Category: Protestantism

Against Sola Scriptura

Against Sola Scriptura

Sola scriptura has been a staple for Protestant ecclesiology ever since the Reformation. In modern times, it is typically utilized as a convenient polemic to argue against any tradition that is not Protestant. This paper will analyze the doctrine from various angles, and provide reasons for why it is ultimately redundant, misleading, ahistorical, and entirely contingent upon the literacy of its adherent. As with any Protestant doctrine, sola scriptura is difficult to define, simply because of how many varying definitions exist. There is no universally agreed upon definition among Protestants, so no matter what definition is stated, there will always be some who will accuse others of creating strawmen. Therefore, to avoid the strawman accusation, multiple definitions will be mentioned for the sake of clarity.

Definitions

According to the sixth article of the Twenty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563), Anglicans define sola scriptura as “containing all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”[1] (For example, since making the sign of the cross is not explicitly mentioned in the scriptures, it is therefore not required and unnecessary for salvation). The Methodists agree with this definition.[2] The Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) states, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Sprit, or traditions of men.”[3] The Baptist Abstract of Principles (1858) states that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were “given by inspiration of God, and are the only sufficient, certain and authoritative rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.”[4]

Despite all these understandings, one I found most enlightening was in a book with the peculiar title Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, and it is by a collection of popular Reformed theologians (Robert Godfrey, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, James White, etc.). One can only speculate how a few Calvinists can gather together and claim to speak on behalf of all Protestants, but the title is certainly a bit presumptuous. In any case, Robert Godfrey claims that the scriptures alone are the ultimate religious authority. He states that everything necessary for salvation concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible with enough clarity that any “ordinary believer” can find them there and understand for themselves.[5] In attempt to nuance his position, he also states the following:

Let me begin with certain clarifications so as not to be misunderstood. I am not arguing that all truth is to be found in the Bible or that the Bible is the only form in which the truth of God has come to His people. I am not arguing that every verse in the Bible is equally clear to every reader. Neither am I arguing that the church—both the people of God and the ministerial office—is not of great value and help in understanding the Scriptures. As William Whitaker states in his noble work: “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.”[6]

As defined by the articulate Reformed theologians of modernity, the doctrine of sola scriptura states that the scriptures are not only the sole infallible rule of faith and practice, but that it is clear enough that any ordinary believer can understand it.

Redundancy

Firstly, stating that any Christian can understand the scriptures is entirely redundant. The fact is that every ordinary believer does not understand the scriptures. Indeed, most ordinary believers both misinterpret and twist the scriptures. When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood the book of Isaiah, did he reply, “Certainly, any ordinary believer can do this?” It seems his humility was much too great for such a response.[7] This fact alone proves the need for an authoritative teaching office for the sake of maintaining an apostolic hermeneutic. Also, if sola scriptura was truly about understanding the scriptures as the authority on matters of faith and practice, a Catholic could immediately end the Protestant objection by agreement. Do most Protestants not agree on sola scriptura, yet disagree on everything the scriptures say? Therefore, sola scriptura is entirely redundant, because it does not address the actual problem, which is interpretation.

Secondly, Whitaker’s quote that “the church is the interpreter of scripture” is also telling, because it shows that he is clearly rejecting the concept of one visible church community with historical ecclesiological, theological, liturgical, and methodological continuity. In other words, Whitaker is using the word ‘church’ to mean that Christians generally are the ones who accurately interpret scripture, as opposed to secularists. This is a radical departure from traditional understandings of ecclesiology, since most Christians would have interpreted the quote “the church is the interpreter of scripture” to mean the clergy, scholars and monastics of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church pass down biblical interpretation to the laymen via liturgy, homily, catechesis, and fellowship.

The Visible Church

When it comes to hermeneutics, the ecclesiastical structure of the Church exists to maintain the highest probability of interpretive success. For example, obeying what St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 30 – 108) or St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – 202) believed about the ‘Thanksgiving’ (Eucharist) maintains a correct interpretation about what Eucharist means. In isolation from the Church, one might think thanksgiving simply means lunch time, or perhaps even the American holiday in the month of November.[8] Our understanding of the Eucharist also shapes how one interprets Bible passages such as the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Establishing the ecclesiastical tradition around the bishops is how Christendom always functioned.

The Whitaker quote that Godfrey mentioned is also deeply perplexing, for in one moment he says the church is the interpreter of scripture, and the next moment he says no church is the interpreter of scripture. If hermeneutic is not tied to any particular persons, or see, or succession, then how is ‘the church’ the interpretive standard? Being a Protestant, he no doubt interprets the church as invisible rather than visible, but it does not change the self-defeating nature of the statement. If he believes in sola scriptura, then he already disagrees with his own argument, because the New Testament already contains the interpretations of particular persons, along with the sees and successors of those particular persons.[9] If we are not even trying to align ourselves to the specific interpretive tradition handed down from the Apostles,[10] and to their bishops,[11] then of what use is scripture apart from tradition?

Blind and Mute

The biggest problem with sola scriptura lies not necessarily in what it affirms, but what it denies. The biggest problem lies not in what it says, but what it assumes. Sola scriptura is not problematic merely because it affirms that scripture is the only infallible authority (such a statement means nothing apart from tradition), it is problematic because it allows every individual to be their own (and assign their own) interpretive authority. The doctrine is silent as to which interpretive ecclesiological tradition is representative of ‘orthodoxy.’ For instance, though scripture says we are to baptize, it does not self-interpret what baptism means. Is baptism by immersion, submersion, or sprinkling? Does baptism impart grace, regeneration, and the forgiveness of sins, or is it merely a symbolic outward sign depicting an inward reality? Do we baptize in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Do we baptize once or three times? One might conclude any of these options from several different Bible passages, which is the problem. Sola scriptura is silent in answering the only questions that matter, and such silence speaks volumes in of itself.

