Some churches have a very tight and centralized structure; Protestantism does not. We have many different expressions of the same theological ideas and yet we can hold each other in esteem as the family of Christ in the absence of rigid uniformity. We have a true “catholicity” of spirit in that we can accept other Christians very different from ourselves as being Christians without the need for them to join our particular branch or sit under our particular jurisdiction, and we still call them friends. We have differences of opinion, sometimes heated differences, but we have learned the wisdom of St. Augustine in saying “In the Essentials Unity, in the non-essentials Liberty, and in all things Charity.” Protestantism being a particularly Augustinian phenomenon has helped us in this. With Augustine, we cherish the Scriptures themselves as the sole infallible rule in matters of faith and practice, and this shapes the way we do church.
With this, while we would regard Protestant denominations like the Lutherans, or Reformed, or Anglican, or Episcopal, or Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Methodist, or Evangelical Free Church, or Assemblies of God, or the Four Square, or Calvary Chapel, or the Vineyard as being preferable, we view the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox as being just other denominations of a different tradition. While they would tend to say that it is being under their dominion that is the pre-requisite for being a Christian, we would tend to say that it is what a person believes, or thinks, that makes one a Christian.
This is sometimes explained by saying that we hold to “Justification by faith alone” (though a true faith inevitably changes the way a person behaves). With us, it is whether or not one believes what Jesus said that is the important point, and where one goes to church is of realitvely minor importance. This is why teaching that “community” is more important than “doctrine” might escape a thoughtfully Protestant understanding of these things. Martin Luther stood against the Community, Pope, and Emperor with only a Bible in his hands; Athanasius took on the world; this is our tradition.
The Bible as the only infallible message from God
The Protestant view is that the only infallible resource, the ultimate arbiter in every matter of faith and morals, will always by necessity be, the writings of the Prophets and Apostles themselves, that we call the Holy Scriptures; the Bible. There is no avoiding it being the beginning and end of every theological conflict, because it is the content of every theological conflict. There is no amount of authority or power in an earthly office (the church) that can make them say what they don’t say or not say what they do say. And so they judge the judgements of men and even Church councils. All human judgements can err but the Scriptures cannot and do not err, therefore they themselves are the ultimate and final authority in matters of faith and practice.
Someone will say about this, that it leaves everyone to judge for themselves what the Scriptures mean, and so it is, by necessity. Even if someone chooses to believe that whatever the Church says must be correct, they have chosen what to believe. The question is, have they believed the right thing for the right reasons. The Church saying that the Church is right because the Church is right is not a reason. It is an arbitrary act of power without rational justification and Christians are supposed to be a reasonable people.
So if anyone wants to make the claim, they will need to justify their authority. And how will they do it? How will they justify the identity, nature, offices, authority, and powers of the Church in history? There is only one option; they will need to argue from the Scriptures. And when they do, they have practically admitted what Protestants have simply revived as the dominant Christian knowledge tradition. That the Scriptures themselves are the ‘sole infallible rule in all matters of faith and practice’. What we call “sola scriptura”, the fundamental article of the Reformation.
You can’t even know there is a Church unless Scripture tells you so.
And if someone says, you can’t know what the Scriptures are apart from the Church telling you what they are, we would need to ask, “What Church?” and “How do you know that?” If they say it is from the Scriptures, they have shown their argument to be circular and largely meaningless, because they would have needed to reference Scripture itself in order to know what Scripture was which is the Protestant position; that the Scriptures carry their own authority. If they say it is not from the Scriptures we can disregard that kind of an argument as being born of an improper authority, since nothing has the authority to justify the words of God. The greater authority justifies the lesser, not the lesser the greater.
Someone will say, “Yes, but what scriptures? How does a Protestant know what the Scriptures are in order to consult them as to what the Church really is?” And that is a very real problem to think about, but we would think not as serious a problem as artificially imposing an authoritative structure that decides based upon some unproven and largely unintelligible supernatural power which books are and are not Scripture, and then imposes it upon everyone with weary threats of “Anathema”. That is not a very nice way to argue and holds little in the way of persuasive force or evidential reasoning. More, what it means is that there is supposedly no rational or thoughtful way to distinguish what the Scriptures are and what they are not.
