Op-Ed for Thursday, October 30 (’14)
Is Protestantism doomed to be a poor-man’s Roman Catholicism? Is it true what they say (usually, Catholics), that Protestants have exchanged one Pope and teaching Magisterium for, well…how many Protestant denominations are there nowadays, anyway? Hard to tell. Sometimes, in the USA alone, it’s listed as over 50,000; sometimes 40,000; sometimes 30,000. So the sure answer is both “a lot” and “who can count that high, anyway?”
There are two reasons why my confidence in my narrow Reformed and Protestant faith is not weakened or worried by current Protestant fragmentation (or the Catholic slap accordingly).
First, being worried that Protestantism is splintered doesn’t weaken my faith, it confirms it because it confirms sin is real. The Scriptures of Protestantism (and for that matter, Catholics, too) confirms our very unnatural state of sin, the very ongoing present reality of sin, and the very unfortunate reality of sin’s future effects upon us. Sin, according to the Scripture, is lawlessness. 1 John 3:4 says “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning practices lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness.” Scripture also says the heart of man is endlessly wicked and there are none who seek to do good if left in their unnatural state of deadness in sin.
The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can understand it?
Thus says Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God. This is confirmed in many contexts, genres of biblical literature, and by the Lord himself. I’ll assume the reader here agrees with this lest the post exceed all reasonable length due to citation. What’s the point? We’re lawbreakers at our core. This is what we do. This is what we’re good at. We break, argue, split, yell, scream, spit, write diatribes against, cuss, cry, cuss again….I’d say, “Take heart,” but….
None of this will change until Jesus comes again and cleanses the heart once and for all. I expect division and fragmentation from sin, and this is confirmed even in the Scriptures. One famous instance is the argument between “St.” Peter and Paul in Galatians, which was so vehement that Paul was compelled to oppose Peter publicly, to his face, and demand Peter repent for endangering the Gospel of Christ (Gal 2:11-14). Yowza!
Moreover, the letters of the New Testament were all written under duress. They were pastoral in nature, written to address problems fragmenting the church. “Wait…so one or two guys wrote to a bunch of guys to tell them to obey the one or two guys? That sounds like Catholicism!” Not quite. They wrote to tell them to obey the Gospel— the Scriptures which had been preached to them. Anytime the authors (or in the case of Galatians, the Apostles, too) contradicted or stood apart from what had been received from Jesus, who proved he came from the Law, Prophets, and Writings (Lk 24), they were urged to repent and turn back to the straight and narrow. The overarching authority, therefore, was the Scripture of the Old Testament given full expression in the oral teachings from Jesus. These were then written down. Whenever someone stepped aside from these new written revelation(s), it could be shown by appeal to the old revelation(s). This is Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), and it’s why I’m a Protestant. I’m not fearful when I see other Protestants fragmenting (though it is bothersome) so much as I’m fearful by what I see the Catholic Magisterium telling me the Scripture says when I can’t find it anywhere in there. Frankly, I don’t give a rip if Pope or Bishop Flip said I’d need to take a dip to get an infusion of grace. If I can’t find it in the Good Book….
We’re no where called to be united with others who live and promote lies, perversions of truth, or clear falsehood. What does Truth have to do with Lie? Nothing. It isn’t the brother who upholds a doctrine plain in Scripture that is the schismatic; it is the person who diverts from it who causes a split. In other words, no one should go against conscience (the Catholic catechism section on “Erroneous Judgment agrees). Whether the conscience is skewed or not is another debate. At our best, we follow the Scriptures, not a Man or group of them, and not even the Apostles demanded obedience to them, but obedience to what was written (Acts 17).
Second, being worried that Protestantism is splintered and, therefore, must be wrong assumes strength and truth is found in unified numbers. It isn’t. Just because many followed Hitler didn’t make him a genius worth following, and it didn’t turn the few who didn’t into schismatic fools. I’m not calling the Pope “Hitler”. That the Catholics have a few popes who were morons, cowards, lusters, leeches, wretches, and witch-burners doesn’t mean they’re wrong any more than the presence of a bunch of Protestant denominations means we can’t really know what Scripture says or that we’re wrong to be PROTEST-ants. This may mean we all have a moral problem. See #1.
