...are the ones that make the biggest difference

9.15.2004

Workable Solutions - III

(See parts I and II)

Step I in workable solutions towards Protestant unity is to redefine sola scriptura across Protestant boundaries that will get everyone on the same page on exactly what is authoritative. Ideally (though I did not discuss this), such a redefinition would also include a theory on the nature of inspiration and resolve any issues about textual variations within the canon, including potentially "uninspired" parts - like Acts 8:37 or the alleged "extra" ending to Mark. Step II was to figure out a way to overcome the diversity of interpretations in such a way that Protestant groups are able to fully recognize other group as legitimately Christian. This would likely require an abandonment of key distinctives in some, or many, areas and a near total ecclesial & theological reformation of some churches.

Though it may sound a little odd, Step III is figuring out how we are going to view history, because quite frankly, Protestantism is departure on many points of Christian history. Some of these departures are major and some are minor, but any way we look at them, we have to have a comprehensive way of receiving and interpreting history. I think the majority of Christian sects & denominations believe in a specific Golden Age of Christianity. For some, this age could only be during the life of the Apostles. When St John finally died on Patmos, the Golden Age ended and thus began the Church's long slide into corruption and apostasy. For other groups, the first 4 centuries are normative and they may accept some of the Ecumenical Councils as authoritative (to what degree varies by group). There is a continuum here, with Catholic and Orthodox on one end (who arguably don't believe that, in essence, the Golden Age ever really ended) and very strict Protestants on the other that may even suspect some of the teachings that cropped up during the Apostles' time.

As I said before, history is important because Protestantism departs from historic Christian thought in many areas. We are not liturgical, sacramental, hierarchical (for the most part) or overtly mystical. We believe in sola scriptura, though no such doctrine was ever embraced by the church-historic, reject many sources of authority early Christians fully accepted, and we are, quite frankly, inherently schismatic. Read through the earliest Church Fathers (those most likely to be favorably considered across the spectrum), and you will see an emphasis on unity, mutual submission and loving cohesion that seems impossible to achieve in our day and age, and that is not the focus of the majority of Christians. Early Christians viewed the Church as the mediator of their faith, in that the only true experience of Christ was found within His body. We tend to hold similar views about the Bible, and not the church, because we find the church intrinsically untrustworthy. It is only a human endeavor, and one that does not appear to be specially favored by the Holy Spirit, at least not the same way Scripture is.

So we have to figure out exactly what is normative for us. If a belief in sacarmental worship can be proven of the earliest Christians (and I think it can), should we change our services and your theology to conform to this historical standard? If the early church embraced a clear hierarchy of male-only leadership, should be conform to that as well? And perhaps the real sticking point - if the early church regarded extra-biblical material as authoritative, how do we deal with that? We have left history unengaged for too long, simply assuming we are modeling ourselves after NT worship, but this is not the case. We may have captured certain parts of it, and we may be doing a good job of what we're doing, but we need to figure out if it is what we are supposed to be doing.

Step III is developing a consistent view & interpretation of history across Protestantism. One that deals with questions of worship & ecclesiology, extra-biblical authority and the sacraments.

5 comments:

Benedict Seraphim said...

Excellent questions. I'm eagerly anticipating how you may come to answer them.

Nathan said...

Protestantly, I don't think I will be able to answer them. There isn't any room to do it, and if I did happen to find a Protestant church that believed as I do, I'd still be advocating the schismatic tendency of Protestantism. On the surface, I think turning to Orthodoxy (or Catholicism, though that is definitely not an option I am considering) probably appears very similar to the church shopping, but in reality its far from it. In Protestantism, forming or joining a historically oriented church is still associating with a group of people who prefer that form of church, whereas the Orthodox don't just prefer it; they adhere to it as a continuation of the ancient communities. The difference is subtle, but profound, as I'm sure you are aware.

alana said...

There are so many things in this post that made me want to pull my hair out. Are you writing what you personally hold to, or are you writing what you perceive to be common protestant belief? Like, when you wrote:

" We tend to hold similar views about the Bible, and not the church, because we find the church intrinsically untrustworthy. It is only a human endeavor, and one that does not appear to be specially favored by the Holy Spirit, at least not the same way Scripture is."

This makes me want to shout: How dare you insult my Lord and Savior, the Bridegroom and head of the Church whom you say does not appear to be "specially favored by the Holy Spirit"? These are strong words which you have written. Can you hear how they sound? Can you hear what you are SAYING?

And as I was reading what you wrote about coming to consensus, I was wondering if you would include the voice of the early church in that circle of consensus...but you addressed this when you talked about history...sort of.

Seems to me you are painting yourself into a corner in which protestantism becomes indefensible.

Nathan said...

Alana -

"Are you writing what you personally hold to, or are you writing what you perceive to be common protestant belief?"

Definitely the latter, though if I am being honest, I would have to admit that I have largely been shaped by such beliefs and so they definitely pervade my thinking to some degree. I think that is changing, but that paradigm is still firmly entrenched.

Like, when you wrote:

"This makes me want to shout: How dare you insult my Lord and Savior, the Bridegroom and head of the Church whom you say does not appear to be 'specially favored by the Holy Spirit'? These are strong words which you have written. Can you hear how they sound? Can you hear what you are SAYING?"

Indeed, I can hear what I am saying because I hear this from other Protestant Christians quite frequently and believe me, it rubs me the wrong way as well (though baldness runs in my family, so I will definitley not be speeding that process by pulling any hair out! I prefer to pound my fists on my desk. :)) I think Protestant theology suffers from an ambiguous and underdeveloped ecclesiology, one that was initially formed in response to Catholic excess and not the prompting of the Spirit. Due to the direction the Catholic Church went, Protestants tend to disassociate the Church-general from the local expression of the church-particular, regarding the former as the ideal and the latter as a (potentially) flawed human endeavor.

"And as I was reading what you wrote about coming to consensus, I was wondering if you would include the voice of the early church in that circle of consensus...but you addressed this when you talked about history...sort of."

That was why I brought up the Golden Age idea. Usually, people think what went on during this GA is normative, or at least highly informative. I think many Protestants, though, simply assume that what we do today is pretty similar to what the early church did. This, of course, coming from a group that includes high church Anglicans and bare-necesseties Quakers. Its not a claim that has a lot of legitimacy as far as how church is done.

"Seems to me you are painting yourself into a corner in which protestantism becomes indefensible."

I don't think Protestantism is indefensible; I think it is broken. In its ideal form, I think Protestantism probably has a lot to offer. We just don't have anything resembling that ideal today.

alana said...

OK, maybe indefensible was too strong a word.

I like your blog, and reading your reflections really takes me back to that point in my own journey, although I must concede that you are a much more astute thinker than I am.

When I wrote that you are painting yourself into a corner, what I originally wrote, before I edited myself was something along the lines of "painting yourself into an icon corner"...but I decided that was a bit over the top on my part. ;-) I'm sharing it now so you can laugh at me.