Are we coming to the end of Protestantism as we know it? In Snow, a novel by the prize-winning Irish writer John Banville, a Catholic bishop asks the beleaguered detective, John Strafford, a Protestant, “How long can you go on protesting?” Strafford doesn’t answer. But as both the bishop and Strafford know, Protestantism has long since stopped being a protest movement and adopted its own orthodoxy. Or, rather, orthodoxies. The movement that began with the 16th century reformers has fractured and fractured again until in the US it has become the maze of churches and denominations that now dot the landscape, each proclaiming itself the legitimate heir of the apostles.
In my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), church leaders love to talk about a narrower slice of Protestantism as “the Reformed tradition.” But, again, what does this mean? What does it mean for a reform movement to have a tradition? Does it mean that the slogan, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est, “the church reformed is always reforming,” has by now slipped into past tense, the task at hand no longer reform but preservation of the past? Has what began as a movement to grasp the gospel afresh become now an exercise in hanging on to the old ways?
Or have we come to a new confessional moment, a moment to state the faith in fresh terms, terms that draw out of the past what is still crucial and from the present what is being newly discovered to call all who will listen once more to the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth? A call steeped in scripture, in the apostolic tradition, and in the Spirit? And in drawing up such a statement, will we discover the gospel afresh as good news, even in this cynical and hopeless age? And is this not exactly what Guido de Bres and the others who worked on the Belgic Confession were trying to do for their time: give fresh statement to old truths newly discovered in the age of literacy into which they were moving?
These are some of the questions that this series of posts raise, beginning with my most recent, A Confessional Moment. In that post, I suggested that there are two things we need to do in this time. The first is to look at how the church has gone wrong. I have in mind not the church as a whole but the church of my experience and probably yours, American Protestantism, especially in its evangelical garb. My question is how the reforms instituted by the likes of Luther and Calvin began to drift in directions that have led to the sense in churches like the CRC that we have come to the end a road. And then, with that in mind, to give positive statement to the gospel, suggesting ways to correct the misdirection of the past and capture anew the central truths to which we are committed.
These are tasks obviously beyond my capacities. I can only make suggestions, point out what I see, and hope that you will see some of the same things. Or, perhaps, that you will see them more clearly than I do, or see different things, and help me see them, too. And so, in this post, I offer my first of three takes on what has gone wrong: how Protestantism has drifted into patterns of thinking that no longer work, if they ever did. And I begin, as anyone must, with the most fundamental of Protestant mantras: sola scriptura, roughly, “all we need is the Bible.”
How sola scriptura misled Protestantism and pushed the church away from the Bible
My critique is simple. It comes just to this: the idea behind the sola scriptura of the Reformation requires the Bible to be what it is not, and because this is true, the Protestant Church, especially as it has come to expression in evangelicalism, has abandoned the Bible for its own formulations. It has replaced metaphor and story for theology (or, lately, for politics). It has abandoned the conversation internal to the Bible for theological and moral dictates. In requiring the Bible to be a single authority for all things, the church has been forced to read the Bible reductively, losing much of what it has to say and teach us. In holding the Bible high, it has, paradoxically, lost the Bible.
The Covenant for Officebearers
A name for this might be “confessionalism,” but this sort of confessionalism honors neither the Bible nor the confessions. To see this clearly, the place to begin is not with the Bible, on which I have written extensively before, but with a little document known in the CRC as the “Covenant for Officebearers.” All who hold office in the church, including ministers, commissioned pastors, elders, deacons, and even some professors, are required to express their agreement with the standards of the church by signing the Covenant. In its present form, the Covenant is new, dating only to 2012, but the practice of requiring office holders to sign off on the Reformed confessions is much older, going back to the Synod of Dort (1618-19), and even earlier.
Compared to the older, Dort form of subscription, the new Covenant for Officebearers is distinctive both for what it includes and for what it doesn’t. It includes an affirmation of the Bible as the “inspired Word of God,” which oddly the Dort form of subscription did not. To this affirmation, the Covenant also adds three ecumenical creeds: the Nicene, the Apostles’, and the Athanasian. Although these creeds are mentioned in the Belgic Confession (Article 9), which was included in the Dort form of subscription, Dort does not mention the creeds specifically. And the Covenant adds one more document that did not exist at the time of the Synod of Dort, “Our World Belongs to God,” a contemporary testimony adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1986 and revised in 2008. (In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I worked on the revision of “Our World Belongs to God” and wrote some of it).
