Evangelicals and the Sectarian Temptation
Will Evangelicalism have the courage to be Protestant?
Evangelicalism in the twenty-first century confronts a choice. Will we find the courage to be confessionally Protestant? Or will the movement continue to drift into an ever-evolving, amorphous, experience-based form of piety that is untethered from historic orthodoxy and the catholic faith? The former tendency grows increasingly rare; the latter predominates today.
The Evangelical movement began in the 1730’s in England as a movement of revival seeking to renew a Protestantism vitiated by dead orthodoxy. Over the past 300 years, however, the movement has become more and more diverse and less and less confessionally Protestant.
What Was the Protestant Reformation?
The Protestant Reformation was a movement of reform in the Western church that, unfortunately, resulted in a schism between Rome and a number of churches including the Reformed churches, the Lutheran churches and the Church of England. The schism happened because the reformers insisted on reform and Rome insisted on submission. It is important to understand clearly what the Reformation was about and what it was not about.
First, what was the Reformation not about?
The Protestant reformers never challenged the consensus that unites both Eastern and Western Christianity symbolized by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, with its clarifying codicil adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. God is one substance (ousia) and three persons (hypostases), Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is one in will and power and the persons are equal in glory and majesty, distinguished only by their eternal relations of origin. The Son is one person in two natures, fully human, and fully divine. The Athanasian Creed, which probably was composed in the century after Augustine’s death, sums up the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas that unite the Church in a common confession.
Since the Nicene Creed was an expansion of the Apostles’ Creed, the latter of which goes back to the second century as a baptismal creed, we have a five-century long development of creedal orthodoxy that all Christians believe expresses the true teaching of Holy Scripture. The Protestant reformers and their successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries never dreamed of being anything other than catholic Christians in confessing this orthodox tradition. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Second London Confession, and other Protestant confessions of faith affirm the orthodoxy of the Athanasian Creed as basic Christian doctrine.
The Reformation also was not a dispute about the mighty acts of God in salvation history, which both Rome and the Protestants affirmed without qualification. The Bible records and interprets the mighty acts of God in history by which salvation comes to the world. Genesis 1-11 is a prologue that deals with world history up to the time of Abraham. It sets the stage by clarifying that the world was created good but fell into sin because of Adam’s disobedience. Genesis 12 begins the story of Israel, which is God’s redemptive plan to redeem Adam’s fallen race and ultimately to redeem the fallen creation through the covenant of grace.
The Exodus was one of the greatest acts of God in history, but far from the only one. The entire Old Testament witnesses to the history of the covenant of grace with Israel. The Old Testament is essentially unfinished and points forward to the climactic act of God in history that we know as the Incarnation. The virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, bodily resurrection and ascension, and future return of Christ is the center of history, the fulfillment of the hopes of the Old Testament, and the means by which salvation comes to the world.
The Reformation, then, was not a disagreement regarding the Trinitarian and Christological heritage of the universal church and it was not a disagreement regarding the mighty acts of God in salvation history symbolized in the creeds. Rome and Protestantism were on the same page on these issues.
So, what was the Reformation about?
According to Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and the other reformers, the Roman Catholic Church needed to be reformed because of many errors concerning how the benefits of salvation accomplished by God’s mighty acts in history culminating in Christ get applied to the believer. This caused debates in areas such as soteriology, sacraments, and ecclesiology. Purgatory, the mass, the role of Mary, the papacy, and justification by grace alone through faith alone were important issues. Since the authority of the Church was used to stifle criticism from the Protestants, the issue of the relationship between the magisterium and Scripture became a major point of contention.
The authority of Scripture over ecclesial authority was affirmed by the Protestants and appeals to tradition were treated with respect but not allowed to override Scripture. The reformers appealed to the authority of Scripture, not with the intention of undermining the creeds, but with the intention of correcting more recent teachings on matters that go well beyond the creeds.
But we should be clear, neither side was debating the Trinity or Christology at this point and neither side was denying miracles or the bodily resurrection of Christ. Protestants never rejected the Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian Creeds or the Definition of Chalcedon. All the Reformed confessions were written by theologians who accepted the Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the first few centuries as the true meaning of the Bible.
The Protestant reformers were fully catholic in this sense. In fact, the Protestant claim is that we are more catholic than Rome, not less, because Protestant soteriology comports more closely with the Trinitarian and Christological dogma both sides confess.
The Problem of Sectarianism
Beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing down to the present many sectarian and heretical groups have arisen as Protestantism splintered into factions. This is a regrettable result of the division of the Church in the sixteenth century. By “sect” here I mean a group that does not hold to one of the Protestant confessions and sits lightly to the ecumenical creeds. Such a group may be heretical, or it may not. But theology for sectarians is fluid and often a highly individualistic matter.
The problem with sectarianism is that it permits calling into question not just doctrines that were being debated by Protestants and Rome during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods (such as justification, Mary, the mass, the papacy, and so forth), but also doctrines that were not being debated in that period because they were assumed to be true by both sides.
Sectarians like the Socinians questioned the truth of the creeds and even the Trinity and Two Natures of Christ. Protestants cannot help but oppose such groups as being even more dangerous than the teachings of Rome. At least Rome teaches orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. But sectarians sometimes deny such dogmas and always leave open the possibility of questioning any dogma at any time. Nothing is permanently settled in sectarianism.
