Jesus told the parable of two sons who were told to go work in the vineyard. One said he would go and did not. The other said he would not go, and then went. “Which one was obedient?” Jesus asked.
The recent posts that I have offered on Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have certainly generated a lot of comments, and I cannot say I was expecting that. But if the subject is addressed with the foundational issues in view, it touches on far more than denominational questions, and perhaps that accounts for the interest. I am not trying to whack a hornet nest, but I am living, writing, and teaching as a Reformed minister. I believe what I do, and here is some of it, written down for your amusement and edification.
I am a classical Protestant, a high church Puritan, a sacramental Calvinist, and a soteriological Augustinian. This complex of views did not appear in the world in the last few years, but has been confessionally intact for centuries, and has had notable representatives and advocates in the long history of the church before that. And in living within this noble tradition, I want to believe what I affirm, and affirm what I believe.
So which way does it go? Does the gold sanctify the altar, or the altar the gold?
I am told that my Protestantism is “modern,” but classical Protestants deny the theory of evolution root and branch, and John Paul II had no trouble with evolution. Who has accommodated with one of the central claims of modernity?
I am told that my Protestantism is inherently sectarian and schismatic, and yet the bishops of Eastern Orthodoxy have a labyrinth of intersecting jurisdictions and competing interests that are, well, frankly, Byzantine. We are told that the multitude of Protestant denominations cannot be what the Lord had in mind when He prayed for unity in John 17. All right, let us look at the disharmony and disfellowshipping that is pervasive across the Eastern Orthodox world. Is that what He had in mind?
I am told that my Protestantism has no cultural soul, but then I have to return to my work in establishing a classical Christian college in which we have the students studying numerous talented pagans, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. And I have to say, glancing over the curriculum, when it comes to cultural contributions, Protestants have certainly managed to carry our end of the log. Shoot, I think we would have carried our end of the log if J.S. Bach had been our only representative.
I am told that my Protestantism is disconnected from the ancient church, but I belong to a confederation of churches, every member of which is required to have the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicean Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon in their confessional statements. Not only that, but all the elders and pastors in our churches are required to believe them. We are a tiny splinter presbytery, you say, and I admit it. There are not many of us. In fact, there are more Roman Catholic priests in some states of our fair Republic who don’t believe any item in the Apostles Creed than we have ministers who believe them all. Those who are sons of Abraham do the works of Abraham, and those who are sons of the apostles should have the decency to exhibit some kind of family resemblance. I say councils err and have erred, but actually believe every word of Chalcedon, including theotokos. Another man says that they cannot err, being the authoritative decisions of the holy Church, but always finds a way to reinterpret his way into some kind of comfort zone.
I am told that my Protestantism is disconnected from the apostolic church, but since my youth I have been steeped in the words and instructions of the apostles. And I have had acquaintances in the so-called apostolic communions who had no idea what the apostles taught, never having read them.
My favorite papist, G.K. Chesterton, once said that a courageous man would be willing to attack any error, no matter how old it was. But he went on to add that there are some errors that are too ancient to patronize. If I might adopt his observation, and adapt it to make a similar point, I would like to do so. To extend Chesterton’s point, I admit that there is something ludicrous about a hardshell baptist church with fifteen members in rural Arkansas holding to the view that the Roman Catholic Church is “a cult.” But let us as Protestants deal with that sort of thing, let us police ourselves.
In the meantime, let me urge my friends in the communions of Rome or the East not to patronize in reverse. Not all Protestants are snake-handlers, or telehucksers. Let us acknowledge what the magisterial Reformation actually contributed. Get a map of the world, and look at it from halfway across the room. Grant that I am about to make a generalization, and that I cheerfully grant a host of variables that I am not mentioning here. That said, look at every nation that came into the Reformed faith at the Reformation, or was planted by heirs of the Reformed faith. You are looking at the First World. Look at those nations that remained pagan, at least up to the last generation. You are looking at the Third World. Ask yourself, when we have taken account of all the other contributing factors like language, climate, natural resources and so on, should the religious faith of the populace be considered a significant contributing factor as well? Of course, which is part of the reason Adam Smith predicted that North America was going to be wealthy and that South America, rich in resources, was not going to be.
I am not advocating simple causation, or simple-minded causation for that matter, as though I was trying to put the eight ball in the corner pocket. But cultural influences include the general faith of the people, and the fact remains that during their centuries Protestants built a world-class civilization, too significant to be patronized. I also acknowledge that apostasy is a very real danger for God’s covenant people and that those who used to be deuteronomic head can and will become the deuteronomic tail — unless they return to the faith of their fathers. And that goal is one of the central objects of our ministry here. I am not interested in a spitting context with Roman Catholics and Orthodox, but rather in calling Protestants back to their magisterial, historical, confessional heritage. But in the course of doing this, many (influenced by contemporary individualism and low ecclesiology) have misunderstood the nature of the task, and think wrongly that we are headed to Rome. As I have said elsewere, I went to Geneva and people thought I went to Rome — simply because both are significantly east of Atlanta. Because of this misunderstanding and distortion, I am unfortunately in the position of having to spend time distinguishing what we are doing from Rome and Orthodoxy. But this is really a sideshow. The real action is really elsewhere.