Lessons from Church History - David Bercot - Anabaptist Perspectives Ep. 120

Mar 18, 2021 10:30 · 4718 words · 23 minute read

Hello everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Anabaptist Perspectives. We’re here with David Bercot, and I think pretty much everybody knows who you are because you’ve written a whole lot of books about early church history and Ante-Nincene fathers and so forth, so today I’d like to dive into why did you even begin studying early church history to begin with? Like what got you started in that whole process? So what got me started. You did an episode was it last year, or the year before on my life’s history, and I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness.

I left when I was 26 years old, and then began yeah, this long journey. Okay, what is true? If they’re not true - not that they are false on every point by any means, but they certainly have quite a number of errors. I was going to school during that time, and I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to it, but once I was finished with college and law school, I had a little bit more time. My wife and I started attending an evangelical church. Fantastic pastor, and his wife who really played a huge role in my life.

In fact the commentary - the Matthew commentary that just came out - he and his wife were the ones I dedicated it to.

01:24 - Oh, really? Okay. Anyway during my years in the evangelical church - particularly after he and his wife - they ended up going to Haiti to pastor a church down there - but I was fairly happy in the church. We had a lot of friends. An awful lot of things I did agree with and supported, but a number of questions like - of course they were big on war and patriotism which it’s one of the things Jehovah’s Witnesses got right. That war is it’s not appropriate for Christians.

The pastor I dedicated the commentary to - okay, he was really open, and I would bring up some of these things. Man. He was open to look into them. Yeah. Let’s talk. We’ll see what the scriptures have to say, and he had no problem saying, yeah, I think we’re wrong on this point, and stuff like that, so that was a wonderful experience. That’s one of the things that really helped me to climb back on the road spiritually, but the next pastor was just a straight seminary guy.

Nice guy and everything, but everything by the seminary book, so on all those things, yeah, he didn’t budge an inch, and one of the issues was eternal security. It’s like everything I read in the New Testament seems to say the opposite as well as the Old Testament that we can’t just disobey Christ, and still we’re going to be in heaven. It’s not that, oh, you lose your salvation every time you sin or anything like that, but there has to be some kind of an obedient walk.

Our church taught no, if you were genuinely saved, you can go and murder someone, and you’re still saved. That doesn’t change anything, and I was doing a radio interview about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it was on a Christian radio station, and at the end of it the interviewer - he said, now our radio station. - we’re nondenominational, and we try not to slam any denomination or church or anything like that. He said, but the fact is Jehovah’s Witnesses have departed in a major way from the historic faith, and that’s kind of how it concluded, okay, and I was driving home.

I was thinking historic faith. Yeah. Yeah. What is the historic faith? Yeah. We have a measuring guide that we can then judge, yeah, that when we read the scriptures, yeah, how does the historic faith understand this passage? So then I was interested, what is the historic faith? Well, I wasn’t going to read a commentary or something like that. I realized I would go read the writings of the early Christians, so that’s how it all started. So probably just a few weeks after that interview I ordered a set of the Ante-Nicene fathers.

In fact this is my original one I would have bought back in like 1984. It’s been taped up a bit, and all of that, but I’ve got all these underlinings, so I haven’t kept replacing it because the underlinings are more valuable than the book, so I got that set. It took me a year. I would just every night. I’d come home from work. Just start reading. I just poured into it. At first I didn’t like what they were saying because I assumed on any given issue either Jehovah’s Witnesses were right or the evangelicals.

I didn’t think there was any middle ground, and if evangelicals and witnesses agreed - which maybe 40 percent of the things they would both teach the same things - then I assume there’s no question on that, so here I’m finding all this stuff that I never even had a question about. It’s like they believed this back then? Like wow, and it’s like man, I don’t know if I want to read this, and several times I just put them back on the shelf, and I told Deborah, I said, I don’t think I can handle that.

