Wednesday, April 1, 2009
I am a Christian in a branch of the church that grew out of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. While I am happy to be a Protestant, and while I feel certain that the medieval church needed reformation badly, I sometimes wonder whether the current state of the Protestant movement is still accomplishing the things the original Protestant reformers set about to do. Has Protestantism run its course? Have the Reformation’s objectives been met? Is the universal church better or worse off because of the Protestant Reformation?
My own Reformed tradition is fond of quoting the catchphrase, that the church is “reformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.” That is, part of our very identity is that God continues to shape his church in order to bring us closer to his will, revealed in Scripture and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Throughout history, God has often raised up herding dogs to nip at the heels of the flock to corral them into greater obedience. Today, we live in a period of profound, seismic transition–when old divisions are dissolving, when Christians are being challenged from the outside and need to stick together, and when God is busy doing something new in our midst. So over the next few weeks, I am going to use this blog space to let out a few growls to challenge my fellow Protestant Christians, with the goal that we will all lay down our idols and become, more fully, the Body of Christ.
Protestant Problems – Part 1: Authority and the Bible
The reformers were also fond of using the catchphrase sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) as a way of declaring independence from the authority of church tradition (not to mention the unbiblical and sometimes arbitrary pronouncements of church leaders) and clinging to the authority of God’s Word. The idea was a good one: If it isn’t either in the God-breathed Scriptures or consistent with the Scriptures, then it should not be binding on the church. Even today, Roman Catholics talk about “Catholic teaching” and Protestants talk about “what the Bible says,” demonstrating that Protestants recognize the Bible as their supreme authority, while Catholics recognize the Bible as the church’s book, dependent on the church for its authority.
But is it completely possible to operate as the church relying solely on the Scriptures? That may be a loaded question, since the Scriptures are more-or-less clear in themselves about God’s will.^ But how do we guard against error in understanding and applying the Scriptures? I would contend that sola scriptura, while being the right idea, needs qualification today. The embarrassing reality is that this Protestant ideal has given birth Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists, the Jesus Seminar, liberal “Christians,” and all manner of cults and sects who read the same Bible and yet who come to very different opinions and violate the basic ethos and essential truths of our Christian faith.
Do we need more than Scripture alone to keep on track? How is the Bible authoritative when it is sometimes twisted and tortured to underwrite heresy?
Many flavors of Protestantism were aware of this temptation early on and adopted or retained certain standards. Lutherans have the Augsburg Confession, Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession of Faith, Methodists have Wesley’s sermons, Anglicans have the 39 Articles, and so on. Even many non-denominational churches (who officially profess “no creed but Christ”) feel compelled to draft statements of faith and recognize–unofficially, of course–the ancient creeds and formulas of the church (e.g., the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian definition, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed). Many Protestants, especially during the Enlightenment, elevated reason and experience as authoritative guides to Scripture (which I would argue are often sloppy, malleable boundaries).
So, it boils down to this: We Protestants stake our ultimate authority in the Scriptures (sola scriptura); however, in order to guard against serious error on essential items, we already acknowledge certain extra-biblical statements as being definitive boundaries for understanding the Bible. Therefore, we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge what we are already doing. Of course, I’m not advocating elevating the church’s magisterium (whatever that might look like for Protestants!) to be over or on-par with the Bible, but I am advocating that we take a look again at what the Bible is,+ how it is authoritative, and how our ecumenical creeds (i.e., the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian definition, etc.) guard Scripture from perversion.
I welcome your feedback and comments on this issue!
Update: I discovered this critique of sola scriptura by a Roman Catholic evangelist. He makes some good points that Protestants should read and meditate upon. His main error, though, is his assumption that the Roman Catholic Church–as it is today–is the same as it was when it produced the Bible (ahem!), which is a stretch. He also assumes that his critique of Scripture alone completely endorses every piece of Roman Catholic dogma and practice, which is also a stretch. In many ways, the Bible confounds Protestants and Catholics alike and challenges their assumptions about church stuff.
^ The reformers taught, rightly, that the Scriptures are clear enough for anyone to understand: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith, I.6).
+ We 21st-century Protestants also fall into the trap of forgetting the role of the early church in prayerfully recognizing the Holy Spirit’s mark on certain works and setting them aside as canonical Scripture; too often we assume that the Bible came packaged from the beginning. But that’s another discussion for another day!