Mr. McKnight, I would like to echo a question that someone asked above, and I don’t think you replied to it (unless I missed the answer, in which case I apologize.) The question is: why are you still an evangelical, and not Catholic or Orthodox?
The reason I ask is this: much of what you say resonates with me big time. About being connected to the history of the church, of the inadequate ecclesiology of low-church evangelicals, etc. But the solutions you seem to be offering seem more superficial than anything else to me. You seem to be saying: “Let’s try and imitate all these traditional, liturgical things, without joining them. Let’s dress up like them, without joining them.” But how does that get us anywhere? How is that a better ecclesiology than low-church evangelicalism? How is that not simply everyone doing what they please? [letter continued below]
I’ve been asked this before, and I’m not sure I have ever sat down to write it out. I’d like you to know that I don’t write this as a piece of polemics, but neither do I want you to think that whether or not one is Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant doesn’t matter. It does. So, what I write comes out of respect for the good of the RCC and EO traditions, but I have to say that I’m not either nor can I be in good conscience.
First, I’ve never been tempted to become either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Never. Perhaps this surprises you and others, since it is true that I have plenty of appreciation of both communions — along with the Anglican and Lutheran churches. Sure, I grew up Protestant, and that has lots to do with what is instinctually natural for me, but I’d like to think that enough exposure to the other traditions has led me not to convert to either.
Second, the biggest reason is how I read the Bible. As will be a little more clear in my Blue Parakeet, I believe the Bible establishes a clear framework for a vital characteristic of forming all theology. The framework is what I call the “wiki” nature of gospel and theological expression. That is, God spoke to God’s people in Moses’ day in Moses’ way, in David’s day in David’s way, in Isaiah’s way in Isaiah’s day, in Jesus’ day in Jesus’ way, in Paul’s day in Paul’s way, and in John’s day in John’s way. There is, then, a clear pattern: the gospel and God’s revelation participates in “wiki” (or ongoingly renewed and renewable) versions. What this means is that there is an ongoing pattern of development and a recognition that the former days can get swallowed up in the present days.
This, you might be tempted to think, supports becoming part of a later church that takes its “wiki” responsibilities very seriously. Not so! I say back. Yes, this “wiki” understanding of the Bible reveals the need to speak the gospel in each culture in an ongoing way; yes, this means the assumption of responsibility was a good thing. But I think the RCC and EO render authority in the ecclesia instead of in Scripture and in Spirit to make Scripture clear. So far as the church partakes in that Spirit, it has an authoritative message; so far as it doesn’t, it loses its authority.
Now here’s my point: both the RCC and the EO have captured the Spirit in the Church so that Church too often has become Authority. One example, hardly foolproof, illustrates my point: RCCs and EOs talk about Church; Protestants talk about Scripture. It is their emphasis that I like — and I wish each talked more of Spirit.
Third, the reason I think this way is seen in how Tradition plays itself out in each Church: for each of these communions the Tradition becomes massively authoritative and, in my view, each of these communions has become un-reformable. They read the Bible through Tradition and I believe in reading the Bible with Tradition.
And reformability is central to the “wiki” understanding of how God speaks: God spoke in the Bible in ongoingly fresh ways; that reveals the importance of returning to the roots in order to gain fire for the present. Return for reformation is the very essence of my “wiki” understanding of the Bible and of how God speaks. I believe both the RCC and the EO, even with routine observations to the contrary by its adherents, are un-reformable. (I believe the infallibility of the Pope or the magisterium means those statements can never be wrong or changed; time proves that some of what we all know today to be interpretive truth can be wrong in a century. Look at the Church’s backpedaling today on Galileo.)
Fourth, I believe in the guidance of the Spirit in the Church, both in theological articulation (Nicea, for example) and in revival (the Reformation, for example). The minute, however, one begins to think that a given moment in the Church or its articulation was timeless truth rather than truthful timeliness one falls prey to elevating Tradition too high.
