A Great Pro-Protestant Argument against Sacred Tradition from Ross Douthat

Matthew Lee Anderson and Derek Rishmawy just spoke on their Mere Fidelity podcast to my favorite New York Times columnist, the conservative Catholic Ross Douthat, about his new book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, a work critiquing the current pope for his push toward liberalizing the body he leads.

Rishmawy went rather around the block and back again to say it, but I felt he made an excellent point (my transcript, which I spent my whole commute on the bus getting down for you as accurately as I could, removes some verbal clutter):

One thing that struck me is it’s—you’re kind of on the two horns of the ressourcement [the return to the sources that conservatives see in Vatican II] and the aggiornamento [the “getting-with-the-times” updating that liberals like to see in Vatican II]…. The papacy itself is what keeps the thing problematic, because…on a Protestant logic…you can go back to the original sources, whether it’s the text or the fathers and say, “Well, actually, we misread them, or we’re reinterpreting… [We’ve had a] fresh encounter of the Spirit, better Greek exegesis… We actually are reading the texts in a better way, and so we’re more conforming to the Word of God and Sola Scriptura, and [its] final authority—without completely chucking tradition, but just setting it in a secondary role and we can have some sort of reform according to the Word of God based on the sources, that goes in a more updating way.”

Now the liberal mainline usually went way beyond that and actually tried to reform the text itself. And it’s not even clean Protestantism. But…you have that impulse to reform, that impulse to update. But [given] the theology of the papacy, the theology of [the] magisterial authority of the church and what it’s already said—…if the liberals in the communion win…using the power of the papacy, they have to concede the Protestant point, that the previous papacy can get things wrong… It can be reformed according to some revelation—the Word of God or some sense of the Spirit. Or [if] they lose, the papacy continues unchanging, [and] all of its statements are in an unbroken line of continuity with only internal development that only looks like it’s been changing…. It seems like the Reformation-era issues are still in play.

In other words, the liberals in the Catholic Church have a dilemma: if the pope gets to contradict Catholic tradition in the arena of sexual ethics (etc.), then they have to admit that popes can be wrong. Later in the interview Douthat says basically the same thing: Catholic liberals don’t appear to recognize that if the pope radically changes the tradition, he undercuts his own authority, because (and this is Mark Ward, not Ross Douthat:) popes create tradition and tradition creates popes. The two are part of an indissoluble system.

But Douthat’s immediate answer to Rishmawy was this:

One thing that’s interesting to me about watching this play out is that ten or fifteen years ago, if you talked to a slightly smug conservative Catholic… they might say to you something like, “Look, the great weakness of Protestants in resisting the spirit of the age is that you don’t have a papacy and the authority of tradition, you just have the Bible itself. And the Bible in the hands of modern interpreters is going to lead to modern interpretations unless you have some sort of institutional guarantor of continuity with the past. And so, you foolish Protestants, you need a pope. You need the magisterium. Otherwise, your more liberal brethren are just going to run with their liberal interpretations and no one’s going to be able to stop them.” That’s what the smug Catholic would’ve said.

But you could make now…a counterargument, which is that in effect the idea that the church has, going back to John Henry Newman but arguably the figures before that, this idea of development of doctrine, this idea that the interpreters of doctrine—the pope, ecumenical councils, the church, and so on—that there can be what look like changes of various kinds but are in fact the full truths of the Church being understood in an unfolding way. That idea can become a kind of intellectual license for creative reinterpretation, in a way that Protestants with their sola scriptura sense don’t feel license to do.

When Douthat appeals to tradition and the Bible, he says he now has liberal Catholics telling him, “Don’t be such a Protestant—don’t be a fundamentalist.”

Which just goes to show ya. Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody has an intellectual baseline, a bedrock of axioms lying directly on top of the hot magma of their loves. If you love the zeitgeist, your thinking will fall in line. If you love the Lord, you’ll listen to his words. Building institutions to promote and defend the truth is important and good. But it will never fully work. Those institutions themselves are shot through with the effects of the fall, with people who love idols.

