The Dead Ends of Protestantism

On a message board for former church of Christ (Restoration Movement) converts to Orthodoxy, a thread was started by those who wondered about ever having doubts about Orthodoxy. I gave the following reply, which I want to explore a bit more in this post:

For myself, when it comes to the Orthodox Church, I have never had any real doubts. I had already investigated Rome, and had gone into and was on the way out of Anglicanism. I knew that the rest of Protestantism was a dead end. So by the time I got to Orthodoxy, it didn’t have to prove itself on the terms of Rome, Canterbury or the Protestants (since all those arguments had fallen apart under their own weight): all Orthodoxy had to do was to establish itself on its own terms.

So, when I began investigating the Orthodox Church in 2000, and for the next couple of years or so, I listened to Orthodoxy on its own terms. I didn’t try to make Orthodoxy Protestant or answer my objections. I wanted to see what it had to say, why it said what it did, whether its teaching held together and was consistent, and whether that teaching truly was old. I was satisfied on all counts.

I want to discuss a bit more what I mean by these “dead ends” of Protestantism. But in so doing, I will be speaking primarily out of my own narrow range of experience, that of the Restoration Movement churches and the Episcopal church.  Before I get to these critical remarks, let me first ensure that I quite clearly state my appreciation for my experiences with these two Christian groups.  I would not have been quite so ready for Orthodoxy without my background in the Restoration Movement.  And although the Episcopal church served primarily as a negative catalyst for Orthodoxy, I nonetheless gained much by (as Fr. Martin Thornton schematized) the Benedictine and triadic shape of Anglican liturgy and prayer: the Mass, the daily office and personal devotions.  Although I was not so strongly shaped by particular liturgies (I see now why so many decry the BCP ’79), I was quite strongly shaped by this schema of worship and devotion.  And I would not have had such formation apart from my time in the Episcopal church.

That said, there are most definite dead ends in Protestantism.  These dead ends are exemplified primarily by a divorce from the Church and are symptomatic in sola scriptura, a disconnect from the lived history of the Church, and the attempt to critique the Church from starting points outside the Church’s life. I’ll discuss each of these three related items in turn.

Sola scriptura: Scripture taken out of the Church

Although my heritage churches, the Stone-Campbell/Restoration Movement churches, are not unique among Protestant groups in their adherence to sola scriptura, it nonetheless was a primary dynamic infusing all Restoration Movement and practice. If anything was to be done, it had to be justified by an appeal to Scripture; and if anything were prohibited, most likely it was because no justification could be made for it from Scripture. (Of course, the question of the use of instrumental music in worship highlights the single problem with this orientation, about which more in a moment.)

The problem, of course, with sola scriptura is not that it puts the Scripture at the center of the Church’s life–that the Scripture should be so central is a given–but, rather, that it excludes the Church as the context of the Scripture. That is to say, the Apostle Paul didn’t just sit down over a blank parchment and pen an essay he later called, “The Epistle to the Romans.” Rather, his Roman letter not only was addressed to the Local Church in Rome, but it came from within the Church (see, for example, the greetings in the sixteenth chapter). The Apostle Paul did not write as one outside the Church, but rather, as a member of the Church, and was bounded by that context (his comments in Galatians 2 notwithstanding). St. Paul’s teaching was accepted by the rest of the Church precisely because it was at one with what the rest of the Church believed (cf. Acts 15).

So whether one takes a strong view of sola scriptura wherein the Church is disallowed anything not justified by (an appeal to) Scripture, or the weak view of sola scriptura wherein the Church need only conform to Scriptural norm, in either case, the problem is the decontextualization of the Scripture from the Church. Something else, other than the Church, is determining the meaning of Scripture.

Now, it is unavoidably the case that Scripture does not, and cannot, come to us uninterpreted. There is no such thing as uninterpreted Scripture. All readings of Scripture pass through innumerable “filters” (language, geography, ethnicity, philosophy/worldview, history, etc.), and such readings do not come to us “pure” but are variously shaped and/or distorted by these filters. Therefore, all Christians must necessarily answer the question: on what authority is a particular reading of Scripture binding? In practice, what this amounts to among Protestants is that the individual reader is the final arbiter of Scriptural meaning. Even if that individual measures his interpretation against a particular group, if that reader is a Protestant, he will do so with an eye to the question as to whether that group’s teaching is “biblical.” How will he know that it is “biblical”? Only by reference to himself, his own interpretive abilities and his conscience. Rather than a single Pope, each Protestant is his own Pope. And if every man is his own Pope, then the necessary end is a multiplication of schisms.