For each of these authorities, the Covenant nuances the affirmation it requires of those who sign. For the Bible, in addition to saying it is “the inspired Word of God,” the Covenant declares that “we,” those who sign the Covenant, agree to “submit to it in all matters of life and faith.” For the creeds, the Covenant says merely that they are “ecumenical expressions of the Christian faith,” and that through them, “we confess our faith in unity with followers of Jesus Christ throughout all ages and among all nations.” For the confession come lately, the contemporary testimony “Our World Belongs to God,” the Covenant requires only recognition of its witness “as a Reformed expression of the Christian faith that forms and guides us in our present context.” These various affirmations—“Word of God,” “ecumenical expressions of the Christian faith,” and “a Reformed expression of the Christian faith that forms and guides us”—seem carefully tailored to define precisely the kind of authority each of these standards possesses.
But forms of subscription in Reformed churches have never been about the Bible or the creeds or any other church standard. They have always been about the Reformed confessions. For the tradition stemming from the Synod of Dort, the tradition in which the CRC participates, these confessions include the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and, as Dort has it, “certain clarifications” of these confessions known to us now as the Canons of Dort. For the confessions, the Covenant requires the signer to affirm that they are “historic Reformed expressions of the Christian faith, whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God.”
If you are a careful reader (and even if you are not), you will note the break in the sentence between “historic Reformed expressions” and “whose doctrines fully agree with the Word of God.” These are quite different claims held together by a comma. The first—the claim that the confessions are “historic Reformed expressions”—allows that the truths of these confessions may be marked by time and place. The other—the “fully agree with the Word of God” clause—suggests that they are universal, timeless, in short, in full agreement with the Word of God.
So how did these two quite different understandings of the confessions come to reside in the same sentence? If you are familiar with synodical process, you’ll know immediately what happened. The Covenant as proposed to Synod 2012 by a long-tenured study committee had only the first half of the sentence. It affirmed the confessions “as historic Reformed expressions of the Christian faith.” Full stop. This would have been consistent with the kinds of things the Covenant says about the creeds and about “Our World Belongs to God,” nuancing what one might want to say about documents that are nearly 500 years old and written in the heat of church controversy. They bear the marks of their age.
But study committee reports do not go directly to the floor of the synod for action. They are reviewed first by a committee of synod delegates. These advisory committees take the study report and any other relevant material on the synodical agenda—typically overtures from classes and churches in response to the study report—and make their own recommendations. They can agree with what the study committee proposes, disagree with it, or propose modifications to it. It’s the last that happened in this case. In response to overtures from churches and classes, the advisory proposed adding back into the Covenant the language of the form of subscription that came from the Dort and that had been used in the CRC since its inception, language claiming that the confessions “fully agree with the Word of God.” And, thus, in the Covenant, two quite different affirmations, one that the confessions are historic and specific to Reformed churches and the other that they are tantamount the Word of God, sit together in uneasy embrace. It’s the sort of thing that synods often do in the heat of the moment.
But what Word of God?
By adding “fully agree with the Word of God, Synod 2012 meant to affirm the Reformed confessions. What they are claiming is that the confessions get the Bible right. But in doing so, they adopt a view of the Bible that is patently reductionistic. What matters in the Covenant—and thus what matters to the CRC (and other denominations like it)—is not the Bible as we have it but certain key ideas, “doctrines,” that the Covenant claims are contained in the Bible. It’s the ideas that one must sign off on, doctrines fully stated not in the Bible but in the confessions.
But the Bible is not reducible to a set of ideas that can be ferreted out of its stories and poetry and prophecy and letters, but a text, indeed a text with all those kinds of writing and more. What’s fundamental to the Bible is not doctrine—I’ll get to that in a moment—but a story. In the Christian scriptures, a double story, the story of Israel and the interlocking story of Jesus, the Christ.