The Disaster of Liberal Protestantism
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much of Protestantism declined into apostasy with the rise of Enlightenment-inspired liberal theology. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early twentieth century showed that liberal theology denied the virgin birth, miracles, bodily resurrection of Christ, as well as the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This went far beyond anything that either Rome or the Protestant reformers had ever imagined. It was as if vast swaths of Protestantism had turned into the very worst kind of sectarians and embraced heresy.
The rejection of the truth of the Biblical revelation of the saving acts of God in history in Israel and Christ by liberal theology led J. G. Machen to say that liberalism is best thought of as a different religion entirely. Hence, he titled his book, Christianity and Liberalism. This was not meant as a rhetorical flourish, but as sober truth based on close analysis. Machen distinguished between theological liberalism and the Roman Church and stated that the former was worse.
Calvin, Luther, Cranmer and co. saw themselves as reforming a church that had adopted some false doctrines concerning the application of salvation to the believer, but they never saw the Roman Church as having denied the basis of that salvation in the saving acts of God in history or the articulation of the central dogmas of God and Christ that symbolized those saving acts. So, it is appropriate to reform the Roman Church, but it is necessary to excommunicate liberal Protestants as heretics.
Those who have not understood church history often fall into the trap of treating the Roman Church too harshly and liberal Protestantism too softly.
In the last century many fundamentalists and Evangelicals have embraced the modernist conceit that in order to uphold the authority of Scripture we ought to reject all creeds and be suspicious of tradition. They are often “Biblicists” by which I mean the position that the only statements we can have in our theology are those stated explicitly in the Bible. If you can’t quote it from Scripture, you can’t make it part of orthodoxy.
The problem is that, as the sectarians have been pointing out gleefully ever since the sixteenth century, the word “Trinity” is not found in Scripture. And, as Arians have been pointing out since the fourth century, the word “homoousios” is not found in Scripture. Neither is the “hypostatic union.” For that matter, the word “theology” is not found in the Bible.
The reason orthodox Christians have used such language to describe orthodox theology, both in the ecumenical creeds and the Reformation era confessions, is that it expresses ideas that are in Scripture or that can be deduced (as the Westminster Confession puts it) by good and necessary consequence from the plain teaching of Scripture. Such language expresses the true meaning of the Scripture and the Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy, which has persisted for 1500 years, witnesses to a continuing and stable faith through church history.
I would like to suggest that to confess this common orthodox faith, taught in Scripture and summarized in the creeds and confessions of the church, is what it means to be “catholic.” The difference between confessional Protestants and liberal Protestants is that the former are catholic and the latter are sectarian.
Evangelicals and the Sectarian Temptation
Can Evangelicals be catholic? Yes, but only if they reject sectarianism and embrace their Protestant heritage. Evangelicalism started as a renewal movement within Protestantism, but it has flirted with the sectarian temptation throughout the centuries since.
Today, we see theologians questioning the orthodox doctrine of God and sitting loosely to the pro-Nicene theology of the fourth century out of which the Nicene Creed emerged. This goes outside the bounds of historic Protestantism and can lead to heresy. We need to be more aware of historical theology, more confessionally committed, and more catholic in our faith. When it comes to the doctrine of God, to be more Protestant is to be more catholic and less sectarian.
The debate over whether we can learn from Thomas Aquinas on the doctrine of God should not be happening. There should be no question that we can learn from pre-Reformation theologians on doctrines that were not even at issue in the Reformation. We need not agree with Thomas on his soteriology or ecclesiology in order to appreciate his doctrines of God and Christ. We need not apologize for citing Thomas’s masterful exposition of the relationship between faith and reason, his clarity on the oneness of God and his summary of the patristic consensus on the Trinity. When it comes to the doctrine of God, it is not his innovations, but his rootedness in the pro-Nicene and Augustinian theology of the early centuries that is so valuable. As Muller, Trueman, Clark, and many other historians demonstrate, the Protestant scholastics and Puritan divines learned much from Thomas (and from many other patristic and medieval theologians) and so should we.
This issue illustrates the sectarian temptation very clearly. Are we so anti-Roman that we give up our catholicity and become sectarians? Are we really going to make the Protestant confessions optional? Do we think it reasonable for individuals to question Nicene theology at this point in history? No one is denying that the authority of Scripture is higher than tradition or popes or councils or creeds. But our faith should not start all over from scratch in each generation. The question is: “Do not the creeds teach Scriptural doctrine?” What say you?
We stand in a long, Spirit-sustained tradition of orthodoxy and we should give honor where honor is due. We stand on the shoulders of giants precisely because they are taller than we are. The spirit of the age draws us toward individualism; the Spirit of God draws us toward catholic orthodoxy. The spirit of the age recommends autonomy; the Spirit of God calls us to humility. The Spirit of the age tempts us to novelty; the Spirit of God points us to the faith handed down from the apostles by faithful teachers.
It seems that Evangelicalism is destined to divide into two divergent streams in the twenty-first century, one Protestant and one sectarian. The gap is destined to grow ever wider because one stream is tethered to the past whereas the other has slipped its moorings and is destined to drift endlessly. Much of Evangelicalism is experience based pragmatism that seeks approval from the world and values numerical growth over doctrinal faithfulness. In such a situation, the only way for Evangelicals to be catholic and to avoid drifting into compromise is to remain catholic by having the courage to be Protestant.