Sola scriptura automatically presumes that any personal/individual hermeneutic represents—by default—the standard of orthodoxy. This is the central error of the doctrine, and it goes unnoticed by every single Protestant who believes in sola scriptura. This blindness must necessarily be present for the doctrine to be affirmed, because the moment one’s eyes are opened to this bubble of presupposition, they no longer hold to sola scriptura by definition. Those inside the bubble think everyone who disagrees with them disagrees with scripture, because they (without realizing it) have made themselves the interpretive standard. For instance, if one were to talk to a Calvinist about ‘Predestination,’ they will presume a determinist understanding of predestination is “what the Bible clearly teaches.” In reality, it is simply how they as individuals interpret the Bible, even knowing that the patristic consensus is in explicit disagreement. John Calvin deliberately chose his own understanding of the text over the understanding of the universal Church. When Protestants accuse Catholics of not holding to sola scriptura, it is under the assumption that the Protestant hermeneutic is entirely accurate and representative of orthodoxy, simply because Protestants understand the scriptures to mean something contrary to Catholicism. This is what I mean by sola scriptura having nothing to do with the Bible, and everything to do with the authority of the Church. Noticing a possible alternative interpretation of a few verses does not—in of itself—prove the validity of the alternate interpretation.

What about Ulrich Zwingli (c. 1484 – 1531) and his understanding of the Eucharist, or the Anabaptist understanding of Baptism? Both Zwingli and the Anabaptists would say that the sacraments are merely ‘symbols,’ and that such an interpretation is “what the Bible clearly teaches.” Yet, they would disagree on whether baptism extends to infants. The other Reformers were so vehemently opposed to such ideas that they went to war against them. If the Bible is so “clear,”[12] why does everyone seem to be blind?

The Berean Novice

One might ask, “Were the Bereans not more noble because they went back and studied the scriptures for themselves?”[13] To this I say that Luke’s description was not authorizing an individualistic means of interpreting the scriptures. Luke records this only to show us that the Bereans received the message with “readiness of mind,” as opposed to the theological apathy of Thessalonica.[14] The Bereans happened to reach the same conclusion, but this is not because they searched the scriptures, it is in spite of it. Any untrained child can search the scriptures like a Berean, that does not mean the child will come to the correct understanding. Do not the scriptures testify to the disqualification of the novice?[15] St Augustine rejected Christianity for Manichaeism precisely because he searched the scriptures and interpreted them in isolation from the hermeneutic of the Church. Then nearly a decade later, he went on a business trip to Milan and encountered St Ambrose preaching a homily on the book of Genesis, and it changed his life forever.[16] The only thing ‘sola scriptura’ did for St Augustine was cause him to reject the Bible and run away from Church’s life-giving hermeneutic.[17]

One might reply that St Augustine did not understand the scriptures because he did not have the Holy Spirit, as if chrismation automatically transforms children into scholars. However, such an argument is easily refuted by its own implication. Firstly, without the ecclesiology of the Church, who decides which interpretations are actually from the Holy Spirit, and on what authority? Why was St Augustine wrong the first time? Why was he right the second time? At the council of Jerusalem, does James say, “It seems good to the holy scriptures and to us?” [18] ‘Orthodoxy’ has always been understood as the Holy Spirit’s declaration through the conciliarity of the Church, not any and every individual’s understanding of the Bible simply because they have the Holy Spirit. The exegetical guidance of the Holy Spirit is given to the Church at large, and within the visible boundaries of Eucharistic communion,[19] not each self-professed Christian individually. Secondly, would anyone actually suggest that if a man cannot understand the scriptures, it is automatically because he does not have the Holy Spirit? Surely one would not suggest that every Christian has identical levels of intellectual competency, or even basic literacy, simply because of a shared Holy Spirit. Such an understanding would immediately disqualify anyone who is mentally handicapped. Thirdly, does St Paul say every man is given to be a teacher?[20] Does St James say that many should be teachers?”[21] Neither are the case, and yet sola scriptura creates an emphasis on private interpretations,[22] which then creates an environment where everyone not only becomes a teacher, but teachers who attempt to teach themselves orthodoxy. In other words, sola scriptura has made every sheep his own shepherd.

The Audacious Canon

From a Protestant perspective, why is praying for the departed ‘unbiblical’ according to the Septuagint canon? Could we not simply point to the Book of Tobit or the second Book of Maccabees?[23] Why exactly is something branded unbiblical simply because it is not in agreement with a Reformer’s canon? Protestantism audaciously gave itself the authority to determine what is or is not ‘canon,’ and Protestants like Martin Luther determined this based entirely upon his own already established hermeneutic. Therefore, Luther was entirely ready and willing to remove the Book of James from his German translation of the New Testament, calling it an “Epistle of straw.” He felt it did not belong in the canon simply because it did not fit within his framework of how he thought the Bible ought to be interpreted.[24] Instead of shaping his hermeneutic around which books of the Bible were always used according to the most popular version of the scriptures,[25] he ironically shaped the Bible around the passages he personally considered ‘biblical.’ Martin Luther clearly must have thought he understood the scriptures better than even St James, and this kind of arrogance is unfortunately all throughout the mindset of the Protestant Reformers. Even if one removes the deuterocanon, prayers for the departed are still evidenced in St Paul.[26] Though, the Reformers would no doubt be forced to disagree with such an interpretation, and instead appeal to a different hermeneutic that is neither authoritative nor historical.

Defined by History

This cosmic shift of authority from Church to self is the real reason why sola scriptura is so problematic. Historically speaking, the very essence of sola scriptura is the usurping of papal authority. It represents a kind of ecclesiastical coup d’etat. It is undeniable that the doctrine exists in history only because of the abuses of papal authority. If there was never a fault observed within the papacy, the doctrine of sola scriptura would not exist because it would have been created out of redundancy rather than necessity. If one grants the proposition that the Protestant Reformers saw sola scriptura as being created from the position of necessity, then one must also grant the reason its existence was perceived as necessary to begin with; that reason being the abuse of ecclesiastical authority.

