The Guardians Authority Within Protestantism

One of the most important findings of modern social psychology concerns the mechanisms by which ideas and values are absorbed and assimilated so that they appear "natural," despite actually being nothing of the sort. It is widely conceded that the plausibility, legitimacy, and coherence of belief systems are created through social and cultural means.55 For religious believers of any persuasion, their faith engenders a sense of what is "natural" or "real" that structures their engagement with and understanding of the world. Yet the transmission and validation of religious ideas depend on a complex process of socialization in which certain institutions, authorities, and networks of relationships shape the way in which people think about and engage the world. It is impossible to understand any religious movement, including Protestantism, without exploring at least some aspects of this socialization and the mechanisms it involves.

Any movement—whether religious, political, or cultural—has both its "standard bearers" and its "scouts." The standard bearers are those who see themselves as charged with the responsibility of maintaining traditional values and ideas; the scouts are those who are anxious to explore new frontiers and develop new ideas. Both are necessary, in that no movement can retain its core identity by freezing its ideas and values; there is a need for dynamic review in which the creative work of discernment of earlier ages is continued in the future. Paradoxical though it may at first sight appear, to stay the same, a movement must change. So what are the dynamics of this process within Protestantism? Above all, who are the "guardians" of its ideas and values?

We have already noted the fundamentally democratic nature of Protestant theology: it is an enterprise that may be undertaken by any person, on the basis of a publicly available resource—the Bible. There is no question of any one interpretation being "privileged" or of any secret additional sources of divine knowledge that are accessible only to the initiated and upon which salvation ultimately depends. Nor is there any idea of a spiritual elite: no group of believers has the right to impose its views, whether on account of academic qualifications (the German Lutheran writer Martin Kahler described this as "a papacy of the professors") or institutional seniority. Protestantism is adamant that the officeholders of the church are accountable to the church's members for the interpretations of the Bible they offer in their preaching and teaching and that they may be challenged and corrected on its basis.

This approach is subversive of the authority of individual preachers and theologians, no matter how venerable, in that it insists that their views must be judged in the light of the Bible. Protestantism ultimately grounds itself in the Bible alone, not in any specific interpretation of the Bible. Perhaps anxious that some might come to regard Martin Luther as an infallible guide to Christian doctrine, Lutherans drafted the "Formula of Concord" (1577), which insists that no interpretation of scripture can be defined as normative. "Other writings, whether of the fathers or more recent theologians, no matter what their names may be, cannot be regarded as possessing equal status to Holy Scripture. All must be considered to be subordinate to it, and to witness to the way in which the teaching of the prophets and apostles was preserved in post-apostolic times and in different parts of the world."56

So how can any Protestant claim to speak with "authority" when Protestantism subverts that claim by insisting that all Christians are priests and that no case can be made for the present existence or future emergence of any kind of "spiritual elite" who are placed above others? The Protestant understanding of the place of the Bible in the Christian life is utterly and irreconcilably opposed to placing any human figure, agency, or institution above it. This would seem to lead to the conclusion that Protestantism is a democratic faith: because the views of every believer are of equal value, it is impossible for authority figures to emerge.

The logic may be sound, but the reality is somewhat different. In practice, authority figures play an important role in Protestantism. The denominations in which the "priesthood of all believers" is most vigorously upheld as a matter of principle, such as the "Open Brethren," tend to lie outside the mainstream of Protestantism. The Open Brethren movement does not recognize an ordained ministry, although the New Testament offices of elder and deacon are retained. "Gifted brothers" and "gifted sisters" play an important role in the leadership of these communities, but these persons are not understood to be ordained. Yet even in such a denomination, certain figures emerge and come to be regarded as authoritative by others.57

In the next section, we first of all consider who these authority figures are, and second, how they emerge.

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