...are the ones that make the biggest difference

8.19.2004

Workable Solutions - I

Daniel over at neotheologue has an ongoing series of posts on Christian unity which are both brutally honest and insightful. His posts have gotten me thinking about unity but also about one of my personal obsessions - workable solutions. All the theorizing and pondering in the world are utterly useless unless they lead us towards a workable solution. Not a perfect solution, mind you, I'm not so naive as to think we will ever obtain perfection until Christ returns in glory. No, with any problem that confronts me, especially the bigger and much harder to solve spiritual/ecclesial types, I'm really only interested in finding concrete steps that will take us forward. Maybe only a few inches of the miles we have yet to travel, but forward nonetheless.

Of course, we can't find those steps until we've identified the cause of the problem. Only with a correct diagnosis of the illness can a treatment be prescribed. I think for the Protestant world the answer is abundantly clear: sola scriptura (I now hereby officially open the sola scriptura issue for public debate). Personally, I am not yet ready to abandon SS and for the vast majority of Protestants it doesn't even have a chance of being an option for the possibility of potential future consideration. But the fact remains that SS is effectually one of the largest contributors to the disunity of the Protestant church in general. I'm not saying SS is wrong or an incorrect, ahistorical doctrine; I'm speaking only about the practical consequences.

Part of the problem is that the same definition of SS is not universally held by Protestant churches. The basic idea is that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to know enough about God, Jesus, sin, faith, etc, for the individual to find salvation in Christ and that they are clear on areas relating to salvation though some areas might be more obscure. But wait, that isn't the basic idea. Some churches require all doctrine to be based explicitly on Scripture or ideas that have a short chain of logical deductions from the text. Some are more flexible, accepting doctrines that aren't found explicitly in the Bible, but aren't excluded by it either. In the former, the Bible thus becomes very restrictive and limiting. For instance, the office of "priest" is not found in the New Testament, and thus cannot be legitimately used by Christians. Between these two poles are various other positions, but in essence, this lack of clarity on the precise meaning of SS and the boundaries of legitimacy create division. A strict SS church could not commune with a flexible SS because some of that flexibility can only be regarded as unbiblical, and conversely, the rigidity of the strict church would likely put off the other group.

So step 1 of a workable solution towards unity is getting widespread agreement on the precise definition of, and the theological & ecclesiological boundaries implied by, sola scriptura. If various groups can regard each others' practices (so long as they are not obviously heretical or unbiblical) as legitimate expressions of their respective churchs' beliefs, a huge door to unity would be kicked open.

(cont)

13 comments:

alana said...

The problem with sola scriptura: It ain't in the scriptura to begin with. :-)

I have an idea about the unity problem....

Daniel said...

What's your idea, Alana?

Another problem with SS is that most of those who claim to adhere to it don't really know what it means. A book I read this summer for my study program at Oxford, Reformation Thought by Alister McGrath, paints this picture very clearly. The Reformers quickly realized how problematic SS could be and understood the need for a "doctrine of tradition." But the problem that presented to them is probably obvious: Once you've disconnected yourself from the historical continuity of church tradition, what source of tradition do you choose?

In fact, a valid question to ask might be, "Is tradition something you choose, or something you inherit?"

alana said...

Humbly I submit this thought:

Well. the small local example of "the solution" that I've seen: A group of friends that went to a small Christian college together, who got together every week (for years on end after graduation) for "guys group" and they would hash and argue, and yell about their theological differences until late into the night...week after week...

...are now gathering around the same altar, drinking from the same chalice and affirming the same creed as Orthodox Christians.

The question of "what's our hermeneutic?", or in other words "what's our tradition" led me to Holy Tradition, that which was all along...and Orthodoxy.

Protestantism is by nature schismatic and it's underlying flaw is that it was born out of scism and has and always will bear that fruit. Any attempts at unity has always resulted in a "lowest common denominator" type of unity which is no unity at all, ultimately. How is this a fulfillment of "On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." In order to "protest" or "reform" or "restore", one has to accede that Jesus was wrong and somehow the gates of hell did prevail.

Karl Thienes said...

"In fact, a valid question to ask might be, 'Is tradition something you choose, or something you inherit?'"

The word, at least in Latin, literally comes from the verb "to hand down."

I would posit that tradition (Holy Tradition) is choosen *after* it is inherited. IOW, I can't declare, by fiat, that I am part of Tradition--but once I'm in, I have to make it real in my life by choosing to live it out.

