I am unashamedly a Protestant. I believe in sola scriptura, sola fidei, solus Christus, and the rest. I am convinced that Luther was on to something when he articulated his view of justification succinctly: simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”).
But with the birth of Protestantism there necessarily came a rift within the western church. By ‘necessarily’ I mean that Protestants made it necessary by splitting from Rome. Jaroslav Pelikan had it right when he said that the Reformation was a tragic necessity. Protestants felt truth was to be prized over unity, but the follow-through was devastating. This same mindset began to infect all Protestant churches so that they continued to splinter off from each other. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of Protestant denominations. One doesn’t see this level of fracturing in either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Not even close.This is the kind of introduction that has the hallmarks of a Protestant who is going to abandon Protestantism sometime soon. The reality that Protestantism is horribly and scandalously divided is first accepted, followed by accepting that this problem does not exist in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Wallace understands denominationalism is wrong and want's a solution.
“But unity in falsehood is no unity at all,” some will protest. To a degree that is true. If the unity of the church meant that we would all deny the bodily resurrection of the theanthropic person, then that would be unity against an essential of the Christian faith. But there is no thinking Christian who agrees lock, stock, and barrel with what his pastor teaches. Yet, he is a part of that church. In this respect, he has prized unity over truth. We all have to do this. If we didn’t, each Christian would be his or her own church. The fellowship would be awfully predictable and quite boring!Here we see the root of the problem starting to emerge: Wallace takes as perfectly normal that no "thinking Christian" will agree with all of what "his pastor" teaches, since this would make each Christian their "own church". But the problem is, as many Catholics have pointed out, what is this unifying principle? Who decides what doctrines are "essentials"? The Catholic reader knows that Sola Scriptura is the real culprit here, but there is an 'intermediate step' to realizing this:
Several evangelical scholars have noted that the problem with Protestant ecclesiology is that there is no Protestant ecclesiology. In many denominations—and especially in non-denominational churches—there is no hierarchy of churches responsible to a central head, no accountability beyond the local congregation, no fellowship beyond the local assembly, no missional emphasis that gains support from hundreds of congregations, and no superiors to whom a local pastor must submit for doctrinal or ethical fidelity.
Three events have especially caused me to reflect on my own ecclesiological situation and long for something different.The problem is succinctly and accurately stated: there is no Ecclesiology in Protestantism (i.e. there is no official understanding of what and who make up "the church"). Phrased another way, in Protestantism, ecclesiology is a "non-essential". Last year I was in a discussion with a Reformed apologist named Turretin Fan, and he admitted to me that ecclesiology was a non-essential. Since this is indeed the case, then Wallace is truly in a bind, and he's slowly starting to realize it.
First, I have spent a lot of time with Greek Orthodox folks. It doesn’t matter what Orthodox church or monastery I visit, I get the same message, the same liturgy, the same sense of the ‘holy other’ in our fellowship with the Triune God. The liturgy is precisely what bothers so many Protestants since their churches often try very hard to mute the voices from the past. “It’s just me and my Bible” is the motto of millions of evangelicals. They often intentionally forget the past two millennia and the possibility that the Spirit of God was working in the church during that time. Church history for all too many evangelicals does not start until Luther pounded that impressive parchment on the Schlosskirche door.As with the opening paragraph, these words are the hallmark of a Protestant who is going to eventually abandon ship for Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. The state Wallace is currently in, he's torn between accepting two contradictory theses that the Sola's of the Reformation are true while affirming the Spirit of God has been active in the Church the last two-thousand years, and did not start up at the time of Luther.
Too many Protestant churches look like social clubs where the offense of the gospel has been diluted to feel-good psycho-theology. And the problem is only getting worse with mega-churches with their mini-theology. This ought not to be.The famous last words of many an ex-Protestant.
