Most evangelicals know almost nothing about the early Fathers, and what they do know (they think) supports what they already believe, so why bother studying them. When it comes to realities, however, few have read even a page of the Fathers. However, very few evangelicals are drawn to either the Fathers or the Medieval theologians to strengthen their faith and interpretation. The only theologian from this era most of them bother reading is St. Augustine (whom they hesitantly call "saint" out of courtesy). Some know of Anselm, but few have read his Cur Deus Homo, even though Anselmian soteriology lies at the foundation of the normal, evangelical theory of the atonement (penal satisfaction and substitution of the Divine-Man). Where was the Church for all those years? Was it in hiding? How could God keep his end of the promise to Peter (Matt 16:17-19) if most of the time there was no true Church?What's surprising is that he's hit right at the core of one of Evangelicalism's largest weakness: if we proclaim that Christ has never abandoned the Church, then we have to take Christian history seriously. There's no room for "Everyone between the Apostles and Luther was a heathen," because Christ's made clear that's not the right answer. Evangelicalism has largely answered this problem by either (1) ignoring the Fathers completely, (2) misrepresenting what they say, or (3) trying to steer people away from reading them. Those aren't healthy responses.
McKnight then describes how Evangelicals who study the Church Fathers often become Catholic, and that many of these converts wonder if they're not steered away from the Fathers for precisely this reason. I'm reminded of this episode of "the Berean Call" with Dave Hunt and Tom McMahon, in which they simultaneously claim that the Church Fathers weren't Catholic, and warn Evangelicals not to read them, and instruct Evangelicals to follow (their own interpretation of) the Bible instead of the writings of the early Christians. It comes off, frankly, as dishonest -- if there really is nothing to worry about from reading the Fathers, why are they so insistent that no one check out the facts for themselves?
McKnight's second admission is no less epic:
I might as well say this up front: in evangelicalism (and Protestantism in general), the authority of the Church resides in two spheres—the Bible and the specific interpretation of the Bible by the interpreter himself or herself.
No one can deny this. There is no such thing as a "Bible alone" idea; that Bible must be "articulated," unless we are only reading it, and that articulation is itself an interpretation. The RCC admits this openly and says that the final arbiter of interpretation is the Magisterium. The evangelical movement hides this openly and says, ever so discreetly, that the individual is the final arbiter. Such a bald claim, to be sure, must be given its pragmatic reality: most evangelicals and Protestants think of orthodoxy in terms of the historic faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and this orthodoxy governs what should and what should not be believed. To be sure, Protestant denominations have a functional, if somewhat fuzzy, "teaching magisterium" within their ranks, but that magisterium can be denied at any time by most pastors and certainly by all individuals with no more powerful punishment than banishment from the local church so the person can join a church of his own choosing. I add, however, that most evangelical churches, pastors, family members, and friends can make one feel that their specific church is that sacrament, but they will not confess that aloud—and many do not confess anything aloud.
This democratization of Scriptural interpretation, leading inevitably to the authority of the individual conscience, is intolerable for some evangelicals, because everyone gets to believe whatever he or she wants. This is a principle only; it does not actually work out this way, because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition. So, a crisis is found for many in a crisis of interpretive diversity that they resolve by affirming the authority of the RCC and its teaching Magisterium. That is, the issues are now settled: the Church can tell us what to believe. And it does so infallibly.The description of Catholic converts is slightly inaccurate (they aren't looking for just anyone to tell them what to do, or taking the easy way out)., but the description of Evangelicalism is right on:
- If the Church has binding authority over the individual, then Catholicism is true. She's the Church that the Reformers disobeyed.
- If the Church doesn't have binding authority over the individual, then it's theological anarchy.
Put another way, Martin Luther was the first Rob Bell. And once you accept that Luther need not listen to the Church because he was really convinced his interpretation of Scripture is right, you lose the right to complain when anyone else ignores the Church because they are really convinced of their own arguments.
The only reason that Protestantism doesn't usually find itself at the extreme of theological anarchy is because it's hypocritical about Church authority. There's no coherent basis on which to say that Bell is wrong for denying "historic Christianity," while Luther's brazen rejections of historic Christianity are totally okay, but the fact that Protestants go ahead and do so stops the Reformation from getting worse.
That's sort of a criticism, but not really. Frankly, I'd rather Protestants be hypocritical (and preserve most of historic Christianity in the process) than take their self-proclaimed beliefs seriously, in which case the individual who denies the Trinity is a higher authority than the church which tries to stop him. It's turning the flock over to the sheep.
So McKnight's points are of immense important, because it's a low-church Evangelical acknowledging that:
- There's no such thing as "the Bible alone," since the Bible requires interpretation;
- Within Evangelicalism, authority rests with the Bible and the individual.
- Nevertheless, virtually everyone implicitly recognizes the need for a Magisterium to stop heretical interpretations of Scripture from taking control. Within Evangelicalism this "fuzzy magisterium" is often the local church.
- Evangelicalism's "fuzzy magisterium" is failing, unable to stop pastors and individuals from flaunting its beliefs.
And as with the top example, we see the same thing. What saves Evangelicals from becoming more disorganized, more vulnerable to heresy, and the like, is that (while they won't admit it) they act as if the Catholic Church's structures of authority are not only right, but necessary. Once more, Catholics are just doing openly and honestly what Evangelicals are denying they're doing.
That's not to accuse the bulk of Evangelicals of dishonesty: I think they're oblivious to this reality. But when sit down and think it out, as McKnight has here, the irreparable contradictions within Evangelicalism become clear. It's a system torn between a desire for historic Christianity (which is a desire for Catholicism, whether they know it or not), and a desire for the primacy of the individual's conscience (which is a recipe for disaster, whether they know it or not). It remains to be seen how long Evangelicalism can stand in the middle of these incompatible ideas before she's tugged in one direction or the other.