Robbie Low on ‘sola scriptura’ and the privatization of the faith

The curse of Protestantism is division. The very nature of its origins, self-understanding and approach to the Word of God are inherently schismatic. That, to many of our readers and millions more worldwide, is fighting talk and the Editor is currently sewing mail bags to cope with the expected outraged response. But bear with me a moment or two. I do not write those inflammatory words lightly and, as some of our long-standing readers will know, I write as a former Baptist Sunday School boy for ever profoundly indebted to Evangelical friends who taught me to love the Word of God. Indeed, my first application for theological training was to Ridley Hall and in 25 years ministry I have never gone out without my Bible in my inside jacket pocket. Never a day has gone by without it being used severally and devotionally. My beloved spiritual director, who has known me throughout my ministry, is one of the most remarkable Evangelicals of his generation. And I have been privileged to sit on the editorial board of this magazine with vigorous, clear-minded and utterly committed Evangelicals whom I am proud to call friends.

So I write this not as a ‘party’ man signalling the parting of the ways, nor as a naive apologist for the unalloyed joys of Rome or Constantinople. I write because it seems to me, after 30 years in the Anglican orbit, that the crisis that has engulfed us is primarily the inevitable crisis of Protestantism and that it is as damaging to the Evangelical cause as to the Catholic, not least because they must, in a real church, be the same.

Christendom and the historic community of the Faith have found many reasons for falling out with one another down the centuries. Two particularly have marked and marred the common witness of the Church of Christ long after major heresies have run their familiar cycle of popularity, theological and moral bankruptcy and reinvention. The sundering of East and West in the eleventh century owed much to personalities and politics but it was grounded in a critique of the perceived imperialism of papal power and a concern at the apparent inventiveness of Western theologians. Time has done little to heal this desperate wound and the best efforts of the current Pontiff, for whom this reconciliation has been an overriding priority, have been met, at best, with guarded engagement and, at worst, with furious rejection.

The second great schism came, of course, at the Reformation. Whether Luther envisaged a Lutheran church any more than John Wesley sought a Wesleyan breakaway is history. The protesters, who sought a reform of papal power, a return to the imagined purity of the early Church and an end to corrupt practices, divided. Those who sought reform from within and those whom the disciplines of the Church could no longer contain were shortly to be found letting each other’s blood in copious quantities across the continent of Europe. Princes of the realm were not slow to realize that here was an opportunity to neutralize the immense power of ‘a state within the state’ which the Church represented and to fill the Exchequer and private pockets with rapacious expropriations of church property. In our own land the religious life was nigh on exterminated. The monarch who had so lately been dubbed ‘defender of the faith’ became a mortal enemy of the Western Communion, and ‘Mary’s dowry’, as England was once known, was subjected to a barrage of propaganda against Rome that haunts intelligent dialogue to this day. The English equation of Church and State has, at a political level, understood Catholicism as the option of disloyalty and, at a social level, as the equivalent of an unnatural vice, should such a thing be deemed to exist anymore in Anglican moral theology.

Undergirding the Protestant breakaway was the belief that the Bible, as the inherent word of God, should be the very foundation of the life of faith, that it should be in the hands of the people, understood by them and reign supreme over their lives and the governance of the Church. This begged a large number of questions which, perhaps, the reformers did not see. Mgr Ronald Knox’s taunt is beginning to sound like prophecy. ‘The Protestants broke for the Bible. God help them when they cease to believe it.’ Nearly half a millennium down the road, the cry ‘sola scriptura’ is not quite so convincing. Disbelief, up to the highest levels, is rampant and interpretation is a matter of personal, parochial or diocesan opinion.

Thomas More’s hyperbole that he would ‘rather cut a man’s throat than let him read Tyndale’s Bible’ may seem rather shocking to us coming from the lips of such a humane and intelligent saint but More goes to the heart of the dilemma. In producing a version which did not have the authority of the Church Catholic, Tyndale was on a dangerous journey. We may applaud his motive and his industry but we should also recognize that it is the beginning of a long road that will lead through versions as bizarre and inaccurate as the Jehovah’s Witness translations to the feminized travesty that is decanted from Anglican lecterns courtesy of the Common Worship lectionary. Tyndale’s version was further inflamed by his marginal commentaries and interpretations. More was angered because he believed such proceedings could jeopardize the salvation of many. He recognized immediately that, although Rome needed reform, once protest magnified into schism there would be no end to the speculation, the special pleading, the splintering. So it has proved.

