Sunday, December 04, 2016

Seminary PL29: Tillich's Protestant Principle

This is the fiftteenth post on church management in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this series, I first did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the twenty-eighth post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).

The previous post in this series looked Zwingli as an example of a leader who didn't compromise on a number of issues that he might very well have. This week now shifts to think about church splits and their causes. Today, we look at one of the Protestant causes of church split--having a text as the medium of final authority.
1. There were relatively few church splits prior to the Reformation of the 1500s, when Martin Luther inadvertently caused the separation of the Lutheran church from Catholicism. Until the 300s, Christianity was not legal and so did not have any real chance to centralize its organization. It was more of a network for the first two centuries.

But it would largely be one church for over a thousand years after that point. If you were a western Christian in the year 1000, you were part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. 1054 was the first really big organizational split, when the Orthodox East split officially from the Roman Catholic West. But for the next 500 years after that you were either one or the other.

2. That all changed after the year 1517. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) of that moment was both spiritually empty and politically weak. It did not have the power to burn Luther at the stake as it had Jan Hus a hundred years earlier in 1415. He had political protectors who were strong enough to protect him.

One of Luther's key battle cries was "Scripture only." If you could not prove it from Scripture, he could not be compelled to believe it.

Of course he was fooling himself. He continued to believe a number of legitimate theological positions that come as much from tradition as Scripture. The Bible might support infant baptism, but you cannot prove it from Scripture any more than you can prove from the Bible that you should only baptize those who are old enough to confess faith consciously. But Luther continued to believe in infant baptism. For communion, he believed in "consubstantiation," that Jesus was truly present in the bread and wine of communion. But where is that clearly stated in the Bible?

You probably cannot prove the Trinity from the New Testament, although the seeds of Trinitarian belief came from the Bible. The church answered questions like the relationship between Jesus' human and divine natures in the centuries following the New Testament, because the NT did not have explicit statements on questions of this sort. We are seeing a hint of the problem of Protestantism here.

3. The problem of Protestantism is this. Of course we would say that our final authority is God and Christ. But Protestants often operate as if the only access we have to that authority is through the words of the Bible. At the same time, we have no "magisterium" like the RCC--no authoritative teacher to give us the authoritative interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, Protestantism has as many de facto ("by the nature of the situation") authorities as it has interpreters of the biblical text.

So we have a final authority, as it were, that is inevitably co-opted by individual interpreters, individual churches, and by Christian denominations. We subtly substitute ourselves for the Bible and God without realizing it. We think we are simply reading the Bible and doing what it says, but we are as often as not bringing our own traditions, personalities, and situations to the text and reading it as a mirror of our own thoughts and desires.

4. An individual who wrestled with some of these issues was Paul Tillich (1886-1965). A German who struggled with the authoritarian context of his childhood and then Nazi Germany, he formulated what he called the Protestant Principle. In his mind, it was the extension of Luther's doctrine of justification by faith to all realms of human thought. "Justification by faith" is the idea that we cannot earn a right status with God. Rather, God accepts us on the basis of our trust in him.

Tillich applied this principle to our certainty of knowledge. We cannot know the truth with absolute certainty. Rather, as good protesters, we are justified by our doubt in any human authority that tries to establish itself as absolute, thus showing our faith in the transcendent beyond the human. We show our faith by our "ultimate concern" and our rejection of any human absolute.

He strongly resisted any attempt to set up an absolute authority over knowledge. He saw this dynamic as the problem with the Catholic system with the Pope as absolute authority, and he saw this problem with fundamentalism that sets up the Bible as an absolute authority. The heart of Protestantism for Tillich was an ongoing protest against such absolutes, including treating the Bible as an absolute.

The denominational landscape that has resulted from the Protestant Reformation is thus predictable. Tillich sees this fragmentation as a result of failed attempts to arrive at absolutes in the human realm, even in the Bible.  

5. Much of Tillich's thought seems dated now. Like all of us, he was a product of his time. But we can reformulate his insight in order to shed some light on the never-ending splits that Protestantism has experienced over the years. According to Martin Marty, there are well over 20,000 Protestant denominations or collections of churches in the world. The overwhelming majority of these claim to get their beliefs from the Bible as their absolute authority. What is going on here?

