In every place and time there comes about certain things which are taken for granted, which are not questioned or thought through because they have become so common place. I believe that the philosophy and practice of Protestantism is one of those things, and this is an essay to bring to light what I believe are very real issues with the body of Protestant ideas passed down to us from the Reformation.
For some people who do not know me very well, and who would attempt to accuse me otherwise, it is important to add that I am a believing Christian who wants to walk with God and do the work of the Kingdom. As St. Paul has charged us to test everything and see if it is good, I feel no irreverence for doing so now, and no one reading this essay of a Protestant background should feel attacked, nor should anyone feel that the Gospel of our Holy Messiah is being attacked. Far from it; I believe that by investigation we can learn how to better do the work of the Kingdom.
It should be noted also that this essay does not, by itself, attempt to make any arguments for anything in place of Protestantism. That said, I think it vitally important to focus on the problems presented, and shouting bravely that Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) is no alternative will not provide us with a solution to these problems.
First, I will define the central issue. Then I will explain the four major problems with Protestantism: the first two, and then the two that follow from them. Lastly, I will detail what I think the consequences of those problems are and their ramifications on the church.
The Central Issue
The central issue is the idea of sola scriptura. Sola scriptura is Latin for “scripture alone” andis one of the five “solas” made by Martin Luther. It seems to be the most common belief shared by Protestants across the board. To put it weakly, this is the idea that the Bible is “all you need” to understand the life of the church, salvation, sin, and how to live one’s life. This idea puts most other means of understanding the Christian life as secondary to the Bible, and outright rejects other things, such as tradition. Some “stronger” forms of sola scriptura say that one shouldn’t believe anything that can’t be directly found in the Bible (or interpreted directly from it). Some churches say they believe in prima scriptura as a way to be less radical than those who have very strong versions of sola scriptura, but all forms of Protestantism make the Bible their epistemological foundation and starting point for truth, whether or not they are more inclusive of other means (such as reason, experience, or the Holy Spirit) or more exclusive. To put this another way, the problem is having the Bible as your starting point.
Protestantism Has No Reliable Method for Interpreting Scripture
The Bible is supposed to be authoritative in our lives and give us knowledge about the nature of Christ and Christianity, and especially of living the Christian life. Yet, the Bible is not always clear. Indeed, very often, between its parables and stories, it is not clear at all about one point or another. Interpretation about the Bible, what it says and what it means, varies wildly by Christian groups. The reason for this is that no document can interpret itself; someone must read the document and must interpret it. This is where the confusion and conflict comes in: churches split, heresies are formed, and truth becomes scattered and fragmented. Even if people are not aware of the extent to which this is a problem, we are all aware that some people interpret the Bible incorrectly. We say that they are not reading the Bible right, and they just need to read it the way we do. But of course, they say the very same thing about us. Most people are content with thinking that they are right, or that this is an easily surmountable problem. But this problem is the result of sola scriptura, of thinking that the Bible is all you need to live the Christian life fully or interpret the Bible. There are three misunderstandings about this issue.
- The things which are debatable in the Bible are just the details, not the main issues of Christianity, which all Christians agree on.
- There is only an interpretation problem if you look at one verse at a time: each part of the Bible can be (and needs to be) interpreted by other parts of the Bible.
- There is not really an interpretation problem because the Holy Spirit will guide one’s reading of the text.
- This is a common misunderstanding. People think that Biblical disagreements are about little things, and not “first-tier” issues, such as Salvation, redemption, and the nature of Christ. Unfortunately, this is not the case: things which Christians disagree about seem to have always fallen under what might be called “first-tier” issues. The nature of Christ and his relationship to the Trinity, and the Holy Trinity itself, was the subject of the majority of early heresies, and continues to be in such heretical circles as the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Arguments about salvation, and the nature of salvation, persist within “normal” Christian circles as well: Predestination and Free Will, whether Communion is literal or figurative, the distinction (if any) between faith and works, what Baptism is, what the Church is, and so forth. These are pressing and real problems, both deeply theological and unavoidably practical.
And of course, what is and what is not a “first-tier” issue is also an issue in great conflict! Disagreements about what goes in this first tier and what does not are themselves large issues and cannot be resolved by appeals to Scripture, for the Bible does not make lists of these things.
- This idea that the Bible can be interpreted via other parts of the Bible is true enough: prophecy points us to the Gospels, and the lens of the Gospels goes back to help us interpret the Old Testament. Yet, this isn’t the end of the story, because someone still needs to decide how to interpret the Bible with other parts of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t do this internal interpretation itself: a reader must do it.
