Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Sure Path to Disunity

Yesterday, I posted an entry about submitting to one another as the path to unity. A commentator, Mike, wrote to wonder why other Christians don’t do the same thing. Here, I'm only going to write about the case of Protestants, because they, especially, are so notoriously divided.

Well, because – as far as I can see – they cannot. Because the question is, submit to what, or to whom? And, within the context of the Reformation, there doesn’t seem to be any practical answer.

Submit to the Truth, as found in Scripture? Ah, but that’s begging the question, isn’t it, the question being, what is Truth? Contrary to one theory, Scripture does not always interpret itself, although it sometimes does. Nor is Holy Scripture always perfectly clear, as the five hundred years of divisions over it since the Reformation abundantly testify, and Scripture also testifies. (2 Peter 3:16)

It isn’t exactly Sola Scriptura itself that is the source of disunity; it’s another doctrine implicit within it, namely individualism. This is because in practice, Sola Scriptura (no matter which of two or three forms it takes) leaves each private individual as his own final judge and interpreter of both Scripture and church. Thus, in case people disagree on what Scripture means — or even what is really in it – there is no arbiter between the disagreeing parties.

Submit to the consensus of some larger Protestant body, then? It stands to reason that such a hypothetical body, composed of the most respected representatives from many denominations, might be less liable to error than might each individual or each denomination. But before Protestants could submit to this, they would have to have a very high level of confidence that the consensus of the body will be the Truth; otherwise, they would be submitting to tyranny at best, falsehood and tyranny, at worst. Integrity, after all, forbids submitting to falsehood, forbids acting or professing against ones conscience. That’s why they threw off the Pope.

Submit to the teachings of pastors or theologians? They have studied in seminary, haven't they? They seem wise and faithful, don't they? But submit to which ones, since they have different beliefs, even within the same denomination?

Submit to what great saints tell us? But usually, Protestants assume even saints are going by their own opinion only, with the possible exception (depending upon the denomination) of the Apostles. And then, with the Apostles, we’re back to how to interpret the Bible.

Submit to Tradition? They either reject it or, to the extent they accept it, they first cherry-pick, sanitize, and adapt it, formulate agreeable interpretations of it, all ostensibly to accord with Holy Scripture, but in practical terms this means according to what suits my doctrine, what appeals to me, what I think best. In the end, Holy Tradition will be only a caricature of itself, reduced, like everything else, to somebody's private opinion.

It's a cunning trap. I have to admire the neatness of it. All it takes to fall in is to suppose each man is his own arbiter of truth, faith, Church, and Scripture – and the door to unity slams shut. Yet to avoid being your own (fallible!) pope, by definition you have to have something to which or someone to whom each person can submit his varying opinions, solitary revelations, conflicting interpretations, questions, disagreements and private judgment. Searching for that within Protestantism, I am stymied. I marvel that these separated denominations can’t seem to see that this individualism, promulgated chiefly via Sola Scriptura, was guaranteed, from the beginning, to cause fractures and to keep causing them endlessly. What a poison pill individualism is!

Is there any way out? I hope so. Can I come up with any recommendations? No. It seems that to get out of the dilemma would require the oft-mentioned "seismic paradigm shift", akin to the earthquake that released St. Paul from prison.


"First of all you must know this, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation." (2 Peter 1:20) [No, that Greek word for "interpretation" does not, alternatively, mean "origin". It means resolution.]

8 comments:

Mike Baker said...

...I didn't say Protestants. I said Christians. :P

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Oops! So you did. Sorry.

Catholics, of course, submit to the Pope, so unity is externally imposed upon them. Mormons have their prophets to do a similar thing.

I'm about to amend the post.

DebD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DebD said...

oops that was me. Tired of seeing my own typos and misspellings.

Anastasia - Mormons also believe in private interpretation. This is why there are so many differing sects within the large description of Mormonism.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Deb, thanks for the correction. I didn't know either of those things about the Mormons. I thought they were quite monolithic, and I thought their prophets settled all doctrinal issues.

Live and learn...

dbonneville said...

This is a great, very well articulated piece! It's astonishing that more Protestants can't reason this through. Well, they certainly can, but many who are confronted with the idea don't want to. It means giving something up. They don't realize that by reasoning this through, they could finally get rid of that hole of deep yearning and pain that assaults every Protestant, whether they admit it or realize it for what it is, of demonic loneliness. There is so much more, if only they could not fear letting go of what they think will bring them happiness, and can't.

I posted this on my Catholic news blog today...

Mike Baker said...

I apologize in advance for the length of this reply:

This is a convenient straw man argument. In order to follow this logic, you have to make a critical assumption from the very beginning. This foundational assumption is based solely by self determination: certain church bodies are inherently right and immune from the guilt of schism and certain church bodies are inherently wrong and bear all of the responsibility for schism. Each individual must make that decision before submitting. You decided that the Eastern Orthodox was the true church and submitted to her... but if you had decided that she was not right and that Rome was correct, you would have submitted to the pope, or to the Solas, or to the five points of Calvinism, etc, etc. All converts make this choice (consciously or unconsciously). They all claim movement by the Holy Spirit, but isn’t this the essence of the individualism that you are speaking about? No one forced you to become Eastern Orthodox. You made an individual choice.

Once you make that individual choice based on your individual reasoning, it doesn’t matter how much you submit… the foundation of your submission was predicated on that original individual decision.