Church splits tend to feed on two key factors. The fundamental cause is of course fallen human nature. We are prone to peacock. We are prone to beat our chests and to fight to see who is the stronger or to back-stab to remove a rival. We say we are fighting for the truth. We say we are fighting for God. More often than not we are fighting for ourselves, our own needs and drives.

In Protestant churches, we often play out these fallen human games as if we are fighting over interpretations of the Bible. We say the Bible is clear and our opponents say the Bible is clear. But the Bible is really just the playing field for our fallen human urge to defeat anyone who does not submit to us or who stands in our way.

6. The "polyvalence" of words enables these cock-fights. Polyvalence is the potential of words to take on more than one meaning. Words can take on many different meanings and nuances, and the Bible has many, many words. So it is not only possible, it is virtually certain that there will be never-ending disagreements over what the Bible really means at multiple points.

Protestant church splits have often played themselves out on this playing field. First, there is the ambiguity of the words themselves. Then there is the fact that the Bible is made up of dozens of books written at different times and places. These books do not say exactly the same thing, so there is plenty of room for fitting them together differently. Lastly, they were written for audiences that lived thousands of years ago, so there is the matter of bridging the gap from their time to our time.

All these factors make the interpretation of the Bible a many-splendored wonder. It is no wonder at all that we have tens of thousands of groups who all disagree with each other. Do you baptize infants or only people old enough to know what they are doing? Do you baptize by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring? Is baptism necessary or only a symbolic ritual? Does it actually change you somehow? Can you be rebaptized? Whose baptism really counts? How soon after faith should you be baptized?

Welcome to dozens of denominations, all of whom think they are simply following the Bible.

7. Whether we admit it or not, tradition is also in play here. A non-denominational church is simply a church that isn't telling you what tradition it draws on. A few questions and you will quickly be able to tell whether it is basically Baptist, basically Pentecostal, or basically whatever. It's probably Baptist. There is no church that really only follows the Bible alone.

So one way to stop church splits is for us to become aware of ourselves, not only as fallen human beings but also as interpreters of the Bible. Not every hill is one to die on. We have been handed a historical situation in which we have countless little Christian groups. We start where we are.

There are times for Christians to agree to disagree and to go their separate ways. If we stop thinking of our denominations as the final answer on all matters of theology and practice and rather as communities who are in the same tradition and walking in the same direction, we will make great progress. We do not need to split even when we disagree on matters that are not essential to our identity--and we should not consider too much beyond common Christian faith in that bucket. [1]

The Anglican Church has found a way to exist together despite a wide range of differing beliefs. [2] Baptists of course are congregational in form, so find their unity in association rather than organization. In my tradition, the Wesleyan tradition, there are several sub-groups that could "easily" unite to form a common organization ideologically (Wesleyan, Nazarene, Free Methodist, etc). But it is just as well for us to walk together in unity as different denominations, since that is the hand history has dealt us. What we do not need is more Wesleyan denominations. [3]

So we would do well to know that we stand in Christian traditions. We are not simply reading the Bible unfiltered or without many, many influences at work on us. Much of what we think is essential Christian faith is really a matter of specific communities of faith who see faith and practice the same basic way. We can agree to disagree without dechristianizing each other. Our attitudes toward each other are more important to God than dotting our theological i's and crossing our theological t's.

Next Week: Avoiding Church Splits and Exits

[1] There are broad traditions that exist--Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed, Baptist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal. Each of them have general distinctives that locate a church in that tradition. Beyond these distinctives, belonging to a specific subgroup is surely more a matter of finding a community we feel at home with than a fight over absolute truth. A Christian would ideally be able to worship in any of these churches.

[2] The Anglican Church has everything from evangelical Anglicans to Anglo-Catholics to charismatic Anglicans to non-realist Anglicans. The liturgy and geography provides the unity.

[3] Although it is quite possible we will get a "Wesleyan" split if the United Methodist church splits in the next two years. The fight here is over homosexual practice, a key ethical question of the church in general these days and a key historical issue given the virtually unanimous position of the past that is under debate. It is certainly an issue that seems more worthy of "agreeing to disagree" than what color to paint the inside of the church.

Leadership in General
Strategic Planning
Church Management
Conflict Management


John Mark said...

This post was very helpful to me. Personally I think this whole series deserves to join your small collection of 'big' books (pun intended) though you would know better than I if there is a market for it, since you aren't Reformed.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks! I'll probably self-publish, unless some publisher wants to jump in. :-)