- This is by far the strangest idea, and the most confusing. It is hard to know what it means: does one get a feeling that guides one? How does one know the feeling is reliable? Does one have a dream every time one reads scripture that interprets the entire text precisely? This strikes me both as a dangerous position and a foolish one. Dangerous for two reasons: first because whatever emotion you’re feeling or voice you’re hearing need not be the Holy Spirit. The Enemy speaks to people too, as do one’s own prejudices and preferences; both of which can be easily disguised in a vague claim like this one. It is foolish because of the arena of pride a claim like this establishes: the jump from “I have the Holy Spirit interpreting with me” and “your interpretation is wrong” equals “You don’t have the Holy Spirit,” a bold claim that is more often than not beyond the authority of the speaker. But the most logical objection comes from St. Augustine in the fourth century: if the Holy Spirit is guiding the reading of the text, why do not teachers send their students to the Holy Spirit directly, rather than try to teach their students from their own teachings, as if they were the only ones to have access to the Holy Spirit? But of course, the problem of disagreement and interpretation still remains, even after everyone has claimed illumination from the Holy Spirit.
So we see that the Bible must be interpreted by someone, and that those someones all disagree, and that the things about which they disagree are all very important issues, theological as well as deeply practical. This explains how there are now between twenty- and forty-thousand Protestant denominations in America, but it does not explain how to solve the problem. For indeed, when you have the Bible as your starting point, because its words can be used to justify any amount of heresy (as history has aptly shown us), what you really have at your starting point is each man. Each individual man interprets the Bible on his own, and the more educated he is, the better success he may have. But even among the highly educated, very little consensus has been shown. When everyone is their own Pope, no single voice prevails.
Protestantism Has an Inability to Affirm Scripture as Authoritative, Inspired, etc.
For many of the same reasons given in point I, Protestantism also cannot affirm much about the Bible in terms of its own authority. How do we know the Bible, in its exact and particular 66-book form, is Authoritative, and what does that mean? In other words, if we are using the Bible as our starting point, how do we know that it is a good starting point?
There are generally four reasons people give to think so:
- The Bible talks about itself as being authoritative and inerrant.
- The Holy Spirit affirms the Bible as authoritative and inerrant.
- The Bible has a singular message that would be humanly impossible to assemble.
- The Holy Spirit preserved the Bible intact to be passed down to us.
- This is the common argument and it has three huge problems.
First, the Bible does not talk about itself as a whole. When verses like 2 Timothy 3:16 reference “the Scriptures,” it is not abundantly clear what Paul is talking about, since the word in Greek (graphé) just means “writing.” I think myself that Paul is referencing the Septuagint, that is, the Greek Old Testament used widely by everyone at this time. It seems the most likely and makes the most sense. What doesn’t make sense is that Paul would be referencing not only the Old Testament, but also the very letter he was writing, and all of the New Testament Books that had not been written yet. It is generally affirmed that many (or all) of the Pauline epistles were written before the Gospel accounts, so this means that he couldn’t even have been talking about the Gospels. Now, you could say that Holy Spirit guided Paul into writing that in the letter without his needing to know about the future New Testament that didn’t exist yet, but that is an assumption which has no footing in the actual text that we’re reading; it’s something we just read in to the text as a possibility. Now, possibilities make poor arguments: we need some reason to think that something which is possible is also the case. This problem applies to all other verses similar to the passage from 2 Timothy, specifically anywhere that the word “scripture” is used. It also applies to verses that talk about “the word of god.” Passages about the “word” of God are even more suspect and vague, since that word is a loaded word, and so often has so many meanings (chief among those meanings, I think, is simply “Christ”).
Second, even if you were to grant that those passages are talking about the whole Bible, they don’t mention anything about inerrancy or infallibility. The best you get out of Paul is “profitable” or “inspired.” And it is a bit of a jump from “inspired” to “inerrant,” one that requires additional arguments.
But third, even if you had the Bible talking about itself, AND you had it talking about itself in terms of “inerrancy” and “infallibility,” there remains the simple logical problem that it is circular reasoning to believe the Bible is infallible because the Bible says it’s infallible. If a man came up to you and told you that his words were infallible, therefore you should believe that his words were infallible ABOUT his words being infallible, you would laugh at him. Now, I happen to think that the Bible is indeed infallible, but the argument here is that you cannot get that belief from scripture alone.
- This is the same problem we had back in point I. It doesn’t appear to mean much, or explain how it works, and why that isn’t accessible to everyone everywhere. It is especially problematic in light of the fact that there are two major versions of the Bible floating around, one very old which includes the “Apocrypha” and one much newer which does not.
- I think that this is true, but I don’t see how this defines the Bible as a set collection of books (recall the two different versions that continue to exist) nor do I see how this shows that the Bible is authoritative or inerrant, at least not explicitly. We need some additional thing to make such a jump, and that thing is not found explicitly in scripture.
