It seemed good at the time

What comes to mind when you think of compelling, persuasive arguments?  If you believe in democracy, electioneering, and mob rule, no doubt images of sound-byte demagogues herding the masses to the booths come to mind.    If you are more intellectual, you think of aesthetically-pleasing foonotes, two-premise syllogisms, and quoting texts accurately.

If someone justified their case by saying, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” you would no doubt conclude they were a bit off.   or failed seminary or something.

If I may say this with all respect, that is precisely what the apostles did.   Acts 15 recounts the apostles’ response to those who said Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved.  The Law said one must keep the commandment of circumcision forever.  (It said similar things about various feasts as well).   If the early church held to a GH reading of Scripture, and the early church held to sola scriptura as a hermeneutical construct, there is no way they could justify doing away with circumcision.

Incidentally, I make the argument that the grammatical-historical method of interpretation is necessary to sola scriptura and evangelicalism.    Or, if I may expand, the results from the GH method are necessary.  Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says that Scripture has only one meaning (presumably the divines were rejecting the fourfold method of the medieval church).  I maintain, however, that even on the GH terms, this view is impossible.    Presumably to the Old Testament hearers, Genesis 17 meant you had to circumcise the males in your household and you must always circumcise the males in your household.   It’s really not up for interpretation.   That’s not really a problem for the evangelical until we get to the part where God says you have to do this forever.     But it is quite clear that the church didn’t think they had to circumcise males forever.

The opponents in Acts 15 weren’t dummies.  If doctrine were simply decided by “Scripture alone,” and we interpret scripture by a literal reading, then the Judaizers would have won easily.   The law said you had to circumcise males forever, and circumcision had a very sharp meaning (pun intended).   There is no way that the Judaizers’ argument can be dismissed if we are going by what the Bible (as they had it at the time) said.


Unless there was another principle of authority at work.  How do the apostles solve the issue?  They don’t simply appeal to a “plain and simple reading of the Bible.”  They do quote the Prophet Amos, to be sure, but they give a very non-straightfoward interpretation of the passage, an interpretation that was surely challenged by the Judaizers.  Ultimately, they say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

If that’s all there is to the argument, that’s a lame argument.   But if the church is the body of Christ, and the tradition of the Church is the mind of Christ, and that is how decisions in the Church are to be made, then the argument takes on a new dimension.