Second, a man whom I mentored years ago became a pastor of a non-denominational church. Recently and tragically, he denied the full deity of Christ and proclaimed that the Church had gotten it wrong since Nicea. ... The congregation wasn’t sure which way was up. Doubts about the cornerstone of orthodoxy—the deity of Christ—arose. This cancer could have been cut out more swiftly and cleanly if the church was subordinate to a hierarchy that maintained true doctrine in its churches.While this argument doesn't definitively prove hierarchy is necessary, it shows how useful it is. The reason why this problem didn't manifest itself too early on in Protestantism was because the Pretend Reformers acted like tyrannical dictators of their respective denominations. But once the early "leaders" passed away, there was nobody to take such a hard-line leadership role, and that's when (more and more) Protestants realized they were just as qualified to be a "Pastor" as the next guy. In Protestantism, there is literally no hierarchy to prevent such a "Pastor" from doing such things, since in Protestantism all positions of leadership are ultimately self appointed (reducing down to everyone having equal authority).
Third, a book by David Dungan called Constantine’s Bible makes an astounding point about the shape of the canon in the ancient church. ... Dungan mentions that for Eusebius to speak of any books [of Scripture] as homolegoumena—those twenty books that had universal consent in his day as canonical—he was speaking of an unbroken chain of bishops, from the first century to the fourth, who affirmed authorship and authenticity of such books. What is significant is that for the ancient church, canonicity was intrinsically linked to ecclesiology. It was the bishops rather than the congregations that gave their opinion of a book’s credentials. Not just any bishops, but bishops of the major sees of the ancient church. Dungan went on to say that Eusebius must have looked up the records in the church annals and could speak thus only on the basis of such records. If Dungan is right, then the issue of the authorship of certain books (most notably the seven disputed letters of Paul) is settled. And it’s settled by appeal to an ecclesiological structure that is other than what Protestants embrace. The irony is that today evangelicals especially argue for authenticity of the disputed letters of Paul, yet they are arguing with one hand tied behind their back. And it has been long noted that the weakest link in an evangelical bibliology is canonicity.This admission, to me, is more devastating and significant than John Piper's astonishing admission that the early Christians were disadvantaged because they lacked the complete New Testament canon. Wallace here admits the issue of the canon is historically "the weakest link" in what he should have called Sola Scriptura. He admits the alternative - which is affirming Apostolic Succession - is the only way to settle canonicity.
So, how do we deal with these matters? I once wrote a blogpost at Parchment & Pen called “The Ideal Church.” In it I said, “The ideal church can’t exist. And a large part of the reason it can’t is because we’ve made a terrible mess of things.”If you follow that link, it has it's own (very telling) admissions. In that link, Wallace laments the fact Protestants cannot unite, yet is adamant that Sola Scriptura must be maintained. Yet when it comes to how Sola Scriptura is supposed to function, he candidly admits: "I don't have an adequate answer"! Even more astonishing is Wallace's next claim: "Frankly, every one of us is a heretic (at least with a lowercase “h”); the problem is that we don't know in what areas we are wrong." This man is a scholar of Christian teaching and this type of stuff is coming out of his mouth!
I’m not sure of the solution, or even if there is one. But we can take steps toward a solution even if we will never get there in this world. First of all, we Protestants can be more sensitive about the deficiencies in our own ecclesiology rather than think that we’ve got a corner on truth. We need to humbly recognize that the two other branches of Christendom have done a better job in this area. Second, we can be more sensitive to the need for doctrinal and ethical accountability, fellowship beyond our local church, and ministry with others whose essentials but not necessarily particulars don’t line up with ours. Third, we can begin to listen again to the voice of the Spirit speaking through church fathers and embrace some of the liturgy that has been used for centuries. Obviously, it must all be subject to biblical authority, but we dare not neglect the last twenty centuries unless we think that the Spirit has been sleeping all that time.Any Catholic who's familiar with apologetics knows that Wallace cannot have it both ways and that something is going to have to give. He knows what's right, but he isn't willing to admit what is wrong (Sola Scriptura). I believe that time is coming sooner rather than later.