The reason why this is such an important point to make is because many Protestant answers to the modern criticisms of sola scriptura ignore the historical reasons for its very creation. Protestants will try to disarm Catholic objections by saying they too utilize the Church Fathers. However, Reformation readings of patristic texts were just as selective and individualistic as their reading of the scriptures. For example, John Calvin (c. 1509 – 1564) admired John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407), but such admiration never went beyond the things Chrysostom said with which Calvin already agreed prior to reading Chrysostom. Calvin went as far as to say that because Chrysostom did not agree with his teaching on predestination,[27] he departed God’s judgment and obviously just wanted to please the world.[28] This shows how Reformers like Calvin judged the Church Fathers using his already established hermeneutic as the standard, rather than the other way around. Trenham writes:

Here is Calvin in all his arrogance and theological overconfidence. His accusations against the likes of Ss. Chrysostom and Basil the Great are that they were too worldly, too submissive to worldly powers, and not willing enough to defy merely human judgments. These charges are ironic in that they apply far more to Calvin himself and the Protestant Reformers than to the Holy Fathers he attacks…That the Holy Fathers refused to articulate Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is hardly a sign of complicity with worldly men, but rather a refusal to articulate what does not have the support of the Holy Scriptures and the consensus patrum.[29]

Authority Complex

Sola scriptura is clearly not a doctrine about the Bible, it truly is a doctrine about ecclesiastical authority. The historical context surrounding sola scriptura defines the doctrine much louder than the actual stated definition. Sola scriptura is simply the shift of interpretive authority from ‘Church’ to ‘self.’ It claims that every individual Christian is bound only to that which is in the Bible, because all ecclesiastical authorities are subject to error and uncertainty. However, what sola scriptura really means is that every individual Christian is bound only to their personal interpretation of scripture. This has frightening implications when sola scriptura advocates also call the Bible the “Word of God,” because it essentially divinizes their own interpretation. Therefore, sola scriptura undermines the office of teacher that was given to the Church.[30]

Many advocates of sola scriptura seem to think it is a dogma of Christianity. However, as it has been shown, the doctrine itself was historically created as a Protestant polemic against the interpretive authority of Rome, after having concluded the Roman Catholic Church was in error. However, if the Reformers were correct regarding something in the scriptures, it was despite sola scriptura, not because of it. One could argue that the Reformers got much more incorrect than correct, if Orthodoxy is the interpretive standard. The Reformers were only correct in their attacks against Rome if one believes the Reformers themselves to be the interpretive standard of orthodoxy. However, if Eastern Orthodoxy is the interpretive standard, the Reformers were correct with regards to very little.

Reading sola scriptura backwards through history is anachronistic, because the early bishops and theologians of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church were obviously not going to emphasize “the Bible” over and against the very interpretive authority through which the scriptures are read and understood. When many Protestants read any emphasis of the scriptures within the patristic corpus, they often do so thinking the fathers carry with them the same assumption that the scriptures contain a disembodied interpretation existing in a realm beyond human perception. However, there simply is no such thing as ‘the Bible,’ or any written text, in the form of an autonomous inanimate entity that speaks for itself. If this were the case, differences in interpretation would not exist, because interpretation would be based solely on literacy.

Literacy and Education

Literacy is a historical aspect of sola scriptura that often gets overlooked. The Protestant Reformation takes place at a unique point in time, because prior to the creation of the Gutenberg printing press (c. 1440), most people were illiterate. It should come as no surprise that the doctrine of sola scriptura was being preached from the mouth of men like Martin Luther (c. 1483 – 1546) within one generation after the Bible was being printed for the common man. It should also not be surprising that Protestants began vigorous educational campaigns to reduce the level of illiteracy. To those who cannot read, sola scriptura is an irrelevant doctrine because it does not change the fact that the illiterate would still need an interpretive authority outside of themselves. For the Reformers, literacy was not optional, it was fundamental. Literacy was the very foundation to support sola scriptura, and this resulted in a very high view of education.[31] Of course, this is not to say that emphasizing education and literacy is a problem, but that one must understand sola scriptura in its proper historical context, because it is actually the historical context that defines the doctrine, not the various Protestant definitions.

Conclusion

Sola scriptura is therefore a redundant doctrine with a misleading definition, because the doctrine is not actually defined by what it says, but by what it does not say. It is ultimately ahistorical and entirely contingent upon the literacy of its adherent. It was not held by any of the Church Fathers, because it would have dismantled the very ecclesiastical system that surrounded them. It could neither be held by the average laymen, since illiteracy was always an issue. Therefore, sola scriptura ought to either be reformed or outright rejected.

________________________________________________________________

[1] John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: John Knox Press, 3rd edition, 1982), p. 267.

[2] Ibid., p. 355.

[3] Ibid., p. 195.

[4] Ibid., 340.

[5] Robert Godfrey. “What do we mean by sola scriptura?” Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible. (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), p. 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Acts 8:27.

[8] Before laughing, know that I have seen even greater ignorance than this among the “ordinary believers.” I once had a conversation with a man who thought Baptist Protestants were the true Christians because the Bible says the forerunner to Christ was named John “the Baptist.”

[9] Such as the Apostles, rather than their Gnostic contemporaries.

[10] 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

[11] Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, etc.

[12] There is a Protestant doctrine known as the “perspicuity” of the scriptures, which asserts that the scriptures are clear and free from obscurity.

[13] Acts 17:11.

[14] Ibid.

[15] 1 Timothy 3:6.

[16] Augustine. Confessions 5.13.23

[17] Anachronism is employed here for the sake of argument, and not for historical accuracy.

[18] Acts 15:28.

