Monday, April 26, 2004

Doubts About Protestant First Principles From a Protestant

Excerpts from various places on the traditional Anglican Pontifications blog (I link to it on my sidebar). Normally, I wouldn't post material like this, as this sort of painful examination of one's own position is a very personal and private thing, and I do my best to respect that. But since it is already "out there" in public on a blog, I am particularly interested in hearing other Protestants interacting with these observations. I'm always one to go right to the premises of a position, so I find this discussion very worthwhile.
There is an inherent theological and ecclesiological flaw in Protestantism that makes it helpless in the face of neo-Gnostic modernity. My unoriginal diagnosis of our disease: the absence of magisterium–the absence of a true teaching office and the absence of an authoritative tradition. Consequently, Protestantism is unable to effectively defend Holy Scripture against idiosyncratic and hostile interpretations. Is it accidental to Protestant identity that Protestants find themselves incapable of dogmatically asserting the fullness of catholic faith? Is it sufficient to say that only if we would be true to our Reformation principles we would produce orthodox teaching and practice?

The best biblical theology of the past 100 years has always been written by Protestants. That doesn’t change the fact that we now find ourselves in a heretical denomination. And it’s not just ECUSA. The churches of the Reformation, arms locked together, are marching right into apostasy–that is the point. And it is this fact that cries out for explanation.

The real question is, What does it mean to be faithful to the Reformation? Whose Reformation? Are we talking about faithfulness to content, method, or the English monarch?

Bottomline: We are Protestants, just like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Church of the Brethren. Sola scriptura and private judgment. And our contemporary judgment always trumps the past.

Anglican theologians of course, have advanced and will continue to advance their individual, and often conflicting, theories about what it means to be the Anglican church, just as they have advanced and will continue to advance their theories on the nature of the Episcopal office. Dreamers dream dreams. But these theories do not constitute our ecclesial identity; they do not express reality. “Too much Anglican writing about bishops,” Sykes remarks, “is about the episcopacy of a church which does not exist.” The same thing can be said about most Anglican articles and books about what it means to be Anglican.

Is it possible for a Protestant denomination to invoke an authoritative tradition?

Both Orthodox and Catholics know they are the Church of the Apostles. They know they are the same Church that Christ founded. And they know that the Spirit has created a Holy Tradition that authoritatively governs their interpretation of Holy Scripture. It’s not a theory; it’s reality for them.

Was the Reformation a Blunder? Darn tootin’! Fifteen years ago I would have been shocked at such blasphemy. But now the answer seems obvious. I am certainly not suggesting that the European Church was not in drastic need of both theological and ecclesiastical reform. Everyone seems to agree on this. But was the corruption of such degree that it justified the breaking of the Western Church? (Yes, I know all about Tetzel’s bad stewardship program.) And did the Reformation actually provide the cure?

But surely, after almost five hundred years, we can look back and legitimately question whether the Reformation was the cure for what ailed the Church. Look at the thousands of sects that have since sprung up, each one justifying its existence by appeal to the Bible. Which Reformation confession or catechism are we going to subscribe to? Augsburg? Heidelberg? Dort? Westminster? The Articles of Religion? Or perhaps we’ll just align outselves with one of the nondenominational “Bible only” denominations. It’s cafeteria Christianity. And today the situation is even worse. The heirs of the Reformation, under the relentless attacks of modernity, have lost their grip on the essentials of Christian doctrine. So what is the Protestant solution to Protestant apostasy? Create another denomination, of course. Revolution and schism seems to be built into the Protestant DNA.

The Reformation formulation of justification by faith alone was a novelty in the history of the Christian theological tradition. Look far and wide and you will not find the pre-Reformation Church teaching “justification by faith alone.”

Like the other Fathers of the early Church, Augustine spoke of justification as a process, a process from a state of sin to a state of holiness. We can find some instances where the Fathers appear to talk about imputed righteousness and justification by faith (see Thomas Oden’s The Justification Reader); but on the whole one does not find even an incipient Lutheranism in the patristic period.

The liberating gospel of grace may have been lost for fifteen hundred years–golly, it sure got misplaced early on, didn’t it?–but Martin Luther finally unearthed the message of grace and salvation after centuries of corruption, irreligion, and idolatry. Just as Paul had to fight against the works-righteousness of second-Temple Judaism, so Luther fought against the pernicious Pharisaism of medieval Catholicism. But now non-Roman scholars like E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, Jacob Neusner, Krister Stendahl, and N. T. Wright, tell us that that this portrayal of Judaism is pure caricature, a projection into the first century of 16th century polemics. Moreoever, it looks like Saul of Tarsus did not suffer from episodic depression, a poor self-image, and bouts of self-hatred. His concern was the inclusion of the Gentiles into Israel apart from submission to Torah. With the advent of this new perspective we can no longer identify Luther’s understanding of justification with the understanding of the New Testament.

Luther & Melancthon’s interpretation of St Paul and their specific theological proposals were new! They broke with fifteen hundred years of exegetical and theological tradition. It was therefore wrong for them to insist upon their formulations to the point of fracturing the Church. Those who advance theological novelties should be a bit more humble and patient, don’t you think?

There is so much misunderstanding about justification by faith. If Protestants think that either Catholicism and Orthodoxy (at their best) teach that sinners may rely upon their works for final salvation, they are wrong. Both traditions embrace the sola gratia. Both teach the baptized to rely ultimately, not upon their own works and strivings, but upon the mercy and grace and love of God, freely given in the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church.

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