In his 2016 article, Evangelical Exodus: The Protestant seminary that produced dozens of Catholic converts, Paul Senz describes a happening that perhaps precipitated or maybe merely coincides with the more recent #Exvangelical and #EmptyThePews phenomena.
From Personal Experience
Having personally attended classes at Southern Evangelical Seminary in 2013, I feel as though I dodged a bullet by choosing to discontinue degree work. At that time, I was greatly troubled by the scandals associated with the school’s president, Richard Land, which included racist comments as well as plagiarism. SES’s very poor online learning platform confirmed my hunch that the school was not a valuable or credible one.
An exodus by young evangelicals to the ecclesiastical, liturgical traditions like Catholicism, the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church does not surprise me. I wrote articles in 2014 & 2015, pleading and warning fellow pastors, seminarians and seminaries to be awake regarding an acquisition agenda by Rome, called the Great Evangelical Gamble, which presents itself mainly in the form of apologetics in the academy, but also, by the Convergence Movement masquerading as “revival.” Those articles are HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. I also attempted to provide a solution via recommending Anabaptist theology and faith traditions for students and young ministers at odds with the theological blunders fundamentalist and conservative evangelicalism has perpetuated these many decades.
The Big Q
Still, Paul Senz’s article strikes and grips a nerve—a very large and central one. I continue to find myself undergoing a deconstruction/reconstruction of faith, as the result of many years of becoming what is now termed “Post-evangelical.”
One of my chiefest doubts has to do with early church history, particularly how the early Church itself was the standard by which sacred texts were “received,” and thus authenticated as divinely inspired. I understand the Council of Nicaea settled a minimalist canon—an official recognition/measure of what the Church (collective of local and regional churches) had unofficially accepted/received from the mid-1st Century until Nicaea (325 A.D).
So, my question is just this: if Nicaea was an official recognition, under the presumed Providence of the Holy Spirit, then doesn’t that mean Authority for faith and practice is not solely in the written “Word of God” but in the Church as well? Also, if the Church has said authority, then what is one to make of the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to be the genuine, Universal Church, which also claims Nicaea as its own doing?
Apparently, I am not alone in my question. In his article, Senz posits:
The canon of Scripture (the books included in the Bible) is a huge issue for anyone who considers the Bible to be the Word of God and the authority for one’s faith. If one thinks the early Church went astray somehow, it becomes a very difficult problem because the biblical collection itself was not settled until centuries after the apostles died. If the Church was in error by then, how can the “Bible-Only Christian” be sure he really has the inspired Word of God? And if the Church was kept from error while it determined the canon, why was it not likewise kept from error during the councils and creeds it produced at the same time? As I looked at the major alternate theories of canonization, I discovered the historical truth that the Church is ultimately the standard.
3 Centuries Long
To answer Paul Senz regarding Church authority & canonization, perhaps it is best to say, “for almost 300 years, 1st – 4th Century believers unofficially received certain texts as bearing authenticity as Special Revelation through the Apostles.” Sure, there were discrepancies of some sort, and Nicaea had to deal with Arianism predominantly.
However, for 300 years, the Body of Christ successfully wrestled with and resisted doctrinal error, largely on the local level. Then, an Emperor—Constantine—not even baptized until his deathbed and very likely the puppet of the Roman senate, mandated that church representatives [300 out of the 1800 invited (which is hardly a quorum by any standard)] decide on a minimalist canon of Christian texts. In other words, if Constantine had never made the decree, much less made Christianity the State religion, then presumably the collective local churches represented at Nicaea (their ‘sent ones,’ prophets, evangelizers, pastors and teachers) would have continued successfully (albeit unofficially and locally) wrestling with and resisting doctrinal error. What Constantine ordered was necessary only for establishing and institutionalizing and enforcing/protecting a State religion. After Constantine, Theodosius I decreed any non-Roman Christians to be treated as insane, in order to enforce the establishment of the Roman State-Church. However, the true Church—The Body of Christ—does not need and never has needed Rome!
While many councils took place before Nicaea, there is something inexorable about the fact the Disciples whom Jesus authoritatively named Apostles died, and that, it is quite an assumption and unwarranted leap to believe in Apostolic succession (i.e. that the auspices of the Apostles continues through a traceable descendancy). In Acts, we see councils of the Apostles; but we tragically see hints in the writings of Ignatius (John’s disciple) that a spirit of Diotrephes was already present by the beginning of the 2nd Century.
