Dan Wallace has done a post at his new blog that’s getting a lot of buzz:
But with the birth of Protestantism there necessarily came a rift within the western church. By ‘necessarily’ I mean that Protestants made it necessary by splitting from Rome.
I’m not clear on why he says Protestants made the split necessary. The usual argument is that Rome made the split necessary. Rome forced the issue by her impenitant moral and theological corruption.
Jaroslav Pelikan had it right when he said that the Reformation was a tragic necessity.
Why is that tragic? Christ founded a church, not a denomination. The Protestant Reformers simply broke with a preexisting denomination. The Roman church is merely a Western European denomination. A local church that gained undue influence through power politics, which became (and remains) morally and theologically corrupt.
Why is splitting from Rome any more tragic than splitting from the PC-USA, EPUSA, ELCA, &c.?
The church is a divine institution, but denominations are man-made. That doesn’t mean denominations are inherently evil. Just that denominations are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. They exist to serve a function. Sometimes they outlive their usefulness. Sometimes they become counterproductive.
Consider Stephen’s contrast between the temple and the tabernacle (Acts 7). The temple was fixed in time and place. Centralized. Fairly permanent.
The tabernacle was portable. Decentralized. Stephen commends a tabernacle piety over a temple piety. Travel light and keep your bags packed. Be ready to break camp and move on. Heb 11 has a similar mindset. Don’t get tied down. This is a journey, not a destination.
Spiritually speaking, should Christians live in tents or houses? Should we live like Abraham or Solomon? NT piety is nomadic. Like Jews who eat the Passover in haste, with cloak tucked into their belt, feet shod, and staff in hand, Christians should never settle down, but stay on the move.
Protestants felt truth was to be prized over unity…
That’s a false dichotomy. Shared truth is a source of unity. A bond between like-minded believers. Insofar as there is only one truth, truth and unity go together. You are one with another by believing the same truths. By living by the same truths.
You can split over perceived truth. You can disagree over what is true.
…but the follow-through was devastating. This same mindset began to infect all Protestant churches so that they continued to splinter off from each other. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of Protestant denominations. One doesn’t see this level of fracturing in either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Not even close.
That’s deeply misleading:
i) To begin with, contemporary Catholicism is a big tent. There’s what the Roman church believes on paper. Then there’s its very lax standards of church membership. In practice, Modern Catholicism is like an Arab Bazaar.
ii) Historically, both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have been highly polarizing forces, by persecuting heretics. They’ve caused divisions within Christendom. They have actively spawned schismatics. They have maintained internal unity by excommunicating dissidents.
I’m not commenting on whether this is good or bad. I’m just pointing out that this type of unity can only exist by first fomenting disunity, then distancing itself from the other.
If you draw a line in the sand, there will be unity on your side of the line. But you achieve that unity by exclusion rather than inclusion. When you draw a line in the sand, that’s automatically and intentionally divisive. You instantly create insiders and outsiders. Your unity can only exist in contrast to the outsiders. Wherever you draw the line, you will have groups on either side of the line.
This can be a good thing or bad thing, depending on how and where the lines are drawn. But the resultant unity is a partial unity, within a larger disunity.
“But unity in falsehood is no unity at all,” some will protest. To a degree that is true. If the unity of the church meant that we would all deny the bodily resurrection of the theanthropic person, then that would be unity against an essential of the Christian faith. But there is no thinking Christian who agrees lock, stock, and barrel with what his pastor teaches. Yet, he is a part of that church. In this respect, he has prized unity over truth. We all have to do this. If we didn’t, each Christian would be his or her own church. The fellowship would be awfully predictable and quite boring!
But that’s true for Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike. For instance, many Catholics and Orthodox are members in good standing, even though they are nominal members. They don’t agree with everything their denomination represents.
Several evangelical scholars have noted that the problem with Protestant ecclesiology is that there is no Protestant ecclesiology. In many denominations—and especially in non-denominational churches—there is no hierarchy of churches responsible to a central head, no accountability beyond the local congregation, no fellowship beyond the local assembly, no missional emphasis that gains support from hundreds of congregations, and no superiors to whom a local pastor must submit for doctrinal or ethical fidelity.
