Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Denominationalism and Sectarianism

[originally from 1996]

[The words in green are paraphrases of actual dialogue comments or questions from an evangelical Protestant friend. Quotes from Protestant scholars will be in blue]

I wrote:

What do you tell the man on the street who is looking for spiritual and theological truth: "we can't give you any certainty, but at least we're not [with a grimace] Catholic."? If you can't even agree amongst yourselves as to who the legitimate "Reformation" Protestants are, how can you expect us to accept your claim to "unity in the essentials"? . . . What I said was that perspicuity (self-evident clearness of Scripture) fails as a thought-system because it presupposes possible (and actual) agreement among Protestants, at least on the so-called "central" issues, based on recourse to the Bible alone. This is clearly false, and a pipe-dream, as I showed in my paper on perspicuity. My point was, (paraphrasing): "what criteria of falsifiability will suffice to challenge the Protestant notion of perspicuity, given the fact of so many sects?" In the opinion of Catholics, this sad state of affairs is more than enough to cast considerable doubt on the validity of the notion of perspicuity.

In my thinking and usage, sect and denomination are synonyms. I would define them governmentally: Any group of Christians which has a system of church government (or lack thereof), whereby they feel themselves to be independent of, and not under the jurisdiction of, some other group of Christians, is a denomination. I would say that doctrinal differences comprise a secondary application, after the governmental considerations, just as in secular, civic governmental systems. Thus, every independent Baptist church (as opposed to the Southern Baptist Convention, etc.), and storefront church, and Jesus Movement coffee house (my old stomping grounds) would constitute another denomination, since there is no binding connection to another body.

I do not deem the non-Christian cults (I now prefer the historical term heresy) as Protestant (e.g., JW's, Mormons, Christian Science, etc.), even though the word sect in its neutral, sociological meaning simply means any distinct group, esp. small and newer ones. But that would include other religions as well. I define "Protestant" as any trinitarian religious group which is neither Catholic nor Orthodox, and which can be traced ultimately back to Martin Luther's dissent, or (for those who deny connection even to Luther), to the Anabaptists. Or, if pressed, I suppose I might allow a third category: those who trace their lineage from the questionable ecclesiological legitimacy of King Henry VIII.

Jesus' prayer of unity in John 17 is not the coerced unity of Catholicism. Jesus is referring to oneness in love, not in every particular of dogma.

I agree that love is the primary thrust here. But I will not discount the implicit doctrinal oneness, as you must, as a result of what your system has produced. In Jn 17:22 Jesus prays that the disciples would be "one, as we are one." And in Jn 17:23, He desires that they (and us) be "completely one" (NRSV). KJV, NKJV: "perfect in one." RSV, NEB, REB: "perfectly one." NIV: "complete unity." NASB: "perfected in unity." Now, it is pretty difficult to maintain that this entails no doctrinal agreement (and "perfect" agreement at that). And, reflecting on Jn 17:22, I don't think the Father and the Son differ on how one is saved, on the true nature of the Eucharist or the Church, etc. So how can Protestants claim this "perfect" oneness, "as we [the Holy Trinity] are one"? Or even any remote approximation?

Furthermore, if Paul and the other Apostles are to be trusted, the Catholic view of a unified, institutional, visible, apostolic Church (with a head: the pope) would seem to be far and away exegetically the best. Paul commands: "mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine ye have learned; and avoid them." (Rom 16:17). In 1 Cor 1:10, he desires "no divisions," and that Christians should be "perfectly joined together "in the same mind." No one can say this is simply a "warm fuzzy" love and mutual recognition. Paul goes on to condemn mere "contentions" in 1:11, and asks in 1:13: "Is Christ divided?"

In 1 Cor 3:3, Paul says that whatever group has "strife and divisions" are "carnal, and walk as men." In 1 Cor 11:18-19 he seems to equate "divisions" and "heresies." He calls for "no schism" in 1 Cor 12:25, etc., etc. (cf. Rom 13:13, 2 Cor 12:20, Phil 2:2, Titus 3:9, Jas 3:16, 1 Tim 6:3-5, 2 Pet 2:1). What more evidence is needed to be convinced that denominationalism and sectarianism is a sin? Yet Protestants blithely go on in the teeth of these biblical warnings and injunctions, seemingly oblivious to the possible consequences (see, e.g., Gal 5:19-21).

Heresy in the modern sense of the word is absolutely foreign to the context of 1 Cor 11:18-19.

Since I don't have your New Testament education, I appeal to A.T. Robertson, who writes in his Word Pictures in the New Testament:

These haireseis are a magnet attracting unsound minds" (Findlay). It has always been so. Instance so-called Christian Science, Russellism, New Thought, etc. today.

(vol. 4, 163)

Likewise, Marvin Vincent (Word Studies in the New Testament), who sends the reader to his comment on 2 Peter 2:1, which you yourself admit is referring to "dogma." There he writes:

A heresy is, strictly, the choice of an opinion contrary to that usually received; thence transferred to the body of those who profess such opinions, and therefore a 'sect.' . . . commonly in this sense in the NT (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 28:22) . . . See Acts 24:14; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20. The rendering 'heretical doctrines' seems to agree better with the context; false teachers bringing in 'sects' is awkward.

(vol. 1, 689)

He allows your interpretation also in his commentary on 1 Cor 11:19, but clearly, mine is present, too, in both of these works (and primarily, in Robertson).

With the exception of 2 Pet 2:1 and Titus 3:9, none of these passages have anything to do with dogmatic discrepancies. And the two that remain refer to non-Christian sects.

I must say respectfully, sir, that this is wishful thinking on your part. Again, I make my same argument: Romans 16:17 mentions doctrine (didache). In 1 Cor 1:10 Paul calls for being "perfectly joined together in the same mind." Galatians 5:20: "strife, seditions, heresies" (according to Vincent above). Etc., etc. And Protestantism is heretical wherever it differs from the "received" opinion of Christian Tradition, according to Vincent above and the Bible.

Protestantism picked and chose that in unbroken apostolic Tradition which it would continue to uphold, and that which it would jettison. This is precisely the meaning of "heresy." Thankfully, you guys have retained the Trinity and a number of other traditional doctrines, so we have nevertheless continued to acknowledge you as Christian, whereas many of you do not return the favor, to put it mildly.

H. Richard Niebuhr (Lutheran) stated that:

Denominationalism . . . represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society.

(The Social Sources of Denominationalism, New York: Meridian Books, 1929, 6, 21)

Donald Bloesch (evangelical Protestant) wrote that:

There will never be real evangelical unity, let alone Christian unity, until there is an awakening to the reality of the oneness and catholicity of the church.

(The Future of Evangelical Christianity, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983, 56-57, 65}

And Carl F.H. Henry (a leading evangelical scholar) laments that:

By failing to transcend their isolation and independency, evangelical Christians have virtually forfeited a golden opportunity to shape the religious outlook of the 20th century.

(Carl Henry At His Best, Portland: Multnomah Press, 1989, 66)

Nevertheless, even the generally brilliant and insightful scholar and apologist Norman Geisler repeats the cliche which is the common Protestant response to these considerations:

Orthodox Protestants differ largely over secondary issues, not primary (fundamental) doctrines, . . . Protestants seem to do about as well as Catholics on unanimity of essential doctrines.

(Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995, 193)

This is special pleading, in my humble opinion, and it is refuted in my paper on perspicuity. Besides the factual whopper, who's to decide what an "orthodox" Protestant is? Geisler? Where does he get his authority? And who's to decide what qualifies as a "secondary issue"? (oh, I could get going here, but for time and space . . .)

All Protestants accept each other as brothers? Nice try, but no. I've already mentioned how a cult-watching Calvinist with a national ministry (whom you would know if I named him) claimed I was never a Protestant because I have always denied total depravity and double predestination (whether infra- or supra-lapsarian). Likewise, all Arminians would logically be included in this anathema, so people like C.S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Wesley, Bach, even Protestant "Reformers" such as Philip Melanchthon would likewise be out of the fold.

Of course, there are all the mutual anathemas of the "Reformers," too, such as Luther calling Zwingli "damned" and Calvin calling Luther "half-papist" and an "idolater." I have a whole list of such tragic examples of Protestant "brotherhood." Calvinists pride themselves on being the true "Reformation" Protestants, while the rest of 'em are second-class Protestants, if at all. There is a large element of truth to their claim, if one studies the views of Luther, Calvin et al, but the lifting up of TULIP as the criteria of Protestant "orthodoxy" is a big stretch, I think (now and in the past, too).

If true orthodoxy is "coercion," as you seem to think is the case with Catholics, then so be it; count me as one "coerced," if this be the only alternative to doctrinal relativism and ecclesiological chaos. I don't want to spend my whole life searching for the basic truths of Christianity, as though faith in Jesus is some sort of philosophical game, titillating to the intellect, rather than the soul and will.

No one forced me to become a Catholic. I became one because I came to believe that Catholicism was more biblical, reasonable, moral, and historically credible than any form of Protestantism. As for your characterization of "believe it or cease to be Catholic": Amen! Hallelujah! This is our unique glory. While you have your ordained homosexuals, and several denominations espousing abortion and easy divorce as moral options, we follow the example of Jesus (Matt 18:15-18) and Paul (esp. Gal 1:8-9, 1 Cor 16:22; cf. 1 Cor 5:3-5, 2 Thess 3:6, 1 Tim 1:19-20, 2 Tim 2:14-19, 4:14-15).

I've already shown that there is no "unity" in Protestantism in the biblical sense. I'll grant you that there is (very broadly speaking) a "mere Christianity" type of unity, but why should anyone accept this "lowest common denominator" unity? I want all the truth and nothing but the truth. Why should any Christian tolerate error (which we know from logical necessity is rampant within Protestantism), when all lies come from the father of lies (you know who)?

Rome is also a denomination because it has no binding connection to any other Christian group. Rome is no more unique than other organized groups.

Nyet! We are not a denomination, but the original New Testament Church. Just because a bunch of sects claim to be another sort of "church" (invisible), doesn't negate the fact that only one has the historic pedigree all the way back (apostolic succession), whereas no other "denomination" does. How's that for unbridled "triumphalism"?

What Protestants in our time will dare take a stand for whatever brand of Christianity they espouse, as the real, true, Christian belief, which is superior to all others? At least the so-called "Reformers" believed strongly enough in each of their sects to anathematize the "dissidents" outside of them. Today Protestants wink at differences and pretend that there is a unity in "essentials." And as a result many of us have moved from Protestantism to Catholicism and found peace at last.

You are free to believe and worship as you please, and we assuredly regard you as brothers in the faith and the Body of Christ, but we wish you would call a spade a spade and 'fess up to your glaring inadequacies. I'm happy to renounce much of what happened in the Inquisitions, Crusades, etc. Why can't you renounce your sinful sectarianism, as many Protestants (see above quotes) have in fact done?

No comments: