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THE FORMATION OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE FROM A FREE-CHURCH PERSPECTIVE – a Book Review

The Formation of Christian Doctrine. Malcom B. Yarnell III. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007. 218 pp. $19.99. ISBN 978-080544046-1.

            The word Doctrine refers to an intellectual position on some subject that is accepted and taught by some teacher. A Christian Doctrine, an intellectual position on some subject that is accepted and taught by Christians. This intellectual position may have just about anything as its subject, from what constitutes proper action to the nature of God. How some intellectual position becomes an accepted Christian doctrine is a difficult question to answer. One might say, in order for some teaching to be considered a Christian Doctrine it must be “officially” accepted by the “true” Christian church, or, in other words, by all those who are Christian. There are three difficulties with this claim: first of all, what constitutes the official acceptance of a teaching? Secondly, what constitutes the true Christian church? If some separatist church, on the fringes of what is broadly construed as Protestantism, accepts certain teaching, does this acceptance mean that those teachings are now “Christian Doctrines”? Or must a teaching be accepted by all denominations of Christian churches in order for it to be considered a “Christian Doctrine”?  Finally, this option seems to rely on the principle of majority rule. That is, if “most” or tentatively “all” true Christians adhere to (accept) some teaching, then it is a Christian Doctrine. It is evident, since at least the time of Socrates, that the principle of majority rule, cannot decide truth in any way, shape, or form. It is all too possible for the majority to be wrong. A consequence of this first option would be that just because some person, who claims to be a Christian, makes claims in the name of Christianity, this does not mean that what that person is teaching is a Christian doctrine. Their teaching would not be Christian until it was accepted by the majority.

            Another might say, in order for some teaching to be considered a Christian Doctrine it must find its ultimate justification in the Christian scriptures.[1] There are also a number of difficulties with this claim: First of all, what counts as justification? Is a teaching “justified” by Christian scriptures when it is “clearly” and “frequently” affirmed in scripture, when it is “clearly” but only “occasionally” affirmed in scripture, when it is “occasionally alluded to” in scripture, or when it is “clearly deduced” from scripture?[2] Secondly, whose interpretation of Scripture, or what method of interpretation, must be seen as authoritative in justifying some Christian Doctrine? How do we know whose interpretation is right, or how do we know which method of interpretation must be used in order to accurately and precisely justify Christian Doctrines? Finally, who decides what counts as Christian scripture?

            These questions and difficulties must be considered by any explanation of the development of Christian Doctrine. In this book, Malcom B. Yarnell III seeks to “understand how the formation of true Christian doctrine develops from a proper theological foundation.”[3] In this book Yarnell seeks to set down what he suggests is a Free Church understanding of what constitutes the proper foundation for Christian theology, and how true Christian doctrine has developed through the centuries. (It is important to note that “Free Church” is a broad category that includes all those “protestant” denominations which do not adhere to a Hierarchical form of church structure, such as “Baptists [of all types], Brethren, Quakers, Methodists and Disciples”.[4] Reformed churches, Lutherans, Anglicans, as well as Catholic and Orthodox churches would be excluded from this category.) The author notes that he is writing from a Free Church perspective,[5] is generally suspicious of philosophy,[6] and holds that the Bible is the highest authority for all true doctrine.[7]

            The book very well organized into 6 chapters with numerous sub-sections. The author seeks to accomplish his purpose in very systematic manner. In order to develop an explanation of the history of the development of Doctrine, one must first of all articulate some theological method; secondly, find the foundations of Christian Theology; thirdly, present a valid explanation of how true doctrine is discovered; and, finally, lay down a philosophy of history (which influences how one studies history). This is essentially what Yarnell seeks to do in this book. Yarnell presents his positions through history by interacting with the views of non-Free church theologians, and explaining the views of Free Church theologians of past and present.

In the first chapter Yarnell seeks to explain the theological method of the Free churches. He emphasizes the importance of discipleship, the sufficiency of scripture, and the basis for theological authority. In the second chapter Yarnell sets out three prominent views concerning what should be considered as the foundation of Christian Doctrine. He considers the views of a conservative Catholic—Joseph Ratzinger, a Liberal Protestant—Maurice Wiles, and a Reformed theologian—Herman Bavinck. He concludes this chapter by comparing these views with the general views of the Free Churches. In the third chapter he sets out what he considers are the foundational principles for Christian Doctrine, from a Free Church position. He presents Jesus as the first principle, the Bible and Holy Spirit illumination as the second principle, the notion of a “biblical” ordering of doctrine as the third principle and the ecclesiastical structure of the Free Churches (including the notions of personal salvation, baptism, the lord’s supper, church discipline, etc.) as the final principle.

