Be your own Pope: On the Tyranny of Individualism

Marc Cortez points us to the following article, which is re-published here with kind permission, and perfectly articulates a sad phenomenon I witness all too often, namely, folks throwing out with careless abandon, our creedal heritage.

Theology Forum

Be your own Pope: On the Tyranny of Individualism – by Kent Eilers

D.H. Williams sounds a stunning warning against Free Church Protestantism and its dismissal of the church’s creedal heritage, and with it the elevation of the individual to “Pope-like” status.

“[F]or all its theological and historical importance, the Protestant Reformation should not be the sole means of identity for any Christian. It was (is) not the primary basis on which the Christian faith was founded—something the Reformers themselves knew quite well. Here I am referring to how one ‘reads’ the history of Christianity. …

[T]he Protestant mind has been shaped in specific ways to think about itself as the Christian faith, not as a reform movement of Catholicism, but as a restoration of the apostolic church and therefore a dismissal of everything that followed the New Testament church and was prior to the ‘Reformation.’ In the name of rejecting ecclesiological authority as ‘hierarchy’ or ‘tradition’ as theological manipulation and bondage, we have instead created a hermeneutic of suspicion and have invested every biblically informed conscience (instead of a pope) to speak ex cathedra. It is a Pyrrhic victory for Free church Protestantism when the net effect of its teaching results in the replacing of the tyranny of the magisterium with the tyranny of individualism [Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 201]

I have seen the harmful effects of this tendency on more than one occasion.  I think of many Free Church believers I have known who operate under the unconscious pressure of picking up their Bible and reading it as if no one has ever read it before. With this comes the concomitant weight of sifting and weighing matters on which the Church has spoken in her creedal heritage, an interpretive weight one should never bear alone.

Perhaps, to take D.H. Williams’ point (among many other contemporary and not-so-contemporary Protestant voices), the Church’s shared creedal heritage is indispensable for the Church’s reading of her Scriptures today, even in the Free Church tradition of Protestantism. Without accepting a hierarchical ecclesiology, perhaps the Protestant Free Church tradition would be greatly served by a modest return to a self-consciously “ruled reading” of the Bible in which a community’s reading of the Scriptures is carried out together with its creedal heritage: allowing the rule of faith generally found in the Nicene Creed to consciously guide and train a community’s reading, reminding it of the heart of the Gospel, and serving its faithful proclamation.

(Postscript: This is a conversation also being had among Anglicans. See, Ephraim Radner and George Sumner, The Rule of Faith: Scripture Canon and Creed in a Critical Age (Morehouse, 1998)).

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5 Responses to “Be your own Pope: On the Tyranny of Individualism”

  1. Jim Says:

    “Tyranny of Individualism”? Surely not. To me that’s almost as wrong as describing someone as an “Atheist Fundamentalist”. Bizarre.

    Isn’t Eilers really bemoaning the fact that some Christians want to start out from scratch and discover the Gospel for themselves rather than adhere to orthodox wisdom as determined by others, thus reducing the authority of the Church? Hmm.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood how these expressions are used. Any thoughts?

  2. Michael Says:

    Not quite sure how ‘they tyranny of individualism’ equates with ‘being your own pope’ – unless of course one trots out distortion and caricature about who, and what, the Pope actually is (knowledge that a worrying amount of Protestants neglect to equip themselves with).

    Even so, to be a little mischievous, the conclusion does come close to say ‘we would never be papists, but y’know, perhaps popery has its strengths, even if we’ve spent 500 years denying them’.

    I suspect the two observations are not wholly unrelated.

  3. Caral 4 Christ Says:

    Hi Jim,

    I think that Eilers is alluding to the phenomenon seen from free (fundamental?) evangelicals, where people truly believe that they can pick up a bible read it for themselves. They treat all the varying literatures as the same, without looking at a commentary or theological doctrines of Christianity, nor even the historical context of which the Holy Scriptures were given.

    Although perhaps Eilers maybe doing the same but from a different stance, with what seems to be a complete misunderstanding of the magisterium and the role of the Holy See, I won’t even mention the ex cathedra comment!

    I would say, I have found some evangelicals (particlarly online, I only know a few in real life) make no distinction in the authority of Scriptures. What Paul said is given the same authority as what our Lord says. Well, to be honest some of the die hards reformers, I come across actually place Calvin and Paul’s writing above the Gospels. Heaven forfend!

    This seems to be somewhat compounded by the fact that there is much cherry picking involved in their understanding of scriptures. I have noticed a trend towards honing in on the words spoken to the 12 disciples by our Lord.

    “I will not leave you alone, but send you another counsellor and He will lead you into all truth.” (from memory, so sorry if not word perfect). The trend seems to be that they apply these words directly to themselves, rather than the consensus of truth and understanding developed over the last 2000 years in Christ’s Church. This then leads to a place where they now feel that they are entitled to throw out 2000 years of our Lord leading His Church into all truth, because God the Holy Spirit is going to teach them personally.

    I have noticed that time and time again, that they then turn on the Church, (I refer to all the liturgical churches here) and declare that we have got it all wrong, and have done for the past 2000 years! They accuse us of having man made traditions and using our intellect (I know, I know!). Some even refuse to accept anything said by any of the theologians, because they have the Spirit (and ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs) and we don’t. I do realise that this seems like a caricature, but worrying these same people seem to be portrayed as the face of Christianity in the tabloids!

    So while the rest of us at grassroots, are looking to live in the Love of God, the grace of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and live quietly in faith, hope, and peace. These guys seem to have very large voices, and portray their own rather skewed view of Christianity to the world. Although I pray that our Lord would grant them wisdom and truth and bring them into a fuller understanding and obedience to Him, as they travel on their spiritual journey.

    Apologies for my rant Jim, just needed to get that off my chest. I think I now need go pray Compline.

    Just as an addendum: I do agree with you, there is not a problem with picking up the bible and reading it for oneself, (with a commentary may be useful) especially the Gospel according to the evangelists, learning not just to be hearers of the word, but also doing as our Lord teaches.

    Today’s Gospel reading (and commentary) seemed quite apt.

    Grace and peace

  4. Goy Says:

    The “Tyranny of Individualism” the spark that will set all of Europe ablaze, dictatorships, bloody civil wars and political conflict this is Europes future.

  5. Jim Says:

    Dear Caral 4 Christ,
    Thank you for that very thoughtful explanation. Much appreciated. Think I’ll read it again. There’s a lot to think about.

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