[19] Meaning, the Spirit is the promised guardian of only that which can be defined as “The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Therefore, heterodox Christian traditions existing outside of communion with the visible Orthodox Church do not have the same kind of hermeneutical hope.

[20] Ephesians 4:11.

[21] James 3:1.

[22] Due to the individualistic rejection of any ‘ecclesiastical’ authority in hermeneutics.

[23] Tobit 12:12, 2 Maccabees 12:39-45.

[24] Luther’s personal orthodoxy determined his personal canon.

[25] The Septuagint.

[26] 2 Timothy 1:18.

[27] Which is essentially determinism.

[28] Josiah Trenham. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings. (Newrome Press LLC, 2015), p.131.

[29] Ibid., p. 132.

[30] 1 Corinthians 12:28.

[31] Paul Spears. “Luther, Protestantism, and Education.” Chapter 14 of International Handbook of Protestant Education. Vol. 6, (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2012), p. 296.

 

Dwarves, Goblins, and Jeff Maples

Dwarves, Goblins, and Jeff Maples

In “The Last Battle” by C.S. Lewis, Aslan in his great love put a feast in front of the dwarves, but they could not perceive it, let alone enjoy it, for the wickedness of their hearts darkened their eyes. In “The Princess and the Goblin” by George MacDonald, the stubborn and thick-headed goblins, made delusional by their own knowledge, despised the light of the world above them as they mocked all the “sun dwellers.” The dwarves and the goblins both represent the experience of hell: to be tormented by the presence of God (2 Th 1:9), because they are unable to perceive the feast. To call good evil, and evil good (Isa 5:20).

Jeff Maples of Pulpit & Pen wrote two articles recently about Hank Hanegaaffs entrance into Orthodoxy, but the second one was both telling and very sad. I thought as I read through it: “This is a dwarf that just cannot see the feast in front of him.” He is like a contentious goblin deep within the dark caves of the internet, searching for people to attack. He is blinded and deceived.

Orthodox Christians should respond not with anger (as difficult as that may be), but with “great and rich mercy,” as the liturgy calls us to imitate. We should simply add Jeff in that category of “those who hate us; those who persecute us.” Lashing out at Jeff for his excessive ignorance will not accomplish much. However, if we pray for him, perhaps the scales will fall from his eyes and he will see the feast.

 

The Hotel: Why I Enjoyed My Stay

The Hotel: Why I Enjoyed My Stay

Preface

If I could provide a summarizing framework for all the various forms of Protestantism, it would consist of a two-category continuum: the exegetical traditions (having an emphasis on doctrine) and the experiential traditions (having an emphasis on experience). However, this gets complicated when you filter in the categorical dichotomy between sacramental and non-sacramental traditions. Despite such a distinction, it is nonetheless undeniable at this point that the vast majority of modern Protestantism consists of non-sacramental traditions, so this will be the primary focus of my thoughts.

There are many non-sacramental non-denominational congregations that are so close to the middle of the spectrum that it becomes difficult to discern where they land (I would probably put the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard movements as being the closest to the middle among non-sacramental traditions, the former being slightly on the exegetical side and the latter being slightly on the experiential side. If sacramental traditions were included, I would probably place Anglicanism somewhere in the middle.

However, all traditions vary heavily between local congregations, sub-denominations, and networks), but I find it rather fair to make such a graph. Because of my experience of Protestantism across the spectrum from one extreme to the other, much could be said with regards to my appreciation for Protestantism and how it shaped me, but I shall limit the content to what I am able to currently verbalize.

The Bible

Among the exegetical traditions (Lutheran, Baptist [Reformed and Fundamentalist versions included], Presbyterian, Calvary Chapel, etc.), I have discovered a common love for the Bible. This is not to say the experiential traditions do not also love the Bible, but the exegetical traditions amplify their desire to learn more about the scriptures by doing things like dedicating more service time to the sermon or having a night dedicated to Bible study.

It was this emphasis on the Bible that provoked me to begin reading it for myself as a teenager, and by age twenty, I had read through the whole Bible multiple times and even read different versions. I would not have the knowledge of the scriptures that I have today if it were not for such an emphasis.

Prayer and Community

Among the experiential traditions (Methodist, Pentecostal, Vineyard, Mennonite, Charismatic, etc.), I have discovered a common love for both prayer and community. These forms of Protestantism may not be where you go to learn doctrine, but these congregations, as far as I can tell, pray more and have a better sense of community with one another. Whether it be political activism or charity work, they seem to do everything together as a single unit. Some services even have a time of prayer for those who might be sick and need healing, and there is even the pseudo-monasticism of the International House Of Prayer (IHOP), which is dedicated to 24 hour prayer, much like a monastery.

It was this emphasis on prayer and community that made me develop a private prayer life before God. When troubles would enter my life, I would channel my frustration constructively by motivating myself to pray. As far as community is concerned, there was one time a guest speaker at a particular charismatic gathering said that in his church back in England, nobody is in financial debt. Everyone in the congregation pooled their resources and got everyone out of debt. When I heard this, I was dumbfounded, and I have not forgotten it to this day. An act so clearly from Acts (Acts 2:44-45), yet this was the only time I have heard such a testimony.

Apologetic Debates

Whether with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals, Post-Millennial Preterists and partial-Preterists, Pre-Millennial Futurists, Fundamentalists, Charismatics, Young Earth/Old Earth Creationists, Calvinists or Arminians, I have been in many informal debates and theological conversations. Most people probably would not consider these things enjoyable simply because they are usually quarantined to the dreadful space known as ‘conflict,’ but I enjoyed being challenged so often because it made me constantly evaluate what it is I actually believe, how to better articulate what I believe, and whether or not I have good reason to believe it. This desire for apologetic knowledge is what made me realize that I was an apologist by nature.