There are several obvious problems with a hierarchical accountability system:
i) Subordinates are accountable to superiors while superiors are unaccountable to subordinates.
ii) If the hierarchy is liberal, it will impose heresy rather than orthodoxy. It will persecute the faithful rather than promoting the faith.
iii) Take some real-world examples. Lutherans have a hierarchical accountability system: episcopacy. Is Lutheranism in Germany, Denmark, and Norway conspicuous for its doctrinal fidelity? Have Lutheran bishops kept the ELCA faithful in doctrine and practice?
What about the church of England, or the ECUSA? Need we say more?
Presbyterians also have a somewhat stratified polity. The Presbytery. The General Assembly. How well has that worked for the PC-USA?
No accountability system is better than the men who run the system. Who watches the watchman? On the one hand we have accountability mechanisms to police human nature, but human nature is where every accountability mechanism breaks down. That’s the weak link. We’re putting some sinners in charge to police other sinners. That always has predictable results.
The machinery won’t save us from ourselves. Skynet won’t protect us. There’s no substitute for faith.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have accountability structures in church. But it’s not as if a hierarchical system is more reliable than independent churches or the SBC. Every alternative has its share of horror stories.
Three events have especially caused me to reflect on my own ecclesiological situation and long for something different.
First, I have spent a lot of time with Greek Orthodox folks. It doesn’t matter what Orthodox church or monastery I visit, I get the same message, the same liturgy, the same sense of the ‘holy other’ in our fellowship with the Triune God.
i) If Wallace stepped into a time-machine and traveled back to the 1C, if he visited different house-churches, would he encounter the same liturgy? Did 1C churches have incense and icons? Priests in vestments? The alter behind an ornate screen (iconostasis or templon)?
Is this how 1C Christians in apostolic churches worshipped God?
ii) The Greek Orthodox have a highly stylized worship service. Sacred theater. Play-acting.
That quickly becomes routine, perfunctory. The effect is numbing. Like watching the same movie every week. Rather than fellowshipping with God, it distances you from God.
The liturgy is precisely what bothers so many Protestants since their churches often try very hard to mute the voices from the past. “It’s just me and my Bible” is the motto of millions of evangelicals. They often intentionally forget the past two millennia and the possibility that the Spirit of God was working in the church during that time. Church history for all too many evangelicals does not start until Luther pounded that impressive parchment on the Schlosskirche door.
That’s a cliché. And it’s also a half-truth. Certainly church history is, in part, the history of God preserving the church for 2000 years. But church history is also a history of apostasy and corruption. Church history is, by turns, a record of fidelity and infidelity.
In Protestantism, one really doesn’t know what he or she will experience from church to church.
Is freedom of choice a bad thing? At least that gives you the opportunity to choose from the best available options rather than being stuck with uniform error.
Even churches of the same denomination are widely divergent. Some have a rock-solid proclamation of the Word, while others play games and woo sinners to join their ranks without even the slightest suggestion that they should repent of anything.
But in a fallen world, that’s inevitable. There’s no point complaining about things you can’t change. No point being perpetually disgruntled. In every generation you have well-intentioned Christians like Wallace who complain about too much diversity, too much mediocrity, in the church. But the complaints come and go. The complainers come and go.
We can’t make everyone do what we think they should. Rather, we can only form associations with those who share our outlook. I’m reminded of the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.
If Wallace were born a hundred years earlier or later, he’d find similar things to complain about. Go back 500 years. 1000. 1500 years. Heck, go back to the First Church of Corinth!
And his complaints wouldn’t leave a trace. No point fighting futile battles. It only leads to needless aggravation, frustration, disappointment, disillusionment, and bitterness. At the end of the day we’re primarily responsible for our own individual conduct.
Too many Protestant churches look like social clubs where the offense of the gospel has been diluted to feel-good psycho-theology.
