Category Archives: Beyond Evangelical

Embrace the Doubt – Follow Jesus

Embracing the doubt that was the standard mode of operation before we had Evangelicals and Catholics will free us to discover the faith of the early church.

What if we didn’t know which books of the bible should be in the bible?

What if we didn’t know whether Paul’s writings in the bible are inspired to the point of being exactly what God wanted him to write? What if some of what Paul or any other bible author wrote was just from their own human mind and not from God, but we didn’t have a way to find out which was the case?

Embrace the DoubtWhat if we didn’t even have the bible but only parts of it and Christians in other parts of the world had different parts of it, or had books in their bible that we have never heard of or wouldn’t even want in our bible if we had heard of them?

Would any of this make any difference in our walk with God? Would this cause us to lose our faith, lose our morals, or become slaves to our own carnal ways of thinking?

For many people if all of the above were true they couldn’t imagine how they would even function as a Christian, or how churches could ever function as churches, yet this is exactly the experience of the early church. This is how it all started. It was with all of these uncertainties that God inserted the Son of God into society, called men and women to follow him, called them to be like him, even think like him, and then pass this faith on to others, and grow the church for over 300 years before there was a bible. All of the above uncertainties were what they had during this time.

Back then, Catholics and Evangelicals didn’t even exist. How so? An Evangelical believes the bible is the final authority on matters of faith. That’s what defines an Evangelical. If there isn’t a bible there aren’t any Evangelicals. A Catholic believes God created an institution that had the divine ability to sort through history and scriptures to determine infallibly what truth is with regard to matters of faith and practice. If at a time in history there does not exist such an institution, then there are no Catholics during that time.

If we haven’t established what the bible is we wouldn’t be able to say whether a doctrine is biblical or not. Even if we all got together and approved a list of books to be in our bible would we necessarily know that God was putting his stamp of approval on our list? What if we missed one?  What if God only wanted half of those books in our bible but didn’t tell us which ones? After the scripture canon (a list of approved writings) was ratified at the end of the 4th century these questions were not answered so even then there was no such thing as an Evangelical. That simply is not how the early church operated. It took hundreds of years before any particular list of approved writings became the accepted canon among the majority of churches.

A Catholic believes that despite all this unsureness God ordained the church to sort it out, infallibly, and that there is an unbroken string of Christian doctrine from Jesus until now, but the evidence from history proves quite the opposite. There is no indication that the church of the first 300 years had an institution that kept the church in line with the hearts and minds of Jesus and his apostles. They had the apostles for a short period of that time but even they didn’t always agree with each other, and they weren’t omnipresent. Not every church had an apostle. Some churches were actually quite isolated from the rest of the churches.

doubt and fear just aheadAfter the apostles died their immediate successors, the Apostolic Fathers, improvised with impunity. Though they were well-regarded at the time, some of their beliefs were considered heretical by the church a few hundred years later.  Without a bible it was a make-it-up-as-you-go religion. Theologians were free to come up with ways of understanding God and what was revealed to man through Jesus and his appointed leaders. There was no standard to which all men could appeal if they thought someone else or some other church was getting off track. It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that any group of church leaders even tried to determine which of their writings were inspired and which of their doctrines were “orthodox.” For the 200 years after the apostles there was no general consensus on many of the issues of their day that we take for granted, such as the nature of God and Christ, so it’s impossible to say there was any sense of certainty during that time, much less an infallible Magisterium which is a bedrock understanding of the Catholic faith.

If you are an Evangelical, the debatable points above deal with the nature of inspiration: whether everything written in the bible is just what God wanted them to write, or not. Of course as Evangelicals we admit that what we do have, ancient manuscripts several generations removed from the originals, is flawed. Nobody claims we have an accurate manuscript from which to translate into our native languages. Except for the King James Only proponents, but nobody takes them seriously and I don’t see any reason to either.

