30 November 2013

Proto-Protestantism: Narratives and Nomenclature

The Bible itself provides us with an example of a meta-narrative. There's an overarching storyline from Genesis to Revelation regarding the Person of God Himself and the story of a fallen creation. It's a story of alienation and redemption and from beginning to end it's the story of Jesus Christ.

While Higher Critics and other Biblical sceptics chafe at the suggestion that sixty-six books composed over a period of 1500 years could somehow supernaturally be bound together in a common theme, Christians recognize this as reality. It is indeed miraculous and the fact that God has spoken to us and we have His Words is a profound and essential truth theologically liberal 'Christians' and other unbelievers fail to grasp. And thus, they entirely miss the narrative of Scripture and cannot comprehend its message or themes.

When it comes to Church History, every faction has its own meta-narrative, their own way of explaining the course of history with all its ebbs and flows. Often there are heroes and villains and they view history in terms of the good fighting to defeat the bad. There's a goal in mind and usually the way the history itself is written to demonstrate the means to continue to proceed toward that goal. They chart their path so that they can say 'here we are' and 'this is how we got here', and, 'here's how to get where we are going'.

Though problematic, this is not entirely invalid and certainly as Christians we have a different view of history than say a Buddhist or someone who is agnostic. We do believe God has been, is and will be active throughout history and we also believe history is moving toward the Eschaton, the end. Even modern Secular Materialism has some notion of eschatology. Believing science to be messianic they hope to ultimately create a futuristic utopia.

Many view eschatology as speculative and certainly some camps like Dispensationalism engage in great speculation. But this is due to their misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about the Kingdom. It greatly affects how they live now and I would also say has had deeply negative consequences for the Church and the world in the form of wars and policy which has generated a hostility to Christianity.

It cannot be disputed that Postmillennialism helped to fuel 19th century Imperialism. They believed it was their goal to conquer the earth in the name of Christianity, to create a global Christendom. It was an empty dream. They almost accomplished their goal, though it would have been meaningless and empty, lacking all substance. But just as the project was near completion, the European powers turned their guns on each other and destroyed post-Reformational civilization.

These are errors but whatever our eschatological position it will shape our view of the history of the Christian Church.

Thus Roman Catholics will view history in one way. They will see a suffering Church imitating its Saviour ultimately defeating the Roman Empire through attrition. They see the Kingdom of God represented in the subsequent civilizational shift, the creation of Christendom. They also will see the Reformation as a great apostasy which opened the doors to the Age of Reason, the era falsely labeled the Enlightenment. They view the Church as representing God's presence on earth, which of course is true, but that the Spirit in particular rests in the Magisterium which guides the faithful and is a beacon to mankind. The world's problems will only be solved when people return to the Roman Mother.

Protestants have their own narratives and there are many versions. American Protestants have a unique variant giving special place to the history and Providential destiny of North America. Some Protestants such as Lutherans view the Middle Ages as spiritually dark and in need of great reform, but this is a far cry from others who view medieval Christendom as apostasy and spiritual abomination.

When gazing on the history of Europe whether abstractly or in person, standing and looking at a cathedral, is it viewed in continuity with the present? A Lutheran would say absolutely. Though someone like Aquinas was wrong, he would be viewed as a brother and a member of the True Church. A Lutheran or Anglican would view the history of the Medieval Church as something they can empathize with. A Reformed might feel this too but a little less keenly.  A Baptist will often struggle to find the connections. They will struggle to look at the history and say, 'This is the Church that I'm part of today'.

History of course has its tangles. What do you do with the Crusades? The Inquisition? The debauchery and murder of both Papal and Byzantine courts?

Are these sad chapters in the history of the Church, a little dirty laundry, or are these tales of the apostates, the chronicled sins of Samaritans, the hallmarks of false Christianity?

If the Byzantine and Roman Catholic Churches are apostate false bodies, when did this happen? When did the Roman Catholic Church become Roman Catholic? Was it by the year 325? 500? 1000? A case can be made for any of them. Some would even argue the Roman Catholic Church doesn't really come into existence until the Council of Trent in the 16th century. These are difficult questions and how you answer them depends on how you define your terms and how you answer basic foundational questions.

