Monday, November 25, 2019

Get In The Ark

I'll just come out with it: I think evangelical Protestant Christianity is becoming mainline and "liberal" Christianity. I think it's inevitable, and inherent in Protestantism. Within those communities, you will have reactionaries and progressives just shouting at each other. The progressives eventually win, until the lines are drawn again.

It's Sola Scriptura. You either end up a reactionary with a Church of one, or whole communities--deciding together as individuals, mind you--that this or that tenet is no longer binding. Some subgroup can form a new denomination, but the same process repeats. It has to be personal conduct, and usually sex, to cause the problem. With no natural law--or the rare bird that appeals to it, against his or her own hermeneutical process, you'll note--how much can those Scripture texts bear, without appeal to something else? It makes sense. Dogmatic things are pretty arcane; arguments are confined to specialists, experts, and nerds. The reactionary--or I'll just them the "conservative elements" in any discussion--always thinks that "the gospel itself is at stake," whether the issue is theological or ethical, because categorically speaking, everything belongs to supernaturally revealed truth. It's an argument from the Bible, because in terms of method, they have no other choice. Anyway, it mystifies me that so many people still believe that a well-trained, informed reading of the biblical text on any matter of consequence only leads in a "conservative" direction!

An astute person may appeal to some judgment of history, oddly pretending--or trying earnestly--to be a good Protestant, whilst appealing to the settled Christian witness of however many centuries, better known as the Catholic Church. Those clever Leithartian shell games only work for so long. We won't ever be as good at impersonating Catholic culture as Catholics are at creating the real thing, and I think we knew it.

It can't be an occasion for triumphalism, because the heart of Catholic security and boasting is a divine promise and protection. The Church stands here unmoved, in spite of all of us, because that's what Jesus said he would do. Many Christians have a great love for the Church as a notion, an idea, but because there is no visible Church in this Protestant paradigm, at best, we end up loving a thing we can't actually find, or rest in. It's a good desire, and truly from the Holy Spirit, but frustrated, until the believer changes his or her views about what the "Church" is. That's a scary thing to do.

I suppose it's also scary to contemplate changing one's views on all manner of things, in the prospect of going from Reformed and Protestant to Catholic. But for me personally, I only held the particular Reformed views I had because I thought they were given by Jesus Himself. I didn't spend hours and days and weeks wondering how various other communities arrived at their views. If I wanted to know, I'd ask. As a matter of sport, I guess, we could debate it, but I also knew that we hadn't begun to settle any of that, and we couldn't. What was unacceptable to me was the idea that none of it mattered in its particularity, that the divisions between us were matters of preference. I didn't believe that Jesus affirmed all positions the same, or that God Himself was indifferent.

But becoming a child of the Catholic Church in the proper sense involves reckoning with her authority. At any point, I may have suspected that the Catholic profession concerning the Eucharist, for example, was correct, but I did not and would not have simply adjusted how I read the Scriptures. Somehow I knew that the Protestant paradigm was different, because the view of the Church was different. I somehow understood that agreeing wholly with the Catholic Church is distinct from being under her authority. In the Protestant paradigm, this distinction evaporates, because a good Protestant submits [to his church authority] because he agrees, and for no other reason. In the Catholic mind, it's almost reversed: I agree because I submit. The Church is itself an object of faith. That's why the question of struggling with this or that Catholic dogma still sounds odd in my ears. I might have had a difficulty arising from a lack of theological training, but if I understand that the Church that Christ founded is commanding me to believe something, and therefore, that Jesus is commanding me to believe something, I simply believe it. It doesn't matter that I believed something else before; once I didn't think Jesus said a particular thing as something I should believe, I abandoned it. I personally invite Ross Douthat to read this paragraph as many times as necessary. Ahem.

The Protestant defense against the charges of heresy was and is that its innovations were acceptable variations on a theme. Yet it's quite easy to declare something an acceptable variation once one has rejected the authority that declared otherwise! As a side note, it makes sense that the idea of schism--separating from the Church--would collapse into heresy. The best Protestants can do as individuals is say they believe something to be heresy. The other option is to accept whatever it is an acceptable variation, within the "Church." "I happen to think X, that Y is an error, but I won't question someone's salvation, etc." Presto! Something that once might have been worth dying for is now a matter of liberty. Frankly, we're at the point where we should ask if everything is a matter of liberty. And when a Christian realizes that Christianity in faith and conduct is not a matter of taste, he has to find the theme, the thread of truth, and ultimately, the Church.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America promulgates the faith and morals expected of everyone under its authority. They wouldn't say it like that; they would even dare to say that they have the whole truth alone. In any case, once you start asking, "What is the mechanism by which this body protects and promulgates the faith?" it's a Catholic question, because there is no mechanism; an absolute protection would be a charism, or gift, of infallibility. The formal sufficiency of Scripture inherent in the principle of Sola Scriptura is inevitably an assertion of ecclesial fallibility. This is a great assertion when one wants to throw off the yoke of the Catholic Church; it's a cruel nightmare when you want other people to listen and submit to you.

In short, the Christian witness is diluted, because so many children of God the Father, adopted into His family by the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, are separated from the Church, the Catholic Church.