Where Does the Path of “Stripping Away” Lead Us?

There’s been a certain Protestant theological theme that I’ve been thinking about over the past few months. It is by no means common to all Protestant theologies, however it has played a major role in Protestant development. That is the theme of “stripping away.” More specifically, stripping away of what is perceived to be “unnecessary” or unbiblical.

Keystones? Unnecessary and unbiblical.

To give an historical overview we’ll overlook the various reforming sects prior to Martin Luther. They definitely had an influence on Luther, yet Luther was far more influential still. Originally, Martin Luther simply wanted to reform the practice of the selling of indulgences. If you read his 95 Theses, they are almost entirely written against indulgences (although they mention a few other clerical abuses).

Things quickly escalated on both sides as the respective disputants either misinterpreted many arguments or simply failed to act in an understanding manner. This quickly shifted the Reformation away from reforming within the Catholic Church to simply seeing the Catholic Church as incapable of Reformation, and from there it pretty much went downhill until some Protestants identified the Catholic Church with the Whore of Babylon. So, things shifted into high gear.

I bet you thought this would be a car, didn’t you?

The new focus of Protestantism became that of “stripping away” the “excesses” of Roman Catholicism. They saw many Catholic practices as being “unnecessary” or “unbiblical.” There’s just one problem with this approach. The Reformation quickly ran into this problem. Perhaps you’ve already spotted it:

How does one determine what is “unnecessary” and/or “unbiblical?”

From a Catholic perspective, many things Protestants object to are deeply biblical. The intercession of the saints, the true presence of Jesus’ body in the Eucharist, the authority of bishops, and the primacy of the bishopric of Rome. All of these have their root in the Bible.

Martin Luther quickly ran into this problem. He had to turn from arguing with Rome to arguing with half the countries in Europe where competing Reformation ideas were being spread. Many times Luther resembles nothing so much as a boxer in the middle of the ring, swinging at anyone who approaches him.

Too much German beer perhaps?

Anabaptists, Calvinists, and others drew the ire of Luther’s pen. But Pandora’s Box had been opened. The theological idea of “stripping away” had taken hold. Here it should be noted in passing, that there were other reformers who perhaps saw the problems of Luthers approach. These reformers stayed within the Catholic Church and worked from the inside (perhaps with more tact than Luther displayed.) Erasmus of Rotterdam is probably the most famous of these Catholic reformers.

Now, I’d like to look at the consequences of such an ingrained idea of “stripping away.” Where does such a course take the practitioner? What is the logical outcome?

First, one must overlook the fact that this idea of “stripping away” tacitly accepts hundreds of years of Church history and Tradition before completely rejecting Church history and Tradition. After all, the Bible is a product of Church history and Tradition. The Bible is where the Reformers claimed to hold their foundation. This is an interesting exercise in cognitive dissonance. The Bible is one of the five “solas.” It is given primacy of place. Yet, the Tradition that created the Bible is swept away. So why even bother with the Bible? But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Or am I Mr. Jefferson?

Second, how much is to be stripped away? Who decides where doctrine and Tradition went wrong? Who decides which point in Church history we are going to re-anchor ourselves to? The sheer plethora of Protestant sects makes it undeniable that no one can really agree on what the proper interpretation of the Bible is. What is the “clear message” that each group claims they are presenting? And, frankly, can we even hack away thousands of years of Church history and become like the Church at an earlier point in time? Isn’t that like claiming that by cutting your legs off you will become taller?

We can’t turn back the clock, nor can we approach the earlier Church without acknowledging that we are the products of every bit of Church history between us and the earlier Church. We can no more strip something away to be more like what we think the early Church was than we can engage in willful and collective amnesia. The only road to the early Church is through the Church built upon the foundation of the early Church.

“Yeah, sure, I guess this is nice. But I really want to tear it down and just gaze on the foundation!”

Third, where does such an approach leave us? Where does the “stripping away of unnecessaries” end? There’s a book about Mennonites called “The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.” Not to pick on one group (especially since I have Mennonite heritage), but why would we want to have a faith of just the bare essentials? Why would we want to just “get by” with the minimum?

If we are in a relationship with each other and with God, then why would we want to just do what we have to? What kind of messed up relationship is that? Do you do just the bare essentials to maintain the relationship with your spouse? Well, we are the Bride of Christ. If someone told me they were just doing what was necessary to maintain a relationship with me, I would conclude that we don’t have much of a relationship. If we are the Bride of Christ, we are to act extravagantly loving.

Extravagant enough? (Come on, you knew this was coming)

But there is perhaps even one more step to this “stripping away of unnecessaries.” If one follows this Protestant theological theme and strips away what is seen to be “unnecessary,” then what happens when we are confronted with a worldview wherein God is perceived to be no longer necessary?


~ by crossingthebosporus on July 4, 2012.

2 Responses to “Where Does the Path of “Stripping Away” Lead Us?”

  1. Where, indeed, do you end up? Really by adding your own things – like saying that the Bible is the sole source – when we know that the Bible did not just appear in its current form. How do we know which books should be in the Bible? Not from the Bible – that list of contents isn’t original 🙂

  2. If it’s the Puritans we’re talking about, it’s about cutting everyone else’s legs off so you can become taller. 😉

    I agree with your thoughts completely. Many Protestants think of Catholic Tradition like barnacles on the side of a boat, but it’s more like the layers of calcium that form a pearl. As an historian, the idea of stripping away 2,000 years of interpretive tradition is pretty unfathomable. I never did, even when I was a Protestant, and the more I realized how out of step Protestantism is with the Early Church and the Tradition of the Apostles, the more I was drawn to Rome.

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