It’s too weird, and then that lasts maybe one day, and I think I don’t have to believe what they said, but I ought to know, and so I’d go back, and start reading again, and then I’d get discouraged, and after a while you do get inside their mindset, and then it starts making a lot of sense, and I also had switched from some of the Greek writers to Tertullian who’s Latin. He was a little easier to follow. After a while, yeah, things started making sense, and like I say, when I got on the Trinity it was like, wow, this is the best explanation of the Trinity I’ve ever heard.

Now, yeah, I can fully not only just say I believe in the Trinity, but I can grasp it. I can explain it to others, and yeah, it went from kind of consternation and all that to this is exciting. I couldn’t put it down. It was like reading a mystery novel.

05:48 - Oh wow. I could not wait to - man, when five o’clock came in I was out of the office, and I’d get home, and I just start reading, and I’d read til midnight. That’s how I got into reading. Now, I wasn’t planning on writing a book or anything. I just was trying to find out for myself what is the historic faith? Well, of course I was sharing this with Deborah as I was going along. Now at one point after I read about six months I thought, but is this in the Bible? And so I just stopped one night, and I just took off, and I just read the New Testament without - well I didn’t read all four gospels.

I think I read Matthew, John, and then Acts and on, and I just read all night til I was I was done, and I was just seeing all this stuff in the New Testament that I had never seen. I’d read it. I’d read the Bible a jillion times through - particularly the New Testament. It’s like how did I not notice that verse? It’s right there. Black and white. How did I not notice it? That’s why they’re saying this. Because that’s what it - they’re just saying what it says.

It was the most exciting experience to read the New Testament. To suddenly realize I had blinders on my eyes all this time. Just the words of it. It’s like, yeah, they’re just saying exactly what it says, so after that night of reading the New Testament, well then when I got back, it was even more exciting because now I’m realizing - yeah, when I was all through I was so excited about this. Then I remember calling some of our close friends in the church, and we all got together, and I told them what I’ve been doing the past year, and I said, yeah, I’m just going to share with you some of this stuff.

I said, it’s kind of weird stuff. It’s going to blow your mind. These were real open people. Some of them were the children of the pastor - the one who had been really open and stuff, and then anyway all my friends started saying David, you got to write a book about this, and at first it was like, yeah, right. Yeah, sure. It’s just like a joke, and then I don’t know. After several months of them saying that I remember talking to Deborah one night, and I said, what if I go to my grave having seen all this, and I never tell a soul, and because no one else is writing about this.

It’s in the scholarly books, but no one reads that. Yeah. What if I stand before Christ, and it’s like so you saw all this stuff, and you never told anybody? I’m going to be really culpable, so I felt like yeah, I got to write a book. Probably no one will read it, but at least if I write it, I can stand before Christ with a clear conscience. Say, I tried to tell people, and no one was interested, and so I wrote the book Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, and shared some of the things that I had discovered.

I actually called up the pastor friend that I was telling you about, and I’d shared with him when he would be back visiting because his adult children still live there, and so I said, now, what are some of the things - I went down a list of all the kind of things that they believed - what could I get away with, and what’s going to be too weird for everyone? So I had this big long list. So he went down, and yeah, you can do this. Now some of them like salvation stuff - it was going to be stepping on toes, but he said, yeah, you can get by with this.

Yeah, you can get by, so the topics in Will the Real Heretics are the ones that he picked out for me.

08:59 - Interesting. I did not know that. So theoretically speaking, there’s a whole another heretics book of material that maybe got scratched off the list? Oh five or six Heretic books, but that’s what these cds I’ve been doing through the years are a lot of these other ones that - which they are in there. So most of those I’ve covered.

09:17 - And it’s up on your YouTube channel, right, or online? Yeah, boy of the key ones are up on the YouTube channel for people to see. Then the rest are available. People can purchase the download or the cd or that sort of thing. That’s how it all started, and what ended up changing my entire life that I wasn’t expecting when I started on the venture.

09:43 - Well, and because the next question I had in mind was this quest that you started on. Was it successful? It kind of seems like it might have been.

