My previous post on this issue got a decent amount of feedback, both in the comments and elsewhere. Here is my promised rebuttal to those thoughtful comments, and while I want to address them in particular, I’d like to first take a moment to re-articulate the core of my previous article, before tackling the particular responses.
The reason for this approach is that the majority of feedback I received (certain persons notwithstanding) was largely off-topic from the central issue or addressed what were only peripheral concerns.
What I called the “central issue” of the last article was the idea of sola scriptura. Some people took issue with my definition, so I will expand it.
What I mean by sola scriptura can be boiled down to something like this:
The supremacy of the Bible over and/or against tradition (or any other means) as the primary authority, starting place, or standard for Christian life, morals, beliefs, etc.
As a matter of note, saying something like, “GOD is the primary authority, starting place, etc.,” doesn’t say or add anything to the discussion if reading and using the Bible is your primary way of communicating with/interacting with God. We’d still be talking about the same thing.
Fixing our definition of sola scriptura makes the arguments presented last time stronger and more to the point and makes for a wider target. Now, if sola scriptura is the “central issue,” the underlying issue is the issue of authority. This is the real center of the problem, which I will summarize like this:
There are certain things that are of central importance to the Christian: how we are saved, what is the church, are the sacraments real, how should we specifically live our lives, what it means to be a Christian, etc. These are very important issues. However, the Bible isn’t written as a rulebook or an instruction manual, and because the Bible isn’t crystal clear about these very important things, and because, moreover, no text can interpret itself, the text must be interpreted. If the Bible is the only show in town (because you believe in some version of sola scriptura), then the Christian who takes the Bible in this way is in for a bumpy ride: endless argument and discussion about interpretation leads us to the question of authority: who is the authority on interpretation? And then we’re at a standstill, since the question is actually impossible to answer in the realm of Protestantism. This leads to all the problems we detailed in the previous article.
The critique may be made even shorter by saying this:
At the end of the day, you and the Bible means YOU, because the Bible has got to be interpreted.
Put another way,
Sola scriptura means solus ego.
That is the central problem with Protestantism, and is the cause of all the splits and other consequences we discussed.
Now, our previous responses boiled down into four major categories:
1. The differences between denominations really aren’t that big.
2. Protestantism isn’t perfect, but this is okay (because nothing is perfect and/or we can make it better).
3. Different approaches (other than Protestantism) have their flaws too.
4. The Holy Spirit can do it!
I’ll address these four concerns in turn.
1. The differences between denominations really aren’t that big.
John McCormick writes,
“…there are some divisions within Protestantism, and to be honest the division between the orthodox and Catholics, that are derived more from cultural differences than differences in our understanding of the Bible or our faith in Jesus as the risen lord.”
Yes of course there are cultural divisions all the time, but we’re not talking about cultural divisions, we’re talking about theology. A friend of mine once pointed out that even the time-honored John 3:16 can (and is) read in radically different ways by different Protestant sects. Calvinists (who believe in determinism) would take the word “world” to mean something like “only the elect in Christ.” Arians (followers of Arius) would take “only-begotten” to mean “created.” Arminians would take “whosoever should be belief in him shall not perish” and add “unless he falls away and loses his salvation.” Certain assent-only Christians (some Baptists or Lutherans) would take “believe in him” to mean intellectual assent, devoid and unrelated to works. The list goes on and on, and they go on and on about things that are utterly central to the faith, vital knowledge to our existence as Christians, and necessary questions that need clear, distinct answers if we are to live fully Christian lives.
James Chasteen writes,
“That is to say, divergent thought is possible while still maintaining saving faith within the individual and theological hegemony within the collective.”
Now, this can be true, but to a degree. Discussion about what order to do Sunday worship, what songs to sing, and any of the peripherals may seem to be fairly inconsequential to most, but that’s not what we’re talking about, as we pointed out. Someone who thinks that God sends people to hell and someone who thinks that heaven and hell are open to any who chose them do not have the same cosmology, do not have the same understanding of salvation, and probably don’t believe in the same sort of God. Lumping a massively large group of people with all manner of radically divergent ideas together because they all read the same text (albeit differently) and then calling them the same thing is a very confusing move, and hard to justify. For a more clear-cut example, Mormons, “Christians,” Muslims, and Jews all affirm the importance of the Old Testament. Are they similar, therefore, in distinct and important ways? Why, yes they are. Are they the same thing? Not even close. Obviously Protestant groups aren’t as radically divergent as the above examples, but when one examines the profound differences in their theology about fundamental, core issues, it becomes very difficult to call them all the same thing.