- I think that this is true too, but again, it’s an assumption that’s read into the text and not one that we get from the text. You can’t get there by scripture alone, and you certainly can’t use it to figure out whether or not your Bible should contain the inter-testamental books (the “Apocrypha”) or not.
So, given a position of sola scriptura, or having the Bible as the starting point, we cannot seem to demonstrate that the Bible is anything that we say it is!
Checkpoint: So far we have concluded that Protestantism cannot affirm the authoritativeness of Scripture, and, even if it could, could not interpret scripture reliably. When you combine these two conclusions with the fact that Protestantism is based entirely on doing those two things (since it has nothing else, no tradition, no other books, no living apostles, etc., to guide it), the entire framework of the Protestant way of life collapses.
This is a bad situation to be in, and there are two more points that are direct results of this problem, and then some consequences I’d like to outline as a result of all of these problems.
Protestantism Cannot Adequately Define or Preserve a Unified Body of Doctrine
This follows naturally from Points I and II, and the fact that the Bible does not speak about every topic. The Bible has nothing explicit to say about how the Lord’s Supper should be done, prepared, received, administered, and so forth. Likewise, it has nothing to say with any detail about Baptism. Should infants be baptized? DID they get baptized in the first century (How did people’s “whole household” get baptized if you shouldn’t baptize infants?)? The same is true for every other sacrament, of marriage, confession, church authority, and so forth. Neither does the Bible talk about the amount of sacraments or their nature. The Bible does not say whether or not, or to what extent we have free will (what does the word we commonly interpret as “predestined” even mean?), does not extrapolate on what “having faith” means in specific terms, does not explain if we are merely “sinful” or “totally depraved,” does not say if Mary can hear our prayers (or if she can’t), how Christ’s sacrifice exactly saved us, or what the atonement even means. The Bible doesn’t even explain the Trinity! All of that has to be interpreted from the Bible. Yet, as we have shown, there is no reliable method within Protestantism for doing so. So the result is that we cannot have a standardized body of doctrine. Indeed, Protestantism does not have a standardized body of doctrine about these issues. As we mentioned, there are an estimated twenty- to forty-thousand Protestant denominations in this world, and while some would like to say that this was caused by disagreement about the color of hymnals and other silly matters, it would be naïve to say that all the Protestant churches, or even most of them, split over such things. From Lutherans to Pentacostals to Calvary Chapel to Reformed Theology to Arminianism, Protestantism is a churning pool of contradictory doctrine and self-proclaimed authorities. And as we have noted, these disagreements are not even close to being exclusively about trivial matters.
Protestantism Cannot Tell Us How to Live Out Our Lives
This is the logical conclusion of Point III. Not only does the Bible not extrapolate a whole lot on doctrine in explicit terms, but it certainly does us no favours in terms of daily living. The Bible does not talk about at what stage a fertilized egg is a human being, or whether we should watch rated R movies, or when you should fast, or how often; it does not have any guidelines for young people about dating, nor does it have much of anything really explicit to say about the age of the earth, the universe which science has shown to us, or whether or not we should play video games or read Harry Potter. Again, verses can be obtained to back up (or shoot down) all sides of these positions, but if we don’t know how to interpret the Bible (Point I) and if, as a result, we don’t have a single body of doctrine (Point III), then there’s no way we can have specific guidelines about how to live our lives from the Bible alone. More practically than some of the above (perhaps trite) examples, we are told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” How? How doe we do that? We are told to “trust in God.” What does that look like? We are told to “go and sin no more,” to “become transformed by the renewing of our minds.” How exactly are we to go about doing that? What tools do we use? How do we use them? How do we “have faith”? What does that mean? How does it look? How do I know I’m doing it right? We would not accept this kind of vagueness from an instruction manual on how to assemble a computer, but how much more important are our souls? The Bible has a wealth of orders for us, with very few explanations.
