Late one evening, shortly after Christmas 1992, I walked into my parent’s bedroom. My father was taking a shower, but my mom was in bed reading. I’d been working up the nerve for this moment for weeks. I almost chickened out. But no, there I was. Unfortunately, the well-rehearsed statement I wanted to make to my mother escaped me in the anxiety of the moment. I’d carefully weighed my words and selected the best turns of phrase, and now they were gone. Instead, what came out was this:
‘I think I have to be a Protestant.’
That night was followed by years of me trying to discern God’s nature and will from the Bible. My commitment to doing what this God required, in response to the free grace I believed I’d received from him, led me from the Roman Catholic Church to the Presbyterian Church (USA), then to a nondenominational community church and on to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). While a member of the community church but away at college, I was baptized by immersion. It was during my time at Bible college that I got in with the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Then with my transfer to Harding University, I established a connection with the a cappella Churches of Christ that stayed with me until only a couple of years ago.
When ultimately my study of the Bible, familiarity with science and observation of reality showed me that the ancient tales of supernatural intervention are myth and legend, my faith ended. It took over 20 years, but I got there. Through it all, I followed my conscience. For this reason, and despite the fact that I’m now a Humanist, I can still consider myself a Protestant. If I’ve understood Richard Beck correctly, he and I may be on the same page:
Protestantism was created when Martin Luther was asked to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms, asked to submit to the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church. There Luther famously declared: “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand I can do no other.”
That’s Protestantism. The elevation of the individual’s conscience over the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church.
Many Protestants say they are are following Scripture alone, and sincerely mean it. I certainly did. What they fail to recognize is that they are really following their conscience above all else. This conscience can at times find itself at odds with a difficult situation, an archaic and violent passage of Scripture, the desire for acceptance by others, and any number of other factors. The Bible is a library of books and letters which, despite some careful redacting, contains many voices that are not always in harmony with one another.
Ultimately, the Protestant follows her conscience.
I’ve known (and myself been) the sort of Protestant who talks about following Jesus more than the Bible. The argument is that Jesus is the true Word of God. As the sun differs from the moon, so the Son of God is superior to the moon. The latter merely reflects the light of the first, and imperfectly so.
This sort of approach is, to my estimation, utterly meaningless. If the Bible is not 100% factually trustworthy about Jesus of Nazareth, what is the believer’s source of information for understanding him? Warm feelings, good vibrations, personal revelation or simple wishful thinking? People follow their idea of Jesus, and not the man himself.
h/t James F. McGrath