“Missional ecumenicist” John Armstrong has two parallel passions: church unity and church missions. Pastor Armstrong’s Protestant catholicism (small c) is characterized by his gracious, warm-hearted relationships, openness, and appreciation for both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. He is relatively new to the Reformed tradition having come from a broad Evangelical background. He wrote:
I entered the Reformed Church in America, about ten years ago, out of growing conviction that I could find a “broader way” of expressing my Reformed faith in both catholicity and ecumenism. I wanted a church home that had a meaningful catholic history and some ecclesial stability without all the stops and strictures of the rigidly conservative Reformed Church expressions that I see in the U.S.
Pastor Armstrongrecently wrote two interesting series of blog postings. One lengthy series (twenty two articles!) — “Must the Reformation Wars Continue?” — sought to bring closure to the controversy over sola fide (justification by faith alone) that divides Protestants from Roman Catholics. This was followed by another series, “Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love?” In it Pastor Armstrong challenged the official reasons for Prof. Douglas Green’s “retirement” from Westminster Seminary. He also delved into the conflictual culture at Westminster. At first glance the two series of articles appear unrelated but in fact both address conflicts that divide the body of Christ and hinder the mission of the Church.
Pastor Armstrong has good reason to be distressed by the bible wars tearing apart the Westminster Seminary community. He calls for the promotion of a culture of “radical love” that will lead to healing and reconciliation among the various parties.
Conflict is not new to Westminster Seminary. Westminster is an off shoot of Princeton Seminary which succumbed to theological liberalism in the 1920s. The struggle to uphold sola scriptura has given rise to a series of retreats: from Princeton to Westminster, then from Westminster to Redeemer in Houston. John Armstrong sings the praise of Redeemer Seminary in Dallas as being what Westminster used to be. Furthermore, the controversy surrounding Prof. Green is all too typical. Just a few years earlier, Westminster Seminary was wracked by controversy over Prof. Peter Enns’ discussion of biblical inspiration and modern scholarship. This led to Enns ouster in 2008, followed by a third of the board of trustees resigning. Going back to the 1970s, there was controversy over Prof. Norman Shepherd’s understanding of the covenant. This gives rise to the question: Why has Westminster Theological Seminary been so prone to conflicts rooted in the tension between doctrinal orthodoxy and rigorous scholarship?
Though our Protestant brothers rarely see it, this readiness to debate almost any detail of Bible and theology, and to separate from each other if our views differ slightly, is all too typical of the Protestant mentality. This way of thinking is evidence of how conservative Protestants take the Bible and matters of faith seriously. But there is also another presupposition beneath these bible wars. It is the understanding that true Christian piety requires not only the laying aside of the Church Fathers’ interpretation of Holy Scripture – but the expectation that Scripture must be studied anew to learn afresh what the Spirit is teaching the Church. But if the Church Fathers received the Scriptures from the Apostles, identified and defined the biblical canon, and gave us the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology in the early Creed, why are Protestants so quick to reject and ignore the Church Fathers? For Orthodox Christians this laying aside of the wisdom of the early Church Fathers guided by the Holy Spirit is dumbfounding. Did not Christ himself promise that he would send the Holy Spirit who would guide the Church into all truth? (See John 16:13.)
Protestantism’s approach to the Bible – sola scriptura — is rooted in two ideals. One is the ideal of Scripture liberated from Church Tradition. This was needed in order to withstand the demands of the Roman Church that Luther and other Reformers submit to the Papacy. The other ideal is sola scriptura combined with rigorous scholarship.
The latter reflects the Protestant Reformation’s roots in the seminary and the academy. Martin Luther was a seminary professor and John Calvin studied law at the leading French universities. This openness to human reason also led to the expectation that Protestantism and its seminaries could confidently interact with the academy and the public square via sola scriptura. The Protestant ideal of sola scriptura with rigorous scholarship held so long as European culture was predominantly Christian but with the rise of modern science and the Enlightenment a radically different epistemology emerged. This new way of thinking sought to be grounded in empirical observation of the natural order and guided by human reason independent of divine revelation.
