30 July 2007

How do you find a true church?

I was reading someone's testimony of their struggle with this question and found he was asking a lot of the same questions I am. Let me post it then I'll continue:

As an active Protestant in my mid-twenties I began to feel that I might have a vocation to become a minister. The trouble was that while I had quite definite convictions about the things that most Christians have traditionally held in common—the sort of thing C.S. Lewis termed "mere Christianity."

I had had some firsthand experience with several denominations (Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist) and was far from certain as to which of them (if any) had an overall advantage over the others. So I began to think, study, search, and pray. Was there a true Church? If so, how was one to decide which?

The more I studied, the more perplexed I became. At one stage my elder sister, a very committed evangelical with somewhat flexible denominational affiliations, chided me with becoming "obsessed" with trying to find a "true Church." "Does it really matter?" she would ask. Well, yes it did. It was all very well for a lay Protestant to relegate the denominational issue to a fairly low priority amongst religious questions: lay people can go to one Protestant Church one week and another the next week and nobody really worries too much. But an ordained minister obviously cannot do that. He must make a very serious commitment to a definite Church community, and under normal circumstances that commitment will be expected to last a lifetime. So clearly that choice had to be made with a deep sense of responsibility; and the time to make it was before, not after, ordination...

...As I groped and prayed my way towards a decision, I came close to despair and agnosticism at times, as I contemplated the mountains of erudition, the vast labyrinth of conflicting interpretations of Christianity (not to mention other faiths) which lined the shelves of religious bookshops and libraries. If all the "experts" on Truth—the great theologians, historians, philosophers—disagreed interminably with each other, then how did God, if He was really there, expect me, an ordinary Joe Blow, to work out what was true?

The more I became enmeshed in specific questions of Biblical interpretation—of who had the right understanding of justification, of the Eucharist, Baptism, grace, Christology, Church government and discipline, and so on—the more I came to feel that this whole-line of approach was a hopeless quest, a blind alley. These were all questions that required a great deal of erudition, learning, competence in Biblical exegesis, patristics, history, metaphysics, ancient languages—in short, scholarly research. But was it really credible (I began to ask myself) that God, if He were to reveal the truth about these disputed questions at all, would make this truth so inaccessible that only a small scholarly elite had even the faintest chance of reaching it? Wasn’t that a kind of gnosticism? Where did it leave the nonscholarly bulk of the human race? It didn’t seem to make sense. If, as they say, war is too important to be left to the generals, then revealed truth seemed too important to be left to the Biblical scholars. It was no use saying that perhaps God simply expected the non-scholars to trust the scholars. How were they to know which scholars to trust, given that the scholars all contradicted each other?

The bolded portion sums up my basic problem. As I survey the landscape, I see all these different takes on the various doctrines and other issues of great importance. And it seems that my own approach thus far is sort of a cafeteria-style Christianity. I'm rather Calvinist in soteriology. I lean toward a Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist (though that's not fully developed...suffice it to say that I definitely see it as more than just a symbolic gesture.) I see baptism as an obedience issue rather than an actual part of the salvation process. I'm suspicious of grand hierarchical authority structures. I appreciate and even long for tradition and elements of liturgy, yet I'm loathe to switch from my more contemporary and relaxed worship style for fear of dead ritual and rote recitations. Bottom line: I pick and choose the various doctrines that seem right to me. I don't do it arbitrarily. I give it a lot of thought and prayer. I go to the Scriptures. I try to examine my motives and as best I can, remove the tendency to favor one doctrine over another simply because it gives me warm fuzzies.

But this can't be the right way to do this. There are millions of others just like me who do the same thing but come to very different conclusions. What seems as plain as the nose on my face to me confoundingly escapes others. And they are similarly baffled that I've come to the conclusions I have. No wonder we have thousands of Protestant denominations running around, each with some slightly different take on the sacraments, salvation, Bible interpretation and so on. And even the ones that adhere to a certain denomination's take on all this fare no better. They line up their learned scholars to put forth the case for their view on these important matters against the learned scholars from another denomination yet no one moves an inch. They still argue over baptism as a means of grace necessary to salvation versus a mere sign and act of obedience that nonetheless is not salvific and dozens of other similar issues. What should we do, take the side with the highest cumulative IQ?

So what to do? How do you handle this? Do you just chalk it up to "we'll never know until we all get to heaven?" Do you find this troubling at all? And how do you know this? Do you think this is how God intended His church to be or do you think we are supposed to actually know the answers to these questions here on earth? Give me your thoughts.


Chad Toney said...

I definitely know how you feel and relate to the testimony quoted as well. It's like a more eloquent version of my own. I'm gonna go check out your prior posts now...

The Scylding said...

Ah - I'm not alone! I'm not alone!

Seriously, though, I've been through much - coupled with a long list of personal disasters. Currently, I'm being drawn into confessional Lutheranism (LCC), being a protestant church that does not "skip-the-centuries", and is not afraid of the big RC "bogeyman". It is also partly 'circumstantial'.

some have made this journey and swam the Bhosporus, like some very close friends of mine. Others swim the channel, or the Tiber. I refuse to condemn anybody's descision in this regard.

But the search for a true church is greatly helped by historical study - and I mean of the ad fontes type. That is why I greatly value toe work of Tim Enloe - fiery perhaps, but an honest and very diligent approach. The perspective gained stops one from engaging to much in peering through rose-tinted spectacles. We have to see things as they are, warts and all. This is how God loves and accepts us, isn't it?

Ragamuffin said...

I have been enjoying Mr. Enloe's posts on Reformed Catholicism as well. And I'm looking into some of the books recommended to start a more thorough historical study, though these kinds of books aren't cheap.

Question for you though, scylding: How does Lutheranism not "skip the centuries" in your view? What do they do with the medieval church era between say the Councils of Orange in the 500s AD and 1517?

The Scylding said...

Not that I'm an expert... but for instance, there is a lot of affinities, even a continuity from Abelard to Luther.

But reading the Augsburg confession, one is conscious of a spirit of rectifying error, ie a re-established continuity, not a spirit of re-invention.

While individuals within the church might hold on to all sorts of views, a study of the confessions indicate a well established interaction with what had gone before.

The doctrines of transubstantiation and the missaplication of indulgences where (for Luther's time) modern doctrines. The reaction to the perceived errors of the church followed from that. Reading Tim's blog over many years (he now blogs at "In Alcuin's shadow" - follow the link from RefCath or my own blog) one is much more conscious of the historic continuity. The modern Protestant notion of a total reinvention in 1517 is nonsense, and is a false affirmation of Newmans critique.

BTW, I'm not anti-Catholic, just trying to bring some perspective. I have disagreements with, not animosity towards Rome.

What about the following thought-experiment: Take an Orthodox person, make him an Augustinian, tone down the use of images/icons (not necessarily remove), and exclude prayers to the saints: You'll virtually have a confessional Lutheran! Of course, this is overly simplified, but goes towards demonstrating my point.

whose_body said...

I hear you (the posted testimony) about Gnosticism. It is difficult to understand where this might leave the rest of us (those of us who aren't theologians). This is something that bothered me many times. In this way and in a bunch of other ways...

But in response to another comment, I really don't think you can get a nominalist Lutheran out of an orthodox Orthodox unless you first take the Orthodox out of him. Doesn't the very comment "exclude prayers to the saints" imply that? :)

The Scylding said...

Prayers to the saints are important to Orthodoxy, but I'm not sure it defines Orthodoxy per se. If anything, Orthodoxy is defined by strong adherence to Holy Tradition, but, more than that, by a robust Christology.

Although prayers to the saints is part of Holy Tradition, it is but one part.

And what did you mean by "nominalist" Lutheran? If you described all of Lutheranism as nominalist, that is problematic, depending on your definition of nominalism. In that vein, Lutheranism, especially the confessional, "High Church" version, is one of the least nominalist of Protestant churches, bar the C of E.

If you menat that there are nominal Lutherans - yes of course , but so will you find Anglicans, Catholics, Reformed etc that are nominalist.

whose_body said...

This isn't exactly the place to go off-topic. I commented because I think it wasn't fair to introduce the idea of taking the Orthodoxy out of an Orthodox.

Well, we seem to agree that suppressing his prayers to the saints would constitute taking the Orthodox out of him. To take out his prayers to the saints, which is, as you say, part of Holy Tradition, he'd have to stop believing in Holy Tradition. And, as you say, in some way, the Orthodox faith is inseparable from Tradition. So you end up taking the Orthodox out of him, in order to even perform the thought experiment on him. :(

As regards the acceptance of (taking an example from Concord) the Augsburg Confession: yes, it relies on nominalist principles (as in, nominalist philosophy). But to be Orthodox does not require one to be a nominalist. You're going to have to force your imaginary Orthodox into accepting certain principles which he doesn't necessarily have, if he's really going to accept the Book of Concord. ;)

I don't want to hijack the comments with metaphysics (realism/nominalism). Suffice it to say, what I mean by nominalism is implicit in accepting the Book of Concord.

In short, it really bothers me that an Orthodox Christian is subjected to this kind of thought experiment. I don't think he'd recognise himself in the outcome. Why "take an Orthodox person" at all? Poor guy. I'd hate to have my own beliefs treated that way. :(

The Scylding said...

It certainly wasn't an attack on orthodoxy - some of my best friends are Orthodox (Antiochene). A thought experiment is not a maltreatment of anybody's faith. It is an illustrative and didactic exercise, and by no means fool proof.

But enough of that. Ragamuffin's question was on the historic progression of christianity, and the perceived circumvention of certain era's by some Protestants.

Reading Tim Enloe's work, most of which has been posted online during the last 4 years or so, is highly instructive. Most protestants have developed historical amnesia, but it is not to say that current views have been necessitated by history. Simplistically put, "ownership" of the church in the west from 1056 to 1517 is shared between Rome and (in this case) Wittenberg, and of the church prior to 1056, between Rome, Constantinople and Wittenberg. You could substitute Wittenberg with Canterbury etc etc.

But that ownership is shared - WARTS AND ALL. Too often we seem to believe that for the Church to be the true Church, it has to be perfect.

Red Cardigan said...

As a Catholic, I once stumbled across a chart very much like this one:


It shows the founder of the Catholic Church to be St. Peter in the Church's view (but adds, cryptically, "various bishops" as the "historical view" which I think is not really helpful).

Obviously, I'm biased in favor of Catholicism, but I still think that this chart provides a good place to begin seeking the answers to the questions which are important.

Any church that would claim to be the "true" church would have to be able to trace its heritage back to the time of the apostles, in my way of thinking, or how could it really claim to be the church that Jesus founded?

whose_body said...

This is a response which I think is very much on topic.

We should not talk about "ownership" of the Church -- the Church, something which is clearly, by all Christian standards, a gift of God to himself and for us (the Bride and Body of Christ).

I realise quotation marks were used. The quotes can't be justified.

Even with quotes, this actually bothers me. And it will sure as hell not help anyone find "a true church". If such a thing belongs to us, what's the point of looking? Surely, if the Scriptural metaphors of membership mean anything, it's us belonging to the Church that matters. Not the Church "belonging" to us.

I realise that this was "simply put". But I think the "simplicity" runs counter to the very purpose here. And counter to everything that the Bible would indicate we should want. And very much counter to the spirit of the blog.

We may all be members of the Church. That is important to discover. But how is the topic "How do you find a true church?" served by saying we all "own" her??

> But that ownership is shared
No. That ownership doesn't exist. Not even as a metaphor.

The Scylding said...

No. "whose body", if you read the thread of comments, you'd discover that i responded to a question ragamuffin asked following my first response. So, it is still on topic. After all, it is the blog owner who decides that.

Having said that, you admit my quotes, and the "simplistic" nature of them, and then deny it. You can't have it both ways.

By "ownership" I was trying to illustrate a specific attitude - like saying, the medieval RC church is our church.

And as to the words "simplistically put" - if you want to parse them, go ahead. But you missed the intention.

Furthermore, answering the question "How do you find a true church" by giving more than one answer, is still a valid answer, even if it is incorrect in somebody else's view.

By referencing Tim Enloe's work I am indicating that a creful reading of hostory, with an ad fontes approach, might make us all uncomfartable, as there are plenty of inconsistencies etc. Our RC friend here could well claim papal supremacy, and he has a good argument for it. But my Orthodox friends also have a good argument for them being the original, NT church. And as a budding Lutheran, I could probably try and argue a papal error - Lutheran correction type argument.

However, the true Church does exist, but she is divided. I'm not one for heresy hunting and more division - as I alsways say, I'm a small 'o', small 'c' orthodox and catholic Christian. I constantly pray for her reunification - North south (ie Canterbury, Wittenberg, Geneva and Rome), as well as East West (Rome, Constantinople). But that might be centuries away. And nobody is privy to the mechanics of such a reunification.

But I understand ragamuffin's agony, if I can use the word. There is so much confusion, so much sin and disobedience, so much individualism and party spirit, that when it comes down to deciding where to go on a Sunday morning, the question is much more difficult, and universal answers like what I tried to sketch here above, are not of great help.

whose_body said...

Scylding, yes, I agree the comments are really on topic, even if it may not at first look like it. That's why I said they were. :)

> By "ownership" I was trying to
> illustrate a specific attitude - like
> saying, the medieval RC church is our
> church.

Yes, I understand (& understood).

This is the attitude I had in mind when I said I don't think it's a very satisfying approach to the question "How do you find a true church?" in the light of faith. :)

Qatfish said...

Please forgive me for going back to this:
Prayers to the saints are important to Orthodoxy, but I'm not sure it defines Orthodoxy per se. If anything, Orthodoxy is defined by strong adherence to Holy Tradition, but, more than that, by a robust Christology.

It's already been mentioned that prayers to the saints are part of Holy Tradition, so one could hardly adhere to the latter without the former. To this I would add:

Prayers to the saints are also part of the robust christology of Orthodoxy, as well as an essential part of the Divine Liturgy. Lex orandi...

Josh S said...

Why does the true Church need a structure to identify it beyond the preaching office and the administration of the sacraments?

Ragamuffin said...

Who grants someone the authority to occupy the preaching office or administer the Sacraments?