The translation and interpretation of Holy Scripture is the task of the Church brought into being by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the written Word. The protesters who broke with Rome cannot have foreseen the fissiparous nature of their enterprise. In rejecting the authority of the Pope the Western reformers did not abolish autocracy but rather set in train a process the logical end of which is that every man is a pope in his own parish or in his own front room. The ‘idolatry’ of Rome was replaced by the idolatry of self, social group and nation in swift order. Reformation hopes gave way to puritanism. Parts of Europe descended into the fierce joylessness of Calvinism, others to the excitements of Anabaptism, revivalists, iconoclasts, Pentecostalists etc, each seizing upon an aspect of the faith and overemphasizing it to the distortion of the whole. The upshot is hundreds of ‘churches’, most of them with their own bizarre subdivisions (low, strict and particular, Southern, open etc, etc). In addition, there are thousands upon thousands of one-man band conventicles brought about by the falling out of Brother Smith with Pastor Jones. Pastor Smith, as he has now appointed himself, has the ‘real’ truth and hopes shortly to be needing to rent a bigger Scout Hut than the gravely misled Pastor Jones, his former guru. While both (and millions like them) claim, sola scriptura, the authority of the Word, they are in fact claiming merely a personal authority to interpret God’s Word with no reference to the historic and living community of faith. It is little better than theological piracy and insupportable vanity. It is the rejection, all too often, of the teaching of the Church in favour of the cult of private opinion. In an age which has so comprehensively rejected traditional forms of authority and embraced the highest good as individual gratification, it is scarcely surprising that disintegration is gathering pace.

The Protestant is faced with a crisis – at least the genuine Protestant is. (The liberal Protestant like the liberal Catholic is flexible enough to conform his beliefs to social norms providing he can maintain his ‘style’ of worship unimpeded.) The real Protestant had as his aim the reform of the universal Church, not an endless fracturing of it. The real Protestant is seeking the Church that conforms itself to the Word of God. But he lives at the end of an historical process where the unhappy results of his chosen method confront him. Nowhere has this been more manifest than in the gymnastic contortions of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion of our time.

That the ordination of women should have become a touchstone of the inevitable division was unfortunate. It enabled proponents to simply brand orthodox believers as misogynist or antiquarian. In fact, this black propaganda simply masked the real, solid and scriptural divisions at the heart of the Anglican Church. The issue became a church-breaker because its triumph depended upon wholly novel interpretations of decontextualized verses of scripture (for example, Galatians 3.28), a profound misunderstanding of the Councils of the Church (Acts 15), an understanding of key doctrines of creation and incarnation which owed more to feminist critique than the Fathers and a critical demotion of Jesus Christ from Word incarnate to a good man with unfortunate cultural conditioning. Enthusiasts for the change did not ask whether a small declining province had the authority to overturn the 2,000 years teaching of the universal Church, East and West, but whether, by packing a synod with placemen and bullying the unconvinced, they could get a majority vote and establish temporary opinion as the final arbiter of divine truth.

An alarming number of Protestants did not recognize what had happened. Perhaps they were used to the process. When, as long predicted, the same hermeneutical principle was wheeled out by the homosexual lobby, Prots were shocked. As St Paul and Leviticus were alternately vilified or textually tortured to extract anything but the plain meaning of their words, the crisis of Anglicanism was becoming plainer by the week. It is the quintessential crisis of Protestantism. Small and unrepresentative groups claim the Holy Spirit as their inspiration for a particular enthusiasm and reinterpret the Word of God plain contrary to the historic Apostolic teaching of the Church. It is a crisis that sola scriptura cannot resolve.