Sometimes I have wished for a pope. A buddy pope who tells my theological opponents, “U R WRONG!” with cool-looking encyclicals on parchment. A tough pope who keeps me in line, too, when I need it. A biblical pope who is just enforcing Christ’s words. And as Douthat points out in the interview, Catholic tradition has long held a line on divorce that (many? most?) Protestants have let go. But if Catholic tradition isn’t sufficient to keep Catholics from entertaining the idea that maybe men can marry men, then what is it good for? What good is it to have a pope? Sola scriptura has, perhaps, given us mainline Protestantism (I’d rather say people have twisted it into mainline views). But surely Catholic tradition has given us liberal Catholicism—and a bunch of other accretions. I’ll stick with my sola scriptura, norma normans non normata, ad fontes, ressourcesment. Christ will build his church. I don’t need a mediator or a magisterium besides those prescribed in Scripture.

John Calvin and Lamin Sanneh on Giving the Bible to the People

My book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, amounts to an argument for vernacular Bible translation—applied to one specific set of objections in one specific historical circumstance.

I find myself repeating myself as I promote the book on podcasts and radio shows, and I also find other writers who agree that vernacular translation is of the utmost importance. Here are two quick arguments/quotes/what-have-yous on vernacular translation. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good idea worth defending.

The first is brilliant, and so simple I’ve missed it all these years. It comes from Lamin Sanneh, by way of one of the very best “opponents” to my book that I’ve run into, a pastor who strongly prefers the KJV but listened to my argument and engaged it intelligently and courteously. What a gift. Sanneh (HT: aforesaid pastor) made the simple point (and I can’t seem to track this down precisely in the video; working on that) that the Jewish “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites” at Pentecost most likely spoke the lingua franca of the region, namely Greek. But the miraculous work of the Spirit through the disciples enabled them to hear God in their respective heart languages.

“How is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:8–12 ESV)

I’ll tell you what it means: God cares to bless all families of the earth through Abraham’s seed. And he meets them where they are, linguistically speaking. He doesn’t make them learn an older version of their languages; he doesn’t make them cock their heads and say, That’s a rather funny version of Cappadocian.

The second comes from Calvin in his comments on Psalm 25:

It is no wonder that there is here made a distinction between those who truly serve God, and to whom he makes known his secret, and the wicked or hypocrites. But when we see David in this confidence coming boldly to the school of God, and leading others along with him, let us know, as he clearly shows, that it is a wicked and hateful invention to attempt to deprive the common people of the Holy Scriptures, under the pretence of their being a hidden mystery; as if all who fear him from the heart, whatever their state or condition in other respects may be, were not expressly called to the knowledge of God’s covenant.

Wow. Just Wow.

Wow—from an evangelical literary review that looks promising:

I’m wondering if perhaps “fundies” have advantage in our emerging justice culture that others don’t have. Fundies grew up knowing that what they watched and where they went had moral importance. Fundies understand from an early age that entertainment is never just entertainment, and that mindlessly consuming anything is probably mindlessly consuming something bad. Fundies are well acquainted with putting moral demands on the world around them. They are usually scorned viciously for it. But doesn’t it feel like the fundies were ahead of the curve? I mean, when you live in a post-CTE, post-Weinstein, post-Nassar, post-Woody Allen era, might not the fundies have a lesson to teach about what life is like when you realize you can’t think deeply and enjoy heedlessly at the same time?

Just wow.

This supports what I’ve been saying to both of the people who will listen: American Protestant Christian fundamentalism, for all its faults, has something to offer to the body of Christ—and we who have been shaped by it ought, if possible, to strengthen what remains so we can keep giving those things. (What many fundamentalists don’t seem to recognize is that other Christian groups also have important things to offer to the body of Christ, too. But that’s another topic for another day.) I am abidingly thankful for the unshakeable impulse fundamentalism gave me, an impulse to check the Parental Advisories on a movie before I watch it. It’s been many years since I watched a movie for which the “sexual content” section on Focus on the Family’s Plugged In Online went beyond a line or two. My wife can tell you that this has meant many, many movie nights spent in a fruitless search with many rejected candidates. Many “movie” nights end with our watching an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show (and we just skipped one of those, too).

I’m not holy because of the things I don’t do. Asceticism ≠ holiness. But I certainly wouldn’t be holy, wouldn’t be obeying the principles of God’s word, if I trained my conscience to accept ignoring Eph 5:3 in my entertainment choices:

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.

It’s possible for Christians to deny the good gifts of God in culture by withdrawing from legitimate pleasures in entertainment media. But me and Andy Crouch don’t see that problem very often. It’s also possible for fundamentalism to become legalism, for personal standards to be applied Pharisaically to others, for us to practice our righteousness before men instead of before God, for us to claim biblical support for “standards” that we made up. Caveat lector.

But it’s also possible to so privatize the application of Scripture that I’m unwilling to call a spade a spade, particularly when that spade is practically nude and parading around for the world’s viewing pleasure and yet Matthew 5:27–30 is still in my Bible I just checked. I’m abidingly thankful for the power fundamentalism instilled in me to truly not care when the cool kids were all watching something I knew I shouldn’t enjoy. When people are being entertained by sins Jesus died to eradicate, I don’t fear vicious social scorn or the charge of legalism nearly as much as I fear the Lord. (I say this before God in good conscience, sadly aware of the times when I have failed.) This is my fundamentalist heritage.

Is a “Purity Culture” Necessarily Bad?

I haven’t read the book this CT article summarizes, a book about dating on Christian college campuses, so I am making no comment on it other than that it looks wildly interesting and, surely, hits close to home. Dating culture on evangelical campuses—well, one in particular—consumed my life for basically ten years. I felt a bit jaded by that culture by the time I escaped the dating world (in a Subaru Outback with trailing cans). But I never could bring myself to blame anyone. After all, I won. No, I triumphed. When my family care physician asked me last week if I was ever depressed, I couldn’t help bursting out in a big smile and saying, “I’m happy!” The wife I found at that Christian college is the most important (human) reason for that fact.

There was one paragraph in the article that leapt out at me—because I fear it’s becoming the stock thing to say, and I think it comes perilously close to cant. The strategy in this argument du jour has reached the sloganeering stage—and here’s the slogan: “purity culture.” This “purity culture” is always bad; there’s always a sneer bubbling just under its transparent surface.

 It’s not the ideal of sexual purity, per se, that causes these challenges, but purity culture, a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments that presents perfection as the sole ideal. Students reported to [author Dana] Malone that sex talk on campus, in public forums, doesn’t reach the level of authenticity or honesty that they need. The purity imperative means that students sometimes misrepresent their sexual pasts to friends and partners, and this leaves them uncertain about the place of physical attraction in an intimate relationship moving toward marriage. Women suffer shame and guilt not just around sexual sin but around the sheer fact of living in a body.

Here’s what I wonder: is it possible to have a labeled, self-conscious group (such as “evangelicalism”) which holds an ideal (such as sexual purity) without a social system of norms, rewards, and punishments developing around it? Every group does this with its dearly held values, right? It’s a necessary factor of group-formation and maintenance. There can be no group cohesion unless people are both manning the barricades and doing some measure of internal policing. Patriots fans don’t let Eagles fans into their clubs, and they don’t permit one another to wear Eagles jerseys, either.

Maybe I’ve only succeeded in making “purity culture” sound even more unappealing than the above quotation. So let me put it in terminology that should feel more positive to my readers: we in the church have a duty borne of love to restore brothers in sin, to provoke one another to love and good works, to exhort one another while it’s called “today.” Even when we’re doing something as simple as singing, what we’re supposed to be doing is “teaching” and “admonishing” one another. Sin is a big deal, and that fact is supposed to become part of our culture of interactions within the church.

