Countering the Error of David Bercot

Posted: September 26, 2021 in Fred Anson, Mormon Studies, Restorationism
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Domenico Ghirlandaio, “The Calling of the Apostles” (1481)

compiled by Fred W. Anson
Since few people outside of Restorationist circles have heard of David Bercot here’s a brief primer from his Wikipedia page that will give you his backstory: 

David Bercot was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. After leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1976, he began his university education. He graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University summa cum laude, and he obtained his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree cum laude from Baylor University School of Law.

In 1985, Bercot began an in-depth study of the early Christians who lived before the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. His studies started him on a spiritual pilgrimage. In 1989, he wrote the book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, which sets forth some of the teachings and lifestyle of the early Christians. That same year, he joined with an Assembly of God pastor to establish Scroll Publishing Company for the purpose of publishing various writings of the pre-Nicene Christians, as well as to publish other Christian books.

Bercot’s studies of the early Christians brought him into contact and dialogue with three different branches of Christianity: the Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, Brethren), the Anglican Church, and the churches of the Restoration Movement (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, International Church of Christ). In 1985, after completing his religious studies through Cambridge University, Bercot was ordained as an Anglican priest. However, he eventually left the Anglican Church and began fellowshipping with various Anabaptist churches.

Today Bercot is a lecturer and author who emphasizes the simplicity of Biblical doctrine and early (ante-Nicene) Christian teaching over against what he would call the heavy and complex body of theological understandings that have built up over the centuries in churches and in academia and that have come to be thought of as orthodoxy. He is particularly notable for his deeply nonresistant understanding of Jesus’s and New Testament teaching.

Bercot’s most widely read work is A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, published in 1998. It is a work that collects together over 7000 excerpts from the writings believed by many to be those of early Christians, arranged alphabetically by topic. According to Bercot, before the publication of his work, the only practical way to determine what the early Christians believed about any given topic was to read the actual writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers themselves. After the publication of A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, the Evangelical Review of Theology stated: “David Bercot has done the church a great service in providing an accessible point of entry into the extant writings of the pre-Nicene church.” The Conservative Theological Journal stated: “This is a must text for everyone interested in modern theological trends in general and especially historical studies.”

Other popular books that Bercot has written are Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, published originally in 1989, and The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down (2003), and Will the Theologians Please Sit Down (2009).
(“David Bercot”, Wikipedia, retrieved 2020-11-12) 

If you saw a recurring Restorationist theme running through that biography, you’re not alone. From Jehovah’s Witness to Pentecostal, to Anabaptist, it’s all there in plain sight. So given that strong Restorationist skew, it should come as no surprise that Bercot has become a kind of go-to source for Restorationist heresy and error the world over. From Anabaptists to Mormons he’s cited as an authority on how Christian ecclesiology should be but now is not. While this is a common Restorationist theme, it’s not without problems – and those problems have left a wide swath of error and heresy in its path.

Suffice to say, there are serious problems and issues with using David Bercot as either an expert witness or final authority on issues of Church History and Ecclesiology. So with that short introduction, I will simply turn the reader over to some critiques of David Bercot, from qualified and credentialed sources to explain why in detail that is. 

From Eastern Orthodox Church Historian and Scholar, Patrick Barnes:
“My opening remarks are on the subject of epistemology. You [DavidBercot] acknowledge (p. 104) that the sole method of teaching for Christ, and the primary method for the Apostles, was oral; yet your arguments are based upon your personal interpretation of only a portion of the written patristic texts that exist in the English language (which is a very small percentage of the overall Patristic corpus in existence today, a corpus itself which is a small percentage of the writings that were available to the majority of the Fathers; cf. Eusebius’ reference to the library at Edessa; Papias’ book, etc.). You furthermore acknowledge in Chapter 11 that the effects of time, language, culture, etc. on one’s ability to properly interpret the Church’s Tradition can be quite pervasive and severe. Does this not apply equally to you and your ability to draw trustworthy conclusions from the small body of English texts you have examined? In short, how can you be even reasonably certain about many of your conclusions, especially the ultimate one that Anglicanism contains the purest “thread”?”

“I am also trying to underscore the seeming precarious nature of your epistemology (which, of course, is related to your ecclesiology). It strikes me as surprisingly uncharacteristic of one as seemingly steeped in the early Fathers as you are. I hope I am wrong in this, but it seems that your approach to discerning the content of the apostolic Faith is quite individualistic and empirical, betraying a distinctly American and certainly post-Enlightenment approach to the acquisition of truth. Do you really trust your own abilities to find the True Faith by merely an appeal to written Tradition—as opposed to finding the Body of God’s People, the Church, which has preserved this Truth—especially when you have consulted only those Patristic texts that are available in English and often interpreted through Protestant eyes?”
(Excerpts from a Letter by Patrick Barnes (1997), ‘A Critique of David Bercot’s “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?”)

From Church Historian, R.A. Baker, Ph.D:
“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.”

“Look, my point to Bercot is this: If you want to write a book criticizing modern evangelicals – Just do it. But don’t use early church fathers when you are not qualified to use them. It would be like me glibly citing Martin Luther when I really do not know his writings. Oh I have read about Luther. I have read short excerpts of Luther, but I would NEVER try to use Luther as some kind of proof, especially for theology (another category I am not competent to speak on as an authority).

Many have read Bercot and now think they know something about the early church when all they truly know is the small amount Bercot reveals of what he knows. And Bercot seems to know probably 20% of what I know…and I know such a very small amount about the first three centuries of Christian history…and I have a Ph.D. from a world leader in academic study. And I am not trying to be humble. I KNOW how little I know. My supervisor was an expert in Augustine. I would go across the street for a cup of tea with him, sit for 1-2 hours and just ask him questions about church history. It was awesome, but also very, very humbling and a bit discouraging. I hope I know 20% of what he knows.
(R.A. Baker, Book Review of “Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity, by David Bercot”)

A fresco of Christ, the Apostles, and the Patristic Fathers from an Eastern Orthodox Church building.

From Christian Apologist James Holding:
“ 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 in Link 1 below — 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 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)”

(James Holding, “David Bercot: A Critique”)

And last, but not least, here’s a powerful quote from Jason Engwer on why Patristic writings should not be considered equal to, let alone, superior to the Bible:
“Another example of how important it is to follow the scriptures first and foremost, as opposed to following the early church fathers, is the issue of baptismal regeneration, the teaching that baptism is a requirement for salvation. The scriptures are overwhelmingly in opposition to baptismal regeneration. Every scripture passage cited by those who argue that baptism is a requirement for salvation has a reasonable alternate interpretation that reconciles it with the larger number of passages that are in opposition to that doctrine (see Rebutting Baptismal Regeneration). Yet, most of the early church fathers taught baptismal regeneration. (Contrary to popular conception, not everybody in the post-apostolic early church did, however.

The earliest church father, and possibly the only one who wrote during the first century, is Clement of Rome. In the only material we have from him, his letter to the Corinthians, he explicitly teaches salvation through faith alone (1), and he says nothing about baptism being a requirement for salvation. Though people often make generalizations about how ‘everybody’ in the early church believed in baptismal regeneration, the truth is that not everybody did.)

One of the church fathers who taught that baptism is a requirement for salvation was Tertullian. An examination of his treatise On Baptism reveals just how unscriptural and weak were the arguments of those church fathers who did advocate baptismal regeneration.”
(Jason Engwer, “The Fallibility of the Early Church Fathers: Why Christians Should Look to the Bible Alone for Doctrine”)

Dirck van Baburen, “Christ Washing the Apostles Feet” (1616)

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