I often wonder if some people who stumble across this blog aren’t tempted to believe that I might be presenting a caricature of Evangelical Protestantism. As I have stated before, when I write about the Protestantism I left behind, I write about once-saved/always-saved, nondenominational churches and charismatic assemblies: Bible-alone churches. I’m really not qualified to discuss things from the perspective of a former Lutheran or former Reformed Presbyterian, since I was neither. I did attend Presbyterian churches when I lived in Taiwan, but those churches were led by lay-preachers who delivered a gospel indistinguishable from the one preached at nondenominational churches of my acquaintance in the U.S. My only exposure to real Lutheranism or Presbyterianism would have come from visiting my college friend’s Lutheran church, where I was exposed to Ash Wednesday, and from the one Lutheran and two Presbyterian pastors who, with a Baptist, co-pastored the church I attended right after marrying my Baptist husband – pastors who, because of the extreme ecumenical nature of the church, were not in a position to teach any distinctively Lutheran or Presbyterian notions – once again, it was a lowest-common-denominator kind of Christianity.
I’m sure, though, that to some Protestants it would seem that I am caricaturing Evangelicalism, twisting it out of shape to make it appear grotesque and unappealing, distorting its features. I beg to differ.
Every single church I attended as a Protestant was filled with Bible-believing Christians, good people, sincere people. I have never attended a liberal, Bible-reinterpreting church. Yet the Bible-believing doctrine that I was taught in those Bible-believing churches of my acquaintance varied from church to church. Over the course of the first 45 years of my life I attended churches that told me I had to experience the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and speak in tongues, and other churches derided that notion as holy-rollerism. Some of my pastors preached that I could lose my salvation, and others preached that I could not. The theology taught by certain radio preachers (such as D. James Kennedy) on the local Baptist station ran counter to the theology taught by other radio preachers (such as Adrian Rogers).
I really did think that my Christian beliefs were the same as the beliefs of the first-century followers of Christ, despite the fact that I had attended churches that taught that I could lose my salvation and churches that taught that that was impossible. No matter which Protestant church I attended, I believed that what I was taught was exactly what the first Christians believed. Every Protestant church I attended really did believe that all conservative Protestants agree on “the Essentials.”
I really was baptized twice. This is not unheard of. Sadly, there are folks who get baptized three and four times, because they fear that their first baptism didn’t “work,” just as I feared that my first baptism had been invalid since it had been an infant baptism in my mother’s Methodist church.
The thriving church I attended as a child really did vanish off the face of the earth when the leadership felt “led by the Lord” to hand the church building back to the denomination and meet in informal “home church” settings, in imitation of what they believed the early church looked like.
Our Baptist church really did hold “prophecy conferences” in which various self-proclaimed “prophecy experts” proposed versions of the End Times that conflicted with those of other self-proclaimed “prophecy experts.”
We really did say “Now, we KNOW that Paul did NOT mean ‘continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ when he wrote ‘continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.'”
We really did use 1 John 5:13 to “prove” that true believers could know that they were saved with no chance of losing their salvation (AKA “you can know that you know that you know that you know…”)
I really have attended churches where the pastor was voted into office by the congregation based on his agreement with THEIR interpretation of the Word of God.
I really do know Evangelicals who believe that Mother Teresa most likely wasn’t saved because she was working her way to Heaven.
My former church’s newspaper really did cast doubt on whether we’ll see John Paul II in Heaven, given that he taught “false doctrine.”
Young Earth Creationism really was taught to my kids at their Baptist Academy.
My son’s Bible teacher really did tell the class that she never talks to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock on her door, because she is afraid that they will deceive her with their false doctrine and lead her away from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, causing her to be damned, and then explained that if that happened and she did fall away, then she had never really been saved to begin with.
I really have met people here in town who believe that the King James Version of the Bible is inspired and inerrant.
When we became Catholic, Baptist friends really did wonder how we could convert to the beliefs of a religious system that burned Martin Luther at the stake.
I really did attend a charismatic healing meeting in which several people were “healed” of leg-length discrepancy.
My mother’s charismatic friend really did teach people “how to prophesy.”
My mother really did believe that lay Catholics are kept in the dark about the real, secret doctrines of the Catholic Church.
My point is, I don’t believe that the Bible-alone picture that I am depicting is a caricature of Protestant beliefs – I believe that nondenominational and charismatic theology are themselves a caricature of more traditional Protestant beliefs. However, in defense of my former beliefs, I would add that nondenominational and charismatic theology take traditional Protestant beliefs to their natural conclusion.
The beliefs and practices of Bible-alone Christians are the logical extension of the beliefs of the Reformers. After all, if the Reformers were right, if the Catholic Church junked up the pure Gospel with the trappings of ritual, why do away with only some rituals – why not all of them? As a nondenominational Christian, I and everyone I worshipped with was disdainful of Lutheran pastors donning robes and Reformed ministers baptizing infants and leading their congregation in the recitation of the Apostles Creed – those practices are not in the Bible! If the Reformers were right, and the Catholic Church added the traditions of men to the commandments of God, why only do away with some of those traditions? Why disavow the conclusions of only some Church Councils, like Trent – why not all the Church Councils?
If no one on this earth can come to infallible conclusions, how can you know for sure that the Council of Nicaea was orthodox while the Council of Florence was not? Why retain the Creed? Why not “no creed but Christ”?
Martin Luther believed that Mary was a sinless, perpetual virgin and that she was the Mother of God. Today’s Lutheranism rejects the former assertions, but still agrees with the latter. Bible-alone Protestants reject the second doctrine as well, with the understanding that Martin Luther set out to strip the Church of the barnacles of tradition, the prime example of a barnacle being the “unbiblical” doctrine of the Theotokos. In this sense nondenominational Christians see themselves as the true descendants and heirs of the Reformation, bringing the “purge” to its proper completion.
Why do things half-way?
I suspect that members of traditional Protestant denominations would listen to my story and explain to me that as a Bible-alone Christian I had fallen prey to “solo” Scriptura, a caricature of what they view as the biblical doctrine of sola Scriptura. Protestants such as I once was who take the Bible as their sole authority are twisting the doctrines of the Reformers, they would tell me. The Reformers actually taught that the Bible is the highest authority, but that the “church” also functions as an authority. Therefore, no true Christian can, for example, reject the Nicene Creed, crafted by the church, on the grounds that it was produced by men and is not found in the Bible. Got it?
As a Bible-alone Christian, my answer would have been, “Which part of Martin Luther’s declaration at Worms don’t you understand?”
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
No, Bible-alone Christians emphatically don’t “get it.” According to Luther’s own words, Bible-alone Christians are the true heirs of the Reformation. Away with your creeds and councils! Just give me Jesus!
It is often noted that as you age, your features may become something of a caricature of your younger face. When the youthful bloom fades from your cheeks, your sharp nose looks even pointier. Your hairline recedes, making your ears look larger. This is exactly what has happened as Protestantism has aged. As Bible-alone Christians have taken the ideas of the arch-Reformer to their legitimate conclusion, the face of Protestantism has changed. It is not attractive, with all of its scars and pits of seemingly endless division. While mainline denominations try to distance themselves from Bible-alone Christians, the family resemblance is unmistakable. The rebellious rejection of the legitimate authority of the Church is ever-present, whether it is traced genteelly on the features of those who claim to submit to the “church,” (a church of their own creation), or drawn in harsher lines on the visage of those who reject every authority on Earth outside of their own fallible interpretation of Scripture. Like it or not, admit it or not, Bible-alone Christians are the spittin’ image of their spiritual forbears. Photoshop was invented for just such a reason.
On the memorial of St. Jerome
Deo omnis gloria!