As to the question of the Church needing to be very old and have very old ways in order to be the legitimate Church, the Church that wrote the Holy Scriptures is recognized and admitted by all parties to have been the newest of new churches; you can’t get any newer than the writers of the New Testament.
And of course that would have been by a very new Church with very new beliefs, not an old Church with old beliefs. The big question being, how do you know what those beliefs were? The question on point is the most important to answer. Whether or not the entity we call the Church was created, or better, given an identity as such by God, prior to the speech of God that we call the Scriptures being given, is made irrelevant by the epistemological limitation imposed by the historical medium God chose as a vehicle of revelation. Why I mean by this is that of course “the Church” existed prior to the Scriptures being written, because Jesus needed to make Christians before the Christians could write down what the Christians believed. It really goes without saying. But, if there was a Church in existence prior to the giving of Scripture, that can only be known because you read about it in Scripture, or infer its prior existence from information that you find in Scripture. There is no other way to know such a thing. This makes Scripture itself primary and of such a singular importance and authority that nothing else can compare but as a distant second, at best.
We could think of it like this:
The Apostle Paul existed.
The Apostle Paul wrote Scripture.
The Apostle Paul existed prior to writing Scripture.
The Apostle Paul believed and became part of the Church.
The Apostle Paul existed, believed, and became part of the Church
prior to writing Scripture.
The only historical records that we have of the existence, faith, life, and writing of Scripture by the Apostle Paul are contained within the Scriptures themselves. Therefore, Scripture is the beginning and end of our possible knowledge of the Apostle Paul, his life, faith, practice, doctrine, authority, words, works, and ultimate significance.
There is no other mode of identification. There is nothing out-side of Scripture that gives you the identity, content, formulation, or mode of communication of the Church. Unless we care to posit some other first century A.D. text or some other record that we can examine for authenticity and veracity apart from Scripture, the Scriptures are it. There is nothing else. They themselves are the Historical record. They themselves are the testimony of the witnesses. There is no other source. There is no other record.
Talking about “Tradition”
Now often, at this point, people start saying the word “tradition” a lot. Tradition as an idea can be used in a lot of different ways. One rule to remember is that if it means everything, it does not then mean anything very important. It would just be another way of saying, “the past”, but we already have a word for that.
If we say “tradition” and mean by this something other than the Scriptures themselves as a means of identifying the Scriptures themselves, we have unhinged ourselves from any meaningfully verifiable account of the authenticity and veracity of the Christian religion. We have destroyed it as a rational claim; a reasonable faith. By definition within the ambit of the early first century Church, we have no record of any tradition outside of the Scriptures and thus no way to measure what that tradition did or did not entail. The traditions that we do have are, predictably, the ones preserved within the Scriptures themselves. Any other, if there is one, God did not see it as important enough to preserve by instantiating it in clear propositional sentences (writing) so that it could transcend the boundaries of mere common practice. If there was such a tradition we couldn’t know it, and if we can’t know it, any kind of nonsense is provided a foothold by the mere claim of a tradition without any substantial argument. Thus when anyone says that some tradition existed in the early Church and they mean to use it as a claim to continuity, but we don’t have anyone that wrote of such until decades or centuries later, that is not tradition so much as a guess. Putting a guess together with a the power of and intimidation of a Church office or a strong assertion labeled with Anathemas will not make it any more reasonable.
It’s true that there are other references to scriptural events in extra-biblical accounts by authors like Josephus, but these are merely in passing and of light value in determining the authenticity and veracity of the Scriptures themselves. What they show is that the Scriptures are not in any way obviously false. Perhaps even that some aspects are very probably true. But they tell us little about the mode of baptism or justification or the extent of the Canon.