Nathan said...

Daniel -

The lack of understanding on SS was precisely my point. The fundamental dogma of Protestantism isn't uniformly understood across the board, which makes this already potentially schismatic doctrine even more divisive. But if the definition is up for grabs, I don't see how there could be any hope for a consistent doctrine of tradition, much less a uniformity of that tradition across the Protestant spectrum. I would agree with Karl that tradition is actually inherited, but the Reformers pushed the onus of the Magisterium onto the individual and our society has turned everyone into a consumer. Each person must decide for themselves what is right, what scriptures say, what tradition to follow, as such I think it is probably impossible for most Protestants to look at tradition as anything other than a choice for consumption. This, of course, contradicts the understanding of tradition & the church as it was held in the pre-schism church.

Daniel said...

In order to "protest" or "reform" or "restore", one has to accede that Jesus was wrong and somehow the gates of hell did prevail.I think there are a couple of flaws in your logic here, Alana, at least if I'm understanding you correctly. First, you say, "In order to 'protest' . . . one has to accede that Jesus was wrong." You assume that the church against which one is protesting is exactly as Jesus would have it be, or that the practices against one is protesting are practices endorsed by Jesus. Orthodox or Protestant, I think we'd both agree that the Western Church of the 15th century was somewhat outside of Jesus' blueprint for the Church, and that many of its practices were explicitly un-Christlike. It seems to me that, in order to protest, one has to accede that Jesus was right and that the church against which one is protesting has somehow lost sight of that fact.

Second, you write, "In order to 'protest' . . . one has to accede that . . . somehow the gates of hell did prevail." You seem to imply that the church has never done anything wrong, has never needed to repent or even apologize. No matter which of the great branches of Christianity you belong to, I don't think you can legitimately make that claim while at the same time embracing a biblical definition of sin.

(Hi Karl! Welcome to the party!)

Nathan said...

Orthodox or Protestant, I think we'd both agree that the Western Church of the 15th century was somewhat outside of Jesus' blueprint for the Church, and that many of its practices were explicitly un-Christlike. It seems to me that, in order to protest, one has to accede that Jesus was right and that the church against which one is protesting has somehow lost sight of that fact.I think you are correct that the Western Chuch was in bad need of reform & renewal, but if we are being honest, we can see that many (if not most) Protestants today view Catholicism not as a church that was in need of reform, but downright and thoroughgoingly wrong. That is at least an implicit admission that the gates of Hell did prevail. Considering that many Protestants view/ed the Pope as the Antichrist, I think one would be hard pressed to deny that admission.

You seem to imply that the church has never done anything wrong, has never needed to repent or even apologize. No matter which of the great branches of Christianity you belong to, I don't think you can legitimately make that claim while at the same time embracing a biblical definition of sin.I absolutely agree, but is wrong-doing the same thing as the gates of Hell prevailing? I don't think it is. The church-universal and churches-particular have made mistakes and committed sins, but I don't think those errors can be equated to apostasy or total failure, which is how I've normally understood those verses. A consistent Protestant strain of thought has been that the Catholic church went apostate relatively early on and IF there were any "real" Christians in the intervening period, they existed totally under the radar of the institutional church. That idea, to me anyways, clearly states the gates did prevail for 1200 or so years, since there is no evidence anywhere of these underground "true Christians."

Karl Thienes said...

"Hi Karl! Welcome to the party!"

I've been here for a while actually....Nathan and I have had our feet up, drinks in hand, chatting since he started the blog. Good stuff all around!

"You seem to imply that the church has never done anything wrong..."

I think what Nathan is getting at is the fullness of the faith (i.e. truth), not moral or ethical failings. Nobody would claim the Orthodox people are sinless. We simply claim that the Church's official teaching and way of life contain the fullness of the apostolic deposit. Two different issues.

Daniel said...

"I've been here for a while actually..."

Well then why didn't you welcome me? ;-)

I'll confess, Nathan, that I've always been a bit wary of talking about what "all Protestants," "most Protestants," or even "many Protestants" think or believe. Heck, I think it might be a stretch to say that most Protestants today believe that Jesus is the only way to be saved--a sad thing, that, but quite likely.