The impotence of the sola scriptura claim was beautifully demonstrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech to an Evangelical conference last year. Dr Williams, to the shock and delight of many, declared himself to be a man of the Book. What he did not need or bother to say was that his interpretation of the Good Book in question could not have been more different than that of his naively gratified hearers. Had he pointed out this hermeneutical chasm, honest man that he is, he would no doubt have added humbly that this did not mean his opinion was any more valid than theirs, far less the fixed and authoritative teaching of the church he leads. And there is the rub. There is no teaching authority, no magisterium. There is no method or system or tradition or person(s) who can determine the teaching of the Anglican Church. This essentially Protestant fault line has been stamped on hard by the new wave of ‘reformers’ and it has cracked. The chasm that has opened cannot be spanned. As historic formularies have been ignored, defining common liturgy marginalized and ancient scriptural understandings rejected, the extraordinary coalition of unlikely bedfellows that has been Anglicanism has been successively undone.

Since its break with Rome the CofE has always claimed to be the Catholic Church in this land. It has always rejected attempts to portray it as Protestant, citing that it has no doctrines or orders of its own but only those known to the universal and undivided Church. It was on that basis that many of us joined. Though there have been grounds for debating both of these claims before our time, they have, in the last few years, been comprehensively undermined. The Porvoo agreement did for Apostolic succession and women’s ordination destroyed the mutual recognition of holy orders and instituted doubt at the heart of the sacramental life. Dr Carey and his fellow sappers set the charges under Lambeth Palace and he now gazes in astonishment as his successor wanders among the ruins wondering what, if anything, can be rebuilt. In the wake of these disasters Anglicans have no common doctrine, no common liturgy and no common orders. In short, Anglicanism lacks the fundamental qualifications to make the bold claim that it is a Church.

Running alongside the internal crisis judicial rulings have decreed that the Church of England’s nature and beliefs can be altered by Parliament and bishops argue in the Lords for full and willing conformity to bad law, reducing the Church to a sort of quasi-mystical rubber stamp for the political ascendancy. Most galling of all for Anglican ‘Catholics’ and most surprising of all to Anglican Evangelicals (should they suspend prejudice and read it) is the last twenty five years of papal teaching. Take any text by the Holy Father and it is shot through with learned faithful exposition of Scripture. Pick up the overwhelming majority of Anglican episcopal or synodical outpourings over the same period and you will, with rare exception, know little about the Word of God but rather more about current required social attitudes.

This is all a long way from the intention of the original protesters, the reformers who sought to cleanse and purify the household of God. But the problem is an old one and inherent in the original breaking of the Western Communion. The question is, ‘By what authority…?’ And here it is that sola scriptura breaks down. For the Bible left in the hands of every man can afford, as we have so often discovered in the history of Christendom, a tool to suit his every convenience. It is not only the devil who can quote scripture to his own ends. The Bible, inspired by the Holy Ghost, is the book of the Church brought into being by and equally inspired by that same Holy Ghost. The Word cannot be interpreted or taught outside that body of faithful believers that is the Church. To think that it can is to fail to understand that it is the living Word – ‘sharper than any two-edged sword piercing to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Hebrews 4.12). It is the Word that examines us, not the other way round. Apostolic succession was the guardianship of that traditio which is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Holy Spirit and the Word cannot be in contradiction lest we blaspheme and claim that God is in contradiction with himself. Without that authority we are simply a collection of ramshackle personal opinions. My opinion is no better than his or hers or theirs or yours. Consequently, when someone inquires about Anglican teaching these days, our reply is usually personal or parochial with several caveats.

It is the logical end of Protestantism and its inbuilt mechanism of division. It has rejected the Great Communions claiming divine inspiration. After 500 years what was advertised as divine inspiration has been persistently revealed as private judgement. For Anglicans this is moving to a crisis, a moment of critical decision. We still recite the Creed together but one clause seems increasingly detached from the reality we have created: ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’. Over the last twenty years our church has rejected the Catholic identity it claimed and opted for Protestant course. It has collaborated with an increasingly secular state in furnishing itself with an episcopate increasingly detached from apostolic understanding and commitment and, far from being ‘One’, it is fatally divided in its ministry, mission and morality. It is a church that cannot unite around its own altars.

We are, in short, dealing with the great unfinished business of the Reformation. Those who opt for further Protestantism can look forward to more of the same division, discord, disorder and disobedience to the Word. Evangelicals and Catholics who have endured the last twenty years and longed for that unity of purpose and ministry in a great realignment of Christendom will increasingly look to the Great Communions of East and West. Present realities mean that it is a question we can no longer avoid.