Awkward Assumptions

With age is supposed to come wisdom. By this point in my life, I really should be getting pretty darn wise. I have at least learned to keep my mouth shut (most of the time), following the old maxim “When in doubt, DON’T SAY IT!” Foot-in-mouth disease is part and parcel of the human condition – rare indeed is the person who can claim never to have given utterance to an unfortunate assumption along the lines of:

–    “When are you due?”

–    “You’re expecting? I didn’t even know you were married!”

–    “And this must be your mother!”

We do this because as human beings we are constantly assuming. I assume when I get up in the morning that there will be hot water for my shower. I assume when I head off for work that I am still employed. I assume when I have put in my 40 hours at work that I am going to get paid.

Fortunately, these are generally speaking well-founded assumptions. I have paid the water bill; I have paid the electric bill – I have good reason to assume that there will be hot water. I have fulfilled my job requirements; I have refrained from succumbing to pugilistic tantrums at work – I have good reason to assume that I still have a job. I signed a contract when I was hired; that contract stipulates that I will be paid a certain amount upon completion of my duties – I have good reason to assume that I will receive remuneration come pay day.

It is when we stray into the territory of unfounded assumptions that we encounter all sorts of unexpected and uncomfortable situations. My employer is reputable – but what if I had signed up with some fly-by-night organization, here today and gone tomorrow? Would my assumption that I will get paid for my efforts necessarily pan out? My job duties have been clearly laid out, and my supervisor will certainly speak up if I am not fulfilling them adequately – but what if I were left unsupervised to decide for myself what exactly my job entailed and how best to achieve the goals of the position? That worked back when I was self-employed, but I now work for an organization – I need to impress, not myself, but my employer with my efforts. What if after all my hard work my employer felt that I hadn’t fulfilled the requirements of my job?

So, assumptions are a part of life – without making any assumptions a human being could scarcely function. However, it is in our own best interest to avoid unfounded assumptions. Unfounded assumptions can lead to some very sticky situations. Assuming that you have a million dollars in the bank, and basing your budget on that assumption can have some really awkward financial consequences. Best to know exactly where you stand financially BEFORE you start spending the money….

As an Evangelical I was operating on the foundational assumption that the Reformation led by Martin Luther was a good thing. I had heard all my life that God in His goodness sent Luther to scrape the barnacles off the foundering ship S.S. Christianity, returning her to her original seaworthy condition. I never questioned that version of events. Our conservative Protestant understanding of Scripture was, I believed, the same as that of the Christians of the New Testament. Every church I had ever attended had assured me that there was a “golden chain of believers” down through the centuries, all professing the same faith taught by whatever Protestant denomination I happened to be affiliated with at the moment. When Luther broke from the Catholic Church, he officially restored the true Christianity that true Christian believers had been preserving in the privacy of their own hearts down through the centuries. I never questioned this. Then one day it occurred to me to try to find out something about the early Christians – surely there must be some writings extant from the Christians who lived in the centuries after the death of the apostles. I googled the term “golden chain of believers,” and came up with … n-o-t-h-i-n-g.

I tried similar terms such as “the scarlet thread of believers” (thinking maybe we had confused it with the “scarlet thread of redemption” that runs through Scripture). I began searching doggedly for some kind of true believer chain or thread akin to the one we always talked about. I finally googled a generic “early Christian beliefs” and got some results, but none of them looked even remotely Protestant. Most of them looked distinctly un-Protestant, as in “Catholic.” Galled, I began reading the writings of those early Christians on the subjects of eternal security, faith and works, baptism, communion, church government, etc., and came to the glum realization that our “golden chain of believers” had been nothing but a great big myth.

The existence of this nonexistent “golden chain,” of course, was never subjected to investigation – it was assumed. It was assumed that the first Christians adhered to the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide, because we Evangelicals read those doctrines into our King James and our NIV, and we could not conceive of “real Christians” who did not see the same things in Scripture that we saw there. It was assumed that the first Christians believed that baptism and communion were symbols rather than sacraments, because that was our “truth” and we knew that those first Christians had the “truth” as well. It was assumed that there was no hierarchical structure in the early Christian churches, no bishops and priests, certainly no pope, because we knew that “real Christians” worshipped God in spirit and in truth, and that necessarily precluded a Spirit-smothering hierarchy.

Finally forced to face my ignorance of Christian history, I set about examining the other unexamined assumptions that formed the basis of my Protestant belief system:

Assumption #2: The Bible says nothing about an authoritative, united Church which guards the doctrine handed down from the apostles with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Following Luther’s lead, my ultimate authority as an Evangelical was the written word of God alone. If Jesus had established a Church which had faithfully guarded the deposit of faith down through the centuries, then no matter how much I disliked that Church, I could not separate myself from it – but I “knew” that Jesus had just left Holy Scripture in charge over His body. Of course, I took it for granted that there was no biblical evidence of a Church with real authority, a Church aided by the Holy Spirit in her efforts to safeguard the Tradition handed down from the apostles:

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Mt 16:18-19

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Mt 18:17

If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. I Tim 3:15

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. I Cor 11:2

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. II Thess 2:15

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you, guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. II Tim 1:13-14

Assumption #3: There is no such thing as apostolic succession.

