Let's just be completely perspicuous: evangelicalism is doomed.

It's leaders sense it. It's adherents feel it, uneasily. Everyone looking at it from the outside fully acknowledges it.

The most pitiable fact, however, is that evangelical's fatal wound is entirely self-inflicted. It's arsenic? Sola Scripura.

Why, the inquisitive reader may ask, is sola Scripture so deadly? The answer is quite simple, yet quite terrifying.

Sola Scriptura, in its simplest and most consistent form, is a presupposition that the Christian Scriptures are not only sufficient for determining divine truth, but moreover that they are exclusively privy to this role. Therefore, any other potential sources of authority–such as Christian tradition, historical theology, and even the creeds and councils of the ecumenical Church–while potentially useful in "expounding on the truth already present sufficiently in Scripture," are fundamentlly adiaphora–unessential to faith, right belief, and Christian praxis.

Obviously, one might question why this is a problem. After all, the Scriptures are obviously a crucial and irreplacable source of authority within the life of the Church. Should they not be given the primal and exclusive place of authority? The answer will depend upon how much one cares about the survival of the Christian Church.

Historically, the ecumenical church did not hold to sola Scriptura, despite the poor scholarship and misrepresntative claims of some modern Protestants thinkers. As a very brief and elementary review of the historical crises which rocked the ecumenical church will reveal, it was the apostolic tradition of the Church–that is, the Scriptures and tradition in inseparable tandem–that guided the early thinkers and leaders through the theological landmines of the early centuries.

Take the formation of the canon, for example. While it is unmistakably clear that there existed–quite early–a sort of "proto-canon" that was widely accepted by most of the churches of the first several centuries following the apostles, it is well established that the final, definitive framing of the NT canon was not completed until well into the fourth century. Up until the final conciliar determination, controversy still surrounded several of the lesser letters of the NT, their legitimacy not being determined ecumneically until the pronouncement of the councils, with many quite popular works being finally excluded.

The immediate question, then, is how the church was able to function and successfully navigate the theological landmines of the earliest centuries (gnosticism, Arianism, Apollonarianism, etc.) without the complete canon of Scriptures which Protestants understand to be the "sufficient and exclusive" source of theological authority for the Church? That is, if the canon was not fully formed until the fourth century, upon which authority were they relying in the meantime?

The answer, written across the pages of all the major thinkers of that time, was quite simple: the apostolic tradition. While the Scriptures (here understood in a non-canonical sense) certainly held a central and incredibly important part in the formation of doctrine and right belief, the ancient writers clearly understood that a grander tradition was undergirding the Scriptures and the development of the church, a tradition which had not only given rise to the writing of the Scriptures, but also preserved its meaning and authority through the succession of apostolic authority in the bishopric.

Another example will help to clarify this even more. Consider the Arian controversy. In the fourth century, a charismatic Egyptian bishop gained immense popularity among the masses of Christians. The only problem was that this bishop–Arius–taught that Christ was not consubstantial in nature with God (per the later ecumenical determination), but rather that "there was a time when he was not," that Christ was but the apex of God's creative work. As to his divinity, Arius taught that Christ, though created, was divinized and was made through his glorification to become in grace what God was in nature.

The particularly interesting part of Arius' teaching, however, is that it was based nearly exclusively upon the Scriptures. Of particular use to Arius were Jesus' words of subordination to the Father, that "the Father is greater than I." Arius also made effective use of the Jewish Schema, arguing that to posit consubstantiality in Godhead between the Father and Christ would be to divide the Oneness of the divinity, a conclusion clearly in contrast to the unity and simplicity of the "Unoriginate."

As well documented in the history, the story goes that the Arians' teachings eventually led to a crisis in the life of the Church, compelling Emporer Constantine to convene the Council at Nicaea in order for the church to arrive at a definitive conclusion on the issue of Christ's divinity once and for all.
What is of most interest, however, is the means by which Arius and his followers were overcome. While Bishop Alexander and others proferred the obligatory contra proof-texts ("I and the Father are one", etc.), it became immediately clear that the issue could not be resolved on the basis of the biblical texts, for it was the force and biblical-orientation of Arius's interpretations that had created the crisis in the first place. How, then, did the ecumencial church finally arrive at a solution?