09:50 - Yeah. Very successful, but when I started it, I was after theological knowledge. Okay. What’s the correct teaching on eternal security? What’s the correct teaching about the Trinity or something like that? Now I wasn’t looking should ladies today wear head coverings? I’d read that verse, and it was always explained some other way. That wasn’t even on my radar. I noticed it in their writings. Well, and Tertullian. He has a whole thing about it, and I’m reading this, and it’s like, that’s what it’s talking about in First Corinthians.

How come no one ever told me? It was all kinds of stuff like that, so the big challenge for me when I read them, I saw all of these lifestyle issues. I was a conservative person. I was a good evangelical. I realized, boy, in the early church they would have looked at me as so spiritually weak, so backslidden, and that was like if this is all true, and I had already seen this is the New Testament, I’m in bad shape. If I stood before my Lord right now, yeah, I don’t know if I would be accepted or rejected, and looking back now, I don’t think, I would be accepted other than a plea of ignorance maybe, or well, I got misled by my teachers.

I don’t know, but television and just all this stuff, and I remember talking to my wife and modest dress. These things we had never even thought about. I said, we’ve got to make changes. Our lifestyle is not acceptable to Christ. Fortunately my wife from day one has been totally supportive. That isn’t always the case either one way or the other. Sometimes it’s this spouse, but not this one, so that was nice that she was very supportive, and my children were.

I thought well, man, this is gonna be a big issue with them. We went real slow as a family. I made the decision, okay, we’re gonna give up television, but dad who I used to be at night. I’d be at the office a lot, and all that. Dad’s gonna be home every night. We’re gonna start doing a lot more as a family, so everything the children lost. They gained more. So for them - I remember a couple years after we started the whole thing our daughter Heather saying to one of her friends about when life really got fun in our home, and it was when all of this started.

That made me feel really good. Okay. So that was I think the big thing is realizing my lifestyle was not acceptable to Jesus Christ, and I needed to change, and that it’s not a burden to do it. It seemed a little bit intimidating, but yeah, in the end it’s been - I’ve had not only no regrets, it’s been a happy turn in my life. It’s brought a lot of challenges for sure, but far more blessings than anything that I would have lost in the way of this world.

12:46 - So we’ve been looking at kind of the big picture of how you started studying early church history, and the effects it had on your life. Could you narrow it down to the most important thing you feel that you learned from studying early church history? Okay, and you were kind enough to prepare me, so you sent me this question, and I do have the one, but I’ve got two then - seconds and thirds if that’s okay.

13:13 - That’s fine. That’s fine by me. Definitely. I would say the first one was I can read the Bible, and what it says is what it means. This is how the first Christians understood it just at face value. I don’t have to worry about grabbing a commentary, and oh it doesn’t mean anything like what it says here. No. If Jesus said - gave a commandment He meant that to be obeyed just like that, so that was the thing because I was used to someone always explaining, well, see it says this, but really, and if you get into the Greek it, and that kind of stuff or some kind of fake history.

Well, yeah, it says this, but back in the days of Jesus there was this custom and all of this stuff that - I saw all of that was mostly made-up stuff, but yeah, I can read the Bible for myself. Just pick it up, and read it, and follow it. It doesn’t take a seminary degree. It’s something anybody can do, and what the historic faith is just exactly the New Testament for itself. Now, you’ve got to get away your blinders first. We’ve all been indoctrinated, so you got to get back to a blank slate.

Just read it at face value, so that was the big thing, and if I never got anything else that’s enough. That is a life changer. That would be my message to the whole world: take it at face value. I’m not talking about revelation or apocalyptic. I’m talking about the epistles and Jesus’s teachings and things that aren’t clear parables and that, and the second thing that really was exciting to me on the early church. When I was a Jehovah’s Witness we had all of these proof texts for you take whatever topic it was - on the Trinity or on this, and when you knocked on someone’s door and they wanted to start an argument on a, b, or c, I had them all memorized, and boy, I could pull out, yeah, but over here it says this, and then of course that person would have their proof text, and I wondered - I thought is this really how it’s supposed to be done -whoever ends up with the most? Oh, you have four, but see I’ve got five and my five beat your four or whatever, or it would come down to well, your Bible translates it this way, but it should be translated this way, and I wondered - even when I was Jehovah’s Witness, I thought this seems odd that this would be what eternal life turns on you, and then when I left the Witnesses it was really the same thing with the evangelicals.

