This is the fourth post in a five-part series on Aesop’s Fables. You can read this post independently from the others or you can read the introduction here for more background on the history and use of Aesop’s Fables and catch up on the other two fables I examined here and here.
GENIUS, VIRTUE AND REPUTATION
Genius, Virtue, and Reputation, three great friends, agreed to travel over the island of Great Britain, to see whatever might be worthy of observation. But as some misfortune, said they, may happen to separate us, let us consider, before we set out, by what means we may find each other again. “Should it be my ill fate,” said Genius, “to be severed from my friends—heaven forbid!—you may find me kneeling in devotion before the tomb of Shakespeare; or rapt in some grove where Milton talked with angels; or musing in the grottos where Pope caught inspiration.” Virtue, with a sigh, acknowledged, that her friends were not very numerous; “but were I to lose you,” she cried, “with whom I at present so happily united, I should choose to take sanctuary in the temples or religion, in the palaces of royalty, or in the stately domes of ministers of state; but as it may be my ill fortune to be there denied admittance, inquire for some cottage where contentment has a bower, and there you will certainly find me.” “Ah, my dear friends,” said Reputation very earnestly, “you, I perceive, when missing may recovered; but take care I entreat you, always to keep sight of me, for if I am once lost, I am never to be retrieved.”
There are few things that can be so irreparably lost as reputation
I have no need to recite to you specific examples of great leaders who have irreparably lost their reputations. Regardless of your social circles, you can supply names just fine on your own. But take note here what the parable quoted above states is the surest–indeed, the only–safeguard against a loss of reputation.
(1) genius which we could also call “wisdom”
(3) and (implicitly) community
The loss of these three naturally leads to a loss of reputation. Virtue and Wisdom–companions of Reputation–must keep careful watch over him because isolation from them will prove his ruin.
When we understand the true nature of fallen man we will come to understand that isolation is one of the greatest dangers a man can face. Isolation can be physical, authoritative, emotional, theological or spiritual. The dangers of an unaccountable government are ingrained in the minds of my fellow Americans due to our history with fighting against a despotic monarch whose power was unrestrained but do we also see the dangers of theological or spiritual isolation where a man decides for himself–arbitrarily and independent of scripture or any church body or tradition–what is right and wrong, what is sound teaching and what is not?
THE INFALLIBILITY OF THE WORD OF GOD
The Bible describes itself as the very words of God. In 2 Timothy 3:16 the apostle Paul writes that “All Scripture is inspired [or “breathed-out”] by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
Keith Mathison writes “…a claim to greater authority than that of Scripture is a claim to greater authority than that of God. Such a claim is nothing short of blasphemy.” (pg. 47) 
Man is not free to create his own moral code and do “whatever is right in his own eyes.” He is subject to the transcendent, eternal, law of God–a reflection of God’s unchanging character.
But if the Word of God is our final authority, our only sure, certain and infallible guide, why do we need anything or anyone else to help us discern truth? If we all just read our Bibles and our Bibles alone, wouldn’t we naturally come to the same conclusions? And yet, as many Bible scholars have pointed out, that already begs the question, “which Bible?” “with or without the apocrypha?”
Many resort to: “Well we should just love Jesus.” –but which “Jesus”? The Mormon “Jesus”? The Jehovah’s Witness “Jesus”? They all read the same Bible as we do yet come to vastly different conclusions about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Thus, there are necessarily three Divinely instituted guardians of the Truth:
(1) THE CHURCH
“Protestant evangelicals have often made it clear, when discussing the doctrine of sola fide, that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. We are justified by faith alone, but a faith that does not produce spiritual fruit is a dead faith that cannot save. Similarly, our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a Scripture that is alone…Scripture is certainly sufficient, but it is only sufficient for certain things. It cannot read itself. It cannot preach itself. It cannot interpret itself. That is the duty and responsibility of the church.” (Keith Mathison, pg. 43) 
“…authority has been given to the church in order that she may preserve the unity of the faith and reject the errors of heretics….Any person who has been a Christian for more than a few days is aware that there are numerous competing interpretations of Scripture. There are disagreements and debates on virtually every major issue. How are these disputes to be resolved? If we adopt the individualistic doctrine of [“no authority but the Bible”], it is not possible to settle any debate because the final authority is each individual. Each individual decides for himself and by himself which arguments are stronger. If the next person judges differently, who determines which of them is correct? …this…has led to endless division in the church.” (Keith Mathison, pg. 50-51) 
In our highly individualistic, post-modern times, we are urged to “be Bereans” but what exactly does it mean to “be a Berean”? Yes, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11) but where and how did they examine the Scriptures? Your layman church member did not have private access to the Scriptures. They had to go to the synagogues to read the Old Testament scrolls and this would have been a topic of public and communal discussion. It is for this that they are called, “more noble than those in Thessalonica” who in contrast, rejected the public exposition of the Word of God (Acts 17:2). 