You can’t follow numbers just because there’s a lot of them and it sounds good, and you can’t turn away from a truth just because few agree with it or don’t. Let’s call it the Numerological fallacy, though (I’m sure) it has a fancier name and is common among statistical fallacies.
Related to this, there’s also the post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy, i.e., that A must’ve caused B simply because B followed A—correlation and causation.
Stay with us. Some Catholics believe Protestant separation by Luther caused more Protestant fragmentation (while conveniently ignoring its own schismatic past. Can I get an “Amen” on that whole 1054 AD thing, for starters?). But last I checked, the Pope was ineffectual in curbing sin (see above link on 1054 AD), and I’ve already argued that sin is the primary cause of fragmentation, not Protestantism per se. If your conscience cannot be held captive except to the Word of God, does that make you a Pope? Only if you say, “Everyone else must now agree with me or be anathema.” And not all Protestants do this (though if you scroll through certain Christian Facebook groups, you’ll see there are lots of them that do!). Reformed Protestants believe sanctification is slow but progressive, i.e., becoming more like our Lord will happen, but happens slowly. How can we not expect division in the meantime?
In matters of metaphysical, objective truth, the fact that 50,000 people can’t agree does not mean there is no theoretical agreement, nor that 1 of the 50,000, or even 1,000 of the 50,000, are wrong. I really don’t care how many denominations there are. Numbers are not indicative of truth in a discussion like this. For a discussion of smallpox and Ebola transmission, numbers are helpful. If 100 people have Ebola, I’m more worried than if 2 have it. If 50,000 denominations exist, I’m not harmed a bit by a Catholic jibe about fragmentation or division. In fact, the standard claim that Protestants exchange one Voice for Many shows we’re not being heard, or that we’re saying the wrong message. Then again, I sometimes find the discussion stops here with my Catholic friends: I say and show a teaching in Scripture and they respond, “The Church says….”, and The End.
Our historic message as Protestants is that Scripture alone is our final authority. Our message is not that we always agree or believe the right thing the first, second, or even third time around, but that only Scripture has the right to be the final authority. This is massively significant for Protestants to get right. As Daniel Hoffman put it recently, “We don’t deny pastoral authority, the authority of history and tradition, etc. What we deny is that those are of equal weight with Scripture. Sola Scriptura I think is best understood as the positive affirmation that Scripture is highest and final judge, not that it’s the ‘only’ authority to the exclusion of any other…. ‘Just me and my Bible’ is not classic Protestantism.”
Scripture alone condemns righteously, and it condemns only in matters that truly contradict the Gospel of substitutionary atonement—the need for him who knew no sin to become sin on our behalf so that the righteousness which God requires from us he gives, freely, and by grace through the instrument of faith. This is why Peter was condemned publicly by Paul: Peter went back to acting like the liberal doctrine of behavior modification was all it takes to be a Christian. Dead wrong.
I’m sure Peter and Paul had a pow-wow and made up after. There is, at least, no indication of an ongoing spat. But rest assured, it was Paul, not Peter, who won that argument, and he won it because he rested squarely on what “he had received” (1 Cor 15), and what he received he got from his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament Law, Prophets, and Writings fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus who said and did nothing that contradicted the written text. Even for Jesus, sola Scriptura was a big deal. He was kind enough to show us when our own understandings of the Scripture didn’t go far enough (“You have heard it said, but I say to you…”), and he was kind of enough to condemn those who still wouldn’t believe (“You are of your Father, the Devil”).
Sola Scriptura isn’t the boogeyman. Sin is. In this context, either refusing to submit to sola Scriptura, or refusing to repent of other sins that blind to the truth of the Scripture.
“Scripture Alone!” is not the rallying cry of a hundred million fanatics who can’t seem to get along and agree. In fact, it’s just the opposite: it’s the rallying cry of a hundred million fanatics who know they can’t get along but at least agree on the source of healing: Scripture, pointing us to Christ.