THE POINT HERE IS NOT SO much the problems of recent Catholic and evangelical statements (though we do dissent from those affirmations). Rather our concern is with the understanding of religious traditions and their truth claims that undergirds not simply such statements as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” but also Bible-only evangelicalism, New Life Presbyterianism, and proponents of “mere Christianity.” Underneath all of these expressions of Christian faith is, it seems to us, is the Enlightenment’s hostility to tradition, history, and particularity.
This an especially important concern to the editors of the NTJ because we have been accused of narrowness, rigidity, and sectarianism in our effort to defend not simply the theological truths of the Reformed creeds and confessions (specifically the Westminster Standards) but also the Reformed practices articulated in our creedal statements. In other words, from Packer’s perspective, or that of the evangelical undergraduate, we here at the NTJ are “bad” Presbyterians because we are unwilling to let go of such practices as Reformed liturgy (it does exist—just see Evelyn Underhill’s discussion in Worship ), the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, Reformed sacramental theology, Presbyterian polity, and the avoidance of the liturgical calendar. We feel like ethnic Americans who are being forced to assimilate to the demands of a melting-pot Christianity. If we retain our distinctive ways we will be un-American or, worse, Amish.
ON THE ONE HAND, OUR CLAIMS are very modest and have to do with the simple methods used by historians (when not under the influence of modern literary theory that turns the meaning of words into jello). Presbyterianism may be historically defined as arising at a particular time and standing for certain convictions (predestination) and practices (infant baptism). Like it or not, the first proponents of any group, whether religious, political, or educational, set the standards for all who will follow in their name. So, if a later group bearing the name Presbyterian no longer believes in predestination and no longer baptizes their infants, do we still call them Presbyterian, or might we conclude that something akin to denial or stupidity is underway? The same goes for Agrarians or Unitarians. If someone claims to be an Agrarian and yet promotes the Internet and invests heavily in Texaco, calling into question his claim would not be irresponsible. Or if you find a Unitarian who believes Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity we might have some reasonable justification for concluding this person has departed from the teaching of William Ellery Channing, no matter how much we might be heartened by the expression of orthodox belief. In other words, tradition in a historical sense matters for Protestants as much as it does for Catholics. We may not believe in a magisterium but we do believe that Protestants may not rewrite the past.
ON THE OTHER HAND, WE WANT to make the immodest claim that the doctrine of sola scriptura is dangerous and not a separate doctrine in the Reformed tradition. By this we do not mean that we deny what the Westminster Confession says (and what was the formal principle of the Reformation) that “the Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined” is “the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture.” Our problem is with those who isolate the doctrine of sola scriptura from all other doctrines, as if the Bible exists without any interpretation, or apart from all confessional or creedal statements. In other words, we deny the biblicism that often masquerades under the banner of “the Bible only.” Technically speaking, which is the way the proof-text-approach to the Bible usually runs, “the Bible only” will not give us the Bible only since Scripture itself does not list its own table of contents. This means that even sola scriptura requires some human effort and interpretation. That is why Zacharis Ursinus wanted the Heidelberg Catechism bound at the front of Bibles published for the laity, and why the Geneva Bible came with notes (not unlike the NIV Bible for Women). Proponents of “the Bible only” want to protect God’s word from human hands, and so want to avoid going through any human tradition before arriving at the pure teaching of Scripture. But such a desire for a direct communication from God, which “the Bible only” appears to give, will not settle what the Bible only means. As George Marsden remarked several years ago, the doctrine of inerrancy might preserve the authority of the Bible but it could not even settle the question of the Trinity since, for example, some nineteenth-century Unitarians believed an inerrant Bible revealed an Arian Christ.
…AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS have been big suckers for Bible-onlyism because of their embrace of the Enlightenment. Unlike their counterparts in the Netherlands, American Calvinists developed no anti-revolutionary ideology. They not only endorsed Enlightenment politics when advocating the valuable principle of limited government. But in the euphoria of the American Revolution, a revolt inspired by the Enlightenment (of a the moderate Scottish sort), Presbyterian clergy also endorsed an Enlightenment view of history. According to the American Protestant reading of Christian history the Reformation was a forerunner to the Enlightenment; both Protestantism and science were responsible for dispelling ignorance, superstition, bigotry and intolerance and for advancing the cause of truth, reason, knowledge and progress. In this unfolding of western civilization, Catholicism, which was responsible for the “Dark Ages,” was the villain. For that reason, American Protestants had no trouble including a tepid version of their religion in public schools but objected vigorously to either parochial schools receiving tax funds or granting Catholics privileges in the common school. In The Soul of the American University George Marsden identifies this outlook as “the Whig Ideal.” Protestantism was synonymous with “the advances of civilization and the cause of freedom,” that is, freedom not only for civil liberty but also for scientific inquiry. In contrast, Catholicism “represented absolutism, suppression of individual development, and suppression of free inquiry.” Read More»
OldLife.Org | “Sectarians All (NTJ April 1998)” | November 29, 2022
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