I know that the plural of “anecdote” is not “trend,” as many sensationalistic journalists assume. But something is afoot these days, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Protestantism at large.
In 2011, Norman McCrummen, a pastor for a PCUSA congregation retired and subsequently became a Roman Catholic layperson. I know of other cases of pastors–Presbyterian and otherwise–who have become Roman Catholics, so Norman’s interview was intriguing.
I want to use his thoughts as a springboard for further discourse–my own theses for discussion. If some are to be believed (e.g., Phyllis Tickle), we are living through another reformation of sorts. So let’s think about how the plates are shifting under us.
McCrummen said that the erosion of biblical authority “didn’t happen overnight in the denomination, and the whole of liberal Protestantism is facing a crisis in that it has accommodated cultural norms to the point of breaking with Biblical authority.” Is liberal Protestantism truly reaching a breaking point? Is all of Protestantism, in all its varied forms, unraveling? Or is this just endemic to liberalism?
Here are my other (somewhat random) theses for discussion:
1) It’s not too controversial to say that Liberal Protestantism has jettisoned the historic doctrines of Christianity. Where is the limit of accommodation, when it no longer becomes a recognizable form of Christianity? McCrummen said, in his interview, “Technically…in a Protestant church, anything can be up for a vote, and that happened in my denomination [regarding sexual ethics]…In secular culture, truth is whatever you decide it is.” A friend of mine pointed out that the church (at least in the U.S.) has been cozy with the culture for a long time; however, at this juncture, the church (liberal, conservative, evangelical) has been unceremoniously dumped by the culture. So the question is how do we respond? Pull back and regroup as a separate entity? More accommodation? As my friend said, “For many, the response is to run as hard as they can after the culture, shouting, ‘Baby, come back! I can change! It’ll be different this time! I promise!'”
2) Low-church evangelicals have done away with historic liturgy (including a recognition of sin during the worship service), mostly because of human concerns. Occasionally you hear about some evangelical who has liberalized his opinion about one thing or another (see Jay Bakker or Rob Bell). Is it only a matter of time, then, before evangelicals start to compromise core Christian doctrines in the name of “seekers,” in order to make their faith more palatable? We all know that evangelicals revere the Bible, but there’s no agreement on essentials, and there’s no formal principle in evangelicalism for guarding the basics.
3) Some confessional Protestants (e.g., Anglican, LCMS) take seriously the preservation of “the faith” that was once entrusted to the saints, but they seem to be the exceptions. Even in my own denomination, “reformed and always reforming” seems to have become a justification for evolution. What does it mean “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people,” while still being Reformed? (Jude 3b NIV)
4) I would argue that most Protestant bishops (e.g., Methodist, Episcopal, ELCA) grossly misunderstand the episcopacy’s role in guarding the faith, even in their Protestant traditions. They are more likely to see themselves as administrators, church growth coaches, or–worst of all–agents of change. If you buy into the idea of an episcopacy (and many Protestant traditions don’t), what is the bishops’ proper role in protecting and transmitting the essentials of the apostolic faith? It is my observation (and McCrummen’s, too) that the Roman Catholic magisterium correctly understand their role and identity by not changing the faith handed down to them.
5) Higher criticism, Modernism, post-modernism, and the proliferation of various interpretive hermeneutics (e.g., feminist, liberation, and racial and ethnic categories) have chipped away at the so-called perspicuity of Scripture, so it’s not as definitive to say, “What does the Bible say?” (I do believe that there is an existing theology in Scripture, but it’s not always perfectly clear–like for baptism and eschatology.) So where does authority come from in the church? What is the role of a regula fide (rule of faith) or the creeds in defining the boundaries of Christianity?