Steve Martin (the Lutheran blogger known as “Old Adam,” not the actor/comedian) has been talking with a motley crew of us Catholics in the comments here about how Lutherans can know which Books are in Scripture. Steve directed me to a talk his pastor, Mark Anderson, gave on the subject.
I listened to it last night, and was pleased to say that I agree with probably 80-90% of what Anderson had to say. First off, he recognized that the importance of understanding the question of authority:
The question of authority, which is really the question, that’s where it all starts. And that’s where it has been percolating since the Reformation. The question of authority has not been resolved in the Christian church. That’s the question that’s wide open, and that accounts for a lot of the diversity and the multiplicity of churches, and denominations, and so forth. This is the problem that has not been solved. It continues to fester, and be chronically part of our life as Christians.
The question of authority isn’t important so we can know who has “power” or who gets to be “boss.” Instead, Pastor Anderson defines the question of authority like this: “Where do we go finally for resolution of doctrinal problems? Where do we go finally for resolution of theological questions? Who determines what the meaning of Jesus Christ is?” As Anderson noted, we see this appeal to ecclesiastical authority in the New Testament, whenever Paul opens his letters by declaring himself an Apostle (which was constantly: Romans 1:1, 1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Galatians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Colossians 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:1, 2 Timothy 1:1, and Titus 1:1). Paul begins by reminding everyone he’s an Apostle, because it means that they have to listen to his message. They can’t just say, “I don’t interpret the Old Testament that way,” or “when I heard Jesus say that, that’s not the interpretation I took.” Personal interpretation of Scripture and of the words of Jesus must submit to Paul’s Apostolic authority.
So the question of who has valid authority today is the question. Before you can know whether you’re living in accordance with “the Gospel,” you need to know what the Gospel is. And Christians will gives you probably thousands of different contradictory answers, from “just be a good person,” to “believe in Jesus, and how you live doesn’t matter” to everything in between. We’re told that we need to be a part of the visible Church to be saved, or (as Harold Camping has been teaching) that membership in the visible Church is a mark of your damnation.. So those wanting to live out the Gospel need to know, “Who can I trust?” And as Pastor Anderson notes, Protestantism still can’t answer that simple question, five hundred years on. We’ll get to why that is in a bit.
Anderson noted that the early Church faced this problem as well. Here’s how he described the fourth-century Church, and its similarity to Protestantism today:
The Church Fathers sat down and said: ‘We’ve got to do something about this. We’ve got “orthodoxies” which are heretics all over the map. Nobody knows how to talk about Jesus. Nobody knows exactly what the Gospel is.’ And it’s hard for us maybe to appreciate that completely, but all we have to do is look to the current state of affairs in the Christian Church, the multiplicity of congregations and denominations, points of view, to realize it is up for grab. And it doesn’t help to just stand up and assert more loudly what you believe to be the Truth. I mean, hollering – the proclamation of the Gospel is not a shouting match. The loudest voice isn’t necessary the one that’s gonna win – or should.
And Pastor Anderson even conceded that this problem was solved by the very episcopacy which he rejects, saying:
I don’t think there’s been anyone who’s been more critical of the move towards episcopacy than I have. But anyone would be a fool to look over two thousand years of Christian history, and not recognize that many of the Bishops of the ancient Church played a pivotal role in seeing to it that the doctrine of the word of God was adequately protected, and faithfully proclaimed. In fact, it was largely due to many of their ministries that we have what we have today in terms of Christian orthodoxy and Scripture.
So the early Church was faced with this problem, but had a solution. The Church authorities (the episcopacy) settled the dispute. Anderson even goes further, acknowledging that “the papal see becomes a logical extension of Apostolic authority taken about as grand of heights as you can get.” Now, I’d dispute this characterization somewhat (the pope’s authority is actually far less than that of the Apostles, and less than what Mormonism’s leadership claims for itself), but his core point, that Apostolic Succession was viewed in the early Church as continuing through all the Bishops, but particularly the Pope, is absolutely true. And this solved the question of Authority, and this preserved the Gospel intact. And yet Protestants today, including Anderson himself, refuse to accept this solution. So instead, they’re left with no answer, and no agreement on what the Gospel even is.
This becomes remarkably clear with the canon of Scripture. Pastor Anderson praises the early bishops for settling the canon: but he rejects their canon. You wouldn’t know this from his talk — he talks about them settling “the New Testament canon” — but the Church didn’t settle “the New Testament canon,” it settled the entire canon of Scripture, period. Old and New. In fact, the early Church was quite adamantly opposed to the heretics who dreamed that there was one God of the Old Testament and one of the New, and were fervently insistent that there was one God, and one Deposit of Faith.