What would be the point of God infallibly inspiring the biblical authors if he isn’t also going to make sure the original autographs are preserved without humans making any changes, make sure those perfect manuscripts are translated perfectly into English and every other language on the earth, and then give us a way to perfectly interpret those translations so we don’t get anything wrong? There would be no point. Infallible scripture writers do us little good if we don’t also have infallible document recorders, infallible translators, and infallible interpreters. We don’t have those. We don’t even have the original supposedly perfect writings.

If you are an Evangelical you gotta agree with me here, unless you happen to be a King James Only Evangelical. If you agree with me about the lack of perfection in what we do have, why then promote the perfection we don’t have?

If you are a Catholic you will probably take exception with the idea that we don’t really know which books should be in the bible. You believe that Jesus would not ascend to the right hand of the Father without leaving us with some assurances that we can know the truth, and know it unequivocally.  This is why you believe God will put his stamp of approval on what your church does, after first making sure your church doesn’t do it wrong, of course.

What both Evangelicals and Catholics can agree on from my list of questions at the beginning of this article is that the early church didn’t know which books of the bible should be approved. They had only parts of it and Christians in other parts of the world had different parts of it, or had books in their “bible” that others never heard of or wouldn’t want in their bible if they had heard of them.

Actually, to be more accurate, they didn’t have a bible until the end of the 4th century when the canon of scripture was ratified by a couple of church councils.

So there you have it. Jesus planted his church and grew it for over 300 years in a sea of uncertainty, and many consider this to be the golden age of the church before Christianity was legalized and then tainted by the ungodly Roman culture of its time.  All that we know about Jesus Christ and the Gospel came from an era where not much of anything was known for sure. They knew a lot and had many wonderful, life-changing truths to share, and they had faith, to be sure, a vibrant faith that often makes us look like Fair Weather Christians, but it was faith in Jesus Christ, not church, not anyone’s interpretation of scriptures, and not even the bible.  How could they?  They didn’t have one.

This sea of uncertainty has been used as a reason by thinking people to reject the church, reject Evangelical Christianity, and reject Christ. That last rejection doesn’t have to be. In fact, embracing the doubt that was the standard mode of operation before we had Evangelicals and Catholics will free us to discover the faith of the early church, the faith as it was first introduced to the human race, the one that turned the world upside down. Without having had a bible or an institution that had everything figured out for them they knew no other way to follow Christ.

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The Beginnings of my Post-Evangelical Journey

Evangelicals will have a really hard time with where I am going.  It’s hard enough for them to accept that some parts of scripture may not be inerrant.

My theology is messed up.  “What’s new with that,” you say?  I’m glad you asked.

To be more specific, my theology is about to be messed up.  I’ve just had the biggest paradigm shifting moment I’ve had in years. Call me weird, but I love to have my paradigms challenged.

It all started with a discussion on TheologyOnline.com.  We were discussing Jn. 1:1 and the definition of LOGOS (the Word), including the possible Hellenistic influences on this the last of the four Gospels, when one of the posters wrote this about whether Revelation should even be in the bible:

“As I already told you – Revelation was debated for a very long time, much longer than the gospel of John. Those who accepted John rejected Revelation. There was also another apocalypse on the table that was considered scripture by many: the Apocalypse of Peter! If the early church was skeptical of these writings I see no reason why I shouldn’t be as well.”

A light went off in my dim, formerly pot-stricken mind.

Us Protestants seem to be no better than the Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses who just accept something because some person or group in history came up with a definitive statement about it.  There really is no difference between a Catholic accepting a doctrine because some supposed authoritative body or Pope made up our minds about it and a Protestant who accepts without question the canon of scripture.  It’s just plain laziness on both occasions and I must say I have been guilty as sin of the latter.

It seems we have the same problem as Catholics and resolve the issue the same way.  A Catholic believes God would not just let all these Christians loose on the theological gym floor to come up with their own doctrines.  Bedlam would ensue and a quick read of church history seems to bear this out.  Such a sight leads to insecurity so they reason God must have provided us with an authority to keep us on the straight and narrow.  Hence, the Mother Church, the Defender of the Faith.  Ditto for the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who looked at all the denominations caused by everyone thinking for themselves and concluded God could never have authored such a mess, hence the need for latter day prophets to straighten us all out.  Interestingly, Muslims reason the same way.

