|Martin Luther, illustration from Die Gartenlaube (1883)|
Martin Luther and many of the original Protestant Reformers believed that “the all-clear Scriptures of God” were so clear that “if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from their own blindness or want of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth.” In other words, if there is any doctrine that any two Christians disagree on, it’s because at least one of them is evil or uneducated.
In Luther’s formulation, this really meant everything: “nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.” I suspect that few Protestants today would go this far, and for good reason. If you’re a Lutheran who took Luther’s view, it would mean writing off all non-Lutherans as foolish or blinded by their wickedness. And since modern Lutheranism consists of multiple denominations disagreeing with one another, you’d have to reject even most other Lutherans in this way. But even this wouldn’t be enough: you would literally have to say that anyone who disagrees with you about anything about the Bible is ignorant or evil. Because according to Luther, if you’re a Christian, 100% of doctrines are crystal clear to you. If your neighbor disagrees, the doctrines must not be crystal clear to him, so one of you is suspect.
To totally reject the Reformers’ belief in the clarity of Scripture would require an interpretative aid, like the Church or Sacred Tradition. Many Protestants are unwilling to accept such a conclusion, so we’ve instead seen a shift to a modified position, that we might call “mere Christianity.”
The modern Protestant claim is usually more cautious than what Luther presented. Nowadays, you’re likely to hear that by reading Scripture, all Christians will come to at least a sure knowledge of all “essential” doctrines. Left to our own devices (or submitting ourselves to the teaching authority of our own choosing), we may not get the finer details right. Even Luther admitted this, sort of:
The Scripture simply confesses the Trinity of God, the humanity of Christ, and the unpardonable sin. There is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. But how these things are the Scripture does not say, nor is it necessary to be known.
So there are things we don’t know, and presumably, things that we’re wrong about. But they’re unimportant. They’re not part of the “heart” of Christianity, and nobody’s soul is in jeopardy by getting doctrines of this sort right. On such matters, Christianity is best when Christians exercise a healthy sense of Christian liberty on the matters. As the famous axiom says, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Such a view gets rid of the need for the papacy or any sort of authoritative teaching authority in the Church. Indeed, that appears to have been part of its original appeal. While the “in essentials, unity” axiom is credited to all sorts of famous personages (St. Augustine and John Wesley, for example), apparently, the first known appearance of the phrase actually comes from Marco Antonio de Dominis. He was the ex-Archbishop of Spilatro, who left the Church after running afoul of the Inquisition to become the Anglican dean of Windsor. In 1617, whilst denouncing Catholicism, de Dominis declared:
“Now if this plague of an abomination [were to] be cleared away at the root—i.e. see or rather throne of the Roman pontiff—itself, […] we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity.”
How well does the claim that all Christians agree about essential doctrines hold up? Not particularly well. It turns out there are two major problems: (1) who counts as a Christians? and (2) what counts as essential? Let’s consider each problem in turn:
Let’s take “Christians” in its broadest sense first, to mean “anyone who calls themselves Christian.” Obviously, we will find no doctrinal unity on the “essentials,” or indeed, ANY major doctrine with so many competing creeds and beliefs.
Think about it: within that group, you’ve got everyone from Mormons who claim that God the Father is a human being who physically impregnated the Virgin Mary to Episcopalians who deny the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ to Pentecostals who reject the Trinity. All of these are people who consider themselves Christians, and who want to be considered Christians, but who most other Christians don’t want considered Christians. And each of them denies something central to orthodox Christianity.
So if you take a broad “whoever calls himself a Christian is a Christian” view, there’s no hope of finding even basic agreement on any of what might termed the essentials, or much of anything else. And if you have some sort of standard of what defines a Christian, what is it, and who gets to decide?
The first problem is bad, but the second problem is worse. If you say that all Christians agree on essential doctrines, which doctrines fall into that category? It turns out, there’s virtually no agreement. Doug Beaumont, prior to his conversion to Catholicism, produced a list of 75 significant areas of debate within Protestantism. Debates rage between Protestants over Creation and evolution, contraception and abortion, Saturday or Sunday worship, women’s ordination, Eucharistic theology, justification, pacifism, dispensationalism, the role of the Old Testament in Christianity, and numerous other topics.
It’s not just that Protestants are disagreeing with one another in a way that disproves Luther’s claims about Biblical clarity. It’s that you don’t even find these Protestants agreeing with one another about whether or not the topic is essential.
