Next year will mark 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Thesis to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Five centuries of Protestantism certainly gives us much to reflect on. What began as a call for reform within the Roman Catholic Church evolved into a new approach that abandoned the ancient traditions of the Church and called for a re-interpretation of Christianity based on the scripture alone – sola scriptura. The general idea, with variations, was that at some point in history the Church ran off the rails, and it was the duty of the reformers to restore Christianity to its ancient vitality. The strategy was simple, the Restorationist would just open the Bible and follow it to the letter; thus re-birthing lost Christianity. 45,000 plus denominations later the difficulties with such an approach is apparent.
Fr Moses Samaan writes “Martin Luther rebelled against the primacy of the Pope of Rome”, yet says that in the end made “everyone a pope instead, which led to even more division and confusion.” This is a startling evaluation, but one that seems to have merit. The Reformers took issue with Papal supremacy and challenged excesses and abuses they saw during their day; concerns that were not without substance. Yet their answer to placing ultimate authority into one individual was to essentially place that authority on the shoulders of each and every individual christian. The result has been nearly chaos. For every denomination claiming an essential belief on an issue, there is another that claims the total opposite. It is hard to contend that sola scriptura has been effective considering the results.
It is this Western conundrum that has driven many to a point of frustration that has caused some to abandon Christianity altogether. Western Christians are presented with two options, either one man who speaks for the entire Church or a wild-eyed theological free-for-all. Most are not aware of the “middle way” of Orthodoxy. That it is possible to hold to the scriptures while being guided by the wisdom of the Fathers. The Orthodox approach is really the antithesis to the Western approach, the Orthodox Church lives in the safety of the Fathers. Rather than the radical individualism of Protestantism or the supremacy of a single individual, the Orthodox way calls to the entire Church at all times to guide its teaching, faith and practice. The rule of faith and practice in the Orthodox Church is the Holy Spirit acting through the entire Church. Certainly the scriptures are an integral part of this, but one beautiful part of a living, vibrant body of faith. An Orthodox Christian reads the Bible in the light of those who have come before and is never alone in the scripture.
As we approach the five hundred year mark here in the “christian west” perhaps it is time to evaluate the results of this very long experiment. If we evaluate the evidence empirically which approach to the “rule of faith and practice” has fared better? The Papacy, every man a “little pope” or the college of the Fathers? Five centuries and 45,000 denominations – the message seems clear.