So with the New Testament, as Pastor Anderson notes, we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but there were other contenders as well: Anderson lists: the “‘Gospel’ of Peter, we have the ‘Gospel’ of Thomas, what’s called the Protoevangelium (the ‘first Gospel’) there are other ‘Gospels’: the ‘Gospel’ of Barnabas, the ‘Gospel’ of James, that were not included in the New Testament.” It’s upon the authority of these Catholic bishops, at the Council of Carthage, that we trust that which Books are Biblical, and which are not.
Yet look at what the Council actually decided. You can find Canon 24 of the Council of Carthage right here (that’s Calvin College’s version). In the same breath, it establishes the Old and New Testament. They’re not even separate canons. You can’t say, “I think the Book of Hebrews is Scripture because Canon 24 of the Council of Carthage says so,” but then say, “I don’t care what Canon 24 of the Council of Carthage says, I don’t think 1 Maccabees is Scripture.” (Luther was at least consistent, and felt comfortable rejecting both 1 Maccabees and Hebrews, James, Revelation, etc.). So if you care about believing what the early Church believes, then start using a Catholic Bible. Start giving the episcopacy and particularly the papacy which the early Church gave. Conversely, if you don’t care about believing what the early Church believes, or think you know more about the Gospel then they do, then don’t pretend otherwise.
So what Pastor Anderson is saying is mostly all true: we should look to the early Church, we should let the Church authorities settle theological disputes, etc. But where he goes wrong is that he doesn’t practice what he preaches, or he’d be Catholic. To understand how he goes wrong, look to Luther.
Pastor Anderson’s description of Martin Luther is remarkably revealing. There were three comments he made which are worth drawing out. First:
[Luther] never assumed that the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t Christian. That’s what you hear today. That’s what you get from radical Protestants, the non-denominational sectarians who just wipe everybody out with one swoop. Luther was part of the tradition: it’s the tradition that nurtured him, he was baptized as a Roman Catholic, he was brought up in the traditions of the church, it was in that Church that he heard the Gospel, that he wanted to be a follower of Christ, that he wanted to give his life in service, in the monastic life.
So Luther doesn’t begin by saying that the Church is the “Whore of Babylon” or “Synagogue of Satan.” That craziness all comes later. At the start, the Reformation was genuinely intended to be a Reform, not a Revolt. Luther started out trying to help the Church as best he knew, out of a genuine love for the Catholic Church. On this point, we agree 100%. But then what happens? Pastor Anderson says:
As the gap widens [between Luther and the Church], as Luther finds that the papal see is not very responsive, does not want to be responsive to him, they’re more interested in, as he said, “fleecing the hide of the German sheep” than they are in dealing with these important theological matters, Luther moves away, more and more, from Tradition, he moves towards Scripture. He finds himself having to defend himself, more and more, not so much based upon Church Fathers, but upon Scripture alone, and he discovers that – that works. There’s plenty of ammunition without having to go anywhere else. And this is where the various Protestant groups within the Reformation begin to catch fire.
So despite a well-meaning start, Luther’s hit two bumps in the road. First, the reforms he suggests aren’t immediately accepted, and his own ideas don’t seem as brilliant to the pope as they do to him, and Luther gets impatient, and then embittered (hence the hurling of insults about fleecing the German sheep, and many more far worse). Eventually, of course, the Church mulls over many of Luther’s proposed reforms, and accepts a number of them. But some of them were legitimately bad ideas, and some were unfaithful to the Gospel that this very Catholic Church was pledged to protect. This second point is a bigger bump: Catholics begin telling him that many of his ideas are contrary to clear Church teachings, commemorated in specific Councils.
So what’s Luther’s response? Besides hurling insults, it’s too look for what Anderson calls “ammunition.” When he finds that while he can’t defend some of his ideas from Christian Tradition, he can use certain verses of the Bible to make it sound like he’s right. And “ammunition” is the perfect word here, because Luther used Bible verses as weapons, as do the various other Reformers and Radical Reformers championing a thousand contradictory views (until they eventually picked up actual weapons). So Luther turned to sola Scriptura not because Scripture says so (It doesn’t), but because it means he doesn’t have to concede he’s wrong, when he doesn’t feel like he’s wrong.
But despite his growing animosity towards Catholicism, Pastor Anderson reminds us that Luther still wanted to come to peace, but on his own terms. He describes Luther’s position as this:
“The authority of the papal see is not sufficient because popes have erred, Councils have erred in the past. Let’s all agree, we can have a pope, we can have bishops, but let’s all sit under the authority of Scripture, so that we’re not taking the opinions of men, and making them binding on the consciences of people.”
That seems pretty accurate to me. But here’s the problem: the pope didn’t (and doesn’t) view himself as above Scripture. He simply understood the Gospel to mean something different than Luther did. And if Luther disagrees with the bishops, and with the pope, on the meaning of Scripture, you have to side with the episcopacy/papacy if Church authority means anything. If the Church is only in charge if you happen to agree, She’s completely powerless. If a shepherd only gets to decide where the sheep go if the sheep happen to agree, the shepherd is worthless.
So if Church authority means anything, faithful Christians have to side with the Church’s view of the Bible over Luther’s. If they don’t, then they can’t complain when Rob Bell comes along as the newest Luther, proposing a view of the Gospel rejected by the Church.
But subjecting the Church to the Bible is even more troubling from a Lutheran perspective. Anderson said of the Lutheran view of Scripture:
Lutherans, as I say, have elevated Scripture, and we say it is to the point of saying, “It is the final word in all matters of faith and life. It is the final Authority in all matters of faith and life.”
But it’s precisely because Luther rejects the authority of the popes and Councils that there’s no basis on which to say what the proper canon of Scripture is. If you can’t agree on which Books are in the Bible, how can the Bible be your rule of faith? So instead of solidifying the basis of Scripture, Luther ironically undermines Scripture completely.
Pastor Anderson notes that the result of the Reformation and the advent of sola Scriptura is perpetual schism, with each person becoming their own pope, saying that the Bible means x, and being accountable to no one:
But what happened in this radical Protestantism of the Reformation? The fleshly pope was replaced with a paper pope. Why? Because they understood that “if we’re gonna dump the whole system of ecclesiastical structure, then what do we use to order our life? We use the Bible.” Okay, that was a misunderstanding of Luther. Has it been tried? Oh yeah, look around. We are at the point in the splintering of Protestantism, particularly radical Protestantism, where virtually every congregation, and every preacher up front with his Bible, or her Bible, becomes an authority on the word of God unto itself. It is radical congregationalism, splintered congregationalism. There is no helpful witness there, in terms of the great scope of the Church’s life and thought across the generations.
I agree, except that rather than a misunderstanding of Luther, it’s the unavoidable result of his thought. We see this in every Protestant denomination that’s taken sola Scriptura as its mantra: every single one. At some point, it’s like those defenders of Communism who kept just imagining that it was being implemented wrong: the problem isn’t the implementation, the problem is the idea itself. Even Pastor Anderson’s own local church is evidence of this, as Steve informs me that they’re thinking about splitting away from the ELCA. Constant schism and a drive towards congregationalism is the end result of Protestantism wherever it’s tried.
Now, Pastor Anderson is rightly disgusted with those preachers who take a posture of:
“Don’t you dare question what’s being taught today, because it’s coming right out of the Bible. You might have a question, but don’t bring it up, because after all, I’m teaching the Bible, this is no theology, there’s no doctrine being taught here, I’m just teaching straight out of the Bible. You’ve got a problem, you’ve got a problem of God.”
He actually goes much, much further than I would, and declares this “Christofascism,” and compares these Christians to bin Laden and the Taliban. But again, while I agree with him, I don’t see how he can pretend that Lutherans are immune from this. The comment that began the dialogue with Steve Martin was his claim in the comments here that Lutheranism “proclaims the [G]ospel in its purity,” and that now “that I am free from all the spiritual navel gazing and Christian progressivism, I don’t think I could ever return to Rome or go to an Evangelical church where there theology is basically the same as Rome’s (a lot of God and a little of me).” And so it’s gone: he’s resisted any distinction between “the Gospel” and “Lutheran theology.” In this way, Luther himself “becomes an authority on the word of God unto” himself.
So while I think Anderson correctly diagnosed the problem, he doesn’t see the depth of it. He still imagines this can be cured if only people became Lutheran, or understood Luther’s message better. There were two heartening things which Anderson said towards the end of his talk, in talking about his encounter going to a the Catholic Cathedral in Milan:
- He went in dripping with anti-Catholic prejudice.
- He was surprised to discover that the beautiful artwork was Biblical scenes, and that it was possible that these peasants were actually expressing a faith in Jesus Christ. He concluded, “I could see how this arena of worship could be a powerful statement of Biblical faith.”
- Baptism is just symbolic (that is, it’s not regenerative, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t actually cleanse us through it);
- The Eucharist is just symbolic (it’s not actually the Body and Blood of Christ);
- Justification is just forensic (we’re declared righteous by God, but we’re not actually made righteous through the Holy Spirit); and
- The Bible is composed of the 66-Book Protestant canon.