It was just switching sides, but now it was the same thing. You grab this text here. You grab this verse here, and you ignore this verse, but in the early Christians their understanding of you name it - salvation, life after death, Trinity, whatever - it’s the whole New Testament. You look at every verse. You don’t throw any of them in the closet somewhere. You look at them all, and your explanation better take into account every one of those verses, and if it doesn’t fit all of them, you’re not understanding it correctly, and sometimes it does mean, yeah there’s not going to be a one simple little one-sentence answer to a question.

It’s a little bit more involved. That was very new to me because no one was doing that. Everyone would probably say, well, yeah, of course you have to do that, but yeah, it’s always just grabbing proof texts. Now once you have the whole New Testament what it teaches on salvation or whatever, sure you’re going to quote some of the key representative verses, but they have to be representative. You can’t just grab the ones that present this side and ignore this side.

It has to represent the whole thing, so that for me was like well of course, and that was one reason I knew I found the truth in reading the early church because it’s like, okay, this fits everything. I don’t have any problem verses anymore. As a Jehovah’s Witness there’s always these problem verses, and then as an evangelical, yeah, there’s these problem verses. Well, suddenly, yeah, there’s no problem verses. I think that was the second thing that was very, very big to me and has impacted my life, and again something I preach to other people.

No matter who they are - Catholic, protestant, evangelical, Anabaptist, Church of Christ - whatever - look at the totality of the New Testament - the totality of the Bible, but I’m saying particularly the New Testament because that’s where most of our theology is coming from and our lifestyle commandments are out of the New Testament. Okay, so the third thing. This isn’t from so much the early church. Your question was on church history. Okay. Now, once I had read the Pre-Nicene Christians - the writers before the council of Nicaea, before Constantine, before Christianity became a state religion.

Okay, I saw everything they taught. Well, then the big question, and I saw that this was quite different from the church I was attending, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, from the liberals, from you name it. I didn’t know any church that this fit, and so the big question in my mind then was what happened? How did this get changed? Why doesn’t everyone still believe this? So then I started reading on the next century and the century after that to try to figure out what happened, and what I saw through that is that doctrine has developed.

In other words the doctrine that we know today people think, oh well, yeah. I just got this out of the Bible. Well, if you just got it out of the Bible, then why weren’t Christians always teaching that? Jehovah’s Witnesses say that. We just go by the Bible. I must have said that at least a thousand times when I was Jehovah’s Witness. We just go by the Bible. Just whatever the Bible says. Well, okay, but how come before the year 1872 not a single soul ever understood this verse to mean this? Did Jesus establish His church, have the apostles go out and preach, and yet no one understood what he meant until 1800 and something that all those centuries everyone was in ignorance? That makes no sense.

19:14 - Oh wow. Or that they got it, right theoretically, and then as soon as the 12 apostles died, boom! Everyone forgot it? and it’s like, no. Right after the apostles died you have these people who are taking the New Testament very literally and following it so closely and dying for the faith, and of course these are the ones who put together the New Testament canon. It’s like, yeah. You can look and see, ah-hah. Until this event this is what the Christians believed, but then it changed because of this person.

Athanasius. He changed this. Augustine changed this. Jerome. He changed this. Luther. He changed this, this, this, and this. Calvin changed this. You can see where these different doctrines came in, and I have to ask the same question. If it’s absurd that something wasn’t understood until Charles Russell the founder of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1872, well then it’s just as absurd that no one understood it until 1519 or 1517 with Luther. It’s like people understood this from the beginning.

