We’ve been looking at problems with Baptist theology from a historical standpoint. This Part 3. Let’s dive in:
Issue 3: How can every Christian be expected to interpret the Bible for themselves? It takes years to learn even the basics of biblical literature, history and linguistics. It would take even longer to dive into the various doctrinal positions taken throughout history. Are we really supposed to do that for ourselves? Is every generation supposed to figure it all out again in light of changing culture and the latest scholarship? That’s exactly the position of Protestantism and the result is that we now have over 20,000 denominations and counting. Can that be what Jesus intended?
Response: The question is: how does a Christian know what to do?
Do we obey to a church authority and outsource accountability for our beliefs or do we go with the teachings of the bible as we understand them? This is admittedly a sticky issue, because the divisions of Protestantism are indeed scandalous – as is the sophomoric confidence many evangelicals have in their own narrow biblical interpretation. Many Catholics and other liturgical types point to this doctrinal chaos as evidence that they are the true church, that they are orderly and unified under papal authority and church teaching. However, I believe this organizational unity, while astounding and admirable (let’s give credit where it’s due), actually shields a religious landscape as diverse as Protestantism itself. In other words if you move from parish to parish, nation to nation, or university to university, you will find as much diversity between Catholic beliefs and practices as you would if you visited a liberal Baptist church in Vancouver and a charismatic one in Nairobi. Because here’s the thing . . . the impetus of obedience, understanding, and interpretation always lies with the individual. There’s no escaping it.
Baptists express this clearly with our doctrine of soul competency – that every soul has the ability to understand and obey God. Certainly we cannot understand truth perfectly. We all see truth dimly as Paul says. We all interpret faith according to our traditions, culture, and relational experiences. Therefore, we all will never see eye to eye on many issues. There will always be many Protestant denominations and many competing views within Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It’s simply the human condition. We have to do the best we can with what we know and trust God to forgive our failings. Simply asking, “Where does Rome stand?” is not good enough. Popes and bishops have at times led women and men into terrible sin. When the failings of the Church are pointed out, many Catholics will say that the Church at that time wasn’t following its own teachings. Thus, faithful Christians should stick to those teachings even if bishops and popes do not and order people to do otherwise. This distinction sounds fine on paper, but is too fine in reality.
For instance, image you are a young nobleman in Toulouse, France in the year 1209. You love God and others. You are good hearted and want to live a just life. A represenative of the pope arrives in town and orders an army form. The army assembles in the name of the pope and you join it, eager to be a dutiful Christian. You then learn the army is marching on your fellow countrymen. You feel uneasy about this development, but trust that Church authorities know best. The campaign proceeds. In August, 1209 your army surrounds and eventually assaults the city of Breziers to root out a heretical sect. 15,000-20,000 people are killed – the entire population. In this case, obedience to the Church means taking part in the murder of thousands of fellow Christians and Frenchmen. However, refusing to serve could lead to excommunication by the pope’s commanders or at the very least alienation by friends and family, dishonor for life. What is our young nobleman to do?
I’m certain the modern day Church looks back on this period with regret and now repudiates virtually all violence. But what would they say to our young noble? He is not helped by the modern day stance. Given his limited geographic scope and education could he really have been expected to say no to the holy war and to have pointed the pope’s military leaders to a higher standard of teaching? I don’t think so. On the other hand, what if our young noble grew up reading or hearing the Sermon on the Mount and was expected to obey it on his own?
Is this example unfair? It could be, but I don’t think my point is at all.
Yes, the Baptist way is messy and chaotic. But that’s the human situation. We are messy and chaotic. It seems much safer for a church to point people to Christ and challenge them to live out his ethic of love as they see fit rather than putting any human authority on such a pedestal. A local church body, traditions, creeds, and history are all important components in the process of understanding faith and biblical interpretation, but in the end a person must judge for themselves what she or he believes to be true. It’s a subjective process yes but as I illustrated above you can’t take the subjective out of it by outsourcing your conscience to an external human authority or tradition. Following orders is not and will not be an excuse when we stand before the judgement seat.
We all must own our personal theologies. We can’t understand perfectly, but we have enough in the revelation of Scripture and the life and resurrection of Jesus to be redeemed and slowly transformed until that day when we finally cast the dark glasses aside.
I love my Catholic brothers and sisters. I think the intellect and beauty of your church is unmatched. There would be no Christianity in the Western world if not for you. But I stand in the Baptist tradition because it recognizes that no religious or political authority can be fully trusted with another’s faith and thus urges accountability from each individual soul.
On this side of eternity, that seems to me the safer bet.
Could I be wrong?
As an aside this post could apply equally to Reformed types who believe they are the “true church” as well as to authoritarian evangelical pastors who believe they interpret the bible without bias.