Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Call to Reform?

This is a "Focus Paper" for Church History II. It's another one of those assignments where you have to "fall off the log" and make statements that you may not fully agree with. Nonetheless, there is a lot in here that I like.

It is undoubtedly true that the Protestant principle which Paul Tillich speaks of is indeed a pervasive reality. Since the time of the Reformation Protestants have appealed to both Scripture and conscience almost exclusively in determining what is to constitute the Christian faith. The result is thousands of fractured, autonomous sects declaring themselves to teach the truth based solely upon Scripture and individual convictions. The damage accrued is not irreparable but requires a renewed adherence to the historical Christian narrative in order to rediscover the truths that lay at the center of Christian orthodoxy. As unfriendly as it sounds to the often myopic Protestant ear, a system of councils is preferable to the inherent dangers of the Protestant principle.

One of the central problems facing Protestant biblical interpretation is that of the locus of authority. Protestants have rejected the type of ecclesiastical authority represented by Roman Catholicism. This has resulted in a vacuum where periodically an individual will arise and determine his/her interpretation to encapsulate real Christian truth. Dissensions carry weight when there is no authority to appeal to beyond personal interpretations of the Bible. While certain levels of ecclesiastical authority remain (i.e. denominational boards) there is no central and unifying authority for Protestant Christians. This poses a problem without precedence considering historically the Church has appealed to its leaders to identify orthodoxy.

While the possibility of complete ecumenical unity is perhaps infeasible, if the Protestant Church desires to eradicate schism it may need to consider an ecclesiastical reform which would bring Protestantism into greater continuity with the Church structure of Roman Catholicism. Many of the doctrines central to the Christian faith were debated and agreed upon by Church councils in the Patristic period. The bishopry was best suited to handle matters of theology and was balanced by the number of bishops who contributed to debate. Theologians from the West and the East conjoined to participate in the development of the most monumental decisions in Christian history. In many ways we owe the orthodox interpretation of Scripture to the ecclesiastical structure of early Christianity.

The ecclesiology of the Patristic period is not immune from corruption. The gradual development of papal authority, while by no means inherently evil, leaves itself open to the abuse of power. When final authority is predominantly placed in leaders, a hierarchy forms in which the followers become victim to intentional deception. However, such structure is by no means a guarantee for eventual corruption and such an argument is not terrible effective. If Church authority remains in the univocal consensus of hundreds of Church leaders the danger of exploitation becomes significantly minimized. More concerns arise when final authority is placed in a single man. Most Protestants would use this concern as a critique of the Roman papacy without realizing that inherent within the Protestant principle is the placement of authority within individual men.

The ecclesiology that best preserves the integrity of the Christian community is one which finds consistency with the Patristic period. If the Protestant Church endeavors to eliminate useless schism and endless debate it would do well to seek to reform its own ecclesiastical structure. In reality, that which began as a call to reform has become a mandate for division.


Kevin K. Wright said...

Good paper. You'll probably get an A. However, you rightly note that the patristic period was wrought with church politics. Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, Athanasius, and the Cappodocians are all guity of playing politics to champion their views. Every period has its weaknesses I suppose.

Sniper said...

very well written. there is no probably about it. An "A" for sure. Good thoughts Ben, you are getting more and more effective in your writing