One of the things which is very uncomfortable in life is when someone questions or challenges our well thought out and long held beliefs. Well, I say, ‘well thought out’ but, if we’re honest, I think, in truth, many of the beliefs we consider ‘ours’ have in fact been handed down to and accepted by us with little critical examination. They are, in reality, very often, the beliefs of our tradition – whatever that tradition might be.
Another possibility is that we, in our own thinking and observations, become convinced of something that, by default, challenges other things which, hitherto we have firmly held or believed. As I say – this is not a comfortable place to be and is the reason why, in the ‘church’ world, many people either like to be told what to think, or when challenged retreat in to the shell of their tradition and put their fingers in their ears.
All of the above is exacerbated today for one very good reason which I think church and faith groups in general have yet to come to terms with – access to information and in particular the internet. For the greater part of my life people went to their particular church – mostly because of traditional loyalty. And the various doctrines proclaimed from the pulpits of these churches were, by and large, accepted by the majority of the people in the pew without question – at least in my tradition. The last argument for many in any debate was – ‘Well, our minister says.’ But today, the question might well be – ‘What does Google say?’
The problem here is that most denominational theologians and preachers give us their version of things – leaving out inconvenient facts or contradictions. At one level I can understand this as who wants a confused congregation? But at another level it is, at best disingenuous or, at worst, dishonest. And many, particularly young people today see through this. Never, as far as I can recall, have I ever heard in a church setting, a preacher or teacher laying out differing views of a subject and asking his listeners to weigh up each and come to their own conclusion. I strongly suspect this is one of the reasons so many people are abandoning the church today. We need an honest conversation – and we need people convinced in their own minds – not people who simply parrot what they are told to believe. I think these days are over.
Of course there is another issue here which must not go unnoticed and that is the old issue of control. And this has been a problem for denominational and church leaders since the beginning and even more so after the Bible itself became available to the general public. When, in the fourteenth century, Wycliffe’s Bible was first published in English the Catholic Church complained that he had made the scriptures – ‘More open to the teachings of laymen and women. Thus the jewel of the clerics is turned to the sport of the laity and the pearl of the gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.’ The issue of ‘control’ and ‘who rules’ as well as ‘doctrinal purity’ are things that have caused wars, infighting, schism and major problems since the early days of the Church.
The very same thing happened here in Scotland in more recent times when the hegemony of Presbyterianism was threatened. When, in 1799, the Haldane brothers formed the ‘Society for the Propagation of the Gospel’, an organisation operating outside the control of the ruling religious powers, they were livid. Subsequently, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland labeled them as – ‘False teachers .. assuming the name of missionaries as if they had some special commission from heaven going through the land, not confining themselves to particular stations, but acting as universal and itinerant teachers .. intruding themselves into parishes without any call, erecting in several places Sunday schools without any countenance from the Presbytery of the bounds, the minister, or the heritors of the parish, committing in those schools the religious instruction of youth to ignorant persons altogether unfit .. or to persons notoriously disaffected to the civil constitution of the country ..’ Oh dear! Talk about standing on someone’s toes!
But back to the main issue! As far as belief and doctrine are concerned then, we need to be aware that the things we are taught to believe are, for the most part, rooted in the tradition and theology of whatever ‘ism’ we subscribe to. In my own tradition this is mostly (but not exclusively) Protestantism, Presbyterianism and Calvinism. But Protestantism, like it or not, is a child of Roman Catholicism – although I can already hear some of my friends shouting their objections. The reality is, IMHO, the Reformation was not the really ‘big break’ many would have us believe. The large majority of the practices and doctrines of Roman Catholicism were simply transferred and adopted by the various Protestant groupings that replaced them. But this is not a debate for today.
The question I am coming to is this – are there other groups within the ‘Christian’ tradition who did or do not subscribe to either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism and to whom we can look for an alternative understanding of Christian theology if and when we run in to issues with the things we have been taught to believe? The answers to that question is – yes there is. Firstly there is evidence from the first 300 years of Church history, before the church was corrupted by political ambition and from those called the ‘Early Church Fathers’. Secondly, we have the rich heritage and theology of the Eastern Orthodox tradition who separated from Roman Catholicism in 1054. There are approximately 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world today. (1) According to some Orthodox leaders it was the Eastern Orthodox who were the first ‘Protestants’ – as they ‘protested’ against aspects of Roman Catholicism long before the Reformation. And finally we have a number of groups who were later given the general heading ‘Anabaptist’. Like the previous groups they never considered themselves as either Roman Catholic or Protestant. Personally, although I know many will disagree, I think it is something approaching gross arrogance to believe these Christian tradition have nothing to teach us today.
