Alec Ryrie’s “Protestants” — another uneasy moment

If you have put up with this blog long enough, you will have discovered that I go through times when I am uneasy about my Protestant identity but not convinced enough by the claims of the Orthodox to join them (let alone the Romish — I mean, Roman Catholics). Last week I finished off Alec Ryrie’s book Protestants, and it makes me uneasy once again.

First, though: I recommend this book. It is a look at the great love affair with God that Protestants have had over the last 500 years. Ryrie seeks to have sympathy for most of the weird, wonderful, beautiful, and bizarre characters and ideas that fill the page. The chapters on transatlantic slavery, Nazism, and apartheid are particularly powerful and uncomfortable because they show how Protestants were instrumental in the rise and fall of all three. On the subject of Nazis, he notes how few Germans resisted the regime and its ideology, and observes that if we had lived through what they had lived through, would we fare any better?

This sort of sympathy is not there to exonerate the guilty but rather to keep us off our high horses.

My favourite bits were about Luther, the English church from Henry VIII to the Methodists, and the chapter about Pentecostalism. Indeed, the Pentecostals were my favourite part of the twentieth century.

So what makes me uneasy?

As the book wound its way through the seventeenth century, I found myself being reminded of all the things I love and loathe about Protestantism. I tend to get fired up by the story of Martin Luther, whether played by Joseph Fiennes, or told from the perspective of print technology by Andrew Pettegree in Brand Luther, or wherever you meet the man. His story and his ideas make me love Protestantism. I also enjoy the English Reformation, of course.

But Protestantism is not so cut-and-dried. We may all have some family traits in common, and we may all cling to the words “justification by faith alone” (although we may also mean different things by them), but we are not all descendants of Luther. The ecclesiastical eruption that occurred because of him took many shapes even within his lifetime.

One of the by-products of the Protestant Reformation is the subjectiveness of the Christian faith now, coupled with the rise of individualism. For people like Luther to take a stand for conscience in the face of the machinery of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical power was heroic and maybe even necessary. But when combined with sola scriptura and the polysemous nature of textual meaning in the Bible, its results have been disastrous.

Who is Martin Luther to tell Zwingli that his interpretation of the Bible passages about the Eucharist is wrong? If it goes against Zwingli’s conscience to interpret Luther’s way and to celebrate Holy Communion in anything resembling the Roman Mass, who can stand in his way? And thus it goes, unsurprisingly producing not only Baptists and Methodists but Jehovah’s Witnesses and even Mormons as well.

We are an extraordinarily divided bunch of people, Protestants. Some say that the word is utterly meaningless these days.

Moreover, Protestants have had a harder time resisting the wider culture around us than our Orthodox and Catholic siblings. Sometimes, of course, Protestants were instrumental in shaping consensus — thus, after having had their wills bent to accept slavery, they would later be among the earliest, most prominent abolitionists. Yet behold the Nazis. Or consider the Anglophone mainline today and their stance on any ethical issue.

The hope that Ryrie does not express is that, as western society drifts farther away from Protestantism and secularism becomes more hostile to its roots in liberal Protestant religion, Protestants will find following western society less and less appealing.

Not that the Orthodox have never been seduced by secular cultural power. But in the West, because they are already the “other”, originating either as immigrants from Eastern Europe or indigenous Christians in the Arctic, they seem less prone to accepting western societal trends as norms for themselves. As an example, I read something by Frederica Mathewes-Green about the gay marriage debate and how she was slow to write on the subject because she felt American society had long ago already rejected traditional marriage from an Orthodox standpoint.

Anyway, what’s remarkable about our current Protestant moment is that even as statistics show that the more you give in to the wider culture the more likely you are to die as a church, much of the Anglican Church of Canada and United Church of Canada continue to pursue the path of accommodation that has been killing them.

And so do the evangelicals, they just don’t realise it yet — but Jesus of suburbia is a lie.

Anyway, I am about to read Archimandrite Sophrony’s book Saint Silouan. (I tend to alternate between East and West in my spiritual reading.) We’ll see where I stand when I’m done, right? For now —

Here I stand. I can do no other. 😉

Montanism and the Toronto Blessing

A friend of mine was once praying before an event with a woman from the Toronto Airport Church. They formed a huddle, as you do before a football game, and were praying. The lady said that the Holy Spirit was going to give them the gift of holy laughter. Now, this woman was … large and well-endowed. And as they prayed, she began to laugh. And as she laughed, she shook up and down, jostling and rubbing against the people on either side of her. They began laughing because it was, well, awkward and amusing. And so did the rest of the huddle.

