|David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? A Critique|
A good friend with an interest in the apostolic and early church has on his shelf a book titled Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up by David Bercot. The book intrigued me, because I had seen Bercot referenced before -- by Mormon apologist Barry Bickmore, in the service of an argument that the modern church had seriously gone astray. I therefore figured it worth looking at Bercot more closely.
The news is that Bercot doesn't offer, despite Bickmore's use of him, a whole lot to suggest that the church apostasized in the same direction Mormonism supposes it did. Bercot does offer some seriously consciousness-pricking material showing that certain aspects of modern evangelical behavior -- our lack of boldness in witnessing for Christ; our concern for entertainment; the "health and wealth" homiletic -- are miles from what the early Christians practiced and we need to take a good, close look at ourselves and decide whether we really are representing our Lord properly.
That said, Bercot's effort otherwise is variously, often badly, misguided. In addition to the behavioral factors above, Bercot insists that we have lost our way in some doctrinal matters as well. His primary sources for this particular book are several patristic writers (i.e., Justin, Tertullian, Origen) and their practice and explication of Christianity.
Bercot's logic: These men were closer in time to the apostles, and closer in language, and closer in culture. Therefore their understanding of the Scriptures is more likely to be correct [101-2] and deserve scrutiny. He writes: "...the second century Christians were basically only one generation away from the apostles. We're nineteen generations away! How reasonable is it for us to argue that, after nineteen hundred years, evangelical Christianity is basically unchanged from that of the apostles?"
One senses a certain fallacy of excluded middle here, but more to the point, Bercot is off base, and ironically so. He devotes a single paragraph to the point that we today do not understand early Mediterranean culture, as the patristic writers would have. But he has no conception of a very deep rift between cultures that decidedly affected patristic understanding of the Scriptures: the difference between Jewish thinking and the sort of pagan thinking that the patristic writers were raised in. (The irony is doubled for me because I first read of Bercot through Bickmore, who makes similar errors.)
Where this shows most deeply is in Bercot's attempt to understand the relationship between faith and works. He makes the same errors concerning baptism that we have covered here -- including the same false interpretations of John 3:5, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, Acts 2:38, and 1 Peter 3:21. His justification for these interpretations is no more or less than that it was how the patristic writers interpreted these verses.
But if Bercot wants to use the "closer is better" argument, then how would he respond to someone who said that heretics were equally close in time and culture? He acknowledges that waywards like the Gnostics existed, but does not seen to grasp how his own argument is refuted by their existence. Certainly if heretics were able to distort the meaning of the NT is such a short space, it was possible for the patristics, even in their commitment to Christ and study of the Word, to have made lesser and less significant errors in their understanding.
There are other, lesser examples; for example, Bercot completely misapprehends Matt. 5:33-4 on oath swearing, because he follows certain patristic opinions rather than understanding the instruction within a Jewish context. [92-3] A similar error is also made with respect to capital punishment .
Of course this is not to say that any particular patristic writer WAS in error on any given point. It is not our purpose here to make that determination; perhaps a specialist in patristics would tell me that Bercot isn't understanding them correctly, either.
A concluding irony is that Bercot shows a slight disdain for modern Biblical education. He makes a point of noting that there were "no seminaries" in the second and third century, and that leadership skills in the church were learned "through the school of experience."  Later [153-4] he tries to justify his stance further:
...I personally believe that the Bible is the only inspired and inerrant source of authority for Christians. However, we Bible-believing Christians are now splintered into over 22,000 different denominations, sects, and independent churches. Generally, the reason for these divisions is not that Christians have wickedly been twisting the Scriptures to suit their own purposes. Rather, it's because many teachings in the Bible aren't clear. Many Bible passages can honestly be interpreted in more than one way.
Bercot then notes that Christians therefore "come up with some additional basis of authority: denominational publications, pastors, seminaries, Bible commentaries, and evangelical traditions. But how valuable are these secondary sources of authority? How can one seminary know more than another? How are we to say that our pastor is right and someone else's is wrong? How does a seventeenth century Bible commentator like Matthew Henry actually know what the apostles meant?"
I am not without sympathy for Bercot's position, but his solution of giving the patristic writers place -- "they're closer, so they knew better" -- is a solution that takes a too-easy route, and his mildly derisive references to seminaries and commentaries verifies this. We would advise readers to be cautious about trusting any conclusions Bercot reaches.