By way of proof, let me return to the question of the use of instrumental music in worship among the Restoration Movement churches (typically between the noninstrumental churches of Christ, and their instrument-using sister churches, the independent (i.e., nondenominational) Christian churches. (By the by, the lower case “c” is intentional and matches the use of these Christian groups.) On the one hand are the noninstrumental brethren who claim that since there is no clear precedent for the use of instruments in worship among the New Testament writings, that such use is prohibited. On the other are the instrumental brethren who read such silence as libertarian: one may use instruments, though no one is bound to.

Now, notice: there is very little disagreement about the evidence. Both groups broadly acknowledge that there is no clear example of the use of instruments in the public worship of the various New Testament churches. The disagreement is what to do with the evidence. One group takes the silence as prohibitive, the other as liberative. In both bases, advocates are contextualizing the evidence by something outside the Scripture; namely, a particular hermeneutical/interpretive principle. As a result of this hermeneutic, the Stone-Campbell/Restoration Movement churches split . . . over the use of instruments in worship. (And, it is my view, that the subsequent plethora of splits among the noninstrumental churches of Christ is directly attributable to this hermeneutical principle that silence is prohibitive.)

Now, as it happens, I grew up in the instrument-using churches, and I’ve never had any sense that the use of instruments in worship is forbidden; indeed, I find the whole silence-is-prohibitive argument seriously flawed and dangerous. And as it further happens, the Orthodox Church, into which I was received this past Pentecost, is normatively noninstrumental. But so far as I can tell it is no violation of any canon to use musical instruments in worship–and I’ve been in Greek Orthodox Churches that use organs very sparingly to assist the choir.

The difference between the Orthodox practice of not using instruments in worship, and the practice of the noninstrumental churches of Christ, is that the practice of the former is bounded and shaped and determined by the life of the Church, whereas the practice of the latter is driven by particular interpretations of a Scripture divorced from the Church’s life.

To be properly read and properly applied, Scripture must be contextualized within the life and teaching of the Church. It is the Church, not the individual Christian, that is the pillar and stay of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and it is Christians collectively, not individual readers, who are to grow up into him who is the head so as not to be swayed and tossed about by false teachings (Eph. 4:11-14).

Now by contextualization of Scripture within the Church I do not mean a formulaic reiteration of the Church’s interpretation of various passages of Scripture. But neither do I mean that new lived contexts in a Local Church’s life creates the opportunity to contradict that which has been received. That is to say, on the one hand we do not simply repeat theological formulations and castigate those who seek to preserve the same truth and meaning in new formulations. The principle of the Orthodox Church has always been to translate the Scriptures and the Liturgies into the vernacular. That principle includes, I believe, the reformulation of one and the same truth which has been received. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t mean that new contexts and questions give us leave to change the formulations and canons.

How does one determine when it is simply speaking the same truth in a new tongue and speaking something contrary to the truth? Only the collective mind of the Church, the mind of Christ, can do so. Which brings us back, or, rather, since we have never left it, keeps us continuously contextualized within the Church.

Church history as dead insect on a pin instead of living dynamic reality

In part because my heritage churches, the Stone-Campbell/Restoration Movement churches, were shaped and formed by Lockean empiricism, by a form of Enlightenment modernism, they had, and have, all the blind spots of that modernism: a false belief in progressivism, an o’erweening confidence in human reason, and a certain arrogance toward pre-modern/pre-Enlightenment thinkers. This blindspot is inextricably woven in with the above sola scriptura divorce of Scripture from the Church. It goes, after all, hand in glove: divorced from its rightful context, Everyman then becomes an able expositor of Holy Writ. For if the Church is no longer the arbiter of Scriptural meaning, then what is left except Everyman? And if Everyman is coupled with a superhero-like gift (i.e., reason) by which to ferret out the meaning of Scripture, then what need would one have for the Church?

And so, having cast away the authority of the Church to interpret Scripture, he must ultimately cast away the life of the Church by which Scripture, and its true meaning, had through the millennia been preserved. By life here I mean something like the lived autobiography of a person. My biographical past can be recorded and stored in a book, or in some retrievable form, and accessed by others. To others it might be a relatively interesting (or not) set of facts and conceptual/intellectual insights. To those who know me, however, and who have some sort of relationship to me, such facts become, as it were, living things. My history is not some dead past, but continues in my lived present. What happened in my prayer life that summer my Little League baseball team took second in the league is as much a part of my present as is the activities of my day today. For that past continues to live in me, and therefore is not some external object.