Our problem as Protestants is that if we are going to rely on scriptures alone, adhere to Sola Scriptura, and not on some institution or latter day prophet to keep us in line then we need God to do essentially the same thing: God must provide us with a complete, authoritative list of books to include in that canon with no quibbling or second guessing among us as to which books are authentic, inspired or credible.  If God hadn’t done this, we would never be able to go about the business of determining just what is biblical and what isn’t, so they reason.

This is a problem, for me at least.  Some church council in the 4th century is telling me which books are inspired, authoritative, or to be considered the Word of God.  Who were these people?  Were they chosen by God for this task?  Do they somehow have more of the Holy Spirit than I do?  Are we not elevating them to the same level of inspiration as we believe the authors of the bible had? That’s a bit of irony that escapes the average Evangelical.

After reading about one church council of a few decades prior to this which anathematized (damned to hell) anyone who does not proclaim publicly that Mary is the “Mother of God,” I have my doubts.  After reading some church history from this era showing the carnal self-serving nature of the leaders who forgot to follow Christ’s example of servant leadership, I really don’t want them making these kinds of decisions on my behalf. Some group of faithful leaders who put their lives on the line to serve Christ in the 2nd century maybe but not this bunch about 80 years after Christianity became legal in the early 4th century.

Evangelicals will have a really hard time with where I am going.  It’s hard enough for them to accept that some parts of scripture may not be inerrant.  They reason if we accept the idea that part of it may have errors, how will we know that a really important passage dealing with our salvation isn’t an error and thus we are believing the wrong things and might not even be saved!   Surely God would not allow that and therefore must have given us a 100% reliable text to follow.  Scriptures cannot be authoritative if they are not reliable.  If they are not authoritative us Protestants might as well throw in the towel, stop “protesting,” and be Catholics.  Rome would welcome us with open arms.

That makes sense, but funny thing, Evangelical scholars who reason this way also recognize that it was only the original manuscripts written by the apostles that were inerrant, and unfortunately we don’t have those. Or fortunately given man’s propensity for idolatry – Shroud of Turin, anyone?  What we do have, they admit, does have errors because there exists no perfect translation based on perfect manuscripts that have no corruptions.

The originals were inerrant, we surmise.  We don’t have the originals.  So what difference does it make if the originals had errors or not?  The whole idea of “verbal plenary inspiration,” of the original writings which, by the way, is a required belief to be a member of Bethel Church in Richland and probably several others in town, even if nobody knows what it means, is an argument based on insecurity.  It’s the old “slippery slope” analogy.  Don’t step foot off the trail because if you slip and fall you may never be able to get back up to the trail.

For some reason arguments based on insecurity don’t have much appeal to me.  Probably because I am secure in Christ.  Not only do I know what I believe and why I believe it, but also I know whom I believe, Jesus Christ the Son of God.  My faith in him is secure.  It’s rock solid.  That gives me the security to explore, to think outside the box, to see what’s down that path that leads who-knows-where.

I don’t know where this is going to take me but I feel like a kid who’s just been offered a free bore job for his hot rod to boost his power by 50 horses.  He doesn’t know the long term effects of the bore job on the integrity of his cylinders – and doesn’t want to know.  He’s just looking forward to the ride.

Some will say, “What keeps you from picking and choosing which scriptures you want to accept and not coming up with your own Jefferson Bible?  Well what kept the early Christians from doing the same thing or simply tossing scriptures that didn’t fit their preconceived theologies?  Again, I would rather put my trust in the Holy Spirit whom I know than these church leaders whom I do not know.

Somehow, the Christian Church survived nearly 400 years without them.  I submit God was big enough for them so he’ll be big enough for me, and anyone else who chooses to go down this faith walk.

Note – This was written in 2010. It’s been a fun ride since then. I haven’t really tried to come up with my own personal biblical canon, I’m still too lazy for that exercise.