Is the current canon of Christian Scripture useful? Yes, undeniably. Does it prove Rome is the true, mother church? Absolutely not! The corpus of the New Testament, having been recognized by 4th C. church representatives, only serves to prove that the Church (not Rome) already knew what was authoritative to inform and guide the Christian faith—the received (accepted, undisputed) texts! Is the Body of Christ authoritative? Yes, absolutely! Yet, Rome can no more claim a See or institutional authority over the Body of Christ from the work of Nicaea than a car salesman can claim to have designed and assembled an automobile. Rome is a (faulty) brand, not the collective of engineers and manufacturers it takes to assemble the product, and certainly not the Design Engineer.
For me, the subject fully drills down to this kernel proposition: either the Roman Catholic Church is the “true Church,” or Jesus never intended for His Church to be an institution (State or sect/denomination) that gives official credence to what is already “unofficially” but authentically Divine Revelation.
If the first, then I must join all the other evangelicals going into the Catholic Faith, which I am loathe to do.
If the second, then no institutional (organized) sect or denomination is legitimate (1 Corinthian 3); meaning, the true Church is organic: not defined by names and leaders and sets of “distinctive” doctrine but something both universal and invisible in the sense that it is comprised of all genuine believers scattered throughout all past and contemporary sects… a status only God can know. Thus, the Reformation was but the first explosive step in casting off (to-date) about 1,600 years of institutional, hierarchical trappings of false religion. And so, the Church is best expressed by what is commonly called the house church movement, as seen in nations hostile to Christianity and within western countries, where people are exhausted and disillusioned by the anemic, often abusive and all-to-corporate “churchianity.”
every believer is both the space (temples) and the subjects of God’s kingdom at present. And, the law of God at present is Christ’s Law, being the laws of faith in Christ (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 3:27; Gal. 3:11) and agape love (Matthew 5-7; John 14-17). The collective Body (as baptized by the Holy Spirit into Christ) of all true believers is the universal Church. The Church is designed by God to be and function as a living organism rather than an hierarchical organization or institution, which separates clergy from “laity” (ref. Ray Stedman). Authentic, non-abusive church leadership is R.A.R.E. these days and rarely taught. The professional ministry paradigm must be reformed, along with our broken discipleship factories, through cultivating unfailingly loving communities via the Solution of Choice; but Unchurching is the more likely route for most awakened believers while “churchianity” is slow to release its power grab and corporate leadership dynamics.
And so, neither the democracy of the enlightenment nor the historic state churches of Europe are the rule of Christ. Thus, there is no legitimate claim to theonomy, or reconstructionism, let alone a perverted ecumenism.
The only trouble with holding to this organic definition and manifestation of the Church is that all of the organized and institutionalized sects and denominations refuse to concede its legitimacy. But, if one can bear to be an outcast, he may more swiftly enter the Kingdom of Heaven. As Søren Kierkegaard writes:
When Christianity entered into the world, people were not Christians, and the difficulty was to become a Christian. Nowadays the difficulty in becoming a Christian is that one must cease to become a Christian.
– SK, CUP, 363
Although young evangelicals are leaving the movement by droves, we must not think that trading one abusive, corrupt and doctrinally monstrous hierarchy for another will solve anything. The Church is not an institution. It is not a sect, denomination or a faction. The Church is not its “leadership” or the authority they claim to wield. The Church is not Rome or the Pope. The Church is the Body of Christ, some parts being gifted to equip and guide its individuals toward maturity in Christ’s likeness for doing the work of ministry.
Personally, I see the Catholic Church as nothing but a librarian and museum curator. I don’t mind their having historical records. Their having such records proves only that they have them, not how they got them… and certainly not that they “own” them, providing them a certain power status. Again, there are most definitely genuine believers within the Roman Catholic Church, as they are—no doubt—in every sect. However, Nicaea was not Rome’s Authority, as the institution of the Roman Catholic Church claims.
The measure of Holy Scripture was settled by consent of the organic Church, as directed by the Spirit. Having submitted itself thereto, The Church should not contradict itself by asserting itself to be above Holy Scripture or discarding (as secondary) the Scriptures it once hailed. So, LH upholds the supreme Authority of the Bible for informing one’s faith life, the Soul Liberty (of each believing Conscience), and the priesthood of the believer.