Methodological Experiments

Since Protestantism is continually trying to discover and define itself, it is constantly changing according to what does and does not work. Small groups (or ‘life groups’) are a good example of how Protestantism is trying to balance itself against the weight of the megachurch model. When there is a perceived need, there always comes some attempt at adaptation.

Granted, not every experiment was shown to be successful, but being in a position to observe what does and does not work has been very helpful for me.

Protestant Intellectuals

Some of the greatest gems found within Protestantism are some of their intellectuals. The largely invisible George MacDonald has become a favorite of mine (and who just might have been the greatest and indirectly the most influential theologian Protestantism has ever produced), then there is C.S. Lewis and Karl Barth, then Charles Spurgeon weasels his way in there, and finally G.K. Chesterton is my honorable mention since he was Anglican before converting to Catholicism.

Because these men were so well read (especially C.S. Lewis), many aspects of their theology comes directly from many of the Church Fathers. Therefore, without being conscious of it, I was slowly being shaped and prepared to encounter the patristic ocean.

I’m sure there is much more I could say about this, but that is all for now.

 

The Hotel: Why I Checked-Out of Protestantism

The Hotel: Why I Checked-Out of Protestantism

Preface

My departure from Protestantism was a change that occurred very slowly over the course of multiple years. However, before I begin talking about the problems I have found in my examination of Protestantism (which are largely my reasons for leaving), I want to preface this by saying that I am very grateful for my past experiences in every aspect of my journey. The experiences Protestantism has given me are invaluable, and they ultimately prepared and led me to where I am today. As you read through my testimonial critique (which goes through many of my thoughts and arguments), know that despite any sharpness in my words, my heart is not one of bitterness or slander, but rather one of an honest detailed analysis across a wide spectrum of Protestant traditions (These traditions include Pentecostal, Charismatic, Messianic, Baptist, Reformed, Presbyterian, Fundamentalist, Mennonite, and various Non-denominational congregations).

Another note: this is not a critique about Protestant people, it’s about Protestantism as a framework and why I personally could no longer remain Protestant. Think of me less as some offended cynic ranting with furrowed brows, and more like an ecclesiastical auditor writing an honest evaluation about problems I’ve discovered. That said, let us talk about some of the reasons why I left Protestantism…

The Problem of Consumerism

“Do not be conformed to this world…” -Romans 12:2a

One of the reasons I left Protestantism was simply because I stopped having an individualistic consumer mentality. I stopped being conformed to an American paradigm. After living within it for so many years, deeply observing every little detail, I eventually had an epiphany…What I thought was my home revealed itself to be a hotel.

There are very few instances when the accuracy of a metaphor grips my heart, and this is one of those instances. From the boring walls to the dated carpet, many Protestant churches of America mirror hotels even on a literal level. Of course, it does not end there. It is much more than a visual reality, because it is also a spiritual reality. Hotels are for consumers wanting to be served. Whether they market their size, programs, technology, the Bible in every side-table, food, or coffee, hotels want you to have a good experience so you stay for a long time and pay lots of money for the services. My wife and I love going to hotels. However, trying to live in one would get old quickly.

This framework is nearly identical to how many Protestant churches function. Many people go to church to be served with good music, food, coffee, and motivational speeches from smiling faces, and even motivational speeches about why you should not go to church for any of these reasons. Others prefer verbal spankings from red faces. Either way, most people are entering churches not because God grips them, but because “church” is programmed to feed the existing passions and preferences of the individual (much like Amazon ads are programmed to show you what you already want). For example, if you’re a depressed and angry individual who struggles with gluttony, you will most likely end up under a preacher that emphasizes (1) the condemnation of sin (rather than practical steps on how to not sin), (2) God’s wrath (rather than God’s love), and (3) your own God-given liberty to enjoy meat during lent (rather than growing self-control through fasting).

Even though it is not the case that all Protestant churches are plagued with the same degree of consumerism, all Protestant churches are plagued with some degree of consumerism. Protestantism does not seem to have anything in place to prevent consumerism, because the Enlightenment ideals of individualism, capitalism, and ‘The American Dream’ were created by people living in a Protestant culture. Ever since the Reformation, individualism is woven into the fabric of Protestant DNA, and it is impossible for a worldview to not be individualistic and remain Protestant. Protestants rebelled against the spiritual authority of Rome (and later the political authority of Great Britain) in order to be self-ruled. Autonomy has always been the one doctrine upon which all Protestants agree. However, in light of so many contradictory denominations, I have failed to see the success of this ideology.

The biggest problem with the consumerism permeating the Protestant framework is the fact that it is contingent upon a cyclical “supply and demand” business strategy that progressively revolves around the current trend. When traditional services lose their demand, the price of fog machines increase. When contemporary services lose their demand, the price of pews increase. When some services overemphasize doctrine, others demand an emphasis on experience. It’s a pendulum that forever swings back and forth, revealing the unstable foundation of this framework.

The Problem of Authority

“Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you; but that you be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” – 1 Co 1:10

A second reason I left is the problem of authority. The history (and spirit) of Protestantism is that of rebellion. Because of certain doctrines about ecclesiastical authority, Protestants have no interpretive authority outside of themselves. This reality is ironic, because if you spend only one year in any Evangelical church, you will inevitably hear sermons that emphasize the importance of submission. Because of its views on authority, Protestantism has a very odd relationship with the idea of submission. Evangelical churches know they are called to submit in an abstract sense, but at the same time, when it comes to Church authority and hermeneutics, they seem to acknowledge no one to be worthy enough to receive their submission. They are “fallible men,” after all. Instead, an Evangelical Protestant will merely submit to the idea of being called to submit (because it is biblical), rather than submit to an organized clergy system. This, alongside the strange reality of an “alter call” with no alter, shows that, like an incomplete puzzle, Protestantism has empty silhouettes of distant days.