There is a view of Church history that sees such history as a more or less interesting set of facts and narratives which may or may not exert some influence on our present, but is rather like the dead insect pinned in the shadow box: there are facts to be learned, but there is no life there. This was, if I may, precisely the view of Church history with which I grew up in the Restoration Movement churches. Such an historical narrative may or may not have been useful–say for apologetical or doctrinal purposes–but it most definitely was not living. It was, after all, the past.

And so, in my heritage churches’ attempt to recover the simple life and practice of the New Testament Church, they felt quite free to leapfrog back over some seventeen hundred years of Church history and approach the New Testament Church free of the “human accretions and traditions” which had grown around the Gospel like barnacles. (Never mind that such an approach to Church history and the New Testament Church was, itself, a “human accretion and tradition.”) But just as a an insect pinned inside a shadow box, this approach to the New Testament Church rendered it nothing more than an intellectual concept, a blueprint or pattern, one birthed of progressivism, rationalism and pride, and ultimately little more than a lifeless, dessicated bit of chaff.

My experience within the Episcopal church was not much different. Though apologetical claim to apostolic succession was made, once again, the history of the Church was not one of living continuity with the New Testament. At best it was a formal tracing of tactile succession, at worst it was a punching bag for all the ways the Church went wrong (patriarchalism, homophobia, misogyny, colonialism, etc. ad nauseam). History was mined for narrative bits that supported (either negatively or positively) the current political climate within the Episcopal church. The Episcopal church took far more guidance from present day social mores and political movements than ever it did the life of the historic Church. I still recall quite vividly a sermon preached during a seminary chapel, by the professor of preaching no less, about St. Boniface, apostle to the Germanic peoples, and an extremely colorful retelling of the Saint’s chopping down of the sacred oak, the totem of the pagan people. The point of the sermon? Mean and evil Christians have always violently spread the Gospel. Implication: we should have just let the pagans alone.

Clearly, then, these two groups, divorced as they have made themselves from the history of the living Church have thus also divorced themselves from the life of the Church. One cannot reject the family history, disown one’s inheritence, and then claim to be the true heir of such a history. Once one marries outside the family, the filial line becomes ever thinner and fainter, until it disappears altogether. Only those who’ve retained the patriarchal lines of descent have connection with the father and his son. All such progeny of the Church are, of course, grafted on–there are no grandchildren of God. But that is precisely the point. One cannot graft oneself on to an alien branch and claim legitimate descent. One cannot claim the Church’s life if one has left that Church.

And so the futile and revolting attempts to carve, rather like a Frankenstein’s monster, something like a living “Church” from the bits and pieces of dead and lifeless facts. That such a creature looks even remotely like the real thing is a providence of God. But it is still a grotesque and animated corpse.

Ex-ecclesial critque of the Ekklesia

Finally, whatever the motivation, both the Stone-Campbell churches and the Episcopal church, having divorced themselves from the context and the living history of the Church, turned back upon said Church and attempted to criticize it for its perceived sins and failures.  But this is rather like a man divorcing his wife and then attempting to criticize his former in-laws.  He gave up his stake in the matter when he left his wife.

Furthermore, having left the living Church, they also left behind the mind of the Church, and no longer shared the Church’s beliefs and assumptions.  By way of example: the Restoration Movement churches propagate a novelty–that the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial, and that the elements are nothing more than bread and wine (or, rather, grape juice).  When they turn back upon the Church and criticize it for its ancient and apostolic teaching of “real presence” they do so with a mind divorced from the Church and with presuppositions that the Church does not share.  Similarly, when the Episcopal Church ordained women to the Eucharistic ministry, they departed from the mind of the Church.  The categories of “social justice” by which they then seek to criticize the Church is not a presupposition shared by the Church (coming as it does from pagan political philosophy)–though let me be quick to add that the Church has always led the forefront in movements of mercy, which is not the same thing.

These sorts of criticisms implicitly accept, without first having proven them from common propositions, such categories as “memorial only” and “social justice,” and then, as though these had been proven, go on to attack whatever perceived failures they accuse the Church of.  In other words, the beginning assumption is that the Church is wrong, except insofar as the Church already agrees with us.  This is why the Episcopal church takes the egregious actions that it does: its starting presuppositions are those of the pagan North American (and Western hemisphere) society first, and only of the Church as a justificatory addendum.  And even on this point, the pagans are leaving the Episcopal church behind in hopeless irrelevancy as the youth see through the empty labels using Christian terminology but not teaching Christian Gospel.

