[Warning! Buzzword-laden post. And yes, I've written this to be provocative. As usual, that is not meant to piss off anybody in particular but instead to get some of my own thoughts and feelings out where I can examine them and think about them more.]
My denomination makes an idol (I've used that word in the last three posts - it must be on my mind) of the Reformation. Proud they are of it and their place in it. [Does your church have Reformation Sunday services? Ours does.] And firm do they stand by the Reformation's "five solas", the heart of Protestant theology:
- Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone")
- Sola fide ("by faith alone")
- Sola gratia ("by grace alone")
- Solus Christus ("Christ alone")
- Soli Deo gloria ("glory to God alone")
But I am starting to think that if the above theological tenets define what Protestantism is (and I think they do), then the Reformation has failed. Let's look at each of the "solas" to see why, shall we?
By Scripture Alone
If the Bible is "perspicuous (transparently clear; easily understandable) and self-interpreting", then why do we need dozens of English translations, over one hundred thousand expository books and tens of thousands of paid preachers telling us what it means? If we can't read it and understand it by ourselves, then one of the main propositions of the Reformation and hence Protestantism is false. Period. Apparently we need armies of professionals telling us what God meant, all the while ironically calling on each of us to build a personal relationship with God. And for all we talk about "contextualization", "soteriology", "ecclesiology", "eschatology", "hypostatic union" and so on, does any of those terms get us any closer to the true meaning of Scripture? Does any of that make it any clearer than, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so"?
By Faith Alone
If the Reformation can be summed up by one statement, it is "Sola fide". Yet, if justification is by faith alone, then why do so many people get hung up about what we must do to be "good Christians"? Partially it's because "faith is always evidenced by good works" - i.e., the tension between reconciling grace with "By their fruit you will recognize them". Of course the issue is we then work real hard at compiling the list of acceptable "fruit", defining what "makes us good", a new set of rules to live by to replace those of the Pharisees that were obviously wrong, well, maybe kinda sorta wrong, um, gee, where can we get us some rules like that?. That sort of thinking is just so much holy shit, but almost every Christian I know or have ever met, myself included, is infected by it. The difference with Protestants, of course, is we claim we're not. But we are.
By Grace Alone
Faith is a gift. We don't deserve it, but we are given it anyway. That is grace. How good is God! But instead of humbly thanking Him and sharing our gift with others, we get greedy. We determine that we deserved the gift somehow. Worse, we believe that there are others who don't. And we know who they are. We look down our noses at people who may be struggling with faith or trapped in addiction or otherwise not living up to our standards. We are saved from judgment by grace and then don't extend that grace to others.
If Christ is our only intecessor, if He is not just the sacrificial Lamb but also the High Priest making the sacrifice (see all of Hebrews), if the Spirit is here to lead us and be with us always, then why do we need ordained clergy? Note: I am not dissing people who feel "called" nor am I saying there isn't room for those who are gifted to delve deep into God's word. What I am confused about is the idea that there is some need within the priesthood of all believers to have a special class of people who alone can baptize, who alone can bless, who alone can absolve, who alone can marry, who alone can teach, who alone can stand in front of others and proclaim the way to God. The pastoral epistles make clear that there are those who will be gifted with teaching and leading, but it's a far cry from that to the "pastor as CEO" model.
Glory to God Alone
Do you believe you give glory to God alone? Really? I think we all think that. But we don't do it. If we did, we wouldn't build edifices in His name instead of giving all that money to the poor. If we did we wouldn't tear up at the national anthem, a tribalistic mechanism of this world to keep us feeling separate and special, one from another (and before you fire one off at me, note - I didn't say whose national anthem - I mean them all). We wouldn't be proud of our house, or our car, or our career. Pride is the direct and complete antithesis of giving glory to God alone.
The standard story within Protestantism is that the (Roman) Catholic church reached a point where its theology was way off course due to indulgences, saintly intercession, papal infallibility (which actually came much later) and what not, and so Tyndale, Luther, Calvin and other brave souls risked death at the stake to set "the church" aright. We Protestants look haughtily down our noses at "those Catholics" (said in the same condemning, disparaging, universal tone of prejudice as covers any bigot's snarling dismissal of "those blacks" or "those Jews" or "those Muslims") because we know that we don't make stupid mistakes about God like they do! No. No, we don't. We make our own stupid mistakes. And they are just as critical as any errancy we may attribute to the Bishop of Rome. The first is the sin of pride - a pride that comes from "getting it right" over those Catholics. A pride from creating even more schism, not just between the Catholics and Protestants, but then each Protestant denomination from the other. That pride allows us to elevate our beliefs over our love for each other, to make the church itself our god.
And thus has the Reformation failed.
Do not think I am arguing that because the Reformation has failed (as all man-made works fail) that I therefore believe the Roman Catholic church has "won". This is not a zero-sum game. In fact, I think both sides have lost. For one, by splitting, we have lost each other. We have torn apart the "one holy catholic and apostolic church". Nor am I advocating universalism - some theological points are critical to get right. But 99.99999% of everything we argue about in Christianity is simply holy shit. The second you recognize that you are not the judge, only God is, and that there may actually be people of other denominations (even, gasp!, Catholics!) that will be there in Heaven with you then you know that all this nattering is just stupid and silly, and we're off in the weeds. Again.
God forgive us, for we know not what we do.