30 November 2013

Proto-Protestantism: Narratives and Nomenclature (Part IV/Final)

Today, with the Culture Wars the emphasis is on continuity with the Middle Ages and the whole of Christendom. But even a generation ago this was not the case. Some claimed the proto-Protestant groups because of their anti-Catholicism. Some exploited them for nationalistic purposes and created narratives concerning the true faith being present in this or that land...a sort of 'God has always been with us' badge. Those that use them in this way show a lack of understanding, a failure to grasp what these groups were actually about. The Hussites of course would be something of an exception. There are always exceptions. This is the nature of history and exposes the problems of those who wish to use it for their own ends. Both the Taborites and Utraquists were nationalistic. And yet other Hussites weren't and the groups which formed after the dissolution of the Taborites were not. As always it's complicated.

Sometimes a narrative is created regarding the 'True Church' and often this is tied to the British Isles or the Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic race. These narratives are unacceptable and reveal deeper theological and historical misunderstanding.

Today as Protestant Evangelicals dream of a revived Christendom the Dissenters of the Middle Ages are more misunderstood than ever. Now I find those espousing extreme Right Wing ideas trying to set themselves up as Neo-Lollards or other proto-Protestants. Somehow Capitalism and guns are the hallmarks of medieval protest. The Waldensians become Glenn Beck style Right Wing guerillas.

Or, they receive a patronizing nod but are ignored as they did not participate in the so called 'great' achievements of the Middle Ages. The idea that we would reject the castle and cathedral heritage is unthinkable.

I love to see those things too, but I don't view them as being Christian.

Others have written them off preferring to accept the blasphemies and idolatries of Rome as the real Church rather than the power-eschewing remnant surviving in cellars, woods and caves and yet clinging tenaciously to the Bible as the sole standard of authority. The rich fat sodomite bishop sitting in palace represented Christ and the hunted people huddled around the Bible in a cave were simply misguided zealots. Wisdom is justified by her children.

As I've often argued Sacralism is a religion concerned with power. The imagery of Revelation 17 is so poignant in this regard...the harlot Church joining with the Beast. The followers of the false lamb who speaks like a dragon worship the beast and in doing so think they worship the True Lamb of God. The see their Church as pure and white but in reality it is an idol worshipping adulteress dripping with blood. This is the city of Zion called Sodom that slew Christ and persecutes his followers.

Thus far I've used the term proto-Protestant to describe my set of beliefs and to define this writing project. I have meant it in the sense of pre-Reformational protest against the Constantinian Shift. This is quite different from how many others would view proto-Protestantism. Those that wish to use the term or emphasize these groups are usually thinking in terms of some kind of continuity with Magisterial Protestantism. That is definitely not what I wish to emphasize, in fact that is precisely what I am against.

The term is so complicated in its use and misuse as to be almost worthless. All too often these terms (like Evangelical) are thrown about, and become so broad and inclusive that they end up being essentially meaningless and we're driven to come up with something new. Lamentably the word Christian has certainly reached that point. When someone says they're a Christian, what does that say? Without explanation, it's an empty term.

Though I can greatly sympathize with the Anabaptists, I'm not one of them. I think they have a better understanding of the Kingdom than most Protestants but beyond that I have little in common with them and sadly I would argue many of these groups have also degenerated into a legalism so severe as to overthrow the Gospel itself.

The theology I espouse is definitely a minority position in the history of the Church. There is no camp and I'm thankful for that. But after years of study, I believe my own positions are closest to what the majority of Waldensians embraced and certainly if I had to pick a favourite theologian, a figure I can resonate with more than any other, it's Petr Chelcicky of Bohemia. Many believe that he represents Waldensian theology and if that's the case, then his writings are the most exhaustive explanation of their position.

I could identify this theology with terms such as Pilgrim, Remnant, or Martyr but I would have to emphasize this does not mean to suggest a group in retreat or in hiding. Our role isn't to transform society. Only the gospel can transform. We can't water it down in order to bring in the numbers. We see it so clearly today and many Protestants denounce the modern Finneyite and Seeker Church but do not see that their Reformation forebears made their own compromises to retain the numbers.

We are to bear witness, to cast down the idols, and to speak the truth. No man made system can work and even begin to solve the problems of this world. Our message is to repent and believe the gospel. We know that only a minority will ever do this and so with that understanding we confess that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth. This affects our ethics and the totality of our lives.

Pilgrim Theology is probably the term I would say is closest to what I'm advocating. Sadly, a Reformed theologian recently appropriated this label for a recent book. It's sad because the Kuyperian theology he espouses is anything but 'pilgrim' in its nature.

Thus, though it will prove confusing, I'm changing the name of the site. Proto-Protestantism is too nebulous and in some ways unhelpful and it definitely confuses some into thinking I'm somehow advocating connections with the 16th century Reformation which I do wish to suggest. Divorcing myself from the label of Protestant affords me a certain liberty and ability to break with a certain period of history.

