Friday, August 11, 2006

Divisions in the body

Dave Armstrong over at Cor ad cor loquitur has posted a detailed discussion of the problem of authority in Protestantism. His thesis is that sola scriptura logically and inevitably leads to an individualism that cannot resolve doctrinal disputes. In the end, a Protestant can always appeal to his own interpretation of scripture against that of another Christian and be acting logically from a sola scriptura position.

When faced with this dilemma,

the Protestant is forced to appeal to one of two equally insufficient and most unsatisfactory solutions:

A) Claim (on no persuasive or compelling grounds, once adequately scrutinized) that their own brand of Protestantism is the true one and to be believed above all others. This was, of course, the standard approach taken by virtually all the early Protestant factions. But since they denied apostolic succession as historically understood, the appeal to one's own truth became entirely arbitrary and a-historical (the very grounds which could make such a claim believable or plausible in the first place, per the methodology of the Church Fathers and Catholicism).

B) Pretend that doctrines where Protestants disagree (which are almost all doctrines other than where they agree with even Catholics and Orthodox) are "secondary" and not important enough to fight over in order to arrive at and determine truth in those matters. I have argued that this is a de facto relativizing of a host of doctrines, whereas the Bible shows no such indication that this should be done.

I discussed this briefly here with my friend Matt who I consider to be a very thoughtful Protestant Christian.

My question is this: If all that Jesus intended to teach with clarity was a "mere Christianity" and all other doctrines (e.g. nature of the sacraments, church governance, disputed moral issues, forms of worship) are matters of speculation without hope of final resolution, why don't Protestant churches unify so as to provide a clear witness to the world of the truth of Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 17:20-23)? Can (orthodox) Protestants justify divisions in the Body of Christ for matters of preference?


Matt said...

I would certainly be the last to claim that unity among Christians (or Protestants, if you want to single us out) is at all exemplary. We are sinful human beings, and we often have let stubbornness and ego get in the way of unity. Catholics, of course, are also sinful humans. Although lack of organizational unity may not be one of their problems, they have plenty of their own.

On the other hand, there can be spiritual unity without organizational unity. One could point to many success stories in which Protestants, even across denominational lines, have indeed provided the clear witness you ask for. I wish it happened more often, but it does happen. I know that my pastor is very involved with other pastors in Ithaca (none of whom share his denomination), with common prayer, coordination of activities, etc.

Here's another consideration: Although we should agree on the essentials of the Gospel, we may not agree on the best methods of communicating the Gospel (Graham-style crusades? political action? one-on-one interactions?), and that can hamper cooperation and unity.

Can there be a justification for denominational division? It's true that much schism has resulted from people being just plain stubborn and unwilling to have things any way other than their way. Prejudice (ethnicity, class, etc.) can also play a role. Do Catholics not have these problems? On the other hand, because organizational unity is not as sacrosanct in the Protestant consciousness, schisms can be amicable (you do things your way, we'll do things our way, no hard feelings). Or people may feel that the best way to escape (what they see as) tradition-bound, backslidden, ossified organizations is to start anew. This may have a parallel, not with the RCC as a whole, but with Catholic orders. What do you think of that analogy? How does the number of Presbyeterian organizations compare to the number of Franciscan organizations? Just a thought.

Dan said...

I agree that sin is ultimately the source of all division and Catholics are by no means immune. However, the reason I ask the question of Protestants specifically is that division can be legitimately defended from the perspective of sola scriptura whereas Catholic authority requires a more comprehensive assent. The dogmas of the Catholic faith are more well-defined and must be held as true in total. There can never be a personal interpretation that supercedes the teaching of the Church and justifies schism in a Catholic mindset. But for Protestants, if one deems the church body/preacher/denomination as contradicting an essential part of the faith, then there is no authority that can override or correct that interpretation and, if serious enough, a new church can be formed. This is perfectly legitimate if the Bible alone, meaning one's own understanding of it, is the final authority apart from any traditional interpretation. Indeed, this is what the Protestant Reformers themselves did, setting precident.

I would like to add at this point that organizational unity is not in and of itself sufficient. As we would both agree, it is not nominal membership in a church that merits salvation, but rather a true coversion of the heart by the grace of Jesus Christ. The Catechism rightly points out that "though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body' not 'in heart." (CCC 837)

That being said, spirtual unity cannot remain invisible. Jesus prayed, recorded in John's Gospel (see ref. above), that those who followed him should be one so that the world may know that the Father sent the Son. He willed that His body should manifest itself in the world. Otherwise "the body of Christ" or "the temple of the Holy Spirit" would lose meaning: they are physical, material, VISIBLE by nature. We are not to be the SOUL or SPIRIT of Chirst, but the BODY and TEMPLE.

Your points regarding difference of method, prejudice, and the different religious orders are well taken and touch upon the diversity of tradition and practice within bodies of both Protestants and Catholics. But there is again a difference between the way Protestants and Catholics express this diversity. Protestants will form a new denomination with its own statement of faith, governance, worship, etc. Catholics have a variety of organizations, lay and religious, with different mission statements, devotional practices, and even subsidiary bylaws. There are even parishes that serve different ethnic groups. BUT we are still one Church. We profess the same faith, celebrate the same sacraments, and recognize the same ecclesial authority maintained through the apostolic succession. There is a place for many different methods of serving the Gospel within the one Body of Christ.

Now, there are Catholic organizations that reject certain teachings or ignore the authority of the pope and bishops. This is true division and it is the sin of heresy or schism. The Catholic can easily see who is in the wrong - the individual or group vs. the teaching authority of the Church. But Protestant divisions have no clear perspective on who is right or wrong.

So, if it's really true that many Protestants agree on what is ESSENTIAL then it seems to me that they should prioritize visible unity while allowing diversity of opinion in non-essential matters. There would be The Christian Church with congregations that worship different ways and emphasize different gifts or methods. Or within a single congregation perhaps there would be a Baptist service, a Lutheran service, and a Prebyterian service. If the differences are really matters of preference and we CANNOT know who is right, then it doesn't seem that one can justify denominations within the Christian Church.

Matt said...

It's true that Christian unity must be visible, but does that mean it must be organizational? You say that Catholics, even in their diversity, "profess the same faith, celebrate the same sacraments, and recognize the same ecclesial authority." I would say that Protestants share the first also, and the second to some degree.

And the third is, in some ways, the biggest issue. The divisions among Catholics, Episcopals, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc., were originally defined by the issue of how authority should be distributed through the church. That is not easily healed by having diverse congregations under one organization. Unity would be easy, one might say, if only we could all agree on whose system was right.