Around these stories is much else: worship, wisdom, preaching, epistolatory writing, and apocalypses, but the stories remain central. All the rest is directed at guiding our participation in the stories. Knowledge in the Bible is not centrally knowledge about God or Jesus or people or creation or whatever else you might want to know about. It’s not theology in the usual sense. Knowledge in the Bible is participatory. One knows by participating in the story. Joining the story, becoming part of the story, as it were.
This is the meaning of the word “faith,” which in both Old Testament and New requires not comprehension so much as obedience. It’s the nature of that obedience that is at stake in the conversation between the Old Testament and the New. We are not saved by what we think—I’ll get to what “saved” means in the next post; we are saved by what we love. This last is John’s characteristic way of putting it (see, especially, John 14-17). Or, alternatively, we are not saved by our getting things right, but by our joining with Jesus in his getting things right—Paul’s way of putting it (see, for example, Philippians 3).
By reducing the Bible to a set of ideas, the Covenant for Officebearers and much else in the Reformed tradition reduces faith to belief. What matters is what one believes. I’m not suggesting that ideas are not important. In fact, what I am doing now is arguing about ideas—ideas about the Bible and the faith. But belief is not faith. And getting one’s ideas right is not the same as following Jesus, something the church has largely lost the grasp of.
What’s more, the notion that the Bible can be reduced to a set of ideas which then can be set down in confessional statements misses entirely the meaning of the story that is central to the Christian gospel, the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Having just heard that story again—I drafted much of this piece in Holy Week—I am reminded that the story is grander, more difficult and more complex than any theological explanation that might be given for it.
At Synod 2022, the CRC debated one such explanation—one almost wholly without biblical warrant, as it happens. Penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is a view of the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus developed mostly in Reformation times. It explains the cross in transactional terms. God has been dishonored (or, in some forms of PSA, God’s justice has been violated) by human sin. In consequence, God’s anger burns hot against this sin and demands satisfaction. It can only be satisfied if someone bears the price, which Jesus does by dying on the cross.
There is much that could be said against this view, but I’ll not say it here. The point here is not that this theological explanation for the cross is wrong but that it does not, and indeed cannot, replace the story itself. Stories are not reducible to their interpretations. Especially not this story. One cannot listen to it again without seeing in it new things. It’s forever productive of interpretations.
Which brings me to the role of theological interpretation. The role of theological interpretation is never to exhaust the meaning of the story—or any other story in the Bible or beyond—but to elicit from the story new and deeper ways to understand it. It’s bad interpretation that closes it down, reducing the story to a single interpretation.
The confessions can serve in either of these roles. They can provide us with reading clues so that we are led to new ways to understand the biblical story—and not only understand it but live it out in faith—or they can be used to shut down interpretation. But when the confessions are used to shut down interpretation by limiting the meaning of the biblical story to one thing and not another then we begin to lose the gospel itself. Or replace the gospel of the scriptures with the gospel of the confessions, saying that the confessions “fully agree with the Word of God.”
When the Reformers, against the authority of the church hierarchy, proposed their sola scriptura, “all we need is the Bible,” they put the Bible in a position from which it can no longer speak with its own voice. They required the Bible to say just one thing and not another, to weigh in on the theological controversies of the day, like whether God chooses or we do, or whether infants can be baptized or only believers, or, in our own time, whether people of the same sex may be permitted to marry. But these are 16th century and 21st century questions put to a collection of documents from a time long in the past. And so what pass for biblical rulings are not that at all.
The Bible is not primarily doctrine but story; not commands but conversation (even where the Bible has commands, they often are in conversation with other commands). What has happened in the Protestant tradition is that the Bible has been largely replaced by ideas—ideas that those who espouse them claim are biblical. But often they are not. They are 16th century ideas. Or 21st century ideas. Or the preacher’s ideas.
The drift of Christianity into what it has become today begins here: with an inadequate view of the Bible. Sadly, it’s the churches that the most loudly proclaim sola scriptura, “all we need is the Bible,” that end up honoring the Bible least. This is why in many evangelical churches, the Bible is barely read at all.
There is much more to be said here, but this is enough for now. In my next post, I’ll turn to the idea of salvation in our churches, an idea more gnostic than biblical. For that, as always, stay tuned.