Some may react to my saying Protestants have no authority outside of themselves, because if one were to ask any Protestant Christian about their spiritual authority, they would certainly not say they are their own authority, because such a statement is blatantly arrogant to all onlookers. Instead, Protestants will say their authority is in “Jesus,” or “the Bible,” or “the Word of God.” To them, these three phrases are synonymous with one another (I’ll get to that later). However, what they seem to miss is that they are presupposing their own interpretation to be nonexistent, and that everything they understand the Bible to be saying is what the Bible says. They never take into consideration that they could be misunderstanding the text.

Protestants have removed themselves from an authoritative church structure that has within it an interpretive tradition. Instead of finding the true tradition from which Rome departed (Orthodoxy, as I would argue), they unintentionally created their own traditions thinking they found the true tradition. The wholesale rejection of the Roman Catholic Church being their hermeneutic led to each individual reformer being his own interpreter of all things. It seems to me that the Reformers never actually rejected the office of “pope,” because they simply became their own popes by seeing their own interpretations as gospel. This reality is at the very heart of why John Calvin had Michael Servetus executed. It wasn’t simply because Servetus denied the Trinity, it was because of his denial of Calvin’s personal hermeneutic. Calvin defined the gospel through spectacles he created. If anyone were to contradict the spectacles, Calvin would then see such an act as heresy. This is also why Anabaptists like Felix Manz were murdered by both Lutherans and Zwinglians for using the Bible to deny infant baptism…not because the Lutherans and the Zwinglians agreed upon a common source of orthodoxy, but because they both, by chance, came to the same conclusion about baptism individually.

The problem of authority is clearly visible within denominationalism. For example, Baptists have no authority over Presbyterians. Oneness Pentecostals cannot be rebuked by Methodists. Nobody speaks as a conciliar head within Protestantism. When there is disagreement, people simply break off and start their own denomination. This fragmentation seems to happen daily, and yet many claim they are nonetheless united. If anyone claims Protestantism is united because they believe in some “Mere Christianity” (the Holy Trinity, for example), then they have not met a Oneness Pentecostal. Can an Anabaptist, in his vigorous denial of infant baptism, truly claim to be sacramentally united with a Presbyterian? How can the Snake-handlers (who think Christianity is about wiping the dance-sweat off your forehead with a handful of poisonous snakes), be the same Christianity as Baptists, who have traditionally had negative opinions of dancing, let alone dancing with snakes? How are Oneness Pentecostals, who deny the Trinity, even be classified in the same religion as other Pentecostals who accept the Trinity? How are we to determine which random assortment of dogmas is representative of true Christianity?

I could find just as much agreement with a Muslim as I could with an Evangelical. Agreement on a few topics is not the same thing as unity or communion. No matter what doctrine is put into the spotlight of agreement, there will be a denomination in the shadows of disagreement. ‘Unity’ in Protestantism seems to be contextualized to an individual’s friendship circle. One Protestant may have ‘union’ with a different Protestant because they both agree on an aspect of Jesus, but they have no real communion, which is the only important form of Christian unity. If we say we have unity simply because we agree over a few lines of the Nicene Creed, yet are without liturgical communion, we lie to ourselves.

The Problem of History

“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” – 2 Th 2:15

A third reason I left Protestantism follows the second, which is the perpetual schism that occurs because of an ignorance of Christian history.

The problem is, in practice, Protestants have adopted sola scriptura at the expense of history and tradition. If one allows themselves to believe scripture (as interpreted by oneself) is all that matters, then it is no wonder why there is so much division. If you asked the average Protestant to start with Jesus and quickly name all the church leaders up to present day, they will say something like “Jesus, the apostles, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, my dad.” If they are of a more Arminian tradition, just replace Calvin and Spurgeon with Wesley and Finney. The point is, in two thousand years of history, the only patristic source people can name is Augustine, and that was eye-opening to me. It shows how most Protestant traditions are not educating people about basic history.

To describe my spiritual journey of time travelling through Protestantism, I’ll again use the hotel analogy:

I began at the top floor. The top floor is the most recently renovated, with more modern Protestant traditions that were established in the 20th century. As I progressed in my spiritual journey, I traveled back in time through history to earlier traditions (This represents descending the floors of the ‘Protestant hotel’). I needed to get to the lowest “Reformation” level to realize that my travels have been all too short-sighted. Why descend one level at a time when I could just take the elevator all the way down?

It was not until this point when I discovered that the only thing below the Reformation level was the Anglican lobby. When I entered the lobby, I realized my home was not established at the time of Christ. Rather, it was established much later. When I looked at the wall and saw the date of establishment, I realized I had been living in the wrong building the entire time. The writing on the wall said this hotel was built in the 16th century. So, after a few years sitting at one of the lobby computers, I began searching for directions to my true home (established in the 1st century). I thanked the hotel staff for their hospitality and said my goodbyes.

The Problem of “the Word”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – Jhn 1:1

I’ve read many Evangelical Protestant criticisms about Roman Catholicism (and/or any opposing Protestant denomination whatsoever), and I keep seeing the same false presuppositions within nearly all of them:

  1. The Bible is the “Word of God.”
  2. The Bible has intrinsic authority.
  3. The Bible is self-interpretative.

There are too many Christians today calling the Bible the “Word of God.” This is a problem, because it overshadows the traditional understanding of the “Logos” being Christ. The Word of God is the person of Christ, not an inanimate object. Christ did not depart His flesh in Gutenberg.

The “Word” mentioned in Hebrews 4:12 is not about the book of Hebrews itself, it is about the person mentioned in verse 8 and verse 14. The scriptures could only be called “word” insofar as they are connected to Christ Himself, who is the Word. Therefore, the Bible is only true because Christ is truth incarnate, and the Bible directs you to the person of Christ. The Bible’s authority is extrinsically dependent upon an outside source (Christ and His Church), not intrinsically self-authoritative. Thus, the Bible is not an end in of itself, but rather a means to an end.

