I’ve not touched the blog for the past couple of weeks as, between other commitments, I’ve been preparing a paper for the Oak Hill School of Theology, which this year was on the subject of ‘Truth, Unity and Schism’.
My brief was to look at some of the practical issues from a ‘grass-roots’ level. What I presented in the end was an attempt to look at the issue of unity and schism from an ecclesiological perspective. How we live the life of the Church, I suggested, affects fundamentally how we handle and, if possible prevent, division.
My starting point, however, was an acknowledgement of the divided nature of Protestantism, observed by my old friend Robbie Low in an article he wrote for New Directions, back in 2004. “The curse of Protestantism,” he declared then, “is division.” And this is because, according to him,
The very nature of [Protestantism’s] origins, self-understanding and approach to the Word of God are inherently schismatic.
And this he blamed on Protestantism’s problem with authority:
In rejecting the authority of the Pope the Western reformers did not abolish autocracy but rather set in train a process the logical end of which is that every man is a pope in his own parish or in his own front room.
The chaos resulting from this is familiar to many:
The upshot is hundreds of ‘churches’, most of them with their own bizarre subdivisions (low, strict and particular, Southern, open etc, etc). In addition, there are thousands upon thousands of one-man band conventicles brought about by the falling out of Brother Smith with Pastor Jones. Pastor Smith, as he has now appointed himself, has the ‘real’ truth and hopes shortly to be needing to rent a bigger Scout Hut than the gravely misled Pastor Jones, his former guru.
Robbie blamed this on the principle of ‘sola scriptura’ —the Bible alone as the Church’s authority. I’m sure this is one reason why he and his wife Sara have now become Roman Catholics. Whilst his criticisms are fair, however, I find myself disagreeing with this part of his analysis. I am sure the problem has to do with our understanding of the truth. However, I find myself rather more drawn at this point to the critique of another Anglican turned Roman, namely John Henry Newman.
In 1849 Newman had published a collection of Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (‘mixed’, in this context, meaning ‘made up of Catholics and Protestants’). In one of these, ‘Faith and Private Judgement’, he made this stark assessment:
Protestants, generally speaking, have not faith, in the primitive meaning of that word ... and here is a confirmation of it. If men believed now as they did in the times of the Apostles, they could not doubt or change.
But, as Newman observed, people (or at least Protestants) undoubtedly do change their beliefs, and this he attributed directly to the combination of Scripture and private judgement:
Since men now-a-days deduce from Scripture, instead of believing a teacher, you may expect to see them waver about; they will feel the force of their own deductions more strongly at one time than at another, they will change their minds about them, or perhaps deny them altogether; whereas this cannot be, while a man has faith, that is, belief that what a preacher says to him comes from God.
Once again, the criticism seems fair enough —and not least when it comes to evangelical Protestants, who fancy themselves to be completely committed to the ‘authority’ of Scripture, but who seem to be rather prone to change their minds about what Scripture ‘authoritatively’ says. Now it teaches penal substitution, now it doesn’t. Now it is anti-homosexuality, now it isn’t, and so on.
By contrast, according to Newman, the primitive Apostolic preaching called for obedient faith:
Immediate, implicit submission of the mind was, in the lifetime of the Apostles, the only, the necessary token of faith; then there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgement.
Compare this, Newman argues, with the person who goes by their own estimation of the Bible:
Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other; —to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more?
Is this not exactly what we see in many Protestant churches and amongst many evangelical individuals? Previously ‘received truths’ about what Scripture says have been in overturned as a person has ‘seen the (new) light’ and decides they can no longer believe as they once did.
There is much about Newman’s approach which may be criticized, but there is something in it, and particularly in what he wrote about the attitude of new converts and the rôle of the Church in relation to them:
... when they entered the Church, they entered it in order to learn. The Church was their teacher; they did not come to argue, to examine, to pick and choose, but to accept whatever was put before them.
This is not, frankly, an attitude much in evidence today. Instead, we have taken as our guiding principle that advocated by J C Ryle, writing at almost the same time as Newman:
Reader, this is private judgment. This is the right you are to exercise if you love your soul. You are not to believe things in religion merely because they are said by Popes or Cardinals, —by Bishops or Priests, —by Presbyters or Deacons, —by Churches, Councils, or Synods, —by Fathers, Puritans, or Reformers. You are not to argue, “Such and such things must be true, because these men say so.” You are not to do so. You are to prove all things by the Word of God.
Now I am much more a fan (and a reader) of Ryle than Newman, but I think Ryle is mistaken. It is true that we mustn’t believe something just because someone ‘in authority’ says so —the Apostle Paul gives the same caution in Galatians 1. And it is also true that we must “prove all things by the Word of God.” But we cannot always and invariably look, finally, to our own private judgement for a verdict.
On the contrary, as Gerald Bray has recently written,
What is easy to overlook in the history of Christian doctrine, though it becomes clear once it is pointed out, is that no individual has ever been given the authority to determine what orthodoxy is.
That being the case, we must surely check our private judgement against the authority of the wider Church, rather than the other way round.
Our problem, in other words, is not that we give too much credence to the Bible, nor is it (as Newman and Low both suggest) that we don’t give enough to the Pope. It is rather that we give too much to our own opinions. After all, if not just those naughty popes and cardinals, but bishops, priests, presbyters, deacons, churches, councils, synods, the Fathers, the Puritans and the Reformers all come down one way, and I come down another, where does the balance of probability lie?
I hope to post later on what I went on to say this means in practice.
21 May 2009