Thus, it is no surprise then that liberal theology with its naturalistic bias and the emphasis on scientific scholarship emerged in the German universities. It was in Germany that the modern university emerged that influenced higher education in the US in the 1800s and the 1900s. Similarly, the higher critical method invented in the German universities was brought over to America where it swept major theological schools like Princeton. Protestant theology being “liberated” from Holy Tradition preserved and passed on through the Church became vulnerable to innovative doctrines and practices.
The disputes at Westminster Seminary are not between Methodists and Baptists, or Pentecostals, Anglicans and Presbyterians. They are taking place within the same Presbyterian denominations. These bible wars are the consequence of Protestant seminaries’ exclusion of Holy Tradition’s normative role in the study of Scripture. In addition to giving rise to a plethora of Protestant denominations, sola scriptura creates a theological rigidity that makes it difficult for Protestant seminary professors and other Christian scholars to think critically. It creates a sort of invisible Procrustean bed for Protestant scholarship. When seminary professors seek to apply rigorous scholarship with results that challenge or give rise to questions about certain established doctrinal distinctives bible wars erupt.
As I bounced back and forth between the two series of articles I found myself wondering: If Pastor Armstrong in his zeal for Church unity is so eager to end the Reformation wars by smoothing away the rough edges of the sola fide issue, where does he stand on Rome’s claim to universal magisterium? While the appeal of Roman Catholicism may lie in a form of broadness and stability that Evangelicalism and Protestantism clearly lack, Pastor Armstrong has yet to address the Pope’s claim to universal magisterium, i.e., his claim to be the authoritative expositor of the Christian Faith. Furthermore, I do not see much evidence that Pastor Armstrong has engaged Orthodoxy’s insistence that Scripture be read in the context of Holy Tradition, that is, the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.
I voiced these concerns earlier in a four part series “Contra Sola Scriptura.” In my review of Dr. Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura I noted similar problems much like that which roils the Westminster Seminary community today.
With respect to Protestantism over the past five centuries Mathison has had to concede that it has not worked well (p. 290). When we look at the Reformed tradition, which we can assume had the best understanding of sola scriptura, we find similar practical difficulties. Which particular Reformed denomination has been most faithful to the principle of sola scriptura? PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RCA, EPC, BPC, CPC, CPCA, WPCUS, ARPC, RPCA, RPCGA, or CREC? Has sola scriptura proven to be a source of doctrinal unity or division in the Reformed churches?
…Dr. Mathison lists three reasons why sola scriptura hasn’t worked so far: (1) the Reformation took place long after the initial schisms, (2) sola scriptura was soon replaced by a distorted version “solo scriptura” espoused by Evangelicals, and (3) the rise of the Enlightenment (p. 290). But his defense of sola scriptura against the charge of hermeneutical chaos suffers from a serious gap. None of these explanations account for the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 where Luther and Zwingli met to debate the meaning of words of Christ: “This is my body.” Their failure to work out the practical implications of how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper constitutes one of Protestantism’s earliest failures. This tragic event took place just ten years after Luther’s 95 Theses with the result that the Protestant movement soon was divided into three factions. Calvin was unable to forge a theological consensus beyond his own circle of followers. In Chapter 3, “Martin Luther and John Calvin,” Mathison makes no mention of Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer. This shows a serious gap in Mathison’s historical analysis. The Marburg Colloquy is an early occurrence of the impracticality of sola scriptura for the magisterial Reformation and is something Mathison needs to address.
In a 2007 article, Pastor Armstrong shows he too is familiar with the classical Protestant version of sola scriptura that allows for reason and experience. He also shows awareness of the criticism that sola scriptura gives rise to division. He wrote: “I fear for a Protestant future that continues to promote sectarianism as essential to sola Scriptura.” In response to Roman Catholics who asserted Rome’s magisterium Armstrong asserted that sola scriptura “rightly defined” and “rightly used” will address these concerns. But IS this prescription adequate for dealing with the instabilities and divisions that arise from Westminster’s attempt to uphold sola scriptura?
