Well, to be sure, I was tempted by the Romanists in my late teens – and I felt the pull of the Anglo-Catholics when I was in my mid-twenties. But now a little older and fatter (mid-thirties), I find myself a boring ol’ Protestant – and a sassy one at that. Here are 12 lessons I’ve learned along the way – and if they help you along yours, great.
1. The church is God’s people called by God’s gospel gathered around God’s word. That’s it. And the implications are huge. There is no anxiety to be had about being unable to trace a series of institutions or a series of bishops back to the past. No, there is a series of “hearers and receivers” of Christ’s promise to forgive. That’s it. That’s church history. That’s our family. Nor is the history of Christian doctrine and practice the history of clergy doctrine and practice. Clergy is vocation, but it is not, as such, the church.
2. Related to this, all those cool-sounding Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic church fathers? They’re our fathers too. Seriously. They are not one iota less our fathers than that of contemporary Roman Catholics. They sat at Christ’s feet. They listened to His voice. Did they get some stuff wrong? Sure. I’m sure we do as well. But we are gathered around the same Jesus – and it is He who defines the church.
3. This is, incidentally, true even if they could get in a time machine, come to the present, and disown us. Would all of the church fathers own the Protestants? Maybe not. Perhaps they’d say that since I was not in fellowship with a particular bishop, I was not part of the church. That’s fine. We forgive them. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theology is the theology of all Italian families. If you have an Italian family recently immigrated from the old world, you can be sure that theirs is the only Italian family in the world, from the only real Italian region in the world, with the only real Italian culture in the world – whose traditions hail back to Romulus and Remus. But most of us can intelligibly talk about “Italian culture” without indulging in these (fun as they are) mythologies. Similarly, if a materialist defines a human being as merely a collection of atoms, it does not falsify the fact that a materialist is a human being precisely because he is more than that. Similarly, I don’t accept “church father Stan’s” belief that he is in the church because he is united to a bishop – but I do consider him to be in the church precisely because he is more than that.
4. I often hear of the benefits that obtain for those who have the consensus of the saints and in infallible church – and all the catastrophe that would and does ensue for those who do not. This used to bother me. But now I hear something like this: “Consider: If humans could fly, imagine how much we’d save on fossil fuel emissions. Imagine how many lives would be saved. How can you ever hope to save these lives and the environment apart from our ability to fly? To be honest, I don’t see how you sleep at night while denying the ability to fly.” Well, I do. The hypothetical benefits of an infallible church are just that – hypothetical. But the apocalyptic scenarios that allegedly obtain apart from these are, to be frank, pretty overblown. Sure, walking is limiting. But it’ll do.
5. These apocalyptic scenarios, by the way, often stem from observations of how many churches there are, how diverse interpretation in them is, and what little hope we have of ever “finding the truth” in such a case. This is, of course, all to be blamed on Luther. This does not falsify Luther’s correctness, mind you, but it is also bad history nevertheless. It makes complex what is simple and simple what is complex. With respect to the former, human beings are not Cartesian “thinking things” who use a toxic combo of voluntarism, nominalism, and any other “ism” as passive blocks of wood to disseminate the evil workings of “the man.” Sorry folks. Ideas matter, but not that much and not in that way. In general, human beings move along a far simpler axis. Show me the best food and the prettiest girls, or (alternatively) the most effective propaganda and fear-mongering, and I’ll find you the most people. This could be qualified of course, but don’t make it too sophisticated. With respect to the latter, belief is unified where there is a magistrate to unify it. Get a modern world with a bunch of independent magistrates and some freedom of thought and you’ll get 30,000 denominations. Sorry. Your options aren’t “Luther” or “Rome” or “Constantinople.” They’re “empire” or “non-empire,” “coercion” or “freedom to be wrong.” Allow the latter, and you’ll always have lots of opinions in this life.
6. These narratives, of course, have no teeth apart from the modern skeptical move which they are intended to evoke. “30,000 denominations!? How will I ever know which is the right one. I guess I can’t” – and thus begins the search for a surrogate reasoner (paradoxically chosen by – you?). The problem with skepticism is that it is a universal acid. Whether there are 30,000 links in the chain or just 1 link in the chain, a universal acid is a universal acid. And it will eat right through any confidence you can have in your own “finding” of your surrogate reasoner. And it will eat through all the judgments you made along the way. If the Protestant always has people smarter than him who disagree about the interpretation of the Bible, the Eastern Orthodox always has persons smarter than him who disagree about the interpretation of the fathers, the facts of church history, the veracity of their claims, the rationality of their theology, etc. It is worth noting that many who convert with this anxiety continue this same trajectory right out of the church and into the natural habitat of skepticism – agnosticism. At least it’s honest.