Rather than appear to be offering a system (an –ism) it's more accurate to say that I'm trying to open the gate to help others see the Third Way, a different road, a different path. I am not advocating the teaching Karl Barth or the Emergent Church. I believe these teachings and groups to aberrations from what the Scripture teaches. I advocating a very old fashioned, historically conscious, intellectual Biblicism and I would argue the same cancer which bred the Roman Church of the Middle Ages lives on in the Protestant West. The cancer looks different because the context is different. But it's the same disease. We can learn from those who protested before and now more than ever we need a dissenting movement.






Cal said...

Glad you're back.

In response to the whole collection of posts:

I really appreciate what you're doing here. You're right on in looking at history. Of course we don't have to default down to a radical wycliffite definition of a Platonic Ideal church. There's always that connectivity between groups, handing down the teaching of the apostles (Scripture), but that may look like hiding in caves or woods.

However, don't you think we can do the same for the institutional/denominational behemoths? I dont give credence to ecclesiola in ecclesia on account that it speaks about institutions as a category for church. Thus we judge congregation by congregation but knowing the realities of being from a higher institution, and how binding that is.

Obviously we can see the difference between the 9th century papacy and Claude of Turin, and the near fascist 16th century post-Trent Rome. Thus while it was an age of apostacy, there are little places of light. I'd say someone like Francis and his immediate companions represent this, even though the "order" corrupted quickly, and was used, as you say, to be a safety valve and combat the dissenters.

And I suppose the same could be said for the magisterial reformers. The Anglicans are similar and thus you can find both heartily gospel communities, and gospel-less "liberal" deistic ones. Depending on the country, I'd almost rather take my chance looking into one of those than some confessional bodies.

Confessionalism, from what I've seen in Presbyterianism, has only created arguments over an extra scriptural document and schisms. I don't agree with Leithart's soft Constantianism, but his harassment was only par for the course. Perhaps bodies like ECO,using multiple confessions to help structure reading the Scripture, are better, but I'm not convinced. Better than OPC/PCA I suppose.

However the pilgrim identity is sorely forgotten. I don't think Barth is such a distortion that you do, at least from his effect on some of his readers(not students) like Ellul and Stringfellow. They've seen and understood that the kingdom is not of this world. Yet they remain as prophets in a wilderness generally ignored or misunderstood.

I'm with ya on Chelcicky, I wish there was more on him. Maybe I should learn czech!


Eliyahu BenYsrael said...

This site is such a breath of fresh air-after getting targeted on social media for criticizing Americhristianity. Seriously brother-I don't know how you do it because I've had it and I really don't plan on speaking about it to Christians anymore; let them believe what they want and let God show them the truth. In the mean time, I just pray God keeps them out of and far from political or economic power over others.

Also, could you elaborate a bit on how Post millennialism led to Imperialism and eventually two world wars? Is such a kingdom now theology fueling a new Holy war complex today? If so, how?

Protoprotestant said...


What happened...you got targeted?

It's hard to speak to Christians. I have to work hard to keep my heart from growing cold. When I meet new clients and find out they're Christians, it usually makes me want to walk out. Inevitably the conversations arise and oddly enough they get FAR more upset with me than totally lost people. I've worked for Lesbians and others who know we differ and they just roll with it. They understand I'm not out to get them. I'm not trying to marry political power to my faith. We can actually talk. It's refreshing.

But Sacralist Christians...no,no. You're the arch-heretic. And yes I'll give them that....one of us is an absolute heretic.

I often use email with my work and once I start with a Christian client...the emails start. You know, the blasphemous patriotic ones, the Right-wing propaganda, the sacrilegious ones about angels and lighting a candle etc...

I've actually had to quit in some cases. Usually I try to quit before I even get started.

I realize these are people I can 'reach' but it's tough when you're working for them. I'd rather break the labour arrangement and just talk to them in a neutral context. It usually doesn't work.

I would despair except for the fact that I was one of them and God saved me. So I know there's hope.

Protoprotestant said...

Postmillennialism believes that Christianity is to conquer the world and establish the Kingdom in terms of cultural and political polity.

Some believe this will be accomplished through revival style mass conversions and others believe it will be brought about through cultural transformation.

For most Western Europeans their civilization was equated with the Kingdom of God on earth. The Reformation enhanced this and I would argue even affected Catholic countries like France. How? The Reformation strengthened the state. The old battle between state and church that raged throughout the Medieval era was over. The state won and the Papacy began a long slow decline.

Protestantism also helped to generate the Enlightenment which led to massive Reformation of not just the Church but society itself. New ideas about government and economics were born.

Capitalism is inseparable from Imperialism. Capitalism will always lead to conquest. It's in its nature.

Though not every European government was embracing Postmillennialism per se, the ideology became normative for the culture. Romanism was about preserving the old and Protestantism was about progress.

It just progressed a little too far and they've been trying to put the brakes on for a couple of centuries.

But this idea that Western=Christian and thus when the world becomes Western it becomes Christian.

They almost did it. Of course it was a false Kingdom of God but they almost accomplished their dream by the early 20th century.

It is poetic irony that Providence destroyed their Proud Tower, their almost completed Babel.