I value, and value with profound respect, the great traditions of the Church, including Nicea and Chalcedon and Wittenberg and other moments as well. I check interpretation against these; but that does not mean I don’t think fresh light emerges or that something could be improved or modified.
Fifth, what this means — if you are still with me — is that I believe in ongoing discernment of what the Spirit is saying to the Church, and I believe this discernment is a function of church leaders and churches in communion with one another. Discernment for the day is different than infallible teaching for all time. Therein lies a major difference.
Sixth, now I want to bring something up that is perhaps even more important than my reflections on the “wiki” nature of God’s revelation and God’s ongoing speaking through the Spirit in the Church: new birth. I’ve been around enough Cat’licks (as Flannery O’Connor, herself a Catholic, called her fellow faithful) and Orthodox to believe that neither communion, regardless of what it says in theology or in catechesis, preaches the new birth clearly enough nor does either institutionalize the need for personal decision enough. Hence, we have articulate spokespersons in each communion who say things like this: “We have sacramentalized our congregations; but we have not evangelized them.” “We have baptized and catechized but not evangelized.”
I believe deeply in the need for personal rebirth, for the new birth, and I don’t think either communion emphasizes this enough. The sparks of change I do see aren’t creating blazes of revival. When they do you’ll see me jumping for joy.
Once a month I get a letter from someone who asks me to talk them out of converting to Rome or to Constantinople (et al), and one thing I say to each of them is this: In three generations it is quite likely that your great grandchildren will be “in” the Church but will not experience the new birth. Not as a matter of rule or principle but as a matter of course. All because of the lack of focus on new birth.
Seventh: I’m unapologetically an evangelical Protestant because I think this is a more faithful shaping of the doctrines of the Bible. I do not thereby think that evangelicals have gotten it perfectly right. Nope, I think evangelicalism today has completely lost touch with the history of the Church, with the great traditions. Some are gaining deep appreciation for the Reformation and, unfortunately, are going the way of the Tradition: they are, ironically, converting the Reformation unto an un-reformable Tradition.
Are there other reasons? Of course … like assurance of salvation, the worrisome compulsion to attend mass, women in ministry, like the significance of lay giftedness, less (not more) authority in the local pastor and more authority in the Spirit, justification by faith, hierarchical power structures that create endless red tape, too much Mary, and I could go on.
So, brother, I long for the day when evangelical Christians are united through the authority of the Spirit as that Spirit has guided the revelation of Scripture and shaped the Church in history. I am simply an explorer of ways that might help each of us find that connection more deeply.
One more point: I’ve laid emphasis in this note on the problems I have with RCC and EO; I could write of things I like about both — St Francis and Icons — but that is not why you wrote. I have written plenty of how I’d like to see the evangelical church improve, so it is not that I think we’re perfect. But I like evangelicalism. It’s my home and I have no reason to leave.
[Letter continues] I have tried to incorporate traditional practices in my life. And I find myself simply playing with things that I don’t understand, and which largely make no sense because they have been ripped from their ecclesial context. “Praying with the church”, which I now practice largely thanks to you, means very little when you are part of a congregation where most of the people have never even heard of it and would just regard it as a personal preference if they did. Fasting regularly means very little when you are simply doing it by yourself, with no community practice. It becomes simply another individual choice among many. I in essence become my own church, a church of one. Completely alone and cut off.
I want to be a part of the Church which does not need to recover that which was thrown away because it never threw it away in the first place. I have become convinced that there is a church which has continued with unbroken continuity, preserving the faith that was handed down, since the days of the apostles, and that that church is the Orthodox Church.
I have not yet made any concrete moves towards converting, other than speaking with some people (including pastors) about it. Making such a switch is not so easy. But I have already made up my mind. I don’t think we can have anything like a healthy ecclesiology so long as we continue to pretend that endless division and optional submission to the body of christ is all fine and dandy. In a nutshell, I no longer believe in the validity of Protestantism.
So again, my question: why are you still Evangelical? How and why do you still hold on to it?