A helpful reader has given some additional points about Bercot which we will reproduce here. He also recommends this item with respect to the claims of thousands of denominations as a sign of disunity. Our reader adds:
There are many patristic beliefs that David Bercot probably would reject. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, for example, refer to the possibility of people being saved after death. There was widespread acceptance of the belief that salvation could be lost without *any* possibility of regaining it if particular sins were committed. Such a view was advocated by Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, for example.
Would David Bercot agree with Irenaeus that Jesus lived to be over 50 years old? Irenaeus claims to have received that information from apostolic tradition, and he cites his own (mis)understanding of John 8:57 in support of it. It's an example of an *early* church father interpreting scripture, and claiming apostolic tradition in support of that interpretation, yet we know that the interpretation is incorrect.
It's true that many church fathers advocated some type of salvation through works, but not all of them did. Clement of Rome and Mathetes explicitly and repeatedly advocate concepts such as sola fide and the substitutionary righteousness of Christ. They never even mention baptism in their discussions of salvation. There was no one view of salvation held by all of the church fathers.
Many did believe in *some* type of salvation through works, but not all of them did. And among those who did, there were disagreements over just which works must be done and just which sins must be avoided. With some of the later church fathers, like John Chrysostom, we even find them referring to some type of salvation through works in one passage, but advocating sola fide (even with the words "faith alone") elsewhere. Some of the church fathers weren't even consistent with *themselves* on the issue.
I know that Bercot focuses on the Ante-Nicene fathers, but below are some examples of both the Ante-Nicene and later church fathers disagreeing with Bercot about the perspicuity of scripture. The fathers do refer to some passages being difficult to understand, but they don't seem to have thought the problem was as significant as Bercot suggests. They thought that consulting the works of earlier writers was *helpful* in understanding scripture, but they didn't think it was necessary, nor do they seem to have viewed scripture as being as unclear as Bercot suggests:
"Pay attention, therefore, to what I shall record out of the holy Scriptures, which do not need to be expounded, but only listened to." - Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho, 55)
"A sound mind, and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind, and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in acquaintance with them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall plainly under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures....the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all" - Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 2:27:1-2)
"For, being accustomed to sweet and polished speeches or poems, they despise the simple and common language of the sacred writings as mean. For they seek that which may soothe the senses. But whatever is pleasant to the ear effects persuasion, and while it delights fixes itself deeply within the breast. Is God, therefore, the contriver both of the mind, and of the voice, and of the tongue, unable to speak eloquently? Yea, rather, with the greatest foresight, He wished those things which are divine to be without adornment, that all might understand the things which He Himself spoke to all." - Lactantius (Divine Institutes, 6:21)
"The religious perspicuity of the ancient Scriptures caused them [the Arians] no shame, nor did the consentient doctrine of our colleagues concerning Christ keep in check their audacity against Him." - Alexander of Alexandria (Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, 1:10)
"Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith's sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture" - Athanasius (De Synodis, 6)
"And this is usual with Scriptures, to express itself in inartificial and simple phrases." - Athanasius (Four Discourses Against the Arians, 4:33)
"For there have risen many who have given to the plain words of Holy Writ some arbitrary interpretation of their own, instead of its true and only sense, and this in defiance of the clear meaning of words. Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written; the guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text." - Hilary of Poitiers (On the Trinity, 2:3)
"All things are dear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain." - John Chrysostom (Homilies on Second Thessalonians, 3, v. 5)
"For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life,--to wit, hope and love, of which I have spoken in the previous book. After this, when we have made ourselves to a certain extent familiar with the language of Scripture, we may proceed to open up and investigate the obscure passages, and in doing so draw examples from the plainer expressions to throw light upon the more obscure, and use the evidence of passages about which there is no doubt to remove all hesitation in regard to the doubtful passages." - Augustine (On Christian Doctrine, 2:9)
"For this reason, where they cannot interpret them [the scriptures] otherwise according to their own sentence, be it ever so clear and manifest, they answer that it is obscure and uncertain because wrong and perverse they dare not call it." - Augustine (Of the Work of Monks, 10)
A reply to this piece by one "Patristic Saint" has been noted. For our own reply, inquire by email concerning his specific claims.