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Dargan on Ecclesiology

Posted by on Jun 3, 2008 in books | 3 comments

A couple of years ago, Maël introduced me to Edwin C. Dargan. Dargan was a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1892 to 1907, serving as professor of homiletics and eccesiological history. He even served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1910, 1911, and 1912. (This historical information may not be important to some of my readers, but it is probably important to others, so I’ve included it here.)

I found out recently that his book Ecclesiology is available for free download from Google Books. (Yes, Maël told me a long time ago, but I promptly forgot.) Over the last few days, I’ve had time to peruse a few pages of this book. It surprised me to find that Dargan made some of the same exegetical conclusions that I’ve made, although we sometimes apply those conclusions in different ways. I may write a few posts later about some of those conclusions, especially his remarks concerning “local church” and “universal church”. However, in this post, I’d like to quote from his preface, where he lays out how he attempts to study the church:

The proper method of study for Ecclesiology is a combination of the scriptural, historical, and practical. (a) The teachings of the Scriptures, as being both originative and authoritative, should be carefully investigated and clearly and unflinchingly set forth. As far as possible both the development of history and existing institutions should be left out of the account, and the Biblical data, with inferences from these, should be exclusively used in discovering and presenting just what the Scriptures themselves teach as to the church and its various elements of life and actions. (b) Proceeding from this scriptural basis the student should pursue the development of church organization and life through the history of Christianity, bearing well in mind the constant changes both in ecclesiastical customs and in the significant ecclesiastical terms. (c) At last when the present time is reached the student should know who to criticise and compare existing institutions in the light both of their scriptural origin and their historic evolution, and thus be able to determine for himself how far the church constitutions with which he is familiar accord with the teachings of the Bible – or to speak more definitely, with the intentions of the divine Founder of Christianity. (12)

I agree with Dargan. We must begin with Scripture, then study history leading up to modern comparisons. Unfortunately, most studies of the church begin with modern practices and move backwards, justifying those practices from Scripture using various proof-texting methods. Very few people seem to be concerned that what we see in the church as a whole today cannot be found in Scriptures. We have taken bits and pieces from today, justified them from Scripture, and then pasted them together into a mosaic that is unrecognizable from Scripture. As Dargan says, we must begin with Scripture. But how do we do that without bias?

The point of view occupied by the investigator is of prime moment. Few, if any, can take up the study of the church without biases and prepossessions [presuppositions] which inevitably influences the judgment. (a) The influence of present-day conditions, modes of thought and use of terms is both subtle and powerful. For example, when we say “church” or “bishop” we naturally and almost inevitably have first in mind the things which those terms stand for in the language of today rather than in that of whatever period we may at the time be studying. The best cure for this is a thorough knowledge of history and a constant use of historic imagination. (b) Another strong bias is that of the sect or denomination. Very many students prosecute this study with their minds already made up in favor of the institutions of the church or sect to which they themselves belong, and their purpose is largely polemical or apologetic. It is amusing to observe how all are quite ready to see this in their opponents and are curiously unconscious of it in themselves. Now one should endeavor to keep from being unduly influenced by his previously formed and firmly held opinions, but it is utterly impossible and in great degree undesirable to lay them entirely aside in the study of any subject. It may be reasonably questioned if the absolutely impartial mind does or can exist. At the same time we must remember that some degree of partiality may be a stimulus to investigation, and so result in the discovery of trust rather than the distortion of it. We must not commit the absurdity of claiming to be wholly free from a preference for our own denominational views, nor at the same time must we allow these to hinder us from seeing and frankly acknowledging the truth from whatever quarter it may come with sufficient credentials. (13-14)

What a wise warning! All of us have biases and presuppositions. We must recognize this fact as we study the church – or any subject for that matter. One of the ways that I try to keep my biases in check, as much as possible, is by reading widely. When I read authors who do not hold to my same positions, it causes me to think seriously about what they are saying. When I read authors who write from a different perspective, it broadens the way that I look at a problem or issue or scriptural passage.

However, it is possible to read widely but simply for the purpose of finding fault. This type of study does not help you recognize your biases. Instead, when we read simply to find fault, we are merely reinforcing our own biases and presuppositions.

What are your thoughts concerning these two long quotations from Dargan about studying the church?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 6-3-2008


    Thank you! I will be reading Dargan.
    Seems, at least in his view that we are not as loony as some of my erstwhile colleagues say.

  2. 6-3-2008

    I did serve in the UMC for 7 years, so the following view of theirs still ring true to me:

    Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience

    I think that it is PARAMOUNT that Scripture is first and everything flows out from that.

    However, I think that most people come to scripture with lenses on and they let “experience” drive them.

  3. 6-3-2008

    Aussie John,

    Like I said, I don’t agree with Dargan on everything. But, I appreciate the way that he wanted to study the church beginning with Scripture without assuming that his own ideas were automatically correct.


    Yes, hermeneutical lenses are difficult to read through and even more difficult to remove. Of course, we all have them. That’s one of the reasons that I try to read authors who come to the text of Scripture from many different persepctives. It helps me to read without my own personal lens.