In chapter 4 he considers some prominent views concerning the development of Christian Doctrine, and seeks to critique them from the foundations of theology as viewed by the Free Church. In this chapter he considers the views of many early Christians who saw the notion of development as a thing to be avoided. He then considers the views of theologians such as Harnack who saw all doctrine as changeable. Finally he considers the intricate system of John Henry Newman. The section on Newman is by far the longest section, and the author seeks to honestly interact with Newman’s views and to present the reactions of a number of prominent evangelical theologians. He concludes this chapter with a discussion and analysis of Oscar Cullmann’s contribution to the subject. This is used to conclude that there is indeed development in Christian doctrine, but not necessarily as explained by Liberal or Catholic Christians. He also discusses and attempts to biblically defend the notion of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This is a critical doctrine for the Free Church theory of both the interpretation of Scripture and the development of Doctrine.

In chapter five Yarnell develops a philosophy (theology) of History which will set the basis for his proposal concerning the development of Doctrine. In this chapter he considers the claims of Herbert Butterfield who was a prominent Free Church Historian. In the final chapter of the book Yarnell sets out his proposal as to the development of Doctrine. His theory essentially takes the foundational elements of Free Church Theology, and seeks to show how these notions were the force behind the proper development of true Christian Doctrine. His emphasis, in this chapter, is to show how the great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 was the primary force behind the development of Trinitarian theology, the notion of Personal salvation, and the covenantal freedom of the people of God.

This book is important, partially because it is one of the first systematic attempts by a Free Church Theologian to outline a theory concerning the development of Christian Doctrine. For this very point it should be in the library of any and all of those who are interested in Christian theology and the development of Christian Doctrine. It does not compare, in extent to the work of Pelikan, it is, however, an important contribution to the discussion and merits consideration. The author also presents interacts with a number of important theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger, Maurice Wiles, Herman Bavinck, John Henry Newman, and Oscar Cullmann. In order to interact appropriately with these theologians Yarnell provides a short biography of each of them, as well as an analysis and critique of their respective views. Yarnell is very cautious in most of his critiques, providing careful explanations and counter-arguments, however, in the case of Harman Bavinck, Yarnell goes to war, and delivers devastating counter-arguments against the reformed system.[8] Yarnell also engages in interesting discussions concerning the relationship between faith and reason,[9] the interaction of philosophy and theology,[10] a continual affirmation and defense of Holy Spirit Illumination,[11] the claim of some Free Church theologians that the true church of Christ was all but destroyed by Constantine and reinitialized by Anabaptists,[12] and numerous other interesting subjects.

This book, however, is not without its difficulties. His defense of Holy Spirit illumination suffers from serious difficulties (including questionable interpretations of those parts of scripture that he uses to defend the notion that the Holy Spirit helps the Christian to understand scripture). His proposal that though the notion of private interpretation of scripture is false,[13] the individual, local, churches are the authoritative interpreters of scripture,[14] suffers from the same difficulty as the notion of private interpretation. As such, his theory concerning the development of Doctrine is severely damaged by the fact that two of his foundational principles (Holy Spirit illumination, and ecclesial structure) are questionable at best, false at worst.

All in all this is a well-written book that is easy to follow, and will be of interest to all those who are interested in Christian theology and the development of Christian theology. I would highly suggest using this book in a course on the development of Christian theology. Furthermore, it is not so complicated that those who are unfamiliar with this domain of study would be unable to profit from reading it. The book includes a detailed table of contents, detailed footnotes, an index of names, an index of subjects, and an index of bible verses referenced. The indexes are not as detailed as I would have liked, and in light of the amount of books referenced in the footnotes, a bibliography or a list of recommended books organized according to subject, would be helpful for the interested researcher.



[1]Some might add, « and Christian tradition », but such a claim would be to simply reaffirm the first option – namely, that a Christian teaching must be accepted or affirmed by a majority of Christians.

[2]One might also add, « vaguely deduced », or “based upon a vague and difficult claim”.

[3]Malcom B. Yarnell III, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville, TN : B&H Academic, 2007), 1.

[4]Ibid., 13.

[5]Ibid., 1, 5.

[6]Ibid., 1.

[7]Ibid., 5.

[8]Ibid., 49-59, 64.

[9]Ibid., 67-68, 91, 118fn49.

[10]Ibid., 62-66, 90, 155.

[11]Ibid., 86-88, 96, 121, 132, 135-138, 150-156, 190, 198.

[12]Ibid., 106, 158, 183.

[13]Ibid., 17.

[14]Ibid., 178.

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