And where do the various proto-Protestant groups fit in? Were the Waldensians the True Church in an age of apostasy? What makes these groups Protestant? What is a Protestant? Some would define it as a body that 'protests' the Established ecclesiology whether it be Greek or Latin. Others believe Protestantism is fundamentally rooted to concepts like Justification by Faith Alone and Sola Scriptura. If that's the case, then with regard to Justification, you won't find any Protestants before 1517, and I'm including the Early Church. And the Sola Scriptura question is further complicated by the fact that Waldensians were committed Biblicists and wouldn't understand the Confessionalism of the later Protestants to be compatible with their understanding of how to use the Bible. In other words, I would argue, they would say the Lutheran and Reformed didn't actually believe in Sola Scriptura or at least not in the same way they did.

And what of the Protestants who don't follow Sola Scriptura? The Church of England? Later groups like the Quakers? Are they Protestants or not?

Are the Waldensians a faithful ecclesiola in ecclesia? A little church within the larger body? Are they a group of ardent Christians protesting a lot of sin in the Church...but the larger body, the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages is nevertheless the one True Church?

Were they schismatics to be praised for their fortitude and commitment to conscience? If so, why then after the Magisterial Reformation when others insisted on following their Biblically informed consciences were they persecuted? I'm referring of course to the Anabaptists. The Waldensians and Anabaptists differed in some ways and were very similar in others. But in principle the Anabaptists were merely following conscience and refusing to go along with the Magisterial Protestant programme. The primary issue wasn't Baptism but Constantinian Sacralism. Yet, the Medieval Waldensians were praised and the Anabaptists were murdered. The Reformers were happy to praise the Waldensians for resisting Rome, but they didn't like it when they were resisted.

Of course none of this is simple either. The Waldensians were not monolithic in their beliefs. They existed more or less in a hybrid Congregational/Diocesan form. Areas were under the leadership of groups of teachers who would rotate and visit the congregations. This wasn't due to an ecclesiastical principle but to pragmatism. They often didn't have teachers for every congregation. But there was a wide variety of practice and different testimonies from different places.

And it's interesting that the Reformers did not universally praise them either. They demanded changes and their praise really came later by Milton's pen and a 19th century version of Protestant Romanticism.

Before the establishment and empowerment of Secularism in the West (which could be argued to have occurred during the latter half of the 20th century), for many Protestants the greatest threat and enemy was Rome. For this reason, they happily embraced virtually every medieval dissenting group as being in some form Protestant and worthy of sympathy of praise.

Today this is less the case. As the Constantinian West itself totters on its foundations the tendency has been to look at Church History in an organic manner and see Protestantism not as revolutionary but as truly reformist and continuationist. This perspective wishes to view Protestantism as the continuation and even heirs of the Constantinian achievement. There's no doubt the Reformers thought more in these terms even though sociologists and non-partisan historians will clearly identify the Reformation as nothing less than a macro-historical social revolution.

Others Protestants have viewed it as a bit more complicated. They would argue the Roman Catholic Church had more or less become apostate but was still barely retaining the status of a viable Church. They believe the Scholastic formulations of the 17th century and after represent a recovery of true Biblical Christianity. They believe solid foundational markers were laid at this point, not during the 16th century Reformation. The Reformation opened the door, started the process, but its zenith was not reached for several generations.

While appreciating the 'ad fontes'/to the sources outlook and mentality of the Renaissance that helped to foment the Reformation on a social level, ultimately they believe it is unnecessary and even undesirable to go back and glory in the medieval past or to try and emulate it. Their epistemology at this point was so firmly rooted that in many ways history hardly existed before 1517, in the same way for many Secularists history did not begin until 1789.

Go to Part 2


Eliyahu BenYsrael said...

How can the Roman Catholics, The Protestants, The Anabaptists, or any group be the true believers; the true church? Only those God is saving are true believers; not members of some man made separation or group. And His redeemed have existed in every nation, and every denomination under heaven. Maybe the reason we are having so much trouble sorting this out is because we're sorting it wrong; by group, title, organization, and to a large extent, theology instead of by individuals whose hearts God is changing. We can't number Israel and be correct-or guiltless.

Eliyahu BenYsrael said...

I'm not blaming you bro- it's a fascinating article. Keep it up.

Protoprotestant said...

I think institutionalization of the Church draws unnecessary lines.

It's giving a form and bureaucracy to factionalism.

Too often Church history is viewed through this lens.

I think the Biblical polity is that of Congregationalism. With that polity you can have a great deal of diversity and yet still recognize individuals and individual congregations as legitimate.

I 'try' to ignore the denominations and view congregations independently. Of course when you're attending their polities won't let you do that. So while I can say I really dislike this or that 'group' I might make exceptions for individual congregations and certainly exceptions for individuals who affiliate with those groups.

The Church is where the Word is and there are times (we live in one) where it doesn't seem like there are very many congregations, let along Factions where that can be said.