Over at The Gospel Coalition, they did an interview with Gregg Allison over the challenges of writing a contemporary theology, specifically on the doctrine of the church (lower ‘c’ intentional). He points out that among evangelicals there are a wide variety of beliefs on how the church should function and look, which makes a contemporary theology over the issue quite a challenge. But the challenge, in my mind, undermines evangelical ecclesiology and not only makes the task of defining an evangelical church difficult, but proves it is ultimately impossible. The reason is that a contemporary theology of the church is impossible simply because we refuse to look at the ancient theology of the Church.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Whittenburg door, a lot of his grievances stemmed from the authority of the Roman Pope. This, of course, was not the first time in history that the authority given to the Roman Pope caused problems in Christendom. Prior to Luther’s call for reform (and subsequent excommunication), the Western Church had endured some of the most corrupt and violent popes in history. Even prior to the corruption, one of the driving factors in the Great Schism was the great authority the West was giving to the Roman Pope; at the time, there was a Pope of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome. Due to the collapse of the Roman government in the West, the Pope in Rome (or archbishop) gained quite a bit of political authority. While he was always viewed as the “first among equals” by the Church in the East, those in the West began to see him as having more authority than the popes in the East. Thus, while not the sole contributor to the Great Schism, the authority given to the Pope was a driving factor in the split, much like it was in the Reformation.
The problem with the Protestant Reformation, however, isn’t that it rejected the level of authority given to the Pope, but instead that it ultimately elevated every man to the office of the Pope. Prior to the Reformation, the Bible was often interpreted by Bishops, Cardinals, and ultimately the Pope. He held (and still holds) the power to declare an interpretation or teaching ex cathedra (“from the chair”). While this power was no more than implied prior to the First Vatican Council, it still carried quite a bit of weight; the Pope’s view of how a passage should be interpreted often influenced everyone else’s view. The Reformation didn’t remove the Pope from their hermeneutic, they simply made every man a pope. Thus, John may interpret a passage one way while Peter interprets it another and the entire time both are left to argue endlessly without having an actual way to solve their differences.
The Reformations failure to eradicate the office of the Papacy (as it was known) and instead transfer its authority to the common man is what led to thousands of denominations. Seemingly small differences became massive when mixed with the pride of a self-interpretation. It wasn’t a matter of discovering the truth, but instead it became a matter of declaring x to be true, that we are the keepers of it, and all others are wrong. It gave every layman the ability to declare his interpretation ex cathedra, to say that the Holy Spirit had revealed the interpretation to him. Any attempts to refer to Tradition or how Christians had typically interpreted the passage were (and are) put on the back-burner or outright ridiculed as Papist. Continue reading