Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Dead-Ends of Protestantism

Benedict Seraphim posts an excellent article, here, entitled The Dead-Ends of Protestantism. I found it a thoughtful piece--as his posts generally are--and not as in-your-face as the title might imply. Remarkably, in making his point, he accomplishes a task not often attempted: finding commonalities in the experience of American Churches of Christ and The Episcopal Church.

There is something of a cottage industry among Protestant converts to Orthodoxy. For some reason, we all feel compelled to share our particular "conversion story." This is understandable, human nature being what it is. In all probability, however, our time would be better spent remaining quiet, and learning how to actually be Orthodox, rather than pontificating on how we had "figured it all out." I am struggling to resist that temptation, and Benedict Seraphim's essay certainly does not fall in that category, either.

But something in his title really struck a chord with me, for it puts a name to the unease I once felt, particularly following 9/11. I was no different than anyone else. The events of that day jolted me out of my complacency. But I never viewed the tragedy as random or inexplicable, but merely the latest skirmish in an age-old conflict--dormant, but never dead. In the clarity of that moment, I began to examine our standing in the Protestant West, and more to the point, my particular (and peculiar) variant of it. You might say I found us sadly wanting, ill-equipped and lacking resources to engage in any ideological, philosophical or theological struggle. We were a good fit for the peace and prosperity that Americans had come to expect to be our due, but ill-suited for tackling the long haul of history.

True, we made grand claims for ourselves, as restorationists are want to do. But these claims were never self-evidently so, or at least not to me. The plea rested solely on the intellectual constructs we derived from Scripture. Others made different cases from Scripture. And few people were buying what we were selling.

Inexorably, my readings drifted back to those who took a little longer view of things: Lewis, Chesterton, Newman, O'Connor, Pelikan, and others. I came to see that much of Protestantism either had become, or was in the process of becoming a "dead-end," to use Benedict Seraphim's terminology. [My co-religionists would have argued, "Oh, but we're not Protestant," an argument which has never passed the duck test.] This brings me to the points made in Benedict Seraphim's post. He identifies 3 interrelated areas where Protestantism becomes a dead-end.

First, there is the inherent problem with Sola Scriptura. Those who believe in the concept explicitly might wonder, "What problem?" Simply open your phone book and turn to "churches" in the yellow pages for an answer. He makes the excellent point that scripture is not a series of essays, but rather is addressed to the church, from the church, within the church. And for the first 1500 years or so, its interpretation was found within the context of the Church. Sola Scriptura divorces scripture from the church, excluding it from the context of the church. Despite assumptions to the contrary, he notes that scripture simply does not and cannot come to us uninterpreted.

Second, Benedict Seraphim posits that Protestantism almost always fails to consider church history as a dynamic reality. This is particularly true within our Restoration Movement heritage, whose churches "were shaped and formed by Lockean empiricism, by a form of Enlightenment modernism..."containing "all the blind spots of that modernism: a false belief in progressivism, an o'erweening confidence in human reason, and a certain arrogance toward pre-modern/pre-Enlightenment thinkers." To the restorationist, church history is useful for informational purposes, but not living. He finds that "just as an insect pinned inside a shadow box, this approach to the New Testament Church rendered it nothing move than an intellectual concept, a blueprint or pattern, one birthed or progressivism, rationalism and price, and ultimately little more than a lifeless, dessicated bit of chaff."

Finally, Benedict Seraphim observes what he calls the "ex-ecclesial critique of the Ekklesia." He finds that both the Restoration Movement churches and The Episcopal Church, having divorced themselves from the context and living history of the Church, have turned back upon the church and attempted to criticize it for its perceived sins and failures--i.e., the Churches of Christ reinterpretation of Communion as merely a memorial, while castigating the concept of the "real presence" and The Episcopal Church's ordination of women and redefining "social justice" by contemporary mores. In a telling line, he concludes that "the beginning assumption is that the Church is wrong, except insofar as the Church already agrees with us."

The post is not some triumphalist trashing of Protestantism by an ex-adherent, but rather a cool reflection based on one man's life experience. To the extent that my background overlaps with part of his, I find his insight to be spot on. Anyway, Benedict Seraphim makes some excellent points, and I commend his work.

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