The Problem of the Canon of Scripture

While most Protestants love the Bible, many do not know the origin of their own canon. Many think their Bible is an English version of what the Church has always used since the time of Christ. As I have discovered in my journey, this is simply not true.

First, one must understand that not every English Bible uses the same source material. The two main options are the Greek Septuagint (3rd century BCE) and the Hebrew Masoretic Text (8th-9th century). The major difference between the two texts is that the Septuagint contains Old Testament books (known as the “Deuterocanon” among Catholics, and the “Apocrypha” among Protestants) that the Masoretic does not. Even though the first century church (and Christ Himself) used the Septuagint, the vast majority of Bibles today follow the Masoretic Text, which came nearly a thousand years later. The reason can be traced back to the textual presuppositions of Martin Luther.

Luther argued the later Hebrew text was more authoritative than the Greek because he assumed he would be more accurate using a Hebrew text for his German translation. He also assumed the Hebrew text in his day was the same text the common Jews used in the time of Jesus. Luther was simply mistaken, and that mistake became the Protestant canon. If one is familiar with those Old Testament texts missing from the Masoretic text, it doesn’t take long to figure out that New Testament Jews knew them well. For example, in the gospel of Matthew, the Sadducees come to Jesus asking him about a woman who had seven husbands and all of them dying (Mat 22:25-28). This is an explicit reference to something that literally happened to Sarah in the book of Tobit (Tob 3:8). However, you would not know that without reading those books.

There is no official Protestant canon. Martin Luther wanted to remove the book of James from his German translation, calling it an “epistle of straw.” The only reason why many Protestants have the book of James in their Bible is because Philip Melanchthon talked Luther out of removing it. On what canonical authority did Luther base his presuppositions other than his own mind? If a Protestant suddenly declares the “Apocrypha” to be scripture, on what authority do other Protestants say he is wrong? A Protestant canon is only as exclusive as each individual Protestant declares it to be.

One might say, “We get our canon from the 39th festal letter of Athanasius!” To which I will reply, “Then you must have removed Esther and added Baruch!” The fact of the matter is, the Church Fathers did not even have a universal canon. The only official canon found in Church History was established by the Roman Catholic Church at the western Council of Trent (c. 1545-1563), and all Catholics officially use that canon. Aside from that, nobody else has an official canon, even though every other tradition has a widely agreed upon canon.

The reason why the canon is important is because those extra books contain things like prayers for the departed (Macc 12:44-45, which helps understand 2 Timothy 1:18). Protestants say that such things are “not biblical,” when in reality, they are…but only if you have the right canon.

The Problem of Private Interpretation

“Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God.” – Eph 5:21

Another major problem Protestantism perpetuates is the blindness to the existence of an interpretation, thanks to doctrines like sola scriptura. Because Protestantism puts no real authority in something outside of itself (Ecumenical Councils, Fathers, etc.), Protestants seem to think that everything they understand the Bible to be saying, is what the Bible is saying. This makes their interpretation gospel. Paired together with the idea that the Bible is the “intrinsically authoritative Word of God” this is a disastrous combination, because it actually means that the reader’s interpretation is the Word of God. However, the readers themselves don’t perceive their own theological arrogance.

This plays out in multiple ways, but the Eucharist is one example. I read one argument that said Roman Catholicism is unbiblical and anti-gospel because they believe the Eucharist is something more than mere symbol. This rhetoric reveals how it presupposes the Bible is self-interpretative. It believes that every scripture is explicitly clear and self-evident, which makes the reader’s hermeneutic automatically valid, which then makes every opposing interpretation a misinterpretation, simply because it is foreign to the individual reader. To these readers, “the Bible says nothing mystical about the Eucharist” because their understanding of the Bible says nothing mystical about the Eucharist.

Another way this plays out is in the Protestant accusation of heresy. How can a Protestant call someone a heretic without borrowing a non-Protestant standard of authority?

  1. If one is a heretic because they do not agree with “the Bible” (aka: the reader’s interpretation of the Bible), then that is a subjective double-edged standard of heresy, for it is applicable in both directions. Interpretation is not intrinsically authoritative simply because it uses Bible verses, because even the devil does this much (Matt 4:6). There must be a historical, interpretive and authoritative lineage to determine what interpretation is or is not “orthodox.” I would argue this void in interpretive authority is to be filled by the whole Orthodox Church across the ages since the time of the Apostles, not any one individual who may be a respected or popular theologian. This would include even the great C.S. Lewis.
  2. If one is a heretic because they are in theological conflict with the early Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils, then it is an authority that is borrowed from the Orthodox Church, and one should be consistent and agree with all that they say. Picking and choosing what you want to believe further points to yourself being your own authority.

Therefore, I have discovered that interpretative tradition is important. Whether one acknowledges it or not, everyone has such a tradition. No Christian exists in a tradition vacuum. One’s understanding of “what the Bible says” comes from a lineage of prior generations saying those same things. It is either that, or you create your own interpretative tradition through individualistic arrogance (like Mormon founder Joseph Smith).

Honest Christians cannot ignore historical continuity, because that will validate or invalidate what one believes. The difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy is not ‘Bible’ and ‘not Bible.’ Rather, it is a battle of interpretations.

The Problem of Heresy

“[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” – 2 Pet 3:16b

It is an unfortunate observation of mine that the good things about Protestantism are not unique to Protestantism. The things Protestants have correct are simply the ways in which they are correctly aligned to the ancient Church. However, the bad things about Protestantism are unique to the individualistic spirit of Protestantism found even in the earliest heretics.