Now as to organizational unity: It is very convenient that the majority of the heretics and apostates that plagued the first 1,000 years of Eastern and Western churches were executed or otherwise prevented from spreading their teachings by the church and state. So complete was this black out that many of the heresies we can only hear about through the writings of their opponents. Protestantism did not have that luxury and grew up in a time of increasing secular individualism… which had everything to do with politics and very little to do with theology. It is overly simplistic to take these theological systems out of the very different times in which they developed and analyze them based on the dedication of their adherents as if the external circumstances have nothing to do with the history of the churches.

Protestantism does not have the luxury of the state to enforce doctrinal unity in the majority of cases. For centuries, Rome and Constantinople remained unified... not by the Scriptural principle that you are referring to, but by the power of the state and the threat of the sword. The ghastly evidence of this is so common that I need not even mention any of the thousands of historical examples.

Now that these things have fallen into history, those who do not agree with East and West simply do not join them in the first place. This creates an illusion of unity because the dissidents refuse to join rather than try to break away or convert them internally. One could argue that a huge segment of current Protestants are actually schismatics from either East or West because they looked at what East and West teaches and reject it. That is no different than the thousands of flavors of the stereotype called Protestantism.

The only difference between our divisions is on how they are formally handled and viewed. In the ancient churches of East and West, the formal rite of excommunication effectively exonerates the church of division. Protestants do not have these things, so… while many false teachers are rejected and turned away, the ancient churches still consider them “Protestant”. How stereotypical! I reject the vast majority of Protestant teaching as strongly as you do, but that does me no good because I am still lumped in with them because of this overly generic pejorative.

Let’s look at a modern example: Every few decades, the Roman Catholics have to deal with an extreme Marian cult. There was one in Canada a few years back that elevated Mary to full diety. Now there are some in New England that are ordaining female priestesses and praying to Mother, Daughter, Spirit. Are those divisions in the perfect union of Roman Catholicism? Of course not because they were excommunicated. Aren’t they still separated from the church? Aren’t they still teaching false doctrine? Yes, but they don’t count because they were excommunicated.

The term “Protestant” is now a doctrinal trash bin where everyone throws their false teachers. I find it odd that the ancient churches (confessional Protestantism included) will throw their trash out of their own houses and then look outside and say, “Look at that mess. I’m glad we aren’t so messy.”

It is interesting that “Protestant” is actually a political term and not a theological one. It denotes simple disagreement and does not relate to truth. Does someone disagree with you? Oh, they are Protestant… well, that’s a big list. That’s why there are so many Protestants.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Dear Mike,

You apologize? Oh, but I’m grateful for such a detailed and thoughtful response! Thank you.

I’m not sure how to explain how the decision to become Eastern Orthodox is in fact neither a private judgment nor an exercise in individualism. It isn’t based upon reasoning, either, individual or otherwise - as that word is usually understood, at least. But all this is a mystical reality; viz., not amenable to words. All I will speak of here is the mechanics of it, which are a sort of reflection of the inner reality.

As to the mechanics, the very first (formal) step in becoming Orthodox is to go to a priest, who will immediately become your partner and mentor in discernment (making it not private), who will be the one to decide whether and when to receive you into the Church, who will give you your new name. In other words, the first, tentative step toward becoming Orthodox, before you are necessarily committed to it even in your heart, is already the first step, the first test, we may say, in giving up individualism – long before the decision is ultimately made.

We give it up because we regard “individual” as very nearly the opposite of “person.” Having once worked for an airline, I like to use airline hubs as an analogy: the more flights come in and out of a city, the more two things simultaneously happen. One is that the hub city becomes a greater hub, and the other is that it is more and more connected to other cities. It’s that way with human persons: the more we love one another, the more we become “members of one another” (Romans 12:5, I Cor. 12:25, Eph 4:25) and, simultaneously, the more we are established as unique persons.

As to history, I submit that:

* The Orthodox Church does not maintain unity by the sword. That’s the Pope’s way. For us, it’s a sin against God and against His Church. (Not to say there haven’t been some prominent Orthodox sinners in history! Only that sin is never approved by the Church.)

* Individualism grew up as both a secular and a political revolt against the papacy. It began, in a small way, in the Renaissance and came of age in the Reformation, enshrined in Sola Scriptura. (The East never had a Renaissance or a Reformation or an Enlightenment.)

* Protestants are not schismatics from the Eastern Church. Thay appeared about 500 years too late for that.

On Protestants and Protestantism:

* I do not consider the word, “Protestant” any kind of pejorative, and am sorry you do. I grew up Protestant; my family is Protestant.

* I use “Protestant” for convenience, to refer to any religious body whose history is traced, directly or indirectly, through the Reformation. Of course that immediately makes the word so broad it has very limited use. But when you do need it, it’s easier than, “Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Amish, Quakers…” etc.

* I have never used “Protestant” to denote anybody who disagrees with me or with Eastern Orthodoxy. I don’t know anybody who does. That’s simply not accurate to say, or fair.

* I do not question the devotion and dedication of Protestants, nor seek to compare it with anybody else’s. Much to the contrary, I am extremely grateful to the devoted, wonderful, radiant Protestants who guided my youth.

You’re right that we handle doctrinal differences differently (although it is not true that we handle it primarily or even largely by formal excommunication; we try hard to avoid that and use it only in the most extreme and dire cases). But the difference in how we handle this problem is the very point of this post: the adherents of Sola Scriptura (to avoid saying, “Protestants”) have no mechanisms in place for resolving disputes as to what Scripture says or means.