There was no Holy Spirit in that laughter.

My other Toronto Airport Church story is about a friend who went to hear a visiting preacher there. The preacher got barely more than ten minutes in when the cacophony began — the holy laughter, the barking like dogs, the clucking like chickens, the rolling on the floor. The noise was so loud and disruptive that the preacher was unable to continue. My friend said that it moved across the auditorium from right to left, moving like a contagion.

People who are acquainted with the Toronto Airport Church and the Toronto Blessing, as well as others from the depths of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement, are always interested to discover the second-century group of Christians known as Montanists. The opponents of these charismatic manifestations tend to be equally pleased. The former group find legitimacy in Montanists while the latter proclaim that the Church has already dealt with this and moved on.

Our sources for Montanism are sparse. Many of them come from Tertullian, but using Tertullian as a source for Montanism is dangerous for a variety of reasons. First of all, his alleged ‘Montanist’ period is about fifty years after Montanus — is Tertullian’s experience and witness viable evidence for second-century Montanism? Second, he is in Carthage, not Phrygia — many of the rigorist elements common to Montanism are also popular in ‘mainstream’ North African Christianity. Third, he is idiosyncratic anyway; could some of his teachings attributed to Montanism be simply because he was a grumpy old man?

Our other main source is called ‘Anonymous’, for the obvious reason that we don’t know who wrote it. You can find the ‘Anonymous’ in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 5. ‘Anonymous’ was clearly writing about Montanism after the fact. It is also a hostile source. Some of what ‘Anonymous’ relates the author even admits may not be true. Furthermore, could not Eusebius have chosen those bits of ‘Anonymous’ that were best for his worldview? Could he not have consciously not introduced others that opposed him?

Third, we have the evidence of Epiphanius of Salamis, Cyprus. What can we say about him? Like Eusebius, he writes in the fourth century. As well, he has a habit of making up early heresies. This is not to say that Montanism never existed, but should cast some doubt about how reliable Epiphanius is as a source.

Nevertheless, what seems to be the case in Montanism is that people of any sort — women, the uneducated, people who are not priests — would be overcome by the Spirit. They would then, in the state of ecstasy, make utterances, some of them described as babbling, others of them prophetic. And unlike other prophets, they would speak in the first person as the Spirit, rather than, ‘The Spirit says …’

Here  are some purported Montanist sayings:

Behold a man is as a lyre, and I fly over it like a plectrum. The man sleeps and I remain awake. Behold it is the Lord that stirs the hearts of men, and gives men hearts. (Attrib. to Montanus by Epiphanius)

I am the Lord God Almighty, dwelling in man. It is neither angel nor ambassador, but I, God the Father, who am come. (Attrib. to Montanus by Epiphanius)

After me shall be no prophetess any more, but the consummation … (Attrib. to Maximilla by Epiphanius)

These are the sorts of things the opponents of Montanism passed down to posterity. You can see how they would make people uneasy. No doubt other things were uttered by the ‘Montanist’ prophets, things far less controversial. The official causes of their condemnation were these controversial types of utterances as well as the state of ecstasy in which the utterances were given.

Now, as we saw with St. Basil On the Holy Spirit, prophecy was an accepted reality in the ancient church. Thus, it is not prophesying that is the problem the authorities had. Their problem was, as I said, the ecstatic state. They maintained that true prophets would make their proclamations in their right minds after the ecstasy had passed. They also maintained that the prophet himself was never possessed by the Spirit him/her/itself, and so things like the above would be totally out of order. They also believed that the Spirit is a Spirit of order, not chaos; the inane babblings were not part of their vision of true prophecy.

Back to Toronto and such.

I grew up in the charismatic wing of Anglicanism. But we kept things tame on Sunday mornings. The Eucharist was the main event, but while we went up for Communion, you could go for prayer ministry at the side and pray in tongues and get slain in the Spirit and all of that. No problem. There was a woman in our congregation who would often geat words from the Lord. She would share them with my dad, the minister, and then he would share them with the congregation. Everything was done as St Paul recommends — orderly. But there was room for the Spirit.

I am not opposed to contemporary prophets or visions or people with rigorist disciplines or praying in tongues or being slain in the Spirit. But I cannot reconcile the events of Acts and the advice of the Pauline epistles with the sort of mayhem that is unleashed at the Toronto Airport Church. I will not go so far as to say that it is from the Devil, as some do and as Epiphanius and ‘Anonymous’ do about the Montanists. But I just don’t think that’s the way we were meant to use the gifts of the Spirit and offer worship unto God.