Now, I have labeled these dead ends because each one ends in self-contradiction: the Scripture itself does not teach sola scriptura, and every instance in which sola scriptura has been advocated has ultimately resulted in schism; Christ’s promise for the perserverance of the Church did not fail and to act as though it did is to distance oneself from the Body of Christ and fail to be what one calls oneself: a Church, therefore separation from the living history of the Church is a separation from the Church itself which lives now and has perservered, alive, through time; and to attempt to criticize the Church from without is precisely to fail to have the very mind of Christ one claims, it is to hold up pagan contradictions to the Gospel as the Gospel itself and to deliver not life but death to those whom one can deceive with such falsehoods.

I have spoken quite sharply and forthrightly against my former church groups.  But let me return again to the comments I made above: I value, their weaknesses and failures notwithstanding, my experiences in these churches.  There is no doubt I’m much less appreciative of the Episcopal church, for obvious reasons, but even in my experiences there, I took away with me things which the Lord has blessed and used.  Glory to Christ.  It is not a case of either/or, but rather a case of honest evaluation and forthright appreciation.  The individual reader’s mileage may, as they say, vary.

16 thoughts on “The Dead Ends of Protestantism

  1. I particularly liked the two views of history you presented–the detached view vs. the past that is part of one’s life today. The difference, as you have shown, has important implications. Good stuff.

  2. To be properly read and properly applied, Scripture must be contextualized within the life and teaching of the Church. It is the Church, not the individual Christian, that is the pillar and stay of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and it is Christians collectively, not individual readers, who are to grow up into him who is the head so as not to be swayed and tossed about by false teachings (Eph. 4:11-14).

    A question: 1 Timothy 3:15 reads:
    .
    15 εαν δε βραδυνω, ινα ειδης πως δει εν οικω θεου αναστρεφεσθαι, ητις εστιν εκκλησια θεου ζωντος, στυλος και εδραιωμα της αληθειας.
    .
    It could just as easily be translated: “but if I delay, in order that you may know how it is necessary to behave in a house of God, which is an assembly of the Living God, a pillar and (a) support of the truth.”
    .
    (Though I think one could possibly argue, based on the way Hebrew works – the NT evidences lots of Hebraisms (i.e., if the absolute noun in a construct phrase is definite, then the whole phrase is definite => “which is THE church of THE Living God”), that since “God” is definite, then “church” also has to be definite. Mounce doesn’t note this, IIRC, when he argues in his pastoral epistles commentary (Word Publishing) contra Catholic (and Orthodox) ecclesiology that it should be translated with the indefinite articles as I did above.
    .
    In fact, the earliest references to “pillar and support” that I could find in the Church Fathers was, I believe, Irenaeus, who referred to the Gospels, not the church, as the pillar and support of the truth.
    .
    If Mounce is right (the Greek of 1 Timothy seems to allow for his position), and if indeed the early Church Fathers were not quick to jump on or use the “pillar and support” language for the Church (I could be wrong about this, though), then is it right to assume by default that it is THE Church that is being spoken of by Paul here, rather than that he is simply saying that churches are among the pillars and supports of the truth?

  3. I’m not sure what is gained (by Mounce, et al) by changing the noun from definite to indefinite. It still comes out that it is a body of believers (to use as neutral a phrase as I can), that is the pillar and stay of the truth: not, as is often claimed, the Scriptures alone, and most definitely not the individual Christian.

    In any case, the catholicity of the Local Church is manifest in the New Testament, which is to say that each Local Church is the fulness of the Church (“to the Church at ____” and “to the elders and bishops of the Church at ____”), and so, linguistics aside, we’re back to THE Church being a pillar and stay of the truth.

    What this passage cannot teach, I do not think, at least not on purely linguistic grounds, is that the Scriptures apart from the context of the Church are the pillar and stay of the truth, and most definitely not the individual Christian. So at best Mounce’s argumentation places the catholicity question at one more simple remove, a remove easily dealt with by appeal to Pauline (and New Testament) ecclesiology.

  4. “In other words, the beginning assumption is that the Church is wrong, except insofar as the Church already agrees with us.”

    You hit the nail on the head right there, my friend. Thanks for addressing this issue.

  5. Great post. I found it especially meaningful, as I am a fellow refugee from the Restoration Movement churches. The “dead end” reference reminds me of the great quote by Flannery O”Connor:

    “…one of the good things about Protestantism is that it always contains the seeds of its own reversal. It is open at both ends–at one end to Catholicism, at the other to unbelief.”

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