In 1914 they turned their guns on themselves and proceeded to destroy everything they worked for.

In one sense it unleashed some of the greatest horror in world history.... on the other hand as an anti-Sacralist I see it as right justice, Providence checking the pride of man.

Postmillennialism is a prosperity gospel and its coming back.

Protoprotestant said...


I agree with you about Wycliffe's Platonic View of the Church. While I do hold to Predestination as something the Bible clearly teaches and I can see why Wycliffe and others used the doctrine as a means to combat the power-claims of the Papacy paradigm, I don't think it should shape our understanding of ecclesiology and the forms the Church takes.
That's not to say all Biblical doctrines aren't somehow related, but I don't believe the doctrine when used in context is meant to affect what the Bible says about the Church as a visible organization. Systematics often cancels out key points of Biblical doctrine.
Organization does not imply bureaucracy or institution. The organic element is in Christ and it manifests itself on earth in individuals and congregations. That's liberating when it comes to interpreting Church history.
I also will grant that while I tend to consider institutional behemoths as illegitimate there certainly can be 'good' and faithful people in the mix. I loathe and detest the Presbyterian system and its institutional bodies but I have often attended Presbyterian churches. The rub is...they often won't let you be unless you become one of them.
There are many lights within the Roman middle ages. There are some today. As unbelievable as it may seem, there are even lights among the Presbyterians! In all cases I wish those folks would repent and break with those awful organizations.
I have long been fascinated by Francis and the years subsequent to the founding of his movement. It was definitely a light (in some sense) and a real and very healthy challenge to what has happening with the Papacy during the High Middle Ages.
There is much to appreciate about Anglicanism. I'm more dubious about their forms than you would be but I can tolerate them and certainly have in the past. It's certainly preferable if my only other choice is contemporary or camp-meeting style liturgy.

Protoprotestant said...

I've worshipped in Anglican Churches (outside the US) on many occassions and been blessed. Doctrinally in terms of Biblical Structure, soteriology, sacraments etc... I find a lot to agree with and at this point in time I would be pretty happy to have a conservative one nearby. Though I lament the fact that the conservative congregations feel the need to stay wedded to an apostate institution...they can do what they want....I will simply ignore it and only see the congregation.
Leithart is part of the Federal Vision movement which in many ways is a kind of Anglican theology at work within Reformed circles. As far as that goes I'm very much in sympathy with Federal Vision and came to those positions years before they appeared on the scene. But sadly, like Leithart they're all Constantinian Sacralists (as well as Theonomic Postmils) and that's where we break company. I don't think at this point I could even consider attending one of their bodies. Theonomists in the pulpit equals my immediate departure.
Have you read Leithart's book on Constantine? Part of it is historical study but really it's an attack on John Yoder. I read it, took notes and hopefully will write something about at some point. Obviously time has not been a luxury I've possessed since the summer. Leithart gets the history right but the theology wrong. And it's not a historical question. Thus his interpretation of the history is also deeply flawed.
I found the book to be an exercise in deceit and a work of shame. But I knew it would be. I have known many Theonomists and while some are good folk and well meaning, most are scoundrels.
Apart from our affinites with regard to say soteriology or the sacraments, he's the extreme antithesis of everything I'm about.
I mentioned Ellul in the other comment. I've listened to Stringfellow speak and found him inspiring. His example of living in the ghetto etc... is convicting. But for all that there are many Buddhists, RC's and others who have done the same sort of thing. I don't believe he was a Christian. We all deal with sins that beset us and haunt us but living a seemingly unrepentant homosexual lifestyle is really problematic.
While you may disagree I will go so far as to say in the way most Biblical conservatives won't....I see career soldiers, politicians and many other people in the same light. Their sins and justification of them are just as problematic. Can God show mercy? Of course, but could Stringfellow be part of a Church where I was an elder? No, not unless he repented and manifested the repentance through change.
But I would say the same to Oliver North or Jerry Boykin.
Given the choice I'd rather live next door to Stringfellow. I could be friends with him but I couldn't be part of a congregation with him. The other camp... I don't want anything to do with in any way.

Cal said...

I haven't read Leithart's book, but had the same intuition as you when I saw it. Correct history, but wrong theology. Is the gospel for princes? Of course, but just like the gospel is for murderers, thieves and prostitutes. I'll leave that there. I've read other parts of Leithart off his internet posting, I'm always baffled his naive he can be when it comes to politics and "just rule".

Well, in regards to Stringfellow, I suppose that's between him and the Lord. I don't think he lived a "homosexual lifestyle" though he did live with his "partner" but also with others as well. This all requires a hard look at friendship and its depth.

Was Stringfellow a homosexual? Probably yes, but what did he do about it? He wrote against gratifying the flesh and was chaste, according to what one can glean from his writing and life. But ultimately, neither of us know the man as a man. A good, and oddly prophetic book, he wrote was "Ethics for Christians and other aliens in a strangeland". A lot of what he wrote concerning the US during the Vietnam era is doubly true today. I found myself mystified. How much horror would he be in today, give his resistance in the 60's.