There is a historical Church carrying on through history. The issue is, that its identification can only be made by the application of deductive and inductive logic from the only reliable record that God has given us of His thought on the matter. To say that there is a Church, and the Church says the Bible is true, and then the Bible says the Church is the true Church is just confusing and would cause us to ask again, what Church? Is the identity of the Church self-justifying? And are the Scriptures not self-justifying? (That the Word of God is not self-justifying seems problematic, since it seems to be the methodology of Jesus.) If the Church is self-justifying it’s hard to see how, and if the Scriptures are not self-justifying they cannot then be used to justify the Church, and if neither are self-justifying then neither are very helpful to the matter at hand, and if they justify each other that’s just doubling down on unjustifiable claims to knowledge. You lose everything trying to get a little something. Do you see the problem here, because I do, and I need to remain within the realm of fair understanding? To act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Unless you can convince me by Scripture or sound reason I cannot, I shall not, recant. God help me. Amen.
1st 30 minutes:
Is there is only one true God?
Are all religions a path to God?
What about all of the divisions and differences in Protestantism?
On the Protestant use of Tradition
On the place of Tradition, and the tradition of having a religious tradition.
On “Sola Scriptura”
2nd 30 minutes:
On Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism as “new religion”.
On the “old churches” and why being old is not a good sign of being true.
The problem of the difference between the age of the faith and the
purity of the faith.
How do we identify the a true church from a false church.
The historical church as the promoter and defender of heterodoxy.
“Authority” in itself cannot justify any particular matter of
Scripture is always going to be the final source of justification.
You can’t even know that there is a “Church” unless the scriptures
tell you that.
The Scriptures carry their own authority within themselves.
The Scriptures were written by a very new Church.
The Scriptures created the Church.
“Semper Reformanda” “Always Reforming” as the motto of the Reformation.
On theology today being purer than in the early church.
On the Scriptures themselves being the evidence of their own veracity.
3rd 30 minutes:
American religion is overwhelmingly Protestant.
The crucial importance of having “Denominations”.
The Genius of Protestantism.
The “Pax Protestanta”.
The Roman Catholic Church as just another denomination, that thinks
they are not one.
Calvary Chapel as just another denomination, that thinks they are not one.
The difference between sub-orthodoxy and sub-Christian religion.
“Force” as an illegitimate method for the propagation of true religion.
The overwhelming peace between Protestant denominations as Christian churches.
The ability and practice of Protestants to follow Augustine in
allowing “Liberty” in arguable matters.
The absurdity of defining who is and is not a Christian because of
what organization they belong to rather than what they believe about
That “there is no salvation outside the roman Catholic Church”
Protestants have always been Catholic.
Roman is a particular term; Catholic is a universal term.
Protestants are “Catholic” but not “Roman”, because such seems self
Protestants can allow that anyone in any denomination can be a
Christian; some denominations namely Roman Catholicism and Eastern
Orthodoxy, can only allow members of their particular group or sect to
be affirmed as Christians.
There does not seem to be any coherent rational basis for the
authority of popes or Cosmopolitans.
4th 30 minutes:
On Apostolic Succession and “Catholicity”.
Claims to exclusivity and supremacy negate claims to catholicity.
Claiming to be the “one true church” negates catholicity.
The Protestant churches seem to exhibit much more Catholicity of
spirit than other Communions.
Orthodox churches thrive in the very Protestant United States.
Roman Catholic churches thrive in the very Protestant United States.
The peacefulness of Protestantism is the source of these opportunities.
Ordination and a church office says little about their ability to
understand true doctrine.
Protestants have everything that is denied to them by Roman
Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Whether or not the Roman Catholic Church can reasonably be called
“Catholic” when they deny that any Protestants are actually
Christians, call them “accursed”, and think them inferior.
That the Protestant doctrine is that there is no “one true church” on
earth but that all do err.
That some churches are still purer than others.
That which one you belong to is, for Protestants, a matter of conscience.
On forms of church government.
On Non-denominational churches.
On the dangers of unstable forms of church government.
On the lack of general accountability in churches being problematic.
Human authority is always Limited by God; there is no such thing as an
unanswerable human authority.
The Church is a human institution, ordained by God, and so fallible,
and open to error.
The Clergy should always be accountable to the Laity.
The Protestant method for “screening” Pastors is one of the main
reasons that Protestant Clergy have so few scandals when we consider
the sheer overwhelming number of Protestants and Protestant churches.
Protestants have a special genius for getting along in the presence of
Ecumenism can be good or bad depending upon what is meant by it.