Before getting into this post, I want to interject this disclaimer. This series on the faith “according to the whole” is a product of my ongoing labor to better understand the nature and significance of the Church. The impetus behind this labor was my realization that there is much more to the Church (its history, practices, and even its own founding understanding of itself) than I had been aware of most of my life. My awakening to this reality put me on a road to learning as much as I can about the Church, a pursuit that has changed and continues to change my perspective on both the nature and significance of the society for which the New Testament writers used names like Body of Christ, Bride of Christ, and House of God. I don’t aim to lay out all my thoughts about this here, but rather I want to present some information and some basic principles that I think are pertinent to American protestants with similar backgrounds to my own. I want to do this in a spirit of camaraderie, not pompousness or pretentiousness, acknowledging my own limited education and experience. So I submit these thoughts, aware of the disunity of the people of God and of the various ecclesiological perspectives out there, not to present a systematic plan for unity, but just to diagnose part of the problem … and hopefully to give a nudge in a better direction.
And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim… And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:2, 5-6)
… complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:2)
During my undergraduate work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary I took a “Reformation to Present” Christian history course. The course material essentially started with the 16th century Protestant Reformation and worked its way up through the complicated divisions and subdivisions of subsequent Protestant branches. There was Luther and Calvin and Zwingli in the magisterial reformation, then the congregationalists and the puritans, some anabaptists here and there, the rise of pietism, the holiness movement, pentecostalism, and any other group or movement you can think of. I tried to make sense of it all, trying especially hard to remember how my particular branch got it more right than the others. As I mapped all the doctrinal distinctions and tracked the formation of new schools of thought, I remained committed to the notion that the starting point – the Reformation – was good.
The Reformation, by virtue of its name, maintains that it was a reform movement. The entity which provoked this movement was the Roman Church of the late medieval era, which solely represented Christianity throughout Western Europe via widespread parishes and monasteries maintained by a network of governing clergy. These parishes and monasteries weren’t just united in governance — they were also united in liturgy, meaning their worship was basically the same whether you were in northern Ireland or southern Italy. The Roman Church’s remarkable uniformity of praxis across geographical and language barriers, its highly organized infrastructure, and the weighty nature of its work (being of eternal, not just temporal significance) gave credence to it being not only the spiritual authority of Europe, but also the greatest arbiter of socio-political matters. As the influence and authority of Rome was consolidated and centralized within its increasingly autocratic Magisterium (and ultimately in its Popes), blatant corruption occurred which ranged from the enshrinement of doctrinal fallacies to the abusive feudal-like power of the clergy over the laity. By the 1500’s, the conditions were right for mass protest, and a German priest named Martin Luther would ignite the spark that set the blaze.
We would do well, I think, to observe this blaze from space, i.e. at a distance, in a vacuum. A cursory glance at the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath reveals that it began with a few national churches, rapidly fractured into more and more divisions, and now currently has resulted in scores of denominations and splinter groups (into the tens of thousands). In 500 years Christians have partitioned themselves off into profusely more divisions than in the previous 1,500 years. It’s from this perspective that I began to question my long-held assumption that the Reformation was a good thing. It’s certainly not that I think the medieval Roman Church didn’t need to be reformed — it absolutely did. It’s the method of protest I question, because [brace yourself] I thoroughly disapprove of the result. (Remember Christ’s prayer that “they all may be one”). In other words, I disagree with the implicit claim in the name “Reformation.” Because it didn’t reform the one, single, unified Western Church of the age, it ought more properly to be called the Protestant Revolution. Without looking at the specific doctrinal or ecclesiastical grievances of the movement, I want us to distinguish between the rationales behind reformation and revolution.
Put in the simplest terms, reformation is accomplished when the reformers are committed to the continued existence (and indeed thriving) of the institution, whereas revolution occurs when the proponents of change are willing to abandon or overthrow the institution in order to establish a new one. Those first 16th century Reformers became Revolutionaries when they set up on their own apart from the Church that had baptized, reared, and ordained them. When attempts at reformation from within the Church apparently failed, their logic ran, “Amendment of the faith by necessity means abandonment of The Church.” It was this willingness, this felt necessity, to separate from the whole of the Christian West in order to practice the faith differently that became the fiery thrust of the new Protestant movement.
Something interesting happened to the revolutionaries, though, as they separated themselves. The blaze of Protestantism changed not just the doctrines and traditions, but the very spirit and general outlook of those it ignited. The cleft between the spirits of Catholicism and of the new Protestantism was devastatingly deep. H.A. Hodges put it this way: “The Catholic principle is that of fullness or comprehensiveness. … The true Catholic Faith is that faith which embraces the whole revelation of God for all sorts and conditions of men, and the true Catholic Church is that Church which is the right one for all men everywhere and always. Catholicity means holding to the fullness of the Faith, and heresy is the substitution of partial views for the whole.” Wherever it erred and despite its transgressions, this was (and is) the ancient and venerable ethos of the Roman Church.
Protestantism, on the other hand, chose purity as its central principle — purity of faith and purity of life. Says Hodges, “The idea of purity is in itself a necessary and a noble idea. It plays a great part in the Catholic scheme of things also, especially in the discipline of the spiritual life. But it is not the ruling principle of the whole Catholic system. Protestantism makes it the ruling idea, with revolutionary results.” This principle of purity “expresses a questioning attitude, a disposition to sift and judge, a readiness to hold aloof or even to reject. At its best it is manifested as a spirit of critical caution, of wise suspension of judgment and creative skepticism; but when it is given chief sway in the mind it sets up a fixed habit of suspicion and incredulity.”
This posture of suspicion and incredulity first drove a wedge between Protestant and Catholic, but then between Protestant and Protestant. The drive to divide along ever-multiplying fault lines of disagreement resulted in a sectarian landscape within the Protestant world (though the word denomination is much more palatable than sect). In short, the Protestant’s orientation shifted from ‘fullness and unity‘ to ‘distinction and dislocation‘, and that is the fundamental problem of Protestantism.
Is there an answer to this devastating dislocation? In Part 3 we’ll look at what the first steps on the road to fullness and unity might look like, and why it won’t and can’t be a “lowest common denominator” non-denominationalism.