Heresy does not seem to thrive in any other environment. Because of the problem of individualism as expressed in private interpretations of scripture, heresy is a problem that will never go away. The Protestant framework is designed in such a way that not only becomes a heretic factory, but it also gives them a pulpit. “If the Bible is the only authority,” as some argue, “then we do not have any need for creeds and councils.” If you’re a Oneness Pentecostal, all you need is a Bible that says, “The Lord is one” (Deut 6:4, Mark 12:29) and you will have all the evidence you need to deny the Holy Trinity. The authority of the Church exists to prevent this type of dissent from happening. We have no need for private interpretations, because we have truth contained within the hermeneutic of the Liturgy, Hymns, Icons, Church Fathers, and Ecumenical Councils.

One could surely argue that rejecting councils and fathers is a misunderstanding of sola scriptura. They’ll say, “that’s not sola scriptura, that’s solo scriptura.” But let’s be honest, how many people need to get it wrong before we realize the definition has changed? We are not living in a world of 16th century definitions, we are living in a world where every Protestant denomination defines their own orthodoxy, and none of them having more authority than another. We need to move beyond telling solo scriptura fundamentalists that their definition does not line up with the 16th century, because they do not care. They will simply say the 16th century was wrong, and there is nothing a Lutheran or Presbyterian can do about it.

Every Protestant thinks they are orthodox. In other words, nobody self-identifies as a heretic. However, it would be nonsense to suggest that heresy does not exist, so one must grant that at least some Protestant denominations are heretical. The question is, who, and by what standard? One cannot simply say “the Bible,” because such an answer does not give credibility to any singular interpretation of the Bible. That answer is a rhetorical tactic that presupposes a particular interpretation to be self-evidently true without actually having to prove the claim. Therefore, it logically follows that an interpretive standard for the Bible must come from outside the Bible.

The Problem of the Public Square

Protestantism has been at the heart of American politics since the founding. From the “Protestant work ethic” that spawned the industrial revolution to the individualism of democratic pluralism, American politics are inherently Protestant. Perhaps because the Protestant demographic was in the cultural majority for hundreds of years, there seems to be very little experience with how to deal with contrary belief systems. This sense of cultural escapism and political isolationism became the counter-culture movement which simply makes Christian versions of everything. Though there was a long courtship beforehand, it was not until guys like Dr. James Dobson and Jerry Falwell came onto the scene that the Evangelical voting bloc of today officially married the GOP.

This most unhealthy marriage between a distinctly American Christianity and American politics has created some of the biggest problems in the country. Protestants isolated themselves from unbelievers in every way. Even evangelism is isolated from relationship, as many Protestants see evangelism as going around preaching the same memorized paragraph to different people in the hopes that one or two fall to the ground in repentance. This formulaic approach to relationships with strangers has proven time and time again to be unsuccessful and counterproductive. On top of the awkward robotic conversations with unbelievers, many Protestants also go around trying to convert other Protestants to Christianity. I know of one story where an uninformed Pentecostal who called himself “the preacher man” very aggressively interrogated an Evangelical woman about her salvation. I know another account of a Baptist pastor contentiously questioning the salvation of a Pentecostal man by seeing how much he knew about the Bible, and he called what he was doing “soul winning.” This behavior would be comical if it were not so ridiculous and sad. However, having the appearance of clueless sheep must be what happens when every man thinks he is his own shepherd.

The Hope of the Future

“That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” – Jhn 17:21

Even though there are many ways to critique the structure of Protestantism, I am hopeful for the future. The millennial generation is in a particular place in time, and that created a collective search for truth. With the rise of the internet, no prior generation has ever had a greater potential to be informed. This includes being informed about Church History, theology, and tradition.

Millennials are leaving Evangelical Protestantism. Some of that group represents people who are leaving religion altogether, because they have discovered these same problems with the Evangelical Protestantism that they’ve inherited, and have not searched for an alternative. However, there is a lesser known demographic of millennials who are leaving Evangelicalism in favor of more traditional forms of Christianity (whether that be Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Anglicanism). Millennials want authentic roots, but without baggage. Millennials are tired of the perpetual division within the fragmenting Protestant denominationalism, and long for true unity.

I see a generation of young Protestant pastors who are starting to dive into patristics to learn true Christian theology. I also see Protestant news outlets like Christianity Today posting more and more articles about the Church Fathers. I see an increasing desire for dialogue between Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox. Unity among Christians first begins with an informed public, and this is where Christian millennials are naturally gifted. Therefore, even though I am no longer Protestant, I am waiting in anticipation to see how the future of American Christianity unravels.

Arriving Home

“He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” – Acts 18:26

As I walked away from the hotel of Protestantism, I began to reminisce about all the Ancient Faith Radio podcasts I discovered in the ‘Anglican lobby.’ In little over one year, I listened to the entirety of Faith and Philosophy, Search the Scriptures, Ancient Faith Today, The Illumined Heart, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, Arena, Patristic Nectar Publications, Orthodoxy Live, Transforming Our Lives in Christ, Speaking the Truth in Love, Frederica Here and Now, and Simply Orthodox (along with various episodes of other podcasts).

From the beginning, I knew I could not move toward Orthodoxy too quickly without my wife Katie, because the Lord revealed to me that moving in this direction is much like walking up a staircase. I cannot make my way up the stairs by myself, turn around with outstretched hand, and expect my wife to leap the entirety of the staircase in one step. Therefore, from the beginning, I showed my wife many of the same episodes I thought were interesting and that she should hear, and we would discuss it afterwards. This made the transition smoother when we started to attend Orthodox services when she was ready.

Somewhere amid the vast sea of podcasts, and after annoying Dr. Jeannie Constantinou with my incessant questioning via email (I was the Apollos, she was the Priscilla), I decided to invite a local Orthodox priest to chat over coffee. Thus, my friendship with Fr. Stephen Vernak (Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, Harrisburg, PA) began, which eventually led to meeting my parish priest, Fr. Timothy Hojnicki of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Mechanicsburg, PA.

As someone who always felt like a misplaced spiritual vagabond with an introverted monastic aura, it comforts me to know I have found my true Christian home.

 

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