I have been critical of the post-1970s version of Evangelical Christianity that dominates the thinking of church leaders. One of its characteristics is the fantasy that all Christians believe, or should believe, the same things. We don’t, and never have done. The idea that we ought to discourages honest expressions of doubt, and encourages those with a little theological training to imagine they know all the answers.
Defenders of ‘orthodoxy’ often have little idea what the history behind it is really like. New Testament scholars and church historians tell us that Christianity was a diverse movement from the start. As it spread from Galilee it got adapted by different communities. The variety was so wide that people soon started setting boundaries, as can be seen by some of the later New Testament books like the Epistles of John. There have to be some; if you can believe anything at all and call yourself a Christian, Christianity becomes meaningless.
It didn’t stop there. 300 years after Jesus, Constantine became Roman Emperor and threw in his lot with Christianity. It gave him a problem: church leaders spent a lot of their time arguing against each other. He decided to settle the matter. He instructed the bishops to hammer out a statement of Christian belief.
The result was what we now call the Nicene Creed. From then on emperors and popes could insist that all true Christians should believe exactly what the Creed states.
Plenty of Christians, of course, continued to disagree, and later Ecumenical Councils updated it; but they eventually stopped. Once hallowed with age, the Creed could be interpreted as divinely inspired. Anyone who disagreed with it could then be accused of exalting their own powers of reason above divine revelation. Error, many believed, led people to eternal damnation and had to be stamped out – if necessary by war.
The saving grace of the Creed is that it is comparatively short. The Bible is a lot longer. Over a thousand years after Constantine, Protestants argued that it was God’s revelation, given to the Church, true with a certainty that transcended all human reason. Catholics were misinterpreting it. But without the authority of the Catholic Church, how was it to be interpreted?
At first they argued that since it had been written exactly as God had intended, it was to be accepted without any interpretation. Literally.
This only made sense if anybody literate enough to read it would be able to understand it. So, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there arose the theory of biblical perspicuity: that the whole Bible was easy to understand.
However, when Protestants read the Bible, they did disagree with each other about what it meant. How could they explain this, without admitting that the Catholics were right?
The logic was tricky. All Protestants were to accept the plain, easily understood, uninterpreted meanings of every biblical text. Yet when they did, the results differed. Another authority was needed.
Since no human authority was acceptable, a divine one was the only alternative. Reading the Bible wasn’t enough. One also needed to be guided by the Holy Spirit. To Luther, without the Spirit’s guidance ‘They most sadly err who presume to interpret the Holy Scriptures and the law of God by taking hold of them by their own understanding and study’. Similarly Calvin taught that it is through the witness of the Spirit that the Scriptures impress themselves on the human heart as divine and life-giving wisdom. It was the only possible solution to their conundrum.
Stage 1. Authority to interpret the Bible resides with the Catholic Church. Anyone who disagrees with it is rejecting the Church’s authority and is therefore a heretic.
Stage 2. Authority to interpret the Bible resides with every individual Christian. I read it and understand it, so those who disagree with my understanding are simply refusing to accept the clear, plain teaching of Scripture.
Stage 3. Authority to interpret the Bible resides with Christians who read it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I read it. I know that I have the Spirit’s guidance because I pray to the Spirit and submit to the Spirit. I have the required feelings inside me. My opponent also claims to be duly submitting, to have the required feelings and therefore to have the Spirit’s guidance. My opponent is either lying or is being guided by some other spiritual power capable of disguising itself as the Spirit. It can only be the devil. My opponent is not just in error but is speaking the devil’s words. To disagree is not enough; his or her words need to be denounced, driven out, exorcised.
The theory had tragic effects. It encouraged individuals in over-confidence. Convinced that their own beliefs were simply the clear, plain teaching of the Bible, they refused to tolerate disagreement. Large parts of Protestantism were in this way set up for endless sectarian disputes. In chapel after chapel half the congregation refused to accept what their minister taught. Discussing their differences would have meant exalting mere human reason above God’s Word. Instead they felt that in all conscience it was their Christian duty to build a rival chapel, preferably bigger than the other one and higher up the hill.
In any other context this would be condemned as pure bigotry. Yet once it was accepted that orthodoxy transcended human reason, the logic was impeccable. Rationally debating it became heresy. Transfer the criterion of orthodoxy from the Creed to the whole Bible, and Stage 1 is reached. Once the Catholic Church could credibly be accused of misinterpreting the Bible, Stage 2 followed; and once that was tried and found wanting, Stage 3 seemed the only way to avoid going back to Stage 1.
Of course most Protestants never went so far. The dominant church discourse of today is nothing like what happened then. It has been so generously watered down that the overwhelming majority of our population take no interest in it at all.
Nevertheless enough of it remains – or perhaps has been revived by the post-1970s version of Evangelicalism – to undermine all attempts of church leaders to present a credible Christianity.
It is, after all, from that tradition of bitter sectarian intolerance that we have inherited the common – and utterly false – assumptions that all Christians
(a) share the same beliefs, and
(b) do not need to examine them because they are so well established.
When a community shares these two convictions, the public agenda seems absolutely clear. Evangelism proceeds on the basis that we know the answers, so we do all the talking. We do not need to know what outsiders think. Their role is to receive the truth from us.
Of course most present-day Evangelicals would not be so presumptuous as to express themselves this bluntly; but these absurdities are only just under the surface of church discourse and are easily revealed.
What are we to do instead?
Once we recognise what the problem is, the way forward should be reasonably clear.
- Accept diversity of belief as normal. Give up the intolerant, dogmatic bigotry which gives modern western Christianity such a bad name. Positively value other people’s genuine efforts to share the search for truth, as researchers do in every other field of discourse.
- Instead of suppressing disagreement, be more open and intentional about publicly exploring the different versions of Christianity and how the God of Christianity would want us to live. Let the bishops disagree with each other in public, as they used to do before the lid was put on them.
Nobody knows everything. Nobody knows anything with absolute certainty. There is always the possibility of learning something new from an unexpected source. Only control freaks feel uncomfortable about this. For the rest of us, this is how we like it. It makes life more interesting and exciting.