Popular Historian Defends Mid-Acts Position?

Justin Johnson

In the late 19th century Philip Schaff wrote his popular eight volume History of the Christian Church which remains a classic in print to this day.

Schaff was nowhere close to being a Bible believing mid-Acts Pauline dispensationalist. He was an ecumenical German-trained Reformed Presbyterian who helped prepare the corrupt 1881 Revised Version of the Bible.

Nevertheless, in his first volume covering the history of the apostles, he makes distinctions between Paul and the other apostles. This is not new with mid-Acts doctrine. In the process Schaff makes this interesting statement concerning the epistle of James:

“His Epistle represents simply an earlier and lower form of Christianity ignorant of the higher, yet preparatory to it, as the preaching of John the Baptist prepared the way for that of Christ. It was written without any reference to Paul, probably before the Council of Jerusalem and before the circumcision controversy, in the earliest stage of the apostolic church as it is described in the first chapters of the Acts, when the Christians were not yet clearly distinguished and finally separated from the Jews…” – Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church. Vol I. Notes to section 69.

Though Schaff conflates Prophecy and Mystery, he gets the context of James exactly right. It was written during the time of the Jewish scattering in early Acts before the revelation given to Paul (Acts 8:1 cf. James 1:1).

Concerning the epistle of James, he sounds like a mid-Acts dispensationalist! He goes on and supports his statement by appealing to a litany of now long dead scholars.

“This view of the early origin of the Epistle is maintained by some of the ablest historians and commentators, as Neander, Schneckenburger, Theile, Thiersch, Beyschlag, Alford, Basset, Plumptre, Stanley. Weiss also says very confidently (Bibl. Theol. 3d ed., p. 120): ‘[The letter belongs to the pre-Pauline period…]’ ” – ibid.

Schaff was answering the question, “who else teaches this?” Those who trust men over God’s word ask this question. Scholars ask this question. We should not be followers of men.

Luther could not reconcile the book of James with Paul, and other scholars wrongly say that James corrects Paul, but Schaff argues that James actually wrote before Paul and without his doctrine.

Why would a Reformed ecumenical theologian like Philip Schaff say such a thing if he were not a Bible believing mid-Acts dispensationalist?

Understanding Where Schaff Comes From

Schaff was a historian. He was also a founder of the ecumenical Mercersburg theology which saw the doctrinal contradictions in the church as steps of progress toward a unified end in the future.

His ecumenical beliefs drove him to reconcile the contradictory facts of the apostles’ doctrine. Changing the facts would make him a bad historian. Saying there was no difference would deny his progressive view of history.

His only solution was to explain the differences between Paul and the other apostles in terms of progressive revelation. Paul had further understanding than did James. They must be understood in terms of progressive history, and not as competing contemporaries.

James taught faith and law to Jews, then after Paul taught faith without law to Gentiles. In the future, all will be one in Christ. The doctrine of the apostles was progressively revealed.

This is a dispensational idea.

Was Schaff Dispensational?

People often ask, “who else teaches this?” We would be wrong to say Philip Schaff. Schaff was not a dispensationalist. Mercersburg theology and mid-Acts dispensationalism are not friends.

But it is important to see that when someone is forced to view a literal Bible through the lens of progressive revelation they will find themselves intersecting with Pauline right division at some point.

This can teach us where to begin with people who are polar opposites to us going in completely different directions. They may not end up landing at your airport, but if they have the right heading they may fly over your base once or twice.

This gives you an opportunity to encourage followers of popular tradition whose doctrines are still up in the air to come in for a landing. They are familiar with Schaff. They are not familiar with you.

Throughout history people have flown over the mid-Acts landing strip. Few have accepted reality and come down to earth. In the 19th century there was no mid-Acts Pauline airport. Today we see further. We need to have the runway lights on.

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Published: September 17, 2016
Last Modified: March 27, 2019
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