1 Timothy 3:15 tells us that the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth,” NOT individuals. Covenanting with a local church body and submitting to its teaching and leadership protects individual believers from the dangers of their own isolated, private interpretation (1 Peter 1:20), supplying the communal companionship of wisdom and virtue.
For further reading I recommend:
Keith Mathison’s essay Sola Scriptura
(2) CHURCH ASSOCIATIONS
But it is not a single, local church, that is entrusted with guarding and interpreting the truth revealed in the Bible. “Just as no man is an island, so also no church is an island.” Dr. Renihan writes in his contributive essay in “Denominations or Associations?” (pg. 94).
“Imagine…a church that has ‘no creed but the Bible,’ where the minister one week is convinced that baptism should be restricted only to professing believers and the next week changes his mind and thinks babies can be baptized too. Can he be held to account? There would seem to be no way of doing this; in practice, whatever he thinks is the truth on any given matter at any given moment–that is the position of his church. This is surely a recipe for chaos in that it places the congregation completely at the mercy of whatever the current opinion of the pastor might be. He has, in theory, unlimited power, and the Bible would seem to mean whatever he decides that it means.” –Carl Truman, pg. 162-163 
Whole churches, as well as individuals, have distorted truth and promoted error throughout two-thousand years of church history.
In Chapter 2 of “Denominations or Associations?”, Mr. Earl Blackburn walks through numerous passages of scripture that demonstrate communication and cooperation between churches, such as when the epistles were being circulated, that presupposed an existing and organized relationship between the autonomous churches–how else could these things be accomplished?
This network of churches is what we Baptists call an association of churches.
The Apostle Paul repeatedly wrote to churches to warn them of false prophets and teachers (many of them “pastors”) or of other groups of believers that were pressuring them to surrender “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” as Jude put it. There are rogue churches just as there are rogue members and just as the church is a gatekeeper trusted to mark heretical and unorthodox individuals, so associations are trusted to mark heretical and unorthodox churches. New Testament churches warned other churches, supported other churches, and held other churches accountable.
For further reading I recommend:
Denominations or Associations?
I have written a summary outline of it here
and a review here
(3) TRADITION AND CONFESSIONALISM
But certainly, an entire group of churches can and have erred, what then is the handrail to grasp hold of to prevent a theological tumble off a cliff? It is at this point we need to step back even further and observe that it is not the association of churches in each respective generation that determines and defines the central teachings of the Word of God but the church throughout all the ages, spanning from now back to its first conception. The means of the church for preserving the truth is confessionalism or the summary teaching of the principle truths of scripture as tested, refined, and prioritized throughout church history.
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Words are central to the Christian faith. God spoke the world into existence (Gen. 1:3), He spoke to His people through the prophets (Heb. 1:1), He called His Son “the Word made flesh” (Jn. 1:14), and He speaks to us today through the Written Word (Heb. 4:12) and the Written Word confessed and explained through preachers (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Tim. 4:2, Rom. 10:14, etc. etc.).
Christ founded His Church on a confession (Matt. 16:17-18) and the church has been confessing Christ ever since.
The Words of God, by Divine command and Apostolic example, are to be openly confessed, repeated, summarized, and explained. Paul urged Timothy and Titus to uphold “trustworthy” and “sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9; 2:1) and to refute what was contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3-11). With this as our foundation, we must understand Paul’s qualification for Elders to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2b) as describing not only skill but content and the stipulation “above reproach” as requiring not only moral excellence but doctrinal excellence. 
Because, to return to our fable, there is more than one way a man can forfeit his reputation.
Identifying with historic confessions of the faith is the greatest way we can identify with the church–and thus, with Christ. It is our surest safeguard against heresy and heretics both, for order and precision are the terror of agents of chaos whose chief weapon is to distort, dilute, and deny.
To ask “what have the saints confessed, upheld, and defended for two-thousand years?” is to link arms with Virtue and Wisdom.
May you never be parted from them.
For further reading I recommend:
The Credal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman
 After Darkness Light, a collection of essays; Sola Scriptura by Keith A. Mathison
 The Credal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman
 I don’t have a proper citation for this observation, but it and many others in this essay are properly credited to my daddy who has studied, sought council from other pastors, and preached on these topics. In keeping with the spirit of this essay, I have sought out the wisdom and virtue of my pastor (who happens to also be my daddy), have listened eagerly to the men of my church’s association teach on these topics, and pulled down from my daddy’s library shelves the careful words of saints gone before me. Nothing in this essay is “new” though it may be new to you, as it has been to me as well over the last couple years. I hope it to be a fair and accurate summary of the writings of those before me that encourages you to deeper study, utilizing the four means God has given.
Read the rest of the series here: