Is primacy of scripture a hill worth dying on? If not, why be Protestant?

January 15, 2014

In a recent sermon, I criticized our United Methodist Church’s slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s the middle term I don’t like. For one thing, the catchphrase reinforces the popular but misguided stereotype that Methodists don’t have strong theological convictions. For another, open-mindedness is strictly a temporary virtue. As Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” When it comes to the most important questions of Christian faith, our minds should already be closed by now. Right?

Sadly, not everyone agrees. But they should. (What can I say? I’m closed-minded.)

Still, as Protestants, not to mention Methodists, one idea that we should happily close our mind around is the primacy of scripture in guiding our theological thinking—often called sola scriptura.  Yes, I know that we Methodists talk about a “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as our authoritative guides, but the quadrilateral isn’t a four-legged stool: neither tradition, reason, nor experience gets to have veto power over the Bible. Any time that our best understanding of scripture comes into conflict with one of the other three, we side with God’s Word.

I thought of this Protestant conviction in an online conversation I had yesterday with evangelical converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was part of this blog post from Scot McKnight. Like me, McKnight is an evangelical Protestant. I assume most of his readers are, too. The comments section, however, became an Orthodox love-fest—not simply because of several Orthodox converts who commented, but also sympathetic evangelicals.

I know it’s cool to be Eastern Orthodox these days. And why not? After all, “eastern” is cooler than “western.” Plus, it’s exotic, unfamiliar, and weird—while still being Christian.

McKnight points out that while the EOC tends to be more communal in nature than most of Western Christianity, the spike in conversions among American evangelicals is an ironic expression of American individualism. I’m sure he’s right.

Honestly: If you’re an American Protestant who wants to become Orthodox, why not become Roman Catholic? Wouldn’t that make more sense? We don’t live in Turkey or Greece, after all. Wouldn’t it be much easier and more convenient? You get all the pedigree, all the tradition, all the liturgy… Plus there’s a Catholic church nearby! Or have these new converts chosen Orthodoxy because they’re convinced that the addition of “et filioque” to the Nicene Creed was a tragic mistake? Please!

No, they can’t become Catholic for the simple reason that there are too many Catholics.

(For some reason, I just thought of the Seinfeld episode in which George decides to convert to Latvian Orthodox for the sake of impressing a new love interest.)

What bothered me about the conversation in the comments section is that few people seemed committed to the best reason to be Protestant, which is the primacy of scripture.

It would be one thing if Orthodox Christians simply disagreed with our understanding of scripture on these key points, but nevertheless held scripture to be their primary authority. Instead, as in Roman Catholicism, they make an appeal to that other authority, capital-T Tradition: they are guided not simply by scripture, but by the teachings of the Apostles themselves, which didn’t always find their way into scripture but are equally authoritative.

It is through this tradition that we know, say Catholics, that Mary was sinless, bodily assumed into heaven, and perpetually a virgin; or that the elements of Communion literally become the body and blood of Christ, such that it’s even appropriate to worship the Host; or that asking saints in heaven to pray for you, even though we have the same access to the throne room of God, is A-OK; or that Jesus sacrifices himself all over again every time Communion is celebrated. Not to mention differences related to justification and the afterlife.

So, assuming you’re Protestant, how does that strike you—that your interpretation of scripture must be wrong if it conflicts with any dogmatic teaching of the Catholic churches, either Roman or Orthodox—because, after all, their interpretations derive directly from the apostles themselves? That our reading of scripture, no matter how well-informed and guided by tradition, is insufficient apart from the teachings of these churches?

Is the primacy of scripture a hill worth dying on? Since many Protestants have died on that hill, I hope so for their sake. If it is, then “crossing the Tiber” or “crossing whatever large river lies in Istanbul” is out of the question.

I’ve written about these issues before: here, here, and here. Also, read this post from Glenn Peoples.

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