And let me make it personal: without the purity culture surrounding me in my Christian environs as a young man, I think I would not have just told my doctor I was happy. Christ forgives, yes. And so can people. Love can overlook, love can bear all things. But sin still has consequences. The promiscuous guy in Proverbs gets “to the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” What if I’d gotten a girl pregnant at 21—what would I be doing today? What would my place be in my Christian community? Would I have a wife and beautiful children? I just don’t know. I’m glad I had social pressure on me not to get into that state. I’m glad there was a sense of shame attached, culturally, to the sexual and relationship sins I was tempted to commit. I’m glad that a structure of first written and then informal expectations was placed around me regarding dating at my Christian college. In my case, they helped me make about the smoothest possible transition a rather immature redhead could make from adolescence to adulthood. I felt that they accurately reflected the Bible’s clarity about sexual sin and freed me to read my Bible and attain that clarity in my own conscience. (Please read Kenneth Woodward’s sage comments on this topic.) All of child-rearing is scaffolding toward a free-standing state. I’m not embarrassed to say that I needed such scaffolding past high school.

To be clear, I did things I’m not proud of during those ten years, things for which I have repented to God and to others. I sinned. But “purity culture” rallied around me, taking my sins seriously but believing ardently in the power of God’s grace to restore broken people—like every single member of the purity culture knew himself and herself to be, or was at least supposed to. I had a good—not perfect, not ideal, but good—experience in the very center of a strong, conservative purity culture.

I’m also not at all sure I would have liked sexual authenticity and honesty all around me during my college years. Some struggles with sin are properly kept discreet. I’m genuinely glad I didn’t even know about certain sexual deviancies until I was a grad student reading about them as part of my job at my Christian college library. Christian “purity culture” kept me from hearing the kinds of specific confessions from other guys that would themselves have become temptations for me.

I do need to get around, however, to some positives I see in the anti-purity-culture sloganeering. I do see some. Because when love and grace and God’s sovereignty and his Spirit and clear Bible get leached out of a purity culture, the culture can become imperious or Pharisaical. It can start to give the impression that sexual attraction is not a necessary part of marriage, when the Song of Songs rather says the opposite at book length. I’m sure it can put students in the awkward spot of feeling like they have to lie about their past sexual sin in order to preserve their friendships or campus leadership positions. I am no expert here (my wife kind of is), but I do tend to think that there ought to be a safe place for Christian college students to get pastoral counsel about what they’ve done in their sexual lives without necessarily having to risk their spot on the school newspaper staff. I have been told that my alma mater has worked to disentangle discipline from counseling. That’s out of my league, but it sounds right to me.

And there’s this comment from the article that rings more or less true:

Purity culture also creates a push toward marriage as a redemptive state that can “erase” sexual sins in a relationship.

I can’t say I saw much of this in my experience or in others’, but now that I see it named, I recognize the idea as one that floated around—and did go at least once through my own head. I can’t say the purity culture around me in college accepted it or promoted it, but I can see how that culture might have failed sufficiently to counter it.

But then the article resorts again to cant, to platitudes about how bad platitudes are:

Students described to Malone how they value traditional Christian morality but also want tensions and difficulties to be acknowledged and discussed on campus with informed, authentic dialogue, not platitudes or pat answers.

And I wonder: particularly in a mixed group of college students, how could this ever happen? Sex is so personal. Where is authentic but careful dialogue going to occur except in private settings? And how could it happen among a group which includes sheltered kids and not-so-sheltered kids? Dialogues “on campus” sound like faculty-led dialogues—which necessarily include many different students. Who isn’t going to aim for the least offense in a setting like that?