Orthodoxy’s approach is to interpret Scripture within the framework of Holy Tradition. While Orthodoxy is receptive towards modern biblical scholarship, it holds the Ecumenical Councils and the patristic consensus to be normative over modern biblical scholarship. This I suggest will avoid the dilemma of the Scylla of Protestantism’s sola scriptura versus the Charybdis of Roman Catholicism’s infallible papacy. The Orthodox approach to the reading of Scripture is grounded in the stability of ancient Holy Tradition that balances out Protestantism’s sola scriptura. Orthodoxy’s conciliarity, i.e., giving priority to the Ecumenical Councils over any bishop, balances out Roman Catholicism’s claim to papal supremacy. It is here that Reformed-Orthodox dialogue can be fruitful and can be useful for those distressed by the bible wars in Protestant seminaries. (See Seraphim Hamilton’s article “Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically” which discussed biblical scholarship and the more flexible approach to inerrancy in Orthodoxy.)
Contrary to what most Protestants hoped for, sola scriptura flings wide open the door for theologians and bible scholars to formulate new interpretations and doctrines – yet is incapable at the same time of sorting through the rival interpretations. It thus breeds division and chaos rather than unity and communion of the saints that Pastor Armstrong longs for.
Finally, we should note that Protestantism’s problem with division goes beyond Scripture and hermeneutics. Protestantism’s church divisions are also rooted in its lacking historic continuity. We noted a few month ago Pastor Andrew Sandlins’ angst over future generation of Reformed Protestants: What will they believe and teach his grandchildren and great grandchildren? And what form of worship will they be using? He laments that the unwillingness of younger leaders to learn from their elders leaves the future of Reformed Protestantism in doubt. But, ironically, it appears that the younger generation learned all too well the lessons of the Protestant Reformers who repudiated Tradition! Unanchored to Tradition they are at risk of drifting with the tide of contemporary culture becoming ever more separated from their historic roots. Looking at today’s Evangelical landscape, it appears that future generations of Protestants will drift even further from the Holy Tradition established and embraced by the Apostles:
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)
What Jude referred to as “our common salvation” was rooted in the Faith that was traditioned (handed over or delivered) to the saints (the early Christians). Thus, early Christian unity was rooted in a traditioned Faith, not in sola scriptura. We invite Pastor Armstrong to consider the possibility that the resolution of seminary wars and the healing of divisions is to be found in the embrace of Holy Tradition. It is commendable that this ardent “missional ecumenicist” has been engaging the Roman Catholic faith tradition, we invite him to enter into a Reformed-Orthodox dialogue as well. We welcome the pastoral wisdom and warm hearted ecumenicism Pastor Armstrong can bring to the table.
John H. Armstrong. “The Protestant Principle: What “Sola Scriptura” Means and Why It Matters.” 24 January 2007.
John H. Armstrong. “What Can Be Done To Seek Unity Between Catholics and Evangelicals?” 7 April 2014.
John H. Armstrong. “Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love?” (Part 3). 10 July 2014.
Seraphim Hamilton. “Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically: A Response to Greg Carey.” In On Behalf of All. 17 June 2014.
Robert Arakaki. “Contra Sola Scriptura 1: Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura.” In OrthodoxBridge. 4 June 2011.
Robert Arakaki. “Contra Sola Scriptura 2: If Not Sola Scriptura, Then What? The Biblical Basis for Holy Tradition.” In OrthodoxBridge. 12 June 2011.
Robert Arakaki. “Contra Sola Scriptura 3: Where Does Sola Scriptura Come From? The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation.” In OrthodoxBridge. 1 July 2011.
Robert Arakaki. “Contra Sola Scriptura 4: Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw: Sola Scriptura and Protestantism’s Hermeneutical Chaos.” In OrthodoxBridge. January 2012.
Robert Arakaki. “Aging Protestants, Deep Sighs, and Holy Tradition.” In OrthodoxBridge. 14 April 2014.