As before, an appeal was made to the apostolic tradition. Simplistically stated, the victorious orthodoxy was that which was consistent with the tradition of interpretation that had been passed on from the apostles and preserved within the succession of bishops. This appeal was finally compelling for the primal reason that it cohered with the historical interpretation of the Church concerning Christ's divinity and consubstantiality in Godhead with the Father. Though forcefully and exclusively based upon the Scriptures, Arius' "biblical" argument was ultimately rejected because it lacked a substantive tradition behind it. Again, while it was certainly impressive and internally consistent from a purely interpretive standpoint (as nearly any interpretation can be), Arius' interpretation itself was rejected because it was not consistent with the apostolic tradition of the church, the interpretive matrix handed down from the apostles through the bishops.

Okay, so back to the original topic–what does a bunch of dead, fourth century bishops and presbytrs and their arguments about the divinity of Christ have to do with the doom of evangelicalism? I will tell you.

As noted earlier, the primal and defining tenant of evangelicalism is sola Scriptura, the sufficiency and exclusivity of the Scriptures for authority in Christian faith and right belief. However, as the reader has probably by now realized, this methodological assumptions bears a number of disturbing similarities to the Arian dilemma.

That is, once the Scriptures are divorced from the stream of historical theology and apostolic tradition, there is no sense in which they retain any authority. This is a bold claim, of course, but it is self-evident. As any peice of literature requires interpretation, any act of interpretation will indelibly engage the personal subjectivities of the individual interpreter. While the presuppositions of the interpreter can, to greater or lesser degrees, be self-critically regulated, there is no way in which they can be eliminated. That is, all interpretations will bear an indelible philosophical mark of their interpreters.

If sola Scriptura is to be countenanced in a consistent way, then, one must argue that there exists no value external to the authority of the Scriptures. But if this is asserted, one has in fact posited the forc
and authority
of Scripture within one's own person, for any attempt to extract a supposed "sufficient and exclusive" authority and meaning from the Scriptures will necessarily proceed through the personal subjectivities of the individual interpreter.

As has been borne out in the history of evangelicalism, such location of ultimate authority within the individual interpreter can only lead to division and dissention. As interpretations come into conflict and have no authority external to them by which the meaningfulness and force of each might be adjudicated, the modus operandi of the interpreter must be either capitulation to the hegemony of anothers' thought, or the exclusion and marginalization of all rival interpretations. As the interpretation of Scripture becomes more and more tenuous, so inversely becomes the closing of the mind and heart to others, for all energy must be expended to preserve the hegemony of interpretation. Inevitably, the force of interpretation will be subjected to claims of the superintending work of the "Spirit" in relation to the interpreter's conclusion, thus creating an even more devious and ultimately destructive distinction between the interpreter (who has the "Spirit") and his/her detractors (who must categorically not have the "Spirit").

More dangerous still is when this need for exclusivism and marginlalization is fused with an overly active extension of the meaning and authority of Scripture to the physical and social sciences. Although there exists no explicit impetus within historical theology for such an extension, modern interpretations of Scripture based upon the subjectivities of atomized, individuated interpreters tends to lead to extrodinarily foolish and intellectually destructive ends, interpretations that posit inappropriate and illlegitimate tension between the content of interpretation and the reality of the universe in which we live.

The end of such an interpretive approach, without question, will be self-destruction and the ruin of evangelicalism. Such is based not upon the inappropriate motives of its members by any means; quite to the contrary, many feel quite passionately about this methodology, believing themselves to be preserving a key tenant of the Christian faith. However, as such an interpretive framework is entirely divorced from the historical life of the Christian faith and its fundamental elements, the logical end is what is running rampant in evangelicalism today–the reversion into the heresies of old couched in the authority of sola Scriptura.

All is not lost, however. In the historic church, the faith of old, is preserved the teaching of Christ and of the apostles who learned of him, a faith and tradition that endure and in which the Scriptures find their only home and ultimate fulfillment. The historic church lives on, waiting ever patiently with open arms to enfold its brothers and sisters. The wrongs and differences of the past are past; the time is now for healing, restoration and reconciliation. Outside of her walls, evangelicalism will continue to hurtle rapidly toward its imminent dissolution. However, within her walls, it can be a source of quickening and rejuvenation, a new found energy for the realization of the kingdom of God on earth.

*** Obligatory Note ***

I fully realize that my characterization of evangelicalism is not accurately descriptive of all evangelicals. I have many intelligent and thoughtful evangelical friends and collegues for whom I have the utmost respect. So then, in this post, I am merely responding to the trend that I see within evangelicalism and have no intention of form fitting all who would classify themselves as "evangelical" into this mold.

*** /End Obligatory Note ***