Recently religion columnist Jonathan Merritt complained about the evangelical “aristocracy” disapproving popular blogger Jen Hatmaker, who is from an evangelical background, for liberalizing her views on same-sex marriage.
Evangelical critics on the blogosphere were presumptuous to challenge her evangelical bonafides, Merritt wrote. After all, who are they? And Hatmaker hadn’t dissented from the Apostles’ Creed, the benchmark of Christian orthodoxy. Merritt evidently doesn’t believe orthodoxy entails affirming only male-female marriage.
To the first point, who are they indeed. Evangelicalism and Protestantism, unlike Roman Catholicism, have no historic majesterium that authoritatively defines the boundaries of orthodoxy. Sometimes denominations, or congregations, strive to enforce doctrinal standards with varying degrees of success.
But from the start, the Protestant project has been a 500 year old ongoing polemic. Alec Lurie’s wonderful new history, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World, describes the creative and sometimes destructive chaos of the early reformers. Only from a distance can we see the continuity of their thought and purpose. At the time the Reformation often appeared to be a maelstrom of disagreeable disagreement.
It was great for the nascent publishing industry. Europe’s printing presses in the 1500s, churning out endless works by Luther and Calvin, and by their critics, were like the wildest aspects of today’s blogosphere. The rhetorical wars of the Reformers have continued unabated. Protestantism is about challenge and debate. Errors in doctrine and practice, absent the tools of ecclesial enforcement, are chided with robust and often heated argument.
This unending public quarrel within historic Protestantism and modern Evangelicalism sometimes lacks decorum. But it also is key to the spiritual energy and organizing genius that has driven this movement originated by an obscure German monk to include about one-eighth of humanity. Protestantism’s ongoing penchant for debate, premised on the assumption of knowable truth, has arguably contributed much of what we appreciate in the free and wealthy societies of modern civilization.
Evangelical bloggers who vigorously pointed out that Hatmaker’s dissent from historic Christian teaching about marriage undermined her evangelical credibility were continuing a half millennium tradition of public challenge. There is no Protestant ecclesial authority that can deprive her or anybody of ability to speak and dissent. Rhetorically, she and her allies can fire back, as they have. Let the debate continue, and let readers decide which message is more faithful to the Gospel.
Merritt’s second point that Hatmaker’s support for same-sex marriage doesn’t undermine her orthodoxy as defined by the Apostles’ Creed is an increasingly common argument. It represents a tremendous vindication for the Apostles’ Creed! Protestant liberalism for much of the last century mocked, minimized, deconstructed, and metaphorized the Creed ostensibly to preserve Christianity in the new modern age for which supernaturalism was unacceptable. Most participants in that mostly failed project are now deceased or elderly.
Postmodern Christian liberalism comfortably affirms the creed while often disputing that apostolic theology is accompanied by binding apostolic morals and behavior, centered on a particular view of the human person and human body. Ironically, the old Protestant liberalism retained much of Christian morality even while emasculating the supportive theological architecture. God and the heavenly host must laugh at this ongoing game of rotating chairs among reputedly earthly saints.
Protestant reformers and most of their descendants, with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, have agreed the church’s theology is inseparable from right behavior. And they have agreed there is a universal church, founded by Christ, united by a common continuous core teaching, which includes marriage as male-female, emblemized by Christ the bridegroom and the Church as His eternal bride. This teaching is rooted in creation and redemption, confirmed in eschatology.
Jen Hatmaker, thanks partly to the open modern society Protestantism helped create, can espouse any belief she chooses. Her views on marriage currently align her with elite opinion in Western culture and against the continuous witness of the universal church. The polemics of course will continue until superseded by other challenges. God and history, which is His instrument, will decide the right cause.