Checkpoint: Protestantism finds itself in a bind: it wants to do the work of the Kingdom and obey God, but it cannot find within scripture alone the specific tools to do so. Still less can it preserve a single body of doctrine (the many recent splits about homosexual marriage and ordination are proof enough) or tell us how to live our daily lives. I believe that there are several consequences of this predicament:
Protestantism has Become Intellectually Impotent and Watered-Down
What has happened in the meantime is that Protestants have had to discard the majority of practices held by the overwhelming majority of Christians from the first century up into the present day. These practices include such things as the use of icons, prayer beads, beliefs and practices surrounding the Lord’s supper, the Sacrament of Confession, the power and authority of the Priesthood, assent to the Nicean Creed, classical theological beliefs about God’s nature and the nature of salvation, and many, many other issues. These things have had to be discarded as Protestantism tried to boil down more and more to things that actually could be proven out of the Bible, in a process of reductionism now spanning almost five centuries. The ultimate result of this is the “non-denominational” movement. This is a very watered-down version of Christianity, almost unrecognizable from the richly theological and powerfully practical church of the first century. It is not difficult, then, to see how Christianity has lost its carefully crafted theology and its honed use of reason and rhetoric. Because the church has not been able to present itself as an intellectually viable worldview, it has all but lost the culture war against secularism and atheism. This is the main reason why the resurgence of evangelicalism in this country has not altered its staunch secularism. David Wells writes that,
“The vast growth in evangelically minded people…should by now have revolutionized American culture. With a third of American adults now claiming to have experienced spiritual rebirth, a powerful countercurrent of morality growing out of a powerful and alternative worldview should have been unleashed in factories, offices, and board rooms, in the media, universities, and professions, from one end of the country to the other. The results should by now be unmistakable. Secular values should be reeling, and those who are their proponents should be very troubled. But as it turns out, all of this swelling of the evangelical ranks has passed unnoticed in the culture. … The presence of evangelicals in American culture has barely caused a ripple.”
[David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.” Eerdmans, 1993), p.293]
Protestantism Leads to Relativism
Protestantism, taken not as individual churches but as an entire whole, is a philosophy of relativism. As we have seen, the Bible cannot be one’s perfect authority within the framework of Protestantism, and the real thing that is the authority is the individual self. Protestants answer to no one. It is true that Protestants all claim to answer to God, and I do not question their desire, but as we detailed in Points I and II, God is not calling down special revelation on each individual person about points of doctrine. Or if he is, he’s saying very different things to different people, or else he’s only saying the right things to some people, if at all. Because of that, Protestants must be their own authorities. Who else can be? And it does not take much effort to see the comparison between the world of the Protestant churches in which each man is his own theological authority (provided he plays nice with everyone else) and the world of our secular institutions, in which every man is his own moral authority (provided he plays nice with everyone else). When Protestants reply that the things about which they differ are “up for grabs” or “matters of opinion” and not the “fundamentals” of the faith, one cannot help but notice that we hear the very same arguments from secular people about moral issues like sexuality, abortion, and marriage. If moral relativism is not permissible, why is theological relativism? And again, who gets to define what is a “fundamental” tenant of the faith and what is merely secondary?
Protestantism Leads to “Fundamentalism”
Because Protestantism is always besought by dichotomies and extremes, the other side of theological relativism is what the secular culture has dubbed “fundamentalist” Christianity. Fundamentalism is difficult to pin down and define, so it may be easier to paint a picture of it.
A stereotypical “fundamentalist” Christian tends to ascribe to a hyper-intensive version of sola scriptura. Far from acknowledging the problems with interpretation we outlined above, a fundamentalist usually insists that Bible doesn’t need interpreting at all (or very little), and its literal words can be read right off the page to supply us with everything we need to know. But as we have shown, this does not work, and the attempt to press even harder at the task results only in contradictions, strange positions, and out-of-context readings. Further, a fundamentalist tends to take such issues as the age of the earth, voting Republican, and not watching R-rated films as functionally equal to tenants of actual doctrine, at least in practice or attitude even if this is never verbally assented to.
The problem here is the kind of witness it gives to the secular culture at large: far from being intellectual powerhouses with good answers and robust explanations for their religion, “fundamentalists” tend to be the opposite: they make arguments about evolution with no real knowledge of science, put forth embarrassing explanations for their beliefs on doctrine, and generally “Bible thump” to the point where non-believers can very easily dismiss them as stupid, mean, ridiculous, or all of the above. In short, they “cause the enemies of God to blaspheme.” But of course, what else is one to do in the face of Christian relativism and armed only with the Bible?
As we have seen, when the Bible is taken as a starting point in isolation, as sola scriptura, many problems arise. With just the Bible, one cannot interpret the Bible nor affirm that the Bible is authoritative or infallible. Without either of those two things, one cannot preserve or define a clear body of doctrine, nor establish any specific guidelines for living one’s life. And of course the consequences of those two things are intellectual impotency, the relativism that inevitably crops up, and the sorry intellectual state which relativism affords.
One may attempt to use more than the Bible, while always putting the Bible first, as Wesley and others do: employing reason, tradition, and experience, but where that ultimately leaves us is the problem of individual authority. When I sit down with my scripture, no matter how many tools I use, it will always be, at the end of the day, my interpretation. When everyone does this, there cannot be a single body of doctrine, not really, and therefore no shared Christian life, indeed, no body at all.
We must now ask ourselves Paul’s question: “Is Christ divided?” It would seem so. Unless, however, there was some other way to affirm the power of scripture, to interpret it correctly, and to live the Christian life; but that is the topic for another discussion.