It was given for people to understand, and so if you can’t trace this back and demonstrate that this is the historic faith then yeah, this is a man-made edition. We got to get back to the historic faith. So realizing where this came from, and yeah, everyone believes this, but they don’t realize no one believed it until this person came along. He’s the first one to teach this. You can’t find anyone teaching this until this man came along. He taught it.

It caught on, and now everybody thinks, oh, that’s - even though there’s nothing in the Bible that specifically says that.

20:55 - It’s like plotting the threads through history, and then kind of working in reverse back - Except I actually started at the beginning, and I was a title attorney. Which my whole job as a title attorney was to start with when Texas or sometimes back when Mexico owned the land, and then track it - every single transaction, every death, every deed until the present owner. It is kind of the same thing. Okay, this is what they believed in the year 125, okay, and then you just keep tracing, and where did something change? So, you’ve been studying early church history for quite a while.

Several decades. Over time obviously you’ve become well acquainted with these writings, with these different authors. How or what particular opinions about them have changed for you over time as you’ve continued to study? Generally speaking nothing. I started off. I wanted to see what the historic faith was. As I said the first few weeks or month or so it seemed real weird, but once I got past that particularly when I saw yeah, this is all right - the most literal reading of scripture.

Yeah, I don’t think anything has changed. I still see them as a witness to what the historic faith is. Probably what has changed. Okay, what do I do with this information? At first it was just my own life, and then sharing it with others, and then there was a point in time - this would have been in the early 1990s that I would have had the view okay, if the early church did this, then we should do it too even if it’s a custom that’s not witnessed to in the New Testament, and there’s not any big things here.

I’ll just give you a few illustrations. One of them: before Easter they would fast for 40 days, okay. Where we get the modern practice of Lent. Of course I thought that was a Roman Catholic convention, so I was very surprised. It was like, wow. This goes all the way back to at least the early 200s. Maybe even before then, okay. So there would have been a time that, yeah. There’s no New Testament commandment, but if they did it then we should do the same thing, and there’s nothing wrong with doing it.

I’m certainly not in the least bit opposed to it. After kind of pushing that for a few years, and seeing the journey that kind of took me and Dean Taylor and some others - the journey we went down. Oh, we kept adding traditions that necessarily weren’t from before the year 200 or so. Well, the earliest witness is 375, but okay, let’s go ahead and do that, and pretty soon you start getting pulled from the Bible, and so after just seeing the fruit of that, I came to the conclusion: the safest thing is just stay with the scriptures.

Use the early church as a witness to how the church understood the scriptures from the beginning, and like I said, there’s not a lot of their stuff that’s not just the most literal clear thing from the scriptures. Or customs of like how they baptize. You’re going to have a way of baptizing. You’re going to pour. You’re going to immerse. You’re going to pour three times. You’re going to pour one time. You’re going to have a way of doing it, so why not practice the way that we have a witness of how they were doing it way back in the year 150 or something like that? I would still feel strongly about that, but if it’s something that yeah, it’s not unscriptural, but it’s not commanded in scripture - there’s no witness in scripture - then I’d say, yeah, it’s just better not to worry about it.

Keep closely anchored to scripture. If you get very far from scripture, it’s easy to wander down the wrong path, so that’s where maybe it’s not a different view of them, it’s just a different view of yeah, applying things that you see from there, but like I say that is not very much stuff. I could probably give a list of 10 things, and that’s as far as I could go with things that yeah, there’s not a clear thing in scripture about it, so that’s really about all I’ve changed.

It’s not that I haven’t reexamined this in question, and wow, have I ever been cross-examined by people, and criticized, and attacked which is all fine. Hey, I need to hear. If I’m on the wrong path, yeah, let me know, and so I’m glad I’ve been challenged that way to yeah, go back and re-examine these premises, and all of that, but yeah after 40 years yeah, it stands out even stronger now than it would have even way back then in the 1980s. .