“Purity culture” is not inherently bad. A given Christian college campus, a given Christian church, a given group of Christian friends may have come to mix some bad ideas and values into their purity culture, but please don’t ever let my own children—or myself—fall into a group of Christians in which no such culture exists at all. I expect the Bible to have effects not just on individuals but on group dynamics, on shared norms of practice and virtue, on whether dads in a particular church feel encouraged to be involved in their children’s (particularly their daughters’) dating lives or are embarrassed to do so. As Jonathan Leeman so wisely pointed out when talking about other kinds of gender norms, we’re in the realm of “wisdom” here, not direct biblical command. But I sniff a little Western expressive individualism in the antipathy toward “purity culture,” and I’m not giving in to the bashfest. I needed that culture, and I will work to maintain and purify (!) it for the good of the children, teens, and college students I love.

I do think I know what the author of the article (and the book?) means in complaining about complete sexual purity as a “sole ideal”: I think she means that people who truly have repented from their sexual sins can come to feel that they are damaged goods who can’t have the truly happy marriages everybody else is promised. But there really is one sole ideal: sexual purity before (and after!) marriage. And we can’t give that up, because it’s in the Bible.

But one way to keep purity culture from becoming brittle and loveless and therefore harmful is to recognize that 1) not one of us has met the ideal, even men and women who never touched a member of the opposite sex until their wedding day. It is possible to be closer to the ideal and possible to be farther away from it; but it is not possible, I believe, to meet it unless you’re Jesus. We’re all damaged goods. And 2) none of us is guaranteed a happy marriage, no matter how close we’ve come to the ideal evangelical path toward it. There is an element of the laborers in the vineyard here: no one will get less than their due, but some in God’s gracious economy—he’s not a tame lion—will get more. Generally speaking, staying away from the forbidden woman (or man) of Proverbs is a better path to a good marriage, but God is allowed to call Hoseas to marry Gomers, and he’s allowed to cleanse and restore promiscuous people. “Such were some of you.”

Maybe I just need to read the book profiled in CT—again, I am not commenting directly on it, just on the article. But I’ve been thinking a lot about “purity culture” since Josh Harris’ readers were invited to write about their experience with his dating books a few years back. I thought someone ought to come out and defend it at least a little on an obscure blog where no harm can be done.

A Quick Thought about KJV-Onlyism

A quick thought: my friends who are very concerned to have one standard English Bible often warn of the terrible confusion that is, they say, inevitable when Christians use multiple translations.

And I say they are deeply concerned about a problem that both 1) doesn’t exist and 2) has always existed.

What I mean is that 1) outside of KJV-Onlyism, where the possibility that someone-might-be-massively-confused-by-multiple-translations-and-fall-into-doctrinal-error-or-unbelief is a huge Bogeyman, this supposed confusion is not a problem. What can I say except that in all my experience, I’ve never seen it occur? I’ve never seen a Bible study fall apart or a person lose his faith over this. The only people I’ve seen who were confused and troubled by the existence of multiple Bible translations are people in or coming out of KJV-Onlyism.

And 2) there have long been multiple English Bible translations, even during the era when the KJV reigned supreme. The Geneva never went away. And within the KJV itself there are countless alternative translations in the margins. Whose faith is shaken by these? Who is confused? Weren’t they put there to help us? If the KJV translators thought it wise to provide alternate translations (and they explain why they do in their preface), why can’t contemporary Christians use alternate translations?

Empirically speaking, people with bad theology use the KJV—and every other major translation. Empirically speaking, people with good theology do, too. I’m just not seeing the translations as the problem. I simply don’t believe any cause-and-effect correlation can be established between translation X and bad doctrine (or good).

Bonus point: Protestants have no pope. There’s no one to make us use only one English Bible translation. The effort is doomed to fail. It has failed. And this is one time when “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is especially salubrious advice. To use multiple translations can only help Bible study for those who are properly taught. Those who have to unlearn their KJV-Onlyism before being properly taught will struggle, but KJV-Onlyism is creating a problem and then citing that problem as reason for its continued existence.