Is the average Catholic Mass any improvement? Is the average Catholic homily any improvement?
Or consider some Greek Orthodox Americans: Jennifer Aniston, Michael Dukakis, Olympia Dukakis, Tommy Lee, John Podesta, Telly Savalas, Marina Sirtis, Olympia Snowe, George Stephanopoulos, Paul Tsongas, Jimmy "the Greek".
Are they devout Christians?
And the problem is only getting worse with mega-churches with their mini-theology. This ought not to be.
That’s a false dichotomy. While that’s true of some megachurches, it’s a hasty generalization. For instance, the 1C church of Jerusalem was the original megachurch-5000 strong (Acts 4:4).
Spurgeon pastured a megachurch. James Kennedy, John MacArthur, Tim Keller, John Piper, Edwin Lutzer, and Mark Discoll are (were) megachurch pstors. Even if you criticize their teaching in some respect, it’s not because they have mini-theology.
Second, a man whom I mentored years ago became a pastor of a non-denominational church. Recently and tragically, he denied the full deity of Christ and proclaimed that the Church had gotten it wrong since Nicea. He got in with a group of heretics who were very persuasive. The elders of the church had no recourse to any governing authority over the local church; they were the governing authority and they were not equipped to handle his heterodox teaching. It smelled wrong to them and they consulted me and another evangelical teacher for help. It took some time before they could show the pastor the door, and they were bewildered and troubled during the process. The congregation wasn’t sure which way was up. Doubts about the cornerstone of orthodoxy—the deity of Christ—arose. This cancer could have been cut out more swiftly and cleanly if the church was subordinate to a hierarchy that maintained true doctrine in its churches. And the damage would have been less severe and less traumatic for the church.
This raises a host of issues:
i) Does Wallace think hiring and firing should be taken out of the hands of the congregation and vested in some governing authority over the local church? But I don’t know why congregations would put up with an arrangement where they pay the bills but have no real say in how the church is run.
ii) The operative codicil is “if the church was subordinate to a hierarchy that maintained true doctrine in its churches.”
But what if it’s subordinate to a hierocracy that doesn’t maintain true doctrine? And that isn’t just hypothetical. Many hierarchical churches have liberals in the hierarchy.
iii) Even if a pastor is heretical, it would be damaging to summarily remove him. You have to prepare the congregation for that action. You have to bring the congregation into the process. After all, a number of parishioners may be emotionally attached to the pastor. They can’t go to church next Sunday and suddenly see an interim pastor in the pulpit. That would hardly be fair to the interim pastor.
Although a heretical pastor should clearly be fired, that can’t happen overnight. There has to be some explanation, as well as understanding on the part of the congregation. Otherwise, the exercise will backfire.
iv) Apropos (iii), if the congregation is confused on something as basic as the deity of Christ, they need to be shown what the Bible says about that. They can’t simply be told that the pastor is a heretic–even if he is. They need to be able to see that for themselves. Someone should walk them through the Biblical evidence.
v) Apropos (iv), it isn’t enough for parishioners to put their faith in the governing authority. They need to put their faith in the witness of Scripture. Christian faith is faith in the word of God. Faith in Jesus. Faith in what Jesus says about himself. Faith in the apostolic witness to Christ. Not blind faith in church elders.
It can’t just be: “Take our word for it–he’s a heretic!”
I’m sure that Wallace appreciates this fact, for he himself has coauthored a couple of books for laymen (Reinventing Jesus; Dethroning Jesus) which are designed to educate the laity.
vi) BTW, since Wallace has mentions the Eastern Orthodox, I’d like to make a point in that regard. The Orthodox are famous for their emphasis on Christology and Triadology. But how intrinsically important is that to many Orthodox? How does that really function in Orthodoxy?
Is it essentially different from Saturday worship for Seventh-Day Adventists? In other words, do the Orthodox make a big deal about Christology and Triadology because that’s fundamentally important in itself, or is this like Saturday worship–just a way of differentiating themselves from other Christian groups? Is the function of these doctrines essentially sociological, as boundary markers to distinguish the Orthodox from other Christian groups?