7. So what do we do? If the church fathers aren’t infallible and the lot of them can be wrong about something, what good are they? Imagine asking this same question to someone studying the history of philosophy, the history of science, the history of…anything? Why do we listen to the church fathers? Because they’re our fathers, for crying out loud! We don’t exist in a vacuum. And lots of them are smarter and more godly than us. Lots of them have great insight. And certainly the more consensus there is among them, the greater we should weight that opinion. That’s not an issue of infallibility. That’s common sense. In short, we listen to them because to not do so would be dumb. We listen to them for the same reason that we often listen to our own parents – not because they’re infallible, but because they’re part of us and they have lots to offer. And like our own parents, they also have problems. My children will, I hope, think of me the same way. Or, since it will be far more persuasive to quote a hip philosopher, church history is the “history of the interpretation” (both in doctrine and life) of the word (Gadamer).
8. Does this mean that everyone in the past can be wrong about something (say, gay marriage) and that a few blokes in the 21’st century might be right about it? Sure it does. Just as it means that everyone in the past could have been wrong about the existence of a spiritual realm, the objectivity of reality, and the importance of respecting your parents. Does this cause us much anxiety? It shouldn’t. Paul himself entertained the hypothetical implications of Christ not being raised in 1 Corinthians 15. I doubt Paul would object to someone saying, “Show me the body!” But does this hypothetical scenario make the apostle bite his fingernails? Hardly. Here’s one that is even better:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-9)
This text really is staggering. Note two things. Paul entertains a hypothetical scenario where an angel from heaven and even he himself preach a different gospel. He’s not anxious about this, of course. But it is the second point that is the most important. Paul expects ordinary Galatians to be able to tell the difference. He expects them to be able to “evaluate” the apostolic posse for themselves. They’ve received Jesus’ message. They should now know the difference between the real thing and its counterfeits.
9. Since we’re talking about evaluating Paul, maybe we should talk about the anxiety of anxieties – the question of canon. And let’s start with Galatians 1. Christians who have accepted Jesus’ message know God’s voice when they hear it. Why? Because it is God’s voice and creates its own recognition. That’s why there is so much consensus on the canon. Consensus? Yep. Most of the books are and always have been agreed upon. Are there some stragglers? Sure. There are several possible explanations for this: 1. Some people are better at hearing God’s voice than others. 2. God speaks more clearly in some places than others. 3. Some cases are more ambiguous because the criteria of canonicity are more ambiguous with respect to them. These objective (apostolicity) and subjective (hearing God’s voice) criteria have created a stunning level of agreement over time. We can argue about the details. But the argument at the fringes can never shake what is clear – and very clear to all who hear God’s voice through Christ.
10. Speaking of clarity, we should avoid an “a priori” concept of how clear something is supposed to be. God could always be clearer. Church history could be neater. But this is not an argument for or against a particular position. God’s existence itself could be clearer. Indeed, if God so desired, He could make Himself so clear that atheism and agnosticism were impossible. This does not mean that He is not clear. Nor does the fact that many persons mis-interpret Scripture mean that it is not clear. It means that God is as clear as He desires to be. He is clear enough for His precise purposes. Rather than having an abstract standard of clarity to which we seek to find an instantiation (and which could, in principle, always be one-upped) – it is better to ask how clear God has been in actual fact – and then to ask why and what for. These last two points lead to the most important point. To wit…
11. If I have learned anything along the way, it is this. Don’t ever ever ever ever ever let anyone tell you that the gospel of Jesus is not jumping off every page of the Bible. The gospel of God’s free grace through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, is clear enough for a child to grasp. And the basic manner in which we are to follow Him through loving God and our neighbor as the Spirit works to redeem this world through the kingdom of Jesus is right on the surface of the page. Damn skepticism. Listen to the Word. Obviously, this should be done with others (dead and living) simply because we are communal creatures who understand communally and who are spoken to communally – but God’s speech is the main thing for all of us. Gather with others around it and listen. Don’t tell it what to do or how to be. Let it speak and do its work.
12. Finally, that gospel is freeing. One cannot do theology or church history or exegesis if one is nervous that their eternal destiny is hanging in the balance of their conclusion – whether passed on to a surrogate or not. No. Rather, this is where I will insist to my bones that Luther is right. You must first be free in Christ. You must first know that all your sins are forgiven in Him. You must first know that He loves you and wages war against all your enemies and holds you in His hands. And then you can chill out. You can work through these things patiently and humbly with others. You can admit that you sometimes don’t know. You can avoid all those who seek to attack your fragile identity by standing on the unshakeable foundation of your identity in Christ. In other words, you can live in the real world. Indeed, you can even enjoy it.