I once attended a Bible study where the speaker made the offhand remark that “OF COURSE, we KNOW that there is no such thing as apostolic succession.” Heads nodded. All heads nodded. It began to look like a bobblehead convention. If the apostles had instituted bishops, and had told those bishops to chose other men to succeed them, providing for an unbroken chain of authority and for the faithful transmission of the deposit of faith, then our pastors lacked that authority and were out of the loop on the transmission of faith. So WE KNEW that there was no such thing as apostolic succession. Of course, WE KNEW no such thing – it was all assumed. The Bible that we were studying says:

At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. “For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” …Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. Acts 1:15-26

…and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men
who will also be qualified to teach others. II Tim 2:2

And the early Christians wrote:

Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry (St. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, written late 1st century)

It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times…. (St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, written late 2nd century)

Believing as I did that the Reformation had done Christianity a service by doing away with the false notions of apostolic succession and an authoritative Church, I was buying into some seriously unfounded assumptions, assumptions that led me astray spiritually as I determined for myself how best to interpret Scripture. Of course, if there is no Church which teaches doctrine guarded by the Holy Spirit, no Church against whom the gates of hell cannot prevail, no Church with whom Jesus will be always, no Church with leaders who are successors to the apostles themselves, then of course the 1517 reboot of the franchise did no harm. I was betting on that. I bet wrong.

Jesus tells the story of a dishonest steward who, when faced with impending unemployment, made friends with his master’s debtors by falsifying the records in their favor. Jesus then remarks that “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” The people who buy into the idea of the Reformation-as-a-great-thing are not stupid, but they are not acting wisely, either. The children of this world don’t believe everything they hear. They don’t take things at face value. They don’t buy the Brooklyn Bridge or swampland in Florida. But people who will assure you that they weren’t born yesterday start acting as if they indeed were when they get born again. People who would fact-check the heck out of a sales pitch for vinyl siding will swallow a televangelist’s spiel hook, line and sinker. Protestants who double-check every bank statement and inspect every square inch of every prospective purchase buy into some awful foolishness when it comes to doctrine, because they believe that having faith obviates the need to investigate the system into which they are placing their faith. Falling for a set of unfounded assumptions, folks who would never sign a contract without reading it commit their spiritual fate to a seriously flawed belief system, without ever bothering to read the Biblical fine print.

The children of this world have the right idea – Jesus commends them for their shrewdness – but their values are warped. There are worse things than foolishly buying swampland in Florida, far worse – like buying a timeshare in a belief system that was built on shifting sand.

On the memorial of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. russ said:

    renee: i continually look back at my life and wonder how I assumed all the things I was told about Catholicism and protestantism were true. Why? Partly because I was 14 yrs old and just coming out of a really sinful state so everything looked bright and shiny for awhile. But as I matured and went to college, why didn’t I study the history of Catholicism from a Catholic perspective? Because I had already started drinking the koolaid of the particular group I “felt” comfortable with and welcomed me. When the scales fell from my eyes and the veil was lifted, I was so happy and angry at the same time. Happy that I had found the one I had been seeking my whole life was literally down the street in my local Catholic Church and angry that I had been duped and duped myself by ASSUMING that what I was told by bible study teachers, college profs, pastors etc was true. Never Assume because you know what happens! Great post! God bless

  2. Russ,

    I have a Protestant relative who is SMART. She is also divorced, and is very interested in the subject of remarriage. Knowing that I am Catholic, and knowing that the Church says that remarriage is adultery, she has discussed this topic with me on more than one occasion. She sent me an article by a Protestant who claims that the Church Fathers were basically “all over the map” on the subject of divorce and remarriage, as if they were just as confused on the issue as present-day Protestants. The article was full of non sequiturs and bad math – you didn’t need to have a degree in Theology to see how far off this guy was. My relative is very savvy when it comes to things like finance, but when she reads something like that she simply swallows it whole. I urged her:to approach articles like this the way she would a bank statement. Don’t accept it as if it came down from Heaven – DO THE MATH! Make sure it adds up! If something was written by a Protestant and has a few Bible verses in it, she accepts it as the gospel truth – and I’m sure she thinks that that kind of uncritical acceptance makes her a good Christian. I’m with you – so many years wasted believing the prevailing wisdom and getting my ears tickled with what sounded good to me….

  3. Never heard of the golden chain of believers; but here in the Bible Belt that concept is called the Trail of Blood, which is easy to find online.

    • I was never a Landmark Baptist. Actually, Baptist successionism (The Trail of Blood) is like 400-level Mythology compared to the Mythology 101 that I was exposed to as a Protestant. We had no coherent explanation of the chain of believers; it was just something we believed because if it wasn’t true, our beliefs were what St. Paul had warned the Galatians about: a different Gospel! So of course there was a golden chain of believers!

      I am glad that I wasn’t exposed to Baptist successionism back then – I might have fallen for it without investigating the (lack of) historical facts in its support. My favorite book on the subject is James Edward McCormick’s Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question in Baptist History. As he puts it:

      “As a young undergraduate with a keen interest in history, the author of the present work was introduced to Baptist successionism through reading The Trail of Blood and was, for several years, a vigorous advocate of that view. Extensive graduate study and independent investigation of church history has, however, convinced him that the view he once held so dear has not been, and cannot be, verified. On the contrary, surviving primary documents render the successionist view untenable.”

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