Now I know that I have some Roman Catholics readers of this blog, and I know that when I get on a jag like this you must feel like I do when I read Chesterton writing about Calvinism. That feeling being an approximation of something like epistemic anguish and head-wrenching, I can only assure you all that if I could do anything about it, I would. But here I sit, as Luther might have said, typing with my hair ablaze with the flames of truth. And there is nothing that can be done about that.
My friend Rich Bledsoe has written this piece about the need for Protestants to outgrow their adolescent rebelliousness, and to reconcile with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Since I am already on this jag, I thought a few additional observations need to be made. In discussions like this, we are reasoning from premises, and I don’t believe that all those premises floated down to us in a cloud of self-evidency. I think we need less outrage at some of the conclusions, and more prudential questioning of some of the premises.
First, we tend to just assume that Protestantism is shattered into a zillion pieces, unlike Rome, because look what happens when you allow private judgment and all those home Bible studies. But I don’t think this is accurate at all. I wrote in some detail about this a few years ago, and a few paragraphs are below. If you want to read the whole thing, you can do that here.
“Here I would simply issue a flat denial. No, it hasn’t. While I agree that the divisions in Christendom are greatly to be lamented, I would also say that the situation is not as bad as it is frequently portrayed by Roman Catholic apologists (e.g. “25,000 Protestant denominations”). The actual figure is much lower-and most likely comes from David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia. As of 1982, he identified seven major ecclesiastical blocs, and some 22,190 denominations fall under these seven blocs. The first bloc is Roman Catholic, which contains 223 denominations. The Orthodox give us 580. Non-White Indigenous gives us 10,956. Anglicans account for 240. Marginal Protestants (Mormons, JWs, etc.) add up to 1,490 denominations. (Non-Roman) Catholics give us 504 denominations. Coming in at #2 would be the Protestants with 8,196.
But wait, we’re not done. This Protestant figure counts (necessarily) independent Baptist jurisdictions, so that if a city has seven different independent Baptist churches, this counts as seven different denominations. The same skewed effect happens with the 194 Latin-rite denominations. Countering this optical illusion, Barrett goes on to break the seven major ecclesiastical blocs into what he calls “major ecclesiastical traditions,” where I think we come up with an accurate number. So that I don’t bore you, let me just focus on the division of three of the major blocs. The Orthodox are divided up into nineteen traditions, the Roman Catholics have sixteen, and the Protestants have twenty-one. If we throw the Anglicans in, they account for another six. Far from Bedlam, this appears to be simply the cost of the gospel doing business in a fallen world. But whichever door you choose, you have lots of work for private judgment to do in following up that choice.”
So to put it in a nutshell, before we start trying to solve the problems of unique Protestant fragmentation, we should make sure that there actually is such a thing. It is actually not unique at all. This is a people problem, not a Protestant problem, and it is not a metastasizing problem (e.g. bajillions of denominations).
Second, I am concerned that Rich was using an optional sociological or historical metaphor (Rome and EO being the parents, and Protestants the children) in a way that might get tangled up with the necessary exegetical and theological metaphor. I fully agree with Calvin that we cannot count God as our Father unless the Church is our Mother. And he was agreeing with Paul. “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). But this is true now — we don’t need to do anything to make it more true. The Jerusalem above is free, and is not subject to the machinations of all the Diotrophian schemers that we find teeming all through church history. Why on earth should I have to make my peace with Alexander VI in order to be at peace with God?
Third, even given the metaphor we still have to follow it out. There is a vast difference between a rebellious teenager running away from home because he cannot deal with the tyranny of an eleven pm curfew, and a teenager being driven from an abusive house of horrors. Any counselors who treat the latter as though it were the former are simply continuing the abuse.
You cannot just point to the fact that an entity is older historically and create obligations that way. Cain was older than Abel. Ishmael was older than Isaac. Esau was older than Jacob. Reuben was older than Judah. Eliab was older than David.
If it were just a matter of chronology, we would need to be deep into ecumenical discussions with the Jews. They were the covenant people of God, they were branches in the olive tree, and they were there ages before any of my people were grafted in. But why doesn’t this settle it? Because the olive tree has a husbandman, one who both prunes and grafts. A newer branch can be on the tree, partaking of the root and fatness of the tree, and an older branch can be on the ground, waiting to be taken off to the burn pile.
It is striking, I might mention in passing, that the apostle Paul saw the stirrings of the hubris that would get the Church of Rome into so much trouble over the centuries, and he taught them, in a letter addressed to them by name (Rom. 1:7) that they were not the root. They were branches, and if they ever forgot that true attachment to the tree was accomplished sola fide, they would be removed, just as the unbelieving Jews had been. They did not support the root, but rather it was the other way around (Rom. 11:18)
Next, when it comes to the ecumenical dialog on things like justification by faith alone, we have to do much more than simply “let the Lutherans handle it.” How much of the ecumenical dialog today is being pursued, on both sides, by theological liberals? Are they reconciling great truth claims, or are they putting all truth claims into a bucket so they can pour in the paint thinner? In his great book Christianity and Liberalism, Machen said — and I agree with him — that he had far more in common with conservative Roman Catholics than he did with liberals. Liberals represented another faith entirely, while Rome was a deficient expression of the Christian faith. So before we let the “Lutherans do it,” what kind of Lutherans are we talking about? See the cartoon above.
Fifth, it will not do to argue that we are unlettered Protestants and do not understand the subtleties of the Roman view of justification. I agree with the way Tim Challies approaches this whole question. Let us simply ask whether Rome understands our position, and can they articulate in a way that would enable us to agree with the representation? And then ask further what their response to that understanding is. Challies points out that they get it, and that they damn it.
And last, if any of my RC friends are still reading, let me say something in conclusion that my Baptist friends won’t get at all. I do believe the Roman Catholic church is a church in some sense — otherwise we wouldn’t receive RC baptisms when we bring someone into membership. We don’t require re-baptism, precisely because we are not sectarian. In a similar fashion, if a Roman Catholic visited our church and wanted to partake with us in communion, he would be violating the teaching of his own church . . . but not of ours. As far as we are concerned, he would be welcome. In addition to all this, I have received great profit by reading books by Roman Catholic thinkers, and I feel like Augustine getting edified by some of the Donatists. Life is funny, but none of this changes the issue of the foundational truth claims.
I say this because I really am a postmillennial ecumenist. Shoot, if I believe that the Jewish branches will be grafted back in, as I do, then why wouldn’t I be willing for full reconciliation with Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy? This is actually the point where I agree with Rich Bledsoe. Protestants must be open to reconciliation with Rome and with EO. But to be open to such a thing means that we must be just as open to those things which are prerequisites to any such reconciliation. I cannot be open to a harvest of apples, but closed to the planting of the orchard. If I am open to reconciliation with Rome, and I am, then I must be equally open to an insistence that we all accept, in word and deed, sola fide, that we all abandon our idols, that we cease praying to Mary, and that we ditch the funny hats. We are the Christian church, not the Moose Lodge.
Okay, okay. Last thing. Was the hat joke really necessary, Mr. Strive for Postmillennial Peace? Let me tell you a story. Years ago, I was reading along in Augustine’s City of God, and I got to that place where he starting making fun of the pagan priests with their silly mitred hats. And so, hmmm, I thought, and glanced at the cover of my book. There was Augustine, in a silly mitred hat. So, yes, the hats have to go. We can call that agenda item something more dignified if you like, such as dealing with ecclesiastical anachronisms, but there is an important point in there.