Every dozen years or so a new teacher appears on the Protestant playground and captures the attention of thousands if not millions. Books are bought. Seminars are arranged and attended. Thousands seek to commit themselves to “real Christianity”: “How the Church must do ‘X’ to win souls.” “How to be holy and spiritual as Christ would have us.” “How to be one after the heart of God.” And such. Rick Warren is but another “teacher” whose fifteen minutes of evangelical “fame” is running out. It could be Warren’s enthusiasm for “poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate and human rights” is the equivalent to television’s “Jumping the Shark” — that point where a bad plot or the private behavior of the actors ruins the enjoyment of the show irreparably? Protestants of whatever denomination have nothing resembling the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and so at times it seems to be “every man for himself.” Still, as we must remind ourselves, our Lord is “Liberals ye will always have thee.” (Or something like that.) What passes for the left and the right in the “Protestant Church” will always try to argue each other down. What all the disagreements really point to is a basic conflict in how Scripture is read and explained.
Truth be known: there are actually very few “literalists” within whatever variety of Church you look into. Almost all Protestants are open to one school of Biblical scholarship or another. Instead, it is more useful to speak of a continuum of “high” to “low” views of Scripture. Those of the “high” view tend to be respectful of academic Biblical scholarship — even the historical/critical school — but ultimately believe that Scripture is inspired. Those of the “low” view tend to view Scripture as human-made and not divinely inspired — or inspired only in the loosest sense. Naturally, there are degrees along each side of the continuum; but the description holds up pretty well.
The ramifications come out in the question of how seriously to take the actual written text of Scripture and what weight to give individual experience in discovering the “truth.” Those of the “low” view tend to speak of discovering what Scripture has to say in light of the “modern context.” More to the point, what was true at the time a particular passage was written may not be true today. Instead, the focus should not be on the particulars within the passage, but with the underlying theme as we understand it today. Such a theme may in fact overrule the apparent lesson of the passage. Those of a more radical bent will hold that there is no objective truth in Scripture except that which is discovered to be “true for me.”
Those of a “high” view accept the human origins of Scripture; but also believe that Scripture came about by the intentionality of God. Thus the written text is taken seriously. Not every piece of Scripture is of equal value and this is where the proper division of Law and Gospel is helpful. In this view, scholarship is respected when it helps explain the meaning of Scripture. Scholarship which destroys meaning and is hostile to the devotional use of Scripture is viewed with critical suspicion. As opposed to those of the radical “low” view, “high” view folk hold the God’s truth is true whether it is experienced or not.
While there is rarely a Protestant who is a “pure” high or low, there is actually very little middle ground between the two sides. What is at stake is not just how to interpret any particular passage of Scripture; it is a conflict on what meanings will be assigned to the world around us. Taken on a national scale, it is easy to see why Protestants find it so difficult to achieve real consensus on any particular issue.
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