In my last comment I was only trying to address what I understood (or perhaps misunderstood) as logical falacies in Alana's argument. According to my study, Luther, Calvin, et al. weren't saying that the Roman Catholic Church had completely abandoned the Faith. Inflamatory titles of their missives aside, the fact that they retained any shred of Roman Catholic dogma proves the point. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, fit nicely into the box Nathan described earlier. They were convinced that, for all intents and purposes, there had been no church from the time of Constantine onward. (Incidentally, the Anabaptists believed that because they were the only ones who really took sola scriptura to its logical conclusions.)

That parenthetical remark was my atempt to get this discussion back on the Sola Scriptura track. Where it goes from here is somebody else's responsibility. =)

Nathan said...

Daniel -

I do tend to get a case of the generalizations from time to time, so thanks for pointing out that they aren't necessarily true. I suppose I tend to use "Protestant" when I'm really speaking more about evangelicals since that is the group I have the most experience with. Say what you will about evangelicals, they are at least sticking to biblical thinking and not moving as far away as the mainline denominations that appear to be in the final stages of scraping historic Christianity from their respective bodies. But unfortunately, it is the evangelical churches that are probably the least likely to admit any error or flaw in SS or to give it a good rethinking.

What definition of SS do you think is best? If you could convince all the Protestant churches to come together and agree on one definition, what would it be?

As an aside: I'm certainly no expert, but I would agree that Luther was not wholly against Catholicism. Calvin, according to my understanding, was quite the opposite. There was a recent series of posts over on Dave Armstrong's blog that talked about this.

alana said...

I guess part of what my illogical brain is getting at is that the whole protestant thing, and the whole question of whether or not the Roman Church was apostate is a dialogue of very narrow focus between a group that was already rent asunder. From an Orthodox POV the thought is: Of course...they'd already gone off course when they broke communion in 1054...so that brings us back to my original proposal, that the only true unity for Protestantism will be in the Orthodox Church. We are, after all, the original critics of the RC phenomenon. Unfortunately, there was a communications breakdown in the 1500's when Lutheran's were dialoguing with the Orthodox, and the movement took on a life of its own...

And as far as the original question in this post: How to define Sola Scriptura...I'd like to hear a decent justification about why this non-biblical doctrine is good and necessary. It seems like it's veracity is never ever questioned. And if I can ask the question of "what's our hermeneutic" in my cell group and get total silence as a response, in a room with six other people, how will all evangelicals ever come to consensus?

alana said...

To clarify: the cell group was at my old Mennonite Church.

Nathan said...

"I guess part of what my illogical brain is getting at is that the whole protestant thing, and the whole question of whether or not the Roman Church was apostate is a dialogue of very narrow focus between a group that was already rent asunder."

I don't think the issues between the Protestant West and the RCC are of a very narrow focus. Quite the opposite, in fact, because 1) the majority of Christians in the world are Western Christians and 2) many of the misgivings Protestants have about Catholicism are equally true of Orthodoxy - sacramental worship, hiearchical structure, reliance on Tradition, veneration of saints & the Theotokos, etc. Also, from my understanding, the majority of people joining Orthodox churches in the US are former Protestants and not new converts to Christianity in general, which raises questions about why they are not joining Catholic churches instead. These are all aspects of the conversation and it is important to understand how & why SS came into being and why it is held so tenaciously in order to figure out if it will ever be a workable solution.

"How to define Sola Scriptura...I'd like to hear a decent justification about why this non-biblical doctrine is good and necessary. It seems like it's veracity is never ever questioned."

From the Reformers point of view, SS was necessary because of the obvious abuses of the Catholic Church. They needed a way to wrest authority away from the Pope and his subordinates and SS was really the only way to to that. The Pope & the Magisterium had been the ultimate source of authority for hundreds of years in the West, and SS was a direct attack on that power. That doesn't make it right, but for that situation I can see why the Reformers thought it both good and necessary.

"And if I can ask the question of 'what's our hermeneutic' in my cell group and get total silence as a response, in a room with six other people, how will all evangelicals ever come to consensus?"

This lack of consensus is exactly the problem I've described. As to how it could or should be reached - I'm not sure, and like you I have my doubts, but I think its important for Protestants to at least talk about it (with welcomed input from our Orthodox friends, of course:)). For me personally, its very important to talk about because of the doubts I'm having about Protestantism in general. If unity is one of the most important things for the church, I have to know if the church I'm part of is actually capable of it.