2. Protestantism isn’t perfect, but nothing is, but that’s okay, and/or it can get better.
John McCormick describes this as an inability to “enforce a consistent hermeneutic,” calls the inability in “developing a coherent system of thought” a “difficulty,” and invites us to developing a “coherent philosophical system” in Protestantism.
The problem with this sort of language is that the problem with Protestantism (the underlying issue of individual authority) can’t be solved by some further movement, some additional voice in the braying multitudes. There are tens of thousands of separate, distinct Protestant denominations, some with more organization, some with none, and any voice that tries to transcend Protestantism in order to rally Protestantism will not be able do that by the nature of the thing. You think that hasn’t been tried before? It’s been tried thousands of times, literally. Attempting it again will only add +1 to that huge 20,000-30,000 number we talked about. That’s all. This is due to no other reason that the issue of authority.
John McCormick writes,
“Why we have lost the public sphere I believe is related to our inability to understand how to engage in the public sphere without the use of force. There are good Protestant and Evangelical thinkers. They are just really bad at communicating to the masses of protestants.”
I’m not sure how that claim can be made, for it’s quite the opposite of the situation! We have some utterly FANTASTIC speakers and communicators in Protestantism, and some singularly brilliant men to boot (William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, to name two). The issue isn’t with the speakers by a longshot. The issue is that each individual Protestant can (and does) hear a fantastically communicated message from a brilliant theologian and then immediately begins thinking to himself whether or not, or to what extent, he agrees with it! The reason this happens is because there is no sense of obedience to authority (and no sense of authority to be obedient to) within Protestantism. Another way of putting this is to say that the true doctrine, if it is true, must be administered to the people and the people must conform to that true doctrine. But here again is the issue of authority: not only is this not really done (as the individual Protestant must decide if he agrees or not) but it actually isn’t possible: if I’m a Protestant, and the leaders of Protestantism all say contradictory things, how am I to choose who to conform to? How do you even begin answering this question, except by beginning a process of “figuring it out for myself”? And then we’re back to where we started: individualized authority. Not only does every Protestant tend to be his own Pope, he has to be!
3. Other solutions to this problem (from Catholics and the Orthodox) have problems of their own (with the hidden assumption that this invalidates their solution).
I’m not going to address the numerous referrals to Orthodoxy and Catholicism which I received on the previous article because they are off topic. As I said before, it is “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.”
4. The Holy Spirit can solve these problems.
The excellent dissection of this problem done by Jon Bryan may be examined further and in more detail in a later article, but the holes with the solution(s) presented are simple:
- Who says that this is the way we should do things and why should we believe his authority? The Bible certainly doesn’t explain how this works in any specific way. Though, in fact, the passages in Acts about Pentecost seem to lean, if they lean anywhere, to a specific group of humans and a specific institution having a special interpretive relationship with the Spirit who is to “guide” them into “all truth” (I’ve never had a tongue of fire on my head, have you?) though that’s not really part of our discussion yet, just food for thought.
- No one’s denying that the Holy Spirit giving special insight can’t or doesn’t or won’t happen, only that it doesn’t seem to be the normative (as in “normal”) way things happen; it always shows up as some special exception to the norm. Further, we need something normative to guide us into the truth about these things, and we need to know with definitiveness what that thing is and how it works (see 1).
- The fact that people disagree about doctrine with such variety IS in fact an argument against the Holy Spirit working in this particular way. For your description of how this might work provides a compelling possibility, but doesn’t really seem to match up with the world we encounter. If the Holy Spirit were helping us in this way and guiding each individual person, we would expect to be living in a particular world. Let us imagine a world where there exists a hyper-active Holy Spirit (HAHS?) that behaves this way. In this possible world, we’d find a loosely organized (if at all) group of Christians carrying their Bibles around and praying all the time and ending up mystically on the same page as everyone else who did the same, all more or less as one group. In this world it would be the “traditionalists” endlessly splitting and fighting and fragmenting over man-made doctrines. We can surely conceive of this, however, when we look at our world, we don’t see this, instead we see Quite the Contrary: What we see instead are the Bible-only, HAHS-believing, and tradition-hating people endlessly splitting and fighting and fragmenting. Meanwhile, it is the “traditionalists” who have stayed unified in three very old groups (Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox). Each of these three groups is massively older and more similar with one another than with the group of fragmentors and are yearly growing closer in unity rather than further apart (Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are actively working toward reunification, and there is constant cooperation and respect between Catholics and the Orthodox and moves toward unity and mutual acknowledgement).
That’s all for now, folks. Hopefully that was helpful. We are still waiting on an answer to the central question of Authority. Who says? Why should we listen to them? Why I can’t I do it myself? I Protest!