The Paper Pope of Protestantism

As I sat down to write a continuation on how the Bible came to be distorted into something more than it was, I would first direct the reader to my previous posts on the topic of bibliolatry. Those posts can be found at:

What probably bears some mention is the effect that the Protestant Reformation had upon this issue. I have to be cautious here, because of my Catholic background, of simply writing the whole Protestant Reformation off as a colossal mistake, so let’s be clear about how necessary it was that SOMETHING had to change.

The authority structure of Christianity had become extremely rigid by this time. The Dynamic Quality of the Spirit mentioned in the earlier articles had solidified into authoritarian structures of Static Quality, and these centered around the persons of the Pope and his Bishops. While not formally declared infallible until Vatican Council 1 centuries later, the Pope was regarded as having divine power and prerogative to dictate the truth in religious dogma and moral practice.

It was clear, particularly to the more educated class of men who had access to the texts of scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, that the doctrine and practice of the Church was becoming more and more removed from the Dynamic Quality of the teachings of Jesus. Rather than embracing the uncertainty and ambiguity of Dynamic Quality, however, the Reformers opted for a somewhat unfortunate alternative – opposing one form of artificially absolute authority with another artificially absolute authority.

Episcopal Bishop Spong, whom I suspect I’d have a lot of disagreements with in many areas, nevertheless describes this situation very cogently:

“Martin Luther, on seeing corruption he could not ignore at the heart of the church, moved to challenge that which he felt distorted the gospel. He sought to confront the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with Holy Scripture and in this manner to recall the church to the purity of his perception of the New Testament vision. Luther wanted to purge his beloved church of superstition, clerical manipulation and false doctrine. His was a crusade which began in a sincere religious conviction…. When Martin Luther countered the authority of the infallible pope, he did so in the name of his new authority, the infallible Scriptures. This point of view was generally embraced by all of the Reformation churches. The Bible thus became the paper pope of Protestantism. Protestants historically have matched every extravagant papal claim with an equally extravagant biblical claim.” (“Hope and Fear in Ecumenical Union” – John Shelby Spong)

Historical circumstances, in other words, forced the Bible into an impossible position. It could not simply be regarded as sacred or inspirational writing, but had to be artificially invested with an infallibility equal to the Papacy it was challenging, in order to provide believers with the static certainty they craved in their religious beliefs. But that certainty comes at a rather high price. Quoting from Spong again:

“Hiding behind claims of revealed truth that were not allowed to be questioned and of infallible authority that could not be challenged, Christians have condemned Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and many other great breakthrough thinkers in the various fields of an exploding human knowledge. Seeking to protect power and authority, Christians have had to be literally dragged by the knowledge revolution into the 20th century.”

I believe, on the contrary, that while the static documents of the Bible are invaluable – the heart of “faith” is not to clutch resolutely at a supposedly infallible standard. That is not faith, but fear – terror of the foreign territory into which God might lead us if we allow it. True faith, on the other hand, is to imitate the pilgrimage of Abraham and follow the lead of God, without knowing the destination in advance.

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