Another basic (pre-biblical) choice in theology

Another basic (pre-biblical) choice in theology December 29, 2010

Lately I’ve been thinking about how different theologies are driven by what I call “pre-biblical” perspectives–choices one makes, often subconsciously, regarding the meaning of biblical materials.

We Protestants like to think that we only get our theology from the Bible.  I remember the title of one book I gave away long ago: The Bible without theology.  One could write a similarly lame book entitled The Bible without philosophy (and here I mean “philosophy” in a very broad sense of a perspective on reality).

I think sola scriptura is a wonderful idea but an impossible ideal.  It’s something to strive for, but no one every completely achieves it.  At best we may achieve a degree of “prima scriptura”–Scripture as our ultimate authority–but even then we always approach Scripture with some preconceived ideas.  Yes, Scripture can and should help us correct and purify them, but sometimes, at least, these preconceived ideas largely determine how we interpret the Bible. 

The one I’m thinking about today is not really philosophical, but it is, it seems, one of those basic choices in theology where the Bible itself doesn’t seem to be of much help inclining us to one side or the other.  Of course proponents of both perspectives claim the Bible supports theirs and theirs alone, but in fact that doesn’t seem to be the case.  This is another choice that depends on something other than exegesis.

Was the primitive church of the Acts of the Apostles (approximately the first 60 years or so of Christianity) the church in embryo or the fully mature church?  Much in ecclesiology depends on how one sees it.  Either one sees it “as” the church to be retrieved because it was the golden age of the church in its full flowering OR one sees it “as” the church in infancy destined to grow and mature and change through various processes over time.

If one sees the primitive church as the church in its full glory, he or she will likely be some kind of Restorationist–like the Restorationist churches (Christian, Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ) or the Anabaptists or Pentecostals or most Baptists and other Free Churches.  If one sees the primitive church as the church in embryo he or she will likely adhere to some hierarchical and liturgical church (Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, some Lutheran, etc.).

Here is another watershed in theology–this time in ecclesiology (but perhaps affecting other areas of theology).  Some Christians regard some tradition of Christianity after the primitive church as its natural, divinely ordained and led flowering so that having bishops with authority, highly formalized worship (“bells and smells”) and creedal statements that carry weight almost equal with Scripture itself (if not equal with it) is not only okay but actually good.  Other Christians want to strip away all the traditional accretions added to the primitive church and retrieve the church of the apostles as described in the Book of Acts as much as possible.

This was, of course, a major cause of division among Protestants during the Reformation.  Luther abhorred those radicals like Carlstadt and the Anabaptists who wanted to demolish statues and stain glass and prayer books and priestly vestments.  Luther also strongly disagreed with the Reformed such as Bucer and Zwingli who wanted to discard any idea of bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper because it was a post-NT development. 

Luther’s argument (later repeated by the Anglican Hooker and other “high church” theologians) was that everything developed in the tradition of the church after the NT should be kept except what is clearly inconsistent with the Bible.  The radical Reformers, however, believed everything should be discarded except what is found in the NT.  The Reformed were somewhere in between, often claiming to restore the NT church while consciously compromising with post- and extra-biblical traditions.

How does the Bible itself settle this divide among Protestants?  Of course, one can appeal to the ways in which the primitive church is described in the NT, but that hardly proves that it was not placed on a trajectory by God himself on which it changed and developed later.  On the other hand, unless the primitive church is viewed as somehow the anchor, if not the full flowering, of what the church should be, how do we discern which post- and extra-biblical traditions are correct?  And if we say it is only an anchor, and not the full flowering (as many high church folks do), do we not still have the problem of discernment?

Of course, this is primarily a problem for Protestants; Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics don’t really have a problem, as such, because they view Scripture as part of Tradition.  Therefore, it is simply a given of their ecclesiologies, that development of the primitive church into something that doesn’t look very much like it is good.  The same Holy Spirit who guided the church to create the canon of Holy Scripture guided the church to create its liturgical and hierarchical structures and practices.

Protestants claim that we follow the principle of sola scriptura or at least prima scriptura.  But how does Scripture help with this particular issue?  Admittedly, one cannot find “bells and smells” in the primitive church, but does that necessarily mean we shouldn’t ring bells and use incense in worship?  (I’m using “bells and smells” here as shorthand for high liturgical worship such as one often finds in Anglican churches.)  And yet, if we don’t view the primitive churhc, as described in Acts and the rest of the NT, as normative for ecclesiology today, how do we discern what is and what isn’t “of God,” so to speak?

And yet, Restorationists of all kinds have failed fully to retrieve and recreate the primitive church.  I can’t think of a single denomination or even congregation that has managed to function exactly like the primitive church as described in Acts and the rest of the NT.  We’ve all added or subtracted things to/from that: church buildings or musical instruments or abolition of tongues or prophecy or one of the offices mentioned, etc. 

It seems, then, that this is another one of those basic choices in theology where Scripture doesn’t offer much help.  Of course, I know which side of this continental divide in ecclesiology I’m on, but I admit it has more to do with temperament and sociology and politics and other extra-biblical concerns and commitments than any particular passage of Scripture I can point to.  I am firmly commited to the idea that power corrupts and therefore am wary of hierarchies of any kind.  But that just means I might have trouble with apostles as well as bishops!  The primitive church certainly had some kind of hierarchy.  I’m not sure we can really retrieve whatever that was for today and so I’m satisfied (uncomfortably) to muddle through with some kind of compromised Restorationism in the Free Church model.  I like the fact that if the leaders of my church are corrupt or heretical or abusive I can just go find another church to join or start my own!  On the other hand, I realize how truly non-NT that is.  (For those of you who have gotten this far and have a tendency to take things I write too seriously, please remember the title of my blog–“musings!”)

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