by G. D. Andreano
The Problem of Authority
“Now I beseech you, brethren, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you; but that you be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” – 1 Co 1:10
A second reason I left is the problem of authority. The history (and spirit) of Protestantism is that of rebellion. Because of certain doctrines about ecclesiastical authority, Protestants have no interpretive authority outside of themselves. This reality is ironic, because if you spend only one year in any Evangelical church, you will inevitably hear sermons that emphasize the importance of submission. Because of its views on authority, Protestantism has a very odd relationship with the idea of submission. Evangelical churches know they are called to submit in an abstract sense, but at the same time, when it comes to Church authority and hermeneutics, they seem to acknowledge no one to be worthy enough to receive their submission. They are “fallible men,” after all. Instead, an Evangelical Protestant will merely submit to the idea of being called to submit (because it is biblical), rather than submit to an organized clergy system. This, alongside the strange reality of an “alter call” with no alter, shows that, like an incomplete puzzle, Protestantism has empty silhouettes of distant days.
Some may react to my saying Protestants have no authority outside of themselves, because if one were to ask any Protestant Christian about their spiritual authority, they would certainly not say they are their own authority, because such a statement is blatantly arrogant to all onlookers. Instead, Protestants will say their authority is in “Jesus,” or “the Bible,” or “the Word of God.” To them, these three phrases are synonymous with one another (I’ll get to that later). However, what they seem to miss is that they are presupposing their own interpretation to be nonexistent, and that everything they understand the Bible to be saying is what the Bible says. They never take into consideration that they could be misunderstanding the text.
Protestants have removed themselves from an authoritative church structure that has within it an interpretive tradition. Instead of finding the true tradition from which Rome departed (Orthodoxy, as I would argue), they unintentionally created their own traditions thinking they found the true tradition. The wholesale rejection of the Roman Catholic Church being their hermeneutic led to each individual reformer being his own interpreter of all things. It seems to me that the Reformers never actually rejected the office of “pope,” because they simply became their own popes by seeing their own interpretations as gospel.
This reality is at the very heart of why John Calvin had Michael Servetus executed. It wasn’t simply because Servetus denied the Trinity, it was because of his denial of Calvin’s personal hermeneutic. Calvin defined the gospel through spectacles he created. If anyone were to contradict the spectacles, Calvin would then see such an act as heresy. This is also why Anabaptists like Felix Manz were murdered by both Lutherans and Zwinglians for using the Bible to deny infant baptism…not because the Lutherans and the Zwinglians agreed upon a common source of orthodoxy, but because they both, by chance, came to the same conclusion about baptism individually.
The problem of authority is clearly visible within denominationalism. For example, Baptists have no authority over Presbyterians. Oneness Pentecostals cannot be rebuked by Methodists. Nobody speaks as a conciliar head within Protestantism. When there is disagreement, people simply break off and start their own denomination. This fragmentation seems to happen daily, and yet many claim they are nonetheless united.
If anyone claims Protestantism is united because they believe in some “Mere Christianity” (the Holy Trinity, for example), then they have not met a Oneness Pentecostal. Can a Baptist, in their vigorous denial of infant baptism, truly claim to be sacramentally united with a Presbyterian? How can the Snake-handlers (who think Christianity is about wiping the dance-sweat off your forehead with a handful of poisonous snakes), be the same Christianity as Baptists, who have traditionally had negative opinions of dancing, let alone dancing with snakes? How are Oneness Pentecostals, who deny the Trinity, even be classified in the same religion as other Pentecostals who accept the Trinity? How are we to determine which random assortment of dogmas is representative of true Christianity?
I could find just as much agreement with a Muslim as I could with an Evangelical. Agreement on a few topics is not the same thing as unity or communion. No matter what doctrine is put into the spotlight of agreement, there will be a denomination in the shadows of disagreement. ‘Unity’ in Protestantism seems to be contextualized to an individual’s friendship circle. One Protestant may have ‘union’ with a different Protestant because they both agree on an aspect of Jesus, but they have no real communion, which is the only important form of Christian unity. If we say we have unity simply because we agree over a few lines of the Nicene Creed, yet are without liturgical communion, we lie to ourselves.