Monday, December 23, 2013

'I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church' - Constantinopolitan-Nicene Creed, 381 CE

Icon of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea

What happened to the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church'?  Growing up Protestant, I was taught from an early age that the swarming spectacle of different and differing Protestant churches all jostling for adherents was simply the way things were, and that such ‘variety’ in the marketplace of religion might even be a good thing—if one didn’t like the church one was attending, one could always move to the other church down the street.  Having also grown up with the assumption that our increasingly frenetic consumer society was normal, this made perfect sense.  Even so, while a charitable attitude towards the kaleidoscope of these differing Protestant churches and their claims may work from a distance, when experienced from the inside, it becomes clear fairly quickly that each group claims that its version of Christianity is the one that most closely reflects what the Bible actually teaches.  This may not be so disconcerting within the various denominations themselves where the difference between First Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church and say Calvary Baptist Church is simply their claim to be more faithfully Baptist than the others, thus limiting the discussion to one of quality and not of essence.  But what happens when the Presbyterians intrude into the conversation, especially the more conservative ones who feel they have most faithfully preserved the teachings of that most biblical of the reformers, John Calvin?  Or the Lutherans, who feel that their tradition has rescued the true faith of the Scriptures from the corrupting clutches of the antichrist?  Or the Pentecostals down the road who believe that their ecstatic worship and emphasis on the real presence and experience of the Holy Spirit offer conclusive evidence that they alone have entered into the actual experience and life of the New Testament Church?  Or the ginormous mega church with its rock-concert quality music and multimedia worship service extravaganzas and the astonishing array of programs generated for every age, situation and need, with its implicit claims that the thousands that flood into its mall-like facilities every week can’t all be wrong—that numbers = success = God’s blessing?  Or the fundamentalist chapel on the outskirts of town with its fleet of buses and its ‘to hell with the rest of you’ attitude?  Not a single one of these churches would surrender any ground that might imply that their take on Christianity might be mistaken.  And all of them can proof-text their claims to be right from the Bible when challenged as to their doctrine.  And while there are some who loftily claim a stance of charity towards those who differ in what are defined as ‘non-essentials’, their actual practice of persisting in their distinct denominations raises the suspicion at least that their rhetoric is just that.  Diversity is always more attractive from a distance.[1] 

Icon of the Church

Which raises the uncomfortable question, in my mind at least, that they can’t all be right, can they?  And with all of them claiming that the Scriptures are on their side (thus ironically the same argument that our denominational ancestors used against the corrupt European Catholics we now use against each other!), we are left with the rather unedifying spectacle of Protestant Christian church against Protestant Christian church, each proudly named in such a way as to highlight its hard-won biblical distinctives (Free Will Baptist Church, Grace Presbyterian Church, Pentecostal Holiness Church, International Evangelical Church), each one with grounds to suspect and a name to imply that all the others just don’t quite measure up, each armed with the so-called Sword of the Spirit (which as we all learned in Sunday School is the Word of God) cutting and parsing our interpretations in such a way as leaves us in the right and our rivals sadly mistaken.  And this is just among us Protestants.[2]

Icon of Christ and all Saints

It turns out that we Protestants have learned the game all too well from those who have gone before us.  In many respects, Protestants merely raised what had been a Western Roman Catholic game to a new level.  Once the Roman Church had gotten over the shocking fact of the European reformations, different facets within the Church, led by the increasingly potent papal weapon of choice, the Jesuits, made impressive strides in the recovery of the influence, power and vision of Roman Catholicism, a trend that has continued impressively to the present day.  And the Catholics in their turn had been long disgusted with the over-much subtlety of the hyper-theological Byzantines, who of course had had their issues with the Iconoclasts and the Monothelites and the Monophysites and the Eunomians and the Nestorians and the Arians and the Sabellians, etc., etc.  Which brings me back to my opening question—what happened to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?  The dissonance of conflicting claims to exclusive truth reduces the entire Christian concert into the symphonic chaos of each musician or section playing what they will however they will, with each claiming exclusive right to interpret the intentions of the composer.  The fundamental issue underlying the whole mess is one of authority.  And as we shall see, everybody in this discussion without exception claims that the Bible is, in some sense, their authority, and is on their side.  So now that we’ve settled that and we realize that our loudly proclaimed relative and mutual claims to Biblical fidelity get us absolutely nowhere, we become conscious that the real issue is deeper—is there an authoritative interpretation of this authoritative Bible which reflects accurately the intentions and the agenda of Christ himself and those he charged with establishing his church, the apostles?[3]    In other words, who is right, and how will we know?[4]
[These are the opening paragraphs of a book-length project on the history of Christian authority that I have written but not found an interested publisher.  I'd be interested in your comments as to whether or not you think this is an interesting/viable/useful/feasible topic.]

[1] Observations like these have been made across the Christian denominational spectrum.  See, for example, Joy Evelyn Abdul-Mohan, Christian Unity – A Lived Reality: A Reformed/Protestant Perspective’, Transformation, 27 (2010), 8.  See also John Borelli and John H. Erickson, eds., The Quest for Unity: Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).  And see Robert B. Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1984), 13.  Among more conservative Protestants, ‘unity’ with other Christians is not looked on favorably because of the perceived compromises of the so-called ‘ecumenical movement’ embodied in the World Council of Churches and the various National Council of Churches that have arisen out of it.  Alister McGrath helpfully explains each of the terms in light of historical developments.  See McGrath, Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 482-492.
[2][2] Full disclosure: when I wrote this I was an ordained Presbyterian (Presbyterian Church USA) minister and a Protestant evangelical missionary serving in Ethiopia with the independent Protestant mission board SIM.  I have since become a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Kenya and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Virginia, US where I serve as a lay person.
[3] There has been an explosion of studies in hermeneutics in the past generation of scholarship attempting to grapple with just this issue.
[4] Of course the postmodernists just laugh at us and say, ‘That would be the point!  There is no authoritative interpretation, nor is there a single truth demanding our loyalty, nor is there a right perspective or over-arching meta-narrative’—except, of course, their own, which is the fatal flaw of the post-modernist critique. We will engage more fully with the implications of postmodernism for Christian history in a following chapter.

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