I have run into people in protestant churches who did not even know they were Protestant. Mostly it is a matter of terminology, but for some it is a lack of understanding of history. At one time I didn't know what it meant either. So for clarity, Protestantism finds its genesis in the fifteenth century as a "protest" against the abuses and doctrinal errors within the Roman Catholic church. Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, is typically credited with the shot that started the Reformation when he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church in the early sixteenth-century. This list was simply a call to academic discussion and not intended to be much more. But the political and social climate of the time was ripe for change and change it did. I'll let you google the details of the reformation itself. Additionally I'm providing you a link an English translation of the theses here.
As things moved along it became clear that a break from the Catholic church was needed. Which sounds like a brave decision except the church was more than ready to excommunicate these malcontents anyway. In the end a lot of people left the Catholic church, Luther got married, and the true church was being recovered. They were even being persecuted for it. For a Christian, this David v. Goliath scenario is absolutely perfect. We revel in it!
One of the major tenets of the reformation of the Church was that of authority. Previously authority was to be found in the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and, more specifically, the Pope. For the proponents of the Reformation that would simply not work. After all it was through the authority of the Pope that came indulgences, Purgatory and Papal remission of sins (All of which formed the majority of Luther's theses)! Things had to change and Luther knew how.
Luther, when brought to Worms (pronounced "Vorms" or "Varms", before some of you start giggling) in hopes of his recantation, gave the following defense:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason-I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other-my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."Sola Scriptura" (Scripture alone) was soon taken up as one of the most remembered cries of the Reformation. From this one doctrine came all of the other "Solas". Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.
Sounds pretty good so far. Unfortunately, Luther had made one rather large oversight: The propensity for people to be very creative in how they interpret basically anything. And Scripture was no exception. Sure, the boy in the field pushing the plow would soon be able to read the Bible. Sure, every Christian was a priest and had God living in him or her. This was all good. But this is also where everything began to unravel. Luther was soon horrified to find out that not only were various groups forming based on their individual interpretation of Scripture, but some of them were even identifying themselves using Luther's name (i.e., Lutherans). But it was too late. The genii was out of the bottle. Groups formed, then fractured and formed new groups. And these new groups soon fractured, forming more new groups. All this happening, almost exclusively, based upon their interpretation of Scripture. Until we arrive in the twenty-first century where there currently exists over 8,000 distinct denominations (Some say over 20,000, but this is a misreading of the statistics and just plain wrong).
This brings me to my major problem with Protestantism: Sola Scriptura. I'm not going to discuss the irony of the fact that such a concept cannot be found in Scripture. Go ahead and try and find anything even close that, in context, means the sixty-six books we have, called the Bible, is to be our only and final source of authority in the Church and the formation of Church practice and doctrines. You'll no doubt quote (or have someone quote to you) some of the usual standbys. But before you do, read them again and ask yourself, a) is this really what it is saying and b) how much of the Bible had been written and brought together when this passage was written. You might be surprised at the results.
Don't get me wrong. I (and the Orthodox Church) believe that the Scripture is the Word of God and is to be at the foundation of all that the Church teaches and practices. And certainly nothing taught by the Church must ever contradict the canon of Scripture. I think, for the most part, Protestants and the Orthodox church agree on this.
However, that is as far as we can travel together on the same road. Eventually we must part ways.
Probably the beginning of the end for me was when I was helping to lead a leadership prayer group that consisted of pastors and leaders from a number of different denominations. I came to see that we all believed some very different things. And these differences were all rooted in our interpretation of Scripture. Intelligent (much more than I), godly, loving men and women had come to some very different readings of Scripture. Sure, some of the basic tenets of faith we could agree on. Jesus is God, Jesus died for our sins, we are sinners in need of salvation, etc. But there were also some rather major differences. Differences that made me wonder at times if we should even be praying together. Differences that some other Protestants might call anti-scriptural and even demonic!
While struggling with this it started to dawn on me that the Bible doesn't teach Sola Scriptura. I realized that before the Reformation, the Church had existed for 1,500 years and never taught this doctrine nor believed anything close to it. I started to get just a bit anxious! Note that I have been a protestant Christian for over thirty years. I had been a serious student of the Word for almost all of that time. At one time I was studying for the ministry. I was at one time a Charismatic (google it) but "repented" of that and became what some call "Reformed". Scripture was EVERYTHING to me. I read systematic theologies by people like Berkhof, Hodge, and Erickson and loved any doctrine founded in Scripture. I spent an entire year preaching almost every Sunday at my local Church and loved the study and preparation to share God's word with God's people. There was nothing casual in how I approached Scripture, the Church or her teachings. So when this all began to happen my world didn't just start to shake. It begin to disintegrate.
My problem with Protestantism and what I had been taught and believed wasn't Scripture itself. It was the interpretation that unsettled me. Who's interpretation was correct? Did it matter? It certainly does (if you are any sort of serious follower of Christ). What were we to do with all of the denominations? Start new denominations as our "interpretation" became more perfect?
Suddenly I realized that everyone one of us believed our interpretation infallible. Just like the Pope! We had all become little popes (An accusation leveled at the fledgling movement fairly early on). Don't believe me? Go to your pastor or seminary prof. and disagree with one of their pet doctrines. Not one of the core ones. You argue that Jesus is not God or something and you'll get what you deserve (Unless you attend a liberal seminary, in which case ignore this entire paragraph). Rather disagree with their views on hell, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Heaven, women in ministry (and other elements of Church polity), baptism, the law, Sunday worship or even church liturgical practices (Almost EVERY church has them). Make sure you root your argument in Scripture and sound exegesis or you'll be shot down immediately. But you will find a whole array of reactions, from indifference to peevishness all the way to something bordering on rage.
Ask yourself what you believe and why. I realize that some people don't care. But as Christians we should care. To not care is to resign yourself to being tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine. The person who believes nothing is likely to find him or herself believing anything.
Some (I know I did) overcome this accusation of papal infallibility in our interpretations by quickly injecting into almost every discussion of doctrine safe phrases like, "I could be wrong", "You pray and ask God and come to your own conclusion", "Take what I say, throw out the bad and keep the good", "I'm only human", etc, etc, etc.
But none of us really believe this, if we are being honest with ourselves. What is the point of believing something as important as an interpretation of what Scripture is saying if we are likely, probably, maybe completely wrong? We believe what we do because we believe our interpretation is right. And that we have heard from or been guided by the Holy Spirit to handle the Word of God aright. When the day is done we all know that when someone says, "I may be wrong" what they really mean is, "I may be wrong...but I'm not". And when someone says, "Pray and ask God to show you and draw your own conclusion", what she really means is, "Pray and ask God and he will show you I am right". After all, if we really thought God would show someone else something completely antithetical to what we believe, then one or both of us would have to be wrong. Right?
Ok, enough already. Wipe the tears of boredom from your eyes and thank God for an end to this diatribe. I am...almost done. I want to leave you a quote from one of my personally favorite Saints, St. Justin of Popovich (I will talk about the Orthodox view of Saints in another post. That is really an interesting topic).
We must not be mistaken...Papacy, is fundamentally Protestantism since it removed the foundation of Christianity from the eternal God-man [the Incarnate Christ Jesus] and placed it in the finite man claiming this to be the measure and criterion of all. Protestantism did nothing more than to simply accept this dogma and to develop it to the point where it has reached horrendous proportions and particulars. Truly then, Protestantism is nothing other than an abstract papism being applied to everything, that, the basic principle of the infallibility of one man has been applied to every individual human being. According to the example of the infallible man of Rome, every Protestant becomes infallible since he claims personal infallibility in matters of faith. From this it can be said that Protestantism is a popularized papism lacking however a mystical dimension, authority, and power. ("Highest Value and Last Criterion in Orthodoxy", Justin Popovich. Italics mine)
But now I had a new problem: Where was my authority for what I believe to come from? That ultimately led me to the Eastern Orthodox Church. But that will be a post for a different time.