Take justification by faith alone. For Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformers, justification was by faith alone (sola fide), and this was the most essential doctrine in all of Christianity:
The classical Reformed and Lutheran traditions have maintained that the doctrine of justification is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the article upon which the Church stands and falls. What we’re really saying is that the gospel, that is the good news that God justifies sinners by grace, through faith on account of Christ, is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. So, in the minds of the reformers, the doctrine of justification is synonymous with the gospel.
Contrast that with C.S. Lewis’ view (presented in his wonderful book Mere Christianity, ironically), that Christians need faith and works, and that the debate over justification is a waste of time:
“Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. A serious moral effort is the only thing that will bring you to the point where you throw up the sponge. Faith in Christ is the only thing to save you from despair at that point: and out of that Faith in Him good actions must inevitably come.”
So there are really two disputes. Not only do Luther and Lewis disagree about justification, but they also disagree about whether justification is an essential doctrine or not. For Luther, it’s the Gospel. For Lewis, it’s a trivial dispute, like asking which blade of the scissors does the cutting.
There are really two problems here. First of all, who gets to decide which doctrines are essential? And second, isn’t the question of which doctrines are essential itself an essential part of Christianity? If we can’t even agree which doctrines are essential, how can we possibly claim to agree on all essential doctrines?
So how can these two problems be resolved?
If you’re not familiar, the No True Scotsman fallacy works like this:
Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “I am Scottish, and I put sugar on my porridge.”
Person A: “Well, no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
That, more or less, is the response of many “Mere Christianity” Protestants to the problems I’ve outlined. Mormons, Oneness Pentecostals, and liberal Episcopalians disagree with you on doctrines that you consider “essential”? Well, then, they’re not Christian. Once you declare that anyone who disagrees with you on essential doctrines is no longer a Christian, then you can quickly conclude that all Christians agree with you on essential doctrines.
But that’s nothing more than a tautology. All that proves is that everyone who agrees with you agrees with you. That doesn’t get us to Mere Christianity. It gets us to merely you.
Worse, your opponent might do the same thing, declaring that everyone who disagrees with him isn’t a Christians. So why should we believe you (who he says isn’t a Christian) instead of him (who you say isn’t a Christian)? After all, neither of you have any authority to excommunicate the other one. Your usurped authority is based simply on the idea that you’re each really sure of your own correctness.
|Pope John XXIII, 1959|
As should be plainly clear, to be able to “embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things non necessary liberty; in all things charity,” you need an authority capable of determining which doctrines one must hold to in order to be Christian, and which areas permit if varying viewpoints between Christians.
This authority can’t be the Bible itself, for two reasons. First, most of the time, the Bible is the exact area of dispute. This would be akin to saying that we should do away with the Supreme Court, and settle all questions of Constitutional interpretation by all reading the Constitution until we agree. Should we take your interpretation, or your opponent’s? Without an authority capable of determining which of you is right in your interpretation of the Bible, you can’t solve that dispute (and on this point, 500 years of Protestantism prove me correct).
Second, we need a living authority capable of settling disputes when they arise. Several of the heresies of today simply weren’t around in the first century, and there’s an ongoing task of determining how the Scriptural teachings apply to modern settings. For example, there are a whole slew of moral problems arising in the realm of bioethics that didn’t even exist when most people reading this were born.
So we need an authority capable of telling us which Christian doctrines are essential ones on which we must all agree, and which are perhaps unsettled areas, in which Christians may legitimately hold differing views. To what I imagine would have been de Dominis’ displeasure, this clearly requires a living Magisterium, a Church teaching authority. So it is a Divine irony that what had begun as an anti-papal axiom ends up not only showing the need for the papacy, but actually being used by a pope. Pope St. John XXIII, in Ad Petri Cathedram, remarked:
71. The Catholic Church, of course, leaves many questions open to the discussion of theologians. She does this to the extent that matters are not absolutely certain. Far from jeopardizing the Church’s unity, controversies, as a noted English author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has remarked, can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark.(25)72. But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.
Here, we see the only way “Mere Christianity” can work: with the Magisterium of the Church there to guide it, to determine which things are necessary parts of that “Mere Christianity” and which are superfluous.
To at least some Protestant readers, I imagine that conclusion seems ridiculous, so let me close on a challenge to you: if St. John XXIII’s approach isn’t the way to save “Mere Christianity,” what is? How else can we (a) know which doctrines are essential to Christianity and (b) unanimously come to complete agreement on these doctrines?