In addition to the above we have other thinkers and theologians in more modern times, and I am restricting my consideration here to men in our own country, mostly from Scotland, who have refused to be imprisoned by the restrictions and theology of their own tradition and been willing to think outside the box. One such was Huntly born, and Calvinist raised George MacDonald (1824 – 1905) – a great thinker who went on to influence men such as G.K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Oswald Chambers. Interestingly, as an aside, Lewis wrote of MacDonald – ‘I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master, indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.’ Sadly few today have even heard of MacDonald – and many of those who do, if they come from the Reformed/Evangelical tradition consider him either a liberal or a heretic. Indeed, some to not consider him a ‘christian’ at all! (2) Macdonald’s first calling, in 1850, was to the ministry and, for a time, he was minister of Trinity Congregational Church, Arundel. However, due to theological disagreements his ministerial career was short lived. After having his salary cut in half he eventually resigned from the ministry in 1853.
Fewer still, I suspect, have heard of MacDonald’s spiritual father and mentor, the Anglican theologian F. D. Maurice (1805 – 1872). Maurice was also a man who thought way outside the box of his tradition. Nevertheless, he is considered by some to have been the most important Anglican theologian of the 19th century. Despite this Maurice was dismissed from his post as professor at King’s College, London because of his unacceptable theological views.
Alexander John Scott (1805–1866), a Scottish minister, is another. George MacDonald regarded A. J. Scott as the greatest man he had ever known and F. D. Maurice dedicated his ‘Mediaeval Philosophy’ to him. However Scott, then minister of the Middle Church, Greenock was cited to appear before the presbytery of Paisley in 1831 charged with heresy. He was subsequently found guilty and deprived of his licence to preach. Such is the cost of questioning the accepted narrative!
Interestingly, Scott’s first sermon, after he was licensed, was preached for the Rev. John McLeod Campbell, who heard him ‘with very peculiar delight.’ Campbell was also a free thinker who would get into deep trouble because of his views. Campbell was born in Argyllshire in 1800, of Skye parentage. His father was the Rev. Donald Campbell who was born in Skye (my home island) in 1758. His mother, Mary was the youngest daughter of McLeod of Raasay. He was also a cousin of the great Skye revival preacher the Rev. Roderick MacLeod, of Snizort. Campbell preached on the island a number of times. Sadly, however, the more ardent Calvinists of Skye had no time for Campbell. Campbell, like Scott, was later to be found guilty of teaching heretical doctrines by The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and deprived of his living.
Again I think it needs to be said that to wave away, without any consideration or investigation, the men and movements we have mentioned, as if they were of no consequence, is arrogance.
And the reason for all this? Well, over that last few years I have struggled myself with some of the teachings and doctrines I was brought up to believe – or at least taught. And, in the ‘Parrot’ tradition, I have, on many occasions repeated them myself. However, having in more recent times, come to alternative points of view on a number of issues – and having thought at times that no one else held such opinions, I have recently taken much comfort from the fact that some of the groups and individuals mentioned above believed these things long before I had ever considered them. Furthermore, as I have said before, I am aware in these days of others who struggle with similar issues – some of whom have abandoned their faith altogether because they were unable to reconcile their doubts and beliefs. This is the great danger of a ‘closed’ belief system that will brook no questioning.
I hope in future posts to be able to discuss some of these issues – but in the meantime can I encourage you, if and when you face similar challenges, please research for yourself the alternative views and opinions of those who have struggled with them before you – and examine what other traditions teach about them in order that you can become persuaded in your own mind.
I was thinking as I was writing this – I would rather spend time in the company of an open minded person others might consider a heretic than a smug, dogmatic, theologian who believed he had all the answers and judged others from the throne of his pride. Personally, I don’t think we will ever have, in this life anyway, all the answers! But I can live with that and, after all, the road we walk is called the life of faith.
(1) I find it very interesting to note that Hank Hanegraaff, the well known Protestant, Evangelical Christian author and US radio talk-show known as ‘Bible Answer Man’, joined the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2017.
(2) Just last night I listened to a recent discussion on John MacDonald and CS Lewis between two of the foremost ‘Reformed’ theologians in the USA. One categorically stated he did not believe MacDonald was a Christian all – so, according to his theology, MacDonald will spend eternity in hell. I just hope the same man is not on duty at the doors of heaven when I knock!