Is Protestantism still a good idea? (Part 2)

[Click here for Part 1 of this discussion.]

It began as a simple digression. I was teaching a Sunday school class on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.1 I asked the class what they thought about Paul’s devil language in Ephesians 2 (which he returns to elsewhere). Who is this “ruler of the power of the air,” and what does it mean? I asked the class if we—sophisticated 21st-century people that we are—really believe in Satan.

I enjoy asking this question because it generates interesting discussion. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I do believe that demonic forces exist—although I try to treat the subject with the same circumspection with which scripture treats it. The New Testament assumes the existence of demonic forces, but doesn’t say much about how they manifest themselves in the world—not nearly as much as some Christians want it to say. So I don’t try to, either.

I explained that the development of the concept of “the devil” emerged in between the Testaments and was taken for granted by Jesus’ day. (I later photocopied an essay for the class from the New Interpreter’s Study Bible that explained all of this nicely and in some detail.)

But someone in the class asked about something tricky: What about Satan in Job? There is, after all, a character in the first couple of chapters called Satan, who makes this rather troubling wager with God. I explained that English translations of the Bible do us no favors by translating satan as a proper noun. This is not the Satan of the gospels who tempts Jesus. In the Hebrew, it is the satan, “the accuser.” Our best understanding is that the satan here is a being who resides in God’s heavenly courts whose job is to act as a kind of divine prosecutor—heaven’s own Jack McCoy (if you watch Law & Order). It’s the heavenly prosecutor’s job to convict guilty people of wrongdoing.

My explanation did not sit well with many people in the class. One email I got from a class member wondered if my problem was that I wasn’t taking the Bible seriously enough. The writer implied that my view on the subject was opposed to people of his persuasion, who have a “conservative” slant on scripture—and that I was, after all, a product of a “liberal” seminary education in this (mostly) “liberal” mainline denomination.2 He and I exchanged some friendly emails, and I addressed the controversy in the next session. I think it was a good and enlightening discussion.

What troubled me was the perception that in saying that there is no devil in the Old Testament, I wasn’t taking the Bible seriously—or that I didn’t believe in it sufficiently. On the contrary, it’s because I take the Bible very seriously that I doubt that the satan mentioned in Job is the devil of the New Testament.

My opinion on the matter—which of course could be wrong—emerges from my best interpretation of what the scripture is saying. It’s not like I’m reading Job and saying, “I know that the writer thought that he was talking about the devil, but he was wrong.” I am trying to exegete the text, which means that I’m trying to hear as best I can what the Bible is saying in its original context—before I spackle over it with my own theological emphasis or bias. Exegesis is a matter of bringing out what the text is actually saying instead of imposing our own views onto it. This is the first and best thing anyone can do in preparing to hear God’s Word through the text.

Of course, after we’ve done the work of asking, “What did this text mean to its original hearers in their particular time and place?” then we can move forward and ask, “What is it saying to us today?” But we can sometimes be lazy or impatient and move straight to the second question without bothering with the first—or assume that there is no difference between the two (which is dangerous).

As I reflected on this little controversy, I had this thought (which gets us back to the subject at hand): We Protestants can be downright Catholic about the Bible and tradition. Yes, there is a tradition that says that the satan in Job is the Satan of the New Testament. Yes, there is a tradition that says that the serpent in Genesis 3 is the devil.

But what if these traditions are wrong? What happens when tradition conflicts with our best understanding of the Bible?

I see this conflict between scripture and tradition most frequently in small-group discussions of questions raised by proponents of the Reformed tradition—that is, the theological tradition of John Calvin and his followers. (Reformed roughly equals Presbyterian, if you want to think of it that way.) Most popular study Bibles, including the NIV Study Bible, are slanted in a Reformed direction (not that plenty of contemporary Reformed scholars wouldn’t take issue with its scholarship).

Sadly, I can’t compete with study Bibles. In my experience, nothing I say from a Wesleyan point of view that contradicts something printed in black and white in the margins of someone’s study Bible carries much weight with people! But it’s in my Bible, they think. I want to say, “Yes, but it’s the words above the margin notes that are the inspired text!”

I was asked one time why, in preaching a certain passage, I didn’t share with the congregation the popular Calvinist interpretation. I told him it’s because I’m not a Calvinist; if I were Calvinist, I’d be a Presbyterian minister, not a Methodist.

(Another more recent and less reputable tradition that I sometimes have to compete with in people’s minds is dispensationalism. At the moment, this tradition is best represented by the Left Behind series of books. An earlier generation devoured Hal Lindsey’s dispensationalist Late Great Planet Earth.)

The point is that we all come to the Bible from our different theological traditions, and our traditions guide us. They help us to hear God’s Word. We United Methodists, in particular, have a deep respect for tradition (which is encoded in our Book of Discipline in its discussion of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”). We stand on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us, and we are not so arrogant to imagine that we, in our own time, have arrived at all the “right” answers on our own.

But if we are Protestants, we believe that no tradition—including the one represented by our beloved John and Charles Wesley—holds anywhere near the same authority as the Bible. When a tradition comes into conflict with our best understanding of scripture, we side with scripture. This was true for Luther when all this trouble started 500 years ago, and it remains true today. Luther and Calvin, among others, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

This, in my view, is the main reason why Protestantism is still a good idea. We are not ultimately Protestants simply because we reject transubstantiation, or excessive Mariology, or the Catholic interpretation of the communion of saints, or the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. We are not even Protestants because we hold more firmly to the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” than they.3

Our doctrinal or theological differences on these and other issues (and let’s please remember that what unites Catholics and Protestants is far, far greater than what divides us) might be a symptom of the main problem, but they are not the problem itself.

The main problem is that Catholics hold tradition to be co-equal with scripture in guiding Christian thought and practice. This dual emphasis on scripture and tradition wasn’t always the case: The Church Fathers of the first several centuries held that scripture was the primary authority. The very real and challenging christological controversies of the first five or six centuries of Christian thought—questions pertaining, for example, to the Trinity and how Jesus is both fully God and fully human—were not resolved primarily by appeals to tradition but to scripture. They were exegetical problems that emerged from scripture.

Roughly speaking, the Catholic Church, in a well-intentioned effort to safeguard the primacy of scripture over the centuries, increasingly interpreted scripture allegorically—moving the Church further away from reading the Bible as the story of Israel and God’s rescue mission for the world. By the time Luther challenged Rome to prosecute him on the basis of scripture itself, the Catholic Church had painted itself into a corner. In order to make their case, they had to assert the equality of tradition alongside scripture. This was codified at the Council of Trent, whose understanding of tradition and scripture has prevailed ever since.

The good news is that in practice, this rarely causes much division between Catholics and Protestants. Again, we have so much more in common than we have dividing us. But in the political turmoil that followed the Reformation (which, for all I know, had more to do with politics than religion), Protestants and Catholics majored in their differences—defining one against the other—which fortified the wall separating one another.

One way in which Rome did this is by dogmatizing theological positions that were previously part of a plurality of acceptable orthodox positions. After one position becomes dogmatized, that means that all Catholics in good standing must accept the teaching, even highly speculative and extrabiblical ideas such as the Assumption of Mary—that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven instead of dying a natural death.

What’s at stake, theologically, in the question of whether or not Mary was bodily assumed? I have no idea, except that it’s another way of sticking it to us Protestants and saying, “See, you can’t be one of us! You’re not even an orthodox Christian.”

And as always when it comes to Rome’s Marian doctrines, I wonder why—if it it were so bleeding important that Mary was sinless or perpetually a virgin or assumed into heaven, St. Paul, for instance, never mentioned any of it. It strains credulity to imagine that he or the other apostles even knew about these ideas. Before scholasticism of the Middle Ages, no one knew about Thomas Aquinas’s very innovative doctrine of transubstantiation. So much for “apostolic” tradition!

My point is that if it’s something important enough to divide over, shouldn’t there be something about it in the Bible? Anything? God knows that the question of what to do about homosexuality is dividing mainline churches, but at least we’re arguing about it in an appropriately Protestant way: each side passionately appealing first to scripture to make its argument. I kind of like that! It’s almost worth having the argument in order to see how each side formulates theirs—not that there aren’t also deeply important questions involved. Maybe we’ll all learn to read our Bibles more carefully as a result. Maybe in the end we’ll generate more light than heat.

Maybe on the other side of the homosexuality argument—if we ever get there—we’ll do something uncharacteristic for either Protestants or Catholics and learn to love more like Jesus? That is the main point of church—any church. Wishful thinking, I know!

Regardless, if Catholics want to argue—even in some highly allegorical way that runs roughshod over the plain meaning of a scripture text—that these doctrines are in scripture if only we had eyes to see it, then Rome has conceded our point: Scripture truly is our primary authority just as we Protestants believed all along. If they would concede that point, then these differences in doctrine wouldn’t be nearly so important. Protestants and Catholics could make great strides in repairing the rift between them.

After all, for all the propaganda from Catholic apologists like Scott Hahn and others about how the “tens of thousands” of Protestant denominations in the world (or is it hundreds of thousands?) bear witness to the unmitigated disaster that was the Reformation (because Roman Catholics are one big happy family?), it’s worth pointing out that we Protestants get along pretty well, despite our differences. We fight a lot, as human beings tend to do, but at the end of the day, most of us don’t speak of the other as being not fully Christian or “deeply wounded Christians” or no Christians at all. We even tend to welcome one another at our Communion tables. It’s not bad! And it’s getting better. I hope that our example of friendship, cooperation, and communion points the way forward for Protestants and Catholics.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The Holy Spirit isn’t waiting around for us to get our act together. Christianity is spreading like wildfire around the world in the global South (fueled, no doubt, by the sovereign wind that “blows where it chooses”), and it’s growing in a way that won’t conform nicely to either of our proud heritages.


1. I am aware that the consensus opinion of scholarship is that Ephesians was written by (perhaps) a colleague of Paul’s who was honoring him by writing in his name—and that doing so in the first century was not an unethical or deceitful practice. (It’s almost taken for granted in the world of academia that Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus are not authentically Pauline.) While I don’t think much is at stake in the question of authorship (it’s in the Bible regardless, and I believe that’s because God wanted it there), the arguments for Paul’s authorship are compelling to me.

But keep in mind that in the world of scholarship, everything is disputed. Nothing is taken for granted. That’s a good thing, I’m sure, because it helps us arrive at new and better understandings. The point is, however, that while some more academic (as opposed to conservative, evangelical) commentaries speak as if it’s a well-established fact that Paul didn’t write the disputed letters, they leave aside a vast number of reputable and very smart people who believe (based on their close reading of the same texts) that Paul did write these letters. When we talk about what a “consensus” of scholars believe, it is just that: a consensus.

Is it 60-40 against Pauline authorship? 55-45? 51-49? Maybe not that last number, but it’s also not anything like 99-1 or 90-10!

2. I apologize for the scare quotes, but the labels “liberal” and “conservative” are used so, ahem, liberally that they have lost whatever meaning they might have once had. I don’t blame the email writer for using those labels. The problem is that it’s hard to even use the words without their political connotations—and then you get into the whole “culture war” argument that is unique (or so I’ve read) to American politics. Suffice it to say, although I have respect for true theological liberals, there’s no getting around the fact that I am, historically speaking, a theological conservative. But I use the term with great reluctance because it’s so easily misunderstood.

My favorite contemporary theologian is N.T Wright, and he calls himself a theological “post-conservative.” Hmm… I kind of like that. Another good label I’ve heard recently, which might apply to me (I’m still investigating) is “paleo-orthodox.”

3. In his blog entry covering some of this same ground, Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler says that “justification by faith alone” is the issue. I couldn’t disagree more. Does Mohler not know that even the Lutherans, the ones who started this mess to begin with, now say that they are of one accord with Rome on that issue? Don’t tell him! I can see the headlines in the Catholic news services now: “President of Flagship Seminary of the Largest Protestant Denomination Comes Home to Rome.”)

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