Christianities

I just picked up a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while, Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (the title is actually either misleading or polemical, since it’s really about protestantism’s dangerous idea), which is basically a survey of the history of Protestantism with an eye to its essential tenet: the scriptures are normative but there is no normative interpreter of scripture. McGrath argues in a few places (I’ve skimmed the intro, conclusion and some sections in the book) that the essence of Protestantism is not a particular doctrinal conclusion, but rather a method; in other words, the essence of Protestantism is not, as some might think, sola fide or some other doctrine, but sola scriptura.

It got me to thinking: I’m not sure that even all the groups that claim to be Protestant in some way could be summed up by this title. McGrath even admits as such in one place, where he notes that some Protestant groups (like some Anglicans), think of Christ as the norm, rather than scripture (like evangelicals).

If we categorize all the forms of Christianity available based on their methodologies, I think there are at least 6 varieties:

1. An institution is the final authority (Roman and Eastern Catholicism, whether Papal or Conciliarist in emphasis; possibly Eastern Orthodoxy; Anglo-Catholicism).

2. A group of documents is the final authority (evangelical protestantism and maybe post-liberalism (with varying amounts of Scripture affirmed as authoritative, from some to all); possibly Eastern Orthodoxy (with a larger group of documents)).

3. A mystical experience is the final authority (Barthianism; some forms of Anabaptism and Pentecostalism, some historical “heretical” groups, as well as some forms of liberalism).

4. A doctrine is the final authority (Lutheranism, at least in seed form; some forms of  liberalism, and maybe post-liberalism).

5. An ethos is the final authority (possibly Eastern Orthodoxy; some forms of liberalism, and maybe post-liberalism).

6. The judgment of the individual based on publicly acceptable (i.e., to secular thinkers) premises, data and logical laws is the final authority (some forms of liberalism).

Number 6 probably does not occur in its pure form very often since it is almost atheism, but I think the others are live and well. As well, I probably should come up with better names for the various kinds of liberalisms I’ve identified. If anyone has suggestions I’d be willing to correct these, I’m just not very creative and am obviously writing from my own experience.

It strikes me that at least most, if not all, of the major divisive debates in the church resolve to debates over which of these 6 options is correct. It should be noted that each of these perspectives might take the data of the others into account as data, but that they become mutually exclusive when considering the rule by which that data is judged.