battle, but they were also known for their cruelty towards Christians during these times of persecution. Even during times of peace Roman soldiers had license to make harsh demands on average citizens.
With this context in mind, why would Christians be encouraged to serve in the military? The citations used by Bercot are each commenting on military service for Rome, not military service or warfare in general. I know a man who was a pastor in Cuba when Fidel Castro led the Communist takeover. He fled with his family, but many of his friends were ripped from their beds in the middle of the night, beaten, imprisoned, and some killed. Would it surprise anyone if Christians in Communist Cuba were discouraged from enlisting in the military after the takeover? You cannot compare military service in modern-day USA with the Roman empire. You might disagree with Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq; you might think the USA is emperialistic, but you simply cannot objectively compare soldiers in the USA to those in the Roman empire in this way.
[This section edited Dec 13, 2009]
In fact, we are given a fairly positive view of military service in the NT.
But I want to further address Bercot's mistake. As with many other issues, Bercot only presents one side of the data. In his presentation he cites Tertullian's treatise The Crown where he tells the story of a Christian soldier who refuses to wear the appropriate headress laurel with his fellow soldiers. He is mocked, stripped of his commission, and imprisoned to await death. But this treatise itself shows that Christians were, in fact, serving in the military.
Eusebius tells us that Christians were serving in governmental positions and in the army long before Diocletian. (Church History 8.1) He mentions that some Christians were allowed to refrain from sacrifice (8.3) apparently being shown preferential protective treatment. Lactantius tells us that Christian attendants to Diocletian made the sign of the cross while fortune tellers were trying to divine the future for the emperor, thus causing the soothsayers difficulty. Diocletian demanded that these Christians be whipped. He also sent orders to his commanders that all Christians serving in the military be made to offer sacrifices or be dismissed from service. (Of The Manner in Which the Persecutors Died 10.6)
These examples show that although Tertullian was against military service, the early church did not have a concensus view. This is typical of early Christianity - there is diversity of opinion and practice on many, many issues. Bercot fails to appreciate the evidence for this in the data or just fails to present this evidence to the reader.
Chapter 11 is titled “Who Better Understands the Apostles?”
It is also amazing that Bercot cites Papias, then goes on to marginalize oral tradition - this is exactly what we have in Papias - early oral traditions about the apostles. Papias states that he is not so fond of "things out of books," but that he preferred "the utterances of a voice which liveth..." (Eusebius CH 3.39,1-4) Funny, Papias marginalizes written tradition in his written document, The Sayings of the Lord Explained.
The remainder of Bercot's book is basically an attack on Constantine, Augustine, the Nicean Council, and everything else Catholic. Bercot argues that the second century church was far more dedicated, yet the writers he uses complain in many places about the worldliness of the church in their day. Were there growing problems in the church after the second century? Yes, as the church grew numerically and into new cultures, and as church leadership became more bloated problems increased. Theological issues and debates developed due to heretical movements - a growing theology led to theological disputes.
My overall critique of Bercot’s book is this: he wants to point to the second century church as some kind of ideal that we should attempt to emulate. While I think there are positives to be seen in every era of church history, I do not think the second century, or any other era, should be pointed to as the “ideal.” In addition to the various specific critiques I have offered, the second century writers also held numerous doctrinal positions that Bercot would NOT want us to embrace: purgatory (Origen), mortal and venal sins (Tertullian), forgiveness of sins rests with the bishop (Ignatius, Cyprian), and many others. It appears to me that Bercot takes the Early Church Fathers on CD and does a “Ctrl + F” to “Find” passages that speak to a particular issue. If he likes the passage, he uses it. If the passage does not support his thesis, he ignores it.
The writings of the early church fathers must be used with care. Historical context is critical.
This is my second Bercot book to review. For the novice this is an impression text and can serve to expose him/her to the writings of the early church. As an historian of the early church I have a few cautionary notes to the lay person new to these writings.
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Origen and Universalism
Water Baptism - Early Church
Church Fathers and NT Revelation
Church Fathers Santification, Holiness
Sabbath and Christian Worship
Baptism Early Church Scholars
Constantine Christianity Sunday Worship
Paul Apollos Hebrews Philo
Jesus Paganism and Early Christianity
Constantine vs Donatists
Constantine Worship of Sol Invictus
Tertullian Paul and Marcion
Early Church Fathers Military and War
Palestine in the Ancient World
Christian use of Candles in Worship
Christians and Pagan Influences
Sabbath Day Worship
Baptismal Practices in the Early Church
Constantine - Sol Invictus
Who Wrote Hebrews in the Bible?
Emperor Constantine Donatus
Constantine and the Sunday Law
Tertullian Paul as False Apostle
Apostolic Succession-Early Church
Athanasius the Black Dwarf?
New Testament, Faith, and the Resurrection
New Testament and Tithing
Pagan Influences on Christianity
Hellenized Jews and Pagan Influences
Sabbath Day and Sunday Worship
Baptism in the Early Church
Emperor Constantine - Christianity
Constantine Led an Army?
Did Paul or Apollos Write Hebrews?
Constantine Council of Nicea 325AD
Jesus Words Only - Del Tondo
First Century Apostolic Succession
Was Saint Athanasius Black?
Bart Ehrman New Testament
David Bercot and Heretics
Hannah Whitall Smith
David Bercot and Church History
Keeping the Sabbath
Baptismal Practice - Early Church
Emperor Constantine the Great
Who Wrote Hebrews? Paul or Apollos
The Real Story of Constantine vs Donatists
Role of Constantine in Development Christianity
Douglas Del Tondo and David Bercot
Gonzalez and Athanasius