About the Blog
This BLOG is called “Soul Device” because it sounds wicked cool, but it’s just me, Doug Beaumont, and my thoughts on theology, philosophy, apologetics, and other fun things.
About the Blogger
I am an existing material/immaterial hylomorphic substance with growth, reproductive, mobility, sensory, and rational intellectual capacities. I work as a low-level IT guy and an adjunct professor (here is my CV) and am pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology at North West University. I am a writer, speaker, ordained minister, armchair philosopher, back seat theologian, and all around righteous dude. I have a wonderful family, