Friday, February 03, 2006

Where Have all the Protestants Gone?

It’s a name few wish to claim. Many of today’s Evangelicals and Charismatics balk at being classified as “Protestant” though their beliefs clearly place them within that doctrinal camp. What has happened to cause so many believers to be uncomfortable with claiming the “P” word?

Often in my conversations with fellow Christians, the question is asked of me, “Where do you fellowship?” I suppose that’s the modern way of asking “Which church do you attend?” which has in turn replaced the even older query of “What is your denomination?” People today don’t like to think in terms of denominations or even in terms of churches, necessarily. The word “Church” has in fact nearly disappeared from the Evangelical/Charismatic lexicon, unless it is used to describe an alleged “invisible body of believers, enrolled in heaven”. People don’t even belong to churches anymore. They attend “Fellowships” or “Chapels” or “Christian Centers”. The word “Church” as a name applied to the local house of worship has almost vanished.

What also seems to be vanishing is the classification of “Protestant”, at least as a descriptive classification that folks are willing to accept. Whenever I refer to Evangelical/Charismatic beliefs as Protestant, the response I frequently receive from those who hold such beliefs is, “Oh I’m not a Protestant; I’m just a Bible-believing Christian”, or again, “I’m not protesting anything; I just believe in the Lord Jesus”. People are often entirely sincere in making this claim. Many of them aren’t even sure what a Protestant is exactly. Does this indicate a refreshing break from the tradition of division that haunts modern Christendom, or does it only serve to demonstrate the rising level of ignorance of Church history and doctrinal development among today’s believers?

I vote for the latter on the basis that every new “non-denominational” church (or “Fellowship”, or, or…) that is formed, eventually develops beliefs, practices, or an emphasis that separates it from an otherwise similar “Fellowship” just down the street. If it grows to sufficient numbers in membership, inevitably it will suffer its own breakaway group, led by a new pastor with a different set of doctrines, practices, or “a fresh, new emphasis”. Thus, simply claiming non-denominational status really does nothing to prevent division among Christians, and even promotes it.

But at the heart of the claim that one’s church is non-denominational, or that one himself is not a Protestant, lays the deeper truth that this same person is simply unaware that many of the contemporary beliefs and doctrines he holds to as “plain Bible teaching” are in fact based entirely upon modern, uniquely Protestant traditions of men that color his interpretations of the Scriptures and effectively separate him from the mainstream of historic Christian belief and practice. He becomes a Protestant without really knowing it, based on beliefs he accepts as “Biblical” which may not be at all.

The Evangelical/Charismatic so closely associates his beliefs with the Scriptures that to him they are essentially one and the same. When he wants to define one of his beliefs in conversation with another Christian, he does not generally begin with the somewhat more humble lead-in of, “As I interpret the Bible, my belief is…” Rather he simply claims, “The Bible says…” and then offers his view as if it were the very Word of God itself. He may even provide support for his opinion with several “proof texts” to indicate how biblical his belief is. But his understanding of those texts are so heavily influenced by pre-existing beliefs he has already been taught and accepted—beliefs that have been defined by modern Protestant thought and traditions—that he often winds up interpreting them in a way exactly the opposite of what they really say, and the opposite of how Christians since New Testament times have always understood them.

Thus Evangelicals and Charismatics truly are Protestant in their essential beliefs, though they often do not accept that classification as readily as, say Lutherans or Baptists. In successive posts here I will attempt to demonstrate this further by citing examples of Protestant beliefs that they hold to, and contrast these beliefs with those of traditional, historic Christianity.

One might ask what is the point of all this. Why is it important for someone to be convinced that he is Protestant as opposed to simply a “Bible-believing Christian”? To my way of thinking, it is helpful toward opening an honest dialog between Christians with an eye toward establishing a greater unity with one another. All Christians must “put their cards on the table” and be truthful to themselves and to others as to where their traditions of Biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation come from, before we can establish which of those traditions most closely aligns itself with the genuine teachings put forth in the New Testament. It is not helpful to such a dialog to have such major groups of believers as the Evangelicals and Charismatics insist that they are only following the Bible and everyone who disagrees with them follows “traditions of men”. They must begin to see their own traditions and where they originated and recognize in turn how these affect their understanding of Scripture, if we are to truly begin our discussions on a level playing field.

To be continued...


At 2/07/2006 6:03 PM , Blogger E Rica said...

Amen, brother...err...Father.

At 4/05/2006 10:56 AM , Blogger carlt said...

I want to wait until you post examples of what you are referring to before entering dialogue. I certainly don't want to come to the defense of 'evangelicals, charismatics,protestants or whatever', yet I know that these circles are not devoid of thoughtful, historically grounded and to whatever degree any of us can be, objective people. There are actually people who look at the exact same information, historical events and interprete them differently. Obviously every interpretation can't be correct, nor can we accept an every man for yourself collection of beliefs,( okay we have, but it doesn't make it right).
I am deeply troubled by the complete lack of emphasis on church history in the P church and the tendancy to indoctrinate folks with the 'vision, values and practices' of the local expression faith rather than with the history and traditions of 'the church'. These classes many times are labeled as 101,201,301 and such like college courses, yet many is not most of them have no instruction related to doctrine and history. Yikes!

I think I know enough about the Orthodox church to know that the intention is to hand down the history, traditions and interpretations of scripture of the church from generation to generation, seeking to maintane and continue the traditions, teachings and beliefs of Jesus, the Apostles and church Fathers and that this is done via the Priest to the people. I would not argue with this approach, but I would guess that it has its weak spots that could be pointed out by someone with more knowlege than I have could argue.
What do think the Apostle John was referring to in 1John 2:20? How does individual anointing referred to here and places like John 16 and Heb 10 work itself out in the context of a system in which the Priest interprets and explains the meaning of the scriptures to the followers of Christ?
Enough for now, but I have more questions and would love to enter into a sincere and benificial dialogue.
blessings to you

At 4/09/2006 7:26 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Hi Carl,

Thanks for reading my blog and posting your comment. I don’t often go back through the archives to check on comments to older posts, so I missed this until our mutual friend Bruce brought it to my attention.

In answer to your question I would have to say that we first need to have a proper understanding of the ecclesia. What Christians often refer to simply as “the Church” is understood by the Eastern Orthodox to incorporate everything which comprises the life of God in the midst of His “called out” people. This would begin with the unique Christian revelation, the Holy Faith if you will, that was first entrusted to the holy apostles of Christ and brought to their understanding by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). This faith should be understood not just as doctrine, but in reality as a way of life, a life that unites one to God bringing transformation, salvation and glorification. Historically, this Christian revelation existed as the very life and experience of the Church for some time before it began to be written down and articulated as scripture, doctrine and creed. We might say that Jesus primarily taught His disciples how to live, not so much what to believe as if in some abstract doctrinal sense. Later this concrete way of life was written down to form a framework of belief, but the doctrine flowed from the life and not vice versa.

This living communion with and experience of God became the Holy Tradition of the ecclesia and is at once found in and preserved by a number of factors. It is found first of course in the holy apostles who received it by direct revelation from God (“That which I received from the Lord I have delivered to you”) and was transmitted by them to the first converts in the primitive Church (Acts 2:42). Next are the very people who lived this out and by their miraculously transformed lives proved it to be valid—the various saints of history, the holy fathers and mothers of the Church, and those who followed in their way of life and still do today. It is found in the writings of the Church, foremost the NT scriptures but also in the universally accepted patristic writings, as well as the councils, creeds, and canons that further articulate this faith. It is found in the hierarchy of the Church, beginning with those bishops, priests and deacons chosen and appointed by the apostles to carry on their work and transmit their teaching, and all those who have continued in their succession both in actual lineage and faith. It is found in the worship of the Church, the liturgical structure which (yes, it’s true) existed from apostolic times, and is expressed in the prayers, hymns, music, architecture and iconography that have come forth from this life. It is found in the monastic tradition of Orthodoxy, which represents the radical element of obedience to Christ (“Sell all that you possess and give it to the poor, and come, follow Me”). It is found in the sacraments of the Church, which are not symbols only but symbols with substance that contain the grace (energies) of God to unite us to Christ (baptism), nourish us on His holy body and blood (Eucharist), cleanse us of all unrighteousness (confession with ongoing repentance or metanoia), heal us physically, psychologically and spiritually (unction), and in short, maintain and make possible this supernatural life in communion with God.

Thus you can see that while in the very earliest days of this new Church the first disciples sat at the feet of the apostles and received teaching from them, in a very short time things changed. This apostolic teaching, the very life of the Church, was immediately adopted by those people and was lived out by them, and became the living tradition that is passed on in so many different ways to us today. The very first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, was an inheritor of this apostolic tradition and took it to its highest level of commitment even before any of the apostles were martyred for Christ.

And so, while the Orthodox faithful (we do not generally use the word “laity” as if those who are not ordained were somehow a lesser class of Christian) may look to their priests to preach and teach and encourage them in the Christian life and our Holy Tradition, they no longer receive this Holy Tradition from them exclusively, but from the ecclesia itself. Priests, bishops and monastics are instructed from this same source. Together with all the faithful, they seek to live out this apostolic inheritance and pass it on to each successive generation, as has happened by the grace of God for nearly 2000 years since its introduction to the world.

Can you see how this multi-faceted approach can preserve the fullness of the apostolic faith far better than relying on only one source of transmission alone? Protestants who insist on a “Sola Scriptura” approach to Christianity, while certainly choosing the highest and most sublime aspect of Holy Tradition to uphold, directly undermine its strength by divorcing and separating the Bible from the rest of the Holy Tradition of the ecclesia and ultimately subject it to their own rational understanding and interpretation. Thus the conclusions they draw can easily represent major departures from the life of the Church and take them in an entirely different direction from that intended by God. This is the heart of the Orthodox concern for our Protestant brethren, and why we continually uphold the integrity of the ecclesia to those who are given to denigrate it because of their lack of a more complete historical understanding.

The ecclesia is the source of the teaching of the bishops and priests of Orthodoxy, and they are expected by the faithful to align with this and uphold it. Those who depart from it are quickly censured or deposed, because of the high level of understanding of it that exists among their contemporaries. How different this is from the almost “anything goes” atmosphere of contemporary Christianity in which heresy and novel interpretations are justified all too easily as “the Lord showed me, such-and-such”.

This is not to imply that there are not responsible and cautious Protestants who resist justifying their own opinions in such a reckless and cavalier manner, but such Christians often find themselves playing Solitaire, not just “with a deck of 51” as the Statler Brothers sang about, but with a deck of only 3 or 4 and lacking the rest of the elements of the ecclesia that have assured the faithful transmission of the apostolic faith to our day within the Eastern Orthodox Church.

I hope this better explains the Orthodox view of such things, and I further look forward to hearing your comments on this. May God bless you richly in your pursuit of Him!

Your brother in Christ,
Fr. Michael

At 4/12/2006 6:51 PM , Blogger carlt said...

My friend and my brother, although your response is a clear articulation of that which you have come to believe is true, it fails to specifically address my question. "1John 2:20? How does individual anointing referred to here and places like John 16 and Heb 10 work itself out in the context of a system in which the Priest interprets and explains the meaning of the scriptures to the followers of Christ?
To be honest and my friend Bruce expect nothing less, it 'feels' like your recited to me what you have memorized and accepted to be true. You make generalizations about the Apostles, their teachings, the practices of the church that I find difficult to define with such precision. You know as well as I do that establishing the ideas, the practices and the nature of what happened two hundred years ago is a challenge. What is the basis of your absolute certainty regarding the pracitces of the church? When exactly did the priest adore himself with a ring? When exactly did the congregation determine that it would be appropriate to kiss this ring?
Whenever you exert what you are doing as fact and historically accurate it creates more doubt in me. I want so much for it to be clear and simple. I want so much for it to come down to 'don't eat meat sacrificed to idols and don't forget the poor', but no one seems to come up with definitive and credible anwsers. Would it be possible in plan and simple language to express your thoughts, you convictions to someone like me?

Bless you my friend,
p.s. Your friend Bruce has been a lifelong friend, who I admire for his orthodox faith.

At 4/13/2006 9:15 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Hi Carl,

As Strother Martin once lamented in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate”. The answer I offered came from an historical perspective not shared by most contemporary Christians and thus you may have simply missed it. Let me take another stab at it.

Many Protestants are familiar to a degree with the book of Acts, but are not at all aware of what else was going on in the Church during that time, or in the generations that immediately followed. When you say that I make generalizations about the apostles, their teachings and practices, and want to know the basis of my certainty about such things, this tells me that you are likely not intimately familiar with the “other” writings of the early Church, such as the epistles of Ss. Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement, Hermas, Cyprian, of the Didache, or the witness of St. Justin Martyr, just to name a few of the more readily available resources. These are apostolic and post-apostolic writings that give us a more complete insight into the life of the early Church and form the historical “bridge” from the apostolic period to the early centuries.

When the apostles laid down their pens, the Church itself did not cease to exist or otherwise fall into corruption. As Christ promised, the gates of hell did not prevail against His Church. It did not become wholly “apostate” as the Mormons claim (and far too many Christians today seem to accept as true). Its ongoing and Spirit-led life continued, and the experience of it was recorded by the pens of others who followed in the apostles’ footsteps. It is this witness that Protestantism has almost completely ignored. In most Protestant seminaries, as much as perhaps 10% of the required historical studies may “deal with” early Christian Patristics; the remaining 90% of the time will be devoted to examining in great detail the period of the Reformation onward, as if this were the only significant movement of the Spirit in the history of God’s people. Does this not demonstrate a pronounced bias? Further, the writings of the early Church Fathers are treated almost as ancient historical oddities, as having little or no relevance to us today. Professors cannot resist the tendency to negatively critique these writings by the standard of modern Protestant traditions (“Clearly the early fathers did not have a clear grasp of justification by faith alone…blah, blah, blah”), thus further marginalizing them in the minds of their students. Is it any wonder then that whole generations of Protestant ministers bring this prejudice with them to the pulpit and indoctrinate their faithful into a version of Christianity that simply does not line up with the actual historical record?

I think you would agree with me that a general fuzzy ignorance of the early Church and a lack of regard for the role of the Ecclesia in preserving the fullness of the Christian life characterizes the Protestant mindset. Yet isn’t it true that many Protestants would admit to this, and at the same time shrug it off as if it didn’t matter? We are talking about a 1500 year span of history—our common Christian history—that is written off and largely ignored by Protestants because it is assumed by them to be “contaminated by Catholicism”, yet individually they don’t even know enough about this period to make such a judgment. They trust the “spirit of Protestantism” to guide them in this, I suppose. Even those few Protestants who might admit that this is a weakness and suggest that modern Christians might benefit from taking a deeper look at church history rarely make good on this insight. The very few who do often end up converting to Orthodoxy as a result of what they learn.

Protestants don’t reject every aspect of Church history. They do accept the Holy Scriptures (minus the Deutero-Canonical books of the complete canon), but they divorce these from the rest of the Ecclesia and subject them to their own modernistic understanding and interpretations. Thus we might say that the typical Protestant minister wields far more authority and power than the average Orthodox priest. A priest draws his understanding and teaching of the Scriptures not from his own intellect or conscious, but largely from the inheritance of the combined experience and testimony of the saints in all generations. This is the same source that the Orthodox faithful, the “laity” if you will, draws from. Thus he does not spoon-feed the faithful from his own opinions, but proclaims what is already known and accepted by all. In a very real sense the laity keeps the priest “in check” should he wander outside the bounds of our Holy Tradition in his teaching. This is one very real area where 1 John 2:20 can be observed being put into practice daily in the Orthodox Church.

To specifically address that verse, let me offer a few thoughts. St. John wrote, “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.” OK; where did the people to whom the beloved apostle is writing receive this unction or this knowledge of which he speaks? Was it not from John himself, or from one of the other apostles? The apostles were the sole recipients of the Christian revelation from the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, as well as the ones to whom was given the authority to lay hands on converts, granting to them the gift of the Holy Spirit as well. You might remember Simon the magician offering to pay Peter to grant him this ability. Thankfully, this was not how the apostolic gift was to be transmitted. When it became necessary, the apostles laid hands on the heads of well-trained and illumined disciples, bestowing upon them the office of overseer (or bishop) to continue the work begun by them. These early bishops were charged with the task of preserving the faith taught by the apostles, and to lay hands on new converts, granting them the gift of the Holy Spirit as well. Such bishops, as well as the priests and deacons that served with them, were not allowed to make up new teachings or impose their own opinions upon the faithful, but were required to maintain the faith and life received from the apostles and make certain that the faithful did not depart from these things. They were very much “custodians” of the Church, not originators of doctrine. Those who did try to originate new teachings, by the way, were quickly identified as “heterodox” and outside of the apostolic tradition in their doctrine.

The faithful of the Church, although having a different ministry from the hierarchy, nevertheless are seen in the Orthodox tradition as being equal to them in preserving the faith. Each time our Bishop visits our parish, he reminds the faithful in his sermon that the preservation of the Orthodox faith is not the sole responsibility of the bishops and priests alone. If the people do not live it out, it may not survive to the next generation. The transmission of the faith over two millennia to our day did not depend on Apostolic Succession alone, but also on generations of faithful Orthodox believers embodying the faith in their lives and passing on their experiences to us. The faithful may look to their bishops and priests to articulate aspects of the faith or provide insights they may have gained, but they do not “sit at their feet” as the first Christians did with the original apostles, because the faith and the Holy Spirit has been granted to all.

Unfortunately in the modern Protestant milieu, accountability to the apostolic faith and the Holy Tradition of the Ecclesia has been largely tossed out the window. The Bible is reduced to a medium of individual expression and interpretation. Using the excuse that “the Lord showed me something new” personal opinion and innovation is stacked one upon another until the original faith of the apostles is utterly obscured. Is this what St. John was encouraging in 1 John 2:20? Hardly! Telling the faithful that they have the anointing of the Spirit and the truth within them was not intended by him as giving a license to make up their own beliefs or to depart from the teaching that he had given them originally. Yet we see this in the Protestant realm all the time. Every individual Protestant is of course self-assured that he is “interpreting the Bible by the Bible” and confident of his own interpretations, but such a spirit cannot be found in the ancient Church (except in the heretics) and would have rightly been denounced by the apostles. This cavalier approach to the faith is what has spawned the division rampant in Protestantism that is taken for granted and even excused. Orthodoxy sees no excuse for this and condemns it. Which of the two is closer to our Lord’s desire as expressed in John 17:11, “…that they may be one, as we are.”?

At 4/14/2006 10:43 AM , Anonymous Kevin said...

I'd like to add to your response to Carl that our priests (and Bishops) don't wear rings [this seems to be an issue for Carl!]! Carl may have visited a parish where an individual priest happened to have a ring on, but that is not an "official" piece of equipment!

We kiss the hand of the priest solely out of respect for the priestly "office", because through the prayers of the priest ordinary wine and bread are mysticaly transformed into the life-giving Body and Blood of Our Lord, not because we "venerate" the man. We don't (frankly) venerate the man anymore than we venerate the wood when we kiss an icon of Christ! We venerate the "use" of the wood, if you will, the fact that the wood has been used to represent the physical image of Our Lord.

Also with regard to "individual anointing": There is a fundamental difference (I think) in emphasis underlying the issues raised of what "individual anointing" means, or what the purpose of the Christian life is in Orthodoxy.

For Orthodoxy the goal of the Christian life is "theosis", union/communion with God (not in a merely "positional"-"legalistic" way, but in an "experiential" or "transformative" way!). Everything the Holy Tradition teaches is about theosis. Reading the Bible is to lead us to theosis. The Divine Liturgy is to lead us to theosis. Prayer and the other disciplines are to lead us to theosis. How? 1st John 3:3: "AND EVERYONE WHO HAS THIS HOPE IN HIM PURIFIES HIMSELF, JUST AS HE IS PURE." The goal is purity, holiness, cleansing of the inside of the cup. Orthodoxy does not emphasize outward "gifts" and "manifestations", although God knows they exist in our Saints and holy men and women in incredible abundance (when they have been sufficiently purified)! One just has to read about Elder Joseph (died 1964) or Elder Paisios (died 1998) to read about "gifting" that almost seems impossible to imagine, far beyond anything we have seen or heard of in the age of "the third wave"! But these outward manifestations (clairvoyance; bi-location; healing by word, thought or touch; seeing angels; visitation by Christ or the Blessed Virgin; being transported to heaven, etc.) are de-emphasized because they can lead to pride and 'prelest' (Russian: delusion) and again Holy Tradition teaches that the goal is NOT "anointed manifestations", but rather being "in Christ".

So Orthodoxy teaches how to properly use and cultivate the "anointing" one receives through baptism and chrismation (the anointing by the Holy Spirit) for the purpose of transformation, or theosis.


At 4/14/2006 6:44 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Thank you, Kevin. Your comments fill out my own and give a more complete understanding of the issue.

When we speak of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and His ministry to help us “know all things”, all this becomes superficial and meaningless if we understand it only in terms of gaining Bible knowledge or theological prowess. As you are aware, in ancient Christendom the term “theologian” was not used to describe someone who simply knew a lot about God. It implied someone who knew God; who had undergone the long, ascetic process of purification and was thus enabled to receive divine illumination through the perfected communion of his soul with God. Because of an enlightened soul and a transformed humanity, such a person lived and demonstrated a true theology that was not based upon head knowledge alone. His whole life became light, quite literally a lamp on a lampstand providing illumination to those around him, not only for his own, but for all generations.

In contemporary Christianity, there exists an abundance of opinion, but very little true theology. There are Christian leaders who are widely praised for their knowledge of the Bible, but it is a mere intellectual knowledge and theoretical only, having failed to be proven by the transformation and deification of their very being. There are precious few true theologians in this world today, due to the failure of most Christians to purify themselves and make ready their vessels to receive the knowledge of God. This is both adding to and the result of the tremendous spiritual darkness of this age.

May God have mercy on us all!

At 4/17/2006 1:36 PM , Anonymous Kevin said...

Father, I just found a wonderful web site dedicated to "theosis" by a Roman Catholic priest, who gives Eastern Orthodox full credit in regard to keeping this central to its theology. - Kevin

At 4/27/2006 5:41 PM , Blogger carlt said...

Well I'm certainly not going to say that you didn't answer my question this time. And I won't comment in relationship to it now without reading it through several times. I just want to thank you for the very thoughtful and insightful.
As for Kevins comments I will only say that kissing the ring of a priest isn't an 'issue' it's a question.

At 5/05/2006 9:49 AM , Anonymous Kevin said...

Carl: By the way...kissing the hand of the priest (which is optional) WAS an issue for me (sorry for assuming it was for you!)! Having come from The Vineyard, I found it very strange and hard to accept at first! It was only after I understood the role of the priesthood (as a specially anointed functionary)that I became more comfortable.


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