Take the fixation on the Filioque. Do most Orthodox really consider that all-important, in and of itself? Or is it just something to set them apart from the rest of the pack? To make them feel special and superior?
To take a comparison, cultures have ways of demarcating social class. It’s terribly important to the upper class to distinguish itself from the lower class. It has artificial ways of doing this. Elaborate table manners. Fancy cloths. A fancy accent. A distinctive dialect. Changing for dinner. All ways of ensuring that you don’t confuse the upper class with the lower class.
Same thing with some theological distinctives, which can really be theological customs. It’s not about fidelity to revealed truth, but spiritual snobbery. Justifying your separate existence from the hoi polloi.
This is a great danger when people simply default to their sectarian traditions. Eastern Orthodoxy is primarily concerned, not with biblical Christology (or Triadology), but patristic or conciliar Christology. The Bible filtered through Orthodox tradition.
Third, a book by David Dungan called Constantine’s Bible makes an astounding point about the shape of the canon in the ancient church. Dungan discusses the passage in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (6.12) when this church father famously spoke of four categories of literary candidates for the canon—homolegoumena, antilegomena, apocrypha, and pseudepigrapha. Dungan mentions that for Eusebius to speak of any books as homolegoumena—those twenty books that had universal consent in his day as canonical—he was speaking of an unbroken chain of bishops, from the first century to the fourth, who affirmed authorship and authenticity of such books. What is significant is that for the ancient church, canonicity was intrinsically linked to ecclesiology. It was the bishops rather than the congregations that gave their opinion of a book’s credentials. Not just any bishops, but bishops of the major sees of the ancient church. Dungan went on to say that Eusebius must have looked up the records in the church annals and could speak thus only on the basis of such records. If Dungan is right, then the issue of the authorship of certain books (most notably the seven disputed letters of Paul) is settled. And it’s settled by appeal to an ecclesiological structure that is other than what Protestants embrace. The irony is that today evangelicals especially argue for authenticity of the disputed letters of Paul, yet they are arguing with one hand tied behind their back. And it has been long noted that the weakest link in an evangelical bibliology is canonicity.
There are several problems with this appeal:
i) I’m surprised that it doesn’t occur to Wallace that Eusebius may be painting a somewhat idealized portrait of the period..
ii) In addition, those circumstances are unrepeatable in modern times. We’re not living in the 4C. Contemporary Catholic and Orthodox bishops don’t have access to the same records that were available to Eusebius. They’re in the same boat Protestants are. They just sit in the stern, facing away–pretending that they occupy a different boat. But the epistemic situation of a well-connected 4C church historian can’t be replicated in our own time and place. Those conditions came and went long ago.
Wallace is confusing evidence with an argument from authority.
iii) The church of Rome didn’t really have an official canon until Trent. And you can’t say Rome had an informal canon all that time, for when Trent convened, the bishops weren’t in agreement on the scope of the canon. Even after debating the issue, there was no unanimity. Not even a majority. Just a plurality.
The Orthodox don’t have a canon. They don’t feel the need. From their perspective, the Orthodox don’t really need the Bible. They treat the Bible as a ladder. Once you climb the ladder to the top, you no longer need it.
They think they’ve taken what they need from Scripture. That’s enshrined the liturgy, Greek Fathers, Desert Fathers, and church councils.
First of all, we Protestants can be more sensitive about the deficiencies in our own ecclesiology rather than think that we’ve got a corner on truth. We need to humbly recognize that the two other branches of Christendom have done a better job in this area.
They’ve done a worse job.
Second, we can be more sensitive to the need for doctrinal and ethical accountability, fellowship beyond our local church, and ministry with others whose essentials but not necessarily particulars don’t line up with ours.
Does Roman Catholicism have a distinguished record of ethical accountability? Hierarchical church governance is a one-way street. That’s a recipe for decadence. Consider the Renaissance papacy. Or the sex scandal.
Third, we can begin to listen again to the voice of the Spirit speaking through church fathers and embrace some of the liturgy that has been used for centuries. Obviously, it must all be subject to biblical authority, but we dare not neglect the last twenty centuries unless we think that the Spirit has been sleeping all that time.
i) There can be dangers in looking back. Remember Lot’s wife (Lk 17:32)!
ii) I’m all for listening to the voice of the Spirit. But as we’re also admonished: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1).
iii) The Spirit can also speak through Amish, Puritans, Plymouth Brethren, or Protestant Reformers. The Spirit can speak through a pious mother or grandmother.
iv) God requires us to be faithful to the situation he put us in. Not to be faithful to the situation of our forebears. Not to keep faith with our ancestors. Not to reproduce their circumstances. Not to reproduce their adaptive strategies. We are answerable to God, not to our forebears. Just as they aren’t answerable to us, we aren’t answerable to them.
We must be loyal to God, not to those who came before us. And that’s the example we should set for posterity. Not to bind posterity to us, but to bind posterity to God, as he’s expressed his will in his Word. The departed faithful have no claim on us. Only God has a claim on us.
I wonder why it is that in evangelical churches we often refuse to let those who are seminary-trained be on elder boards. I believe that elder boards should indeed have laymen on them, but I think they also should have those who have gone through the rigors of theological education and understand what it means to be committed to the scriptures. In evangelicalism especially the priesthood of the believer means a pooling of ignorance, which is quite different from the Reformation or biblical principle. More than one elder should have an MDiv or ThM.
I agree. Of course, that’s not a failsafe.
In short, there is no ideal church, nor can there be today, because we’ve all made a mess of things since the eleventh century when Rome and Constantinople went their separate ways.
Wallace is wistful for a legendary golden age. But that’s a mirage. If he were actually living back then I doubt he’d be that nostalgic.
The seven universal creeds of the ancient Church articulate especially a high Christology.
We need to examine sympathetically yet critically what the Fathers have said—including modern Fathers of the Church—and glean from the wisdom that the Holy Spirit has imparted to them. The Nicene Creed is one of these traditions that needs to be examined in detail and wrestled with. In general, I can say that unless we see rather compelling evidence to the contrary in the scriptures, we should embrace what these universal creeds are teaching.
i) Actually, I think Nicene orthodoxy (to take one example) articulates a lower Christology than NT Christology.
ii) Moreover, exegeting the Bible is already a full-time task. But to exegete church fathers and church councils quickly gets you mired in multiple layers of church history. That becomes a detour without a destination. You can delve ever deeper into church history without ever finding your way out of the cave.
iii) The study of church history tells us what people have believed, but the study of Bible history tells us what people should believe.
Russ, I have thought about the Anglican Church quite a bit actually. I love the liturgy, the symbolism, the centrality of the Eucharist, the strong connection with the church in ages past, and the hierarchy. And yes, I have seriously considered joining their ranks–and still am considering it. There are some superb Anglican churches in the Dallas area.
i) If Wallace wants to join an evangelical Anglican church, I’m fine with that. However, let’s keep in mind that Wallace is not your average churchgoer. He’s intellectually gifted. He’s a seasoned NT scholar. He’s taught two generations of pastors.
So I doubt he has much of anything to learn from the average sermon. He probably finds it boring to listen to the average sermon. In that respect, it’s not surprising if he prefers a communion-centered service to a sermon-centered service. But most laymen aren’t in his situation.
Likewise, he’s dutifully labored in some of the drier fields of NT scholarship, viz. textual criticism, Greek grammar, NT backgrounds. So it’s not surprising if he’s a bit dehydrated by the average evangelical church service. If he needs a draft of Anglican aesthetics to quench his thirst.
ii) Joining an Anglican church would subvert Wallace’s central complaint. The Anglican church broke with Rome. And ever since the elevation of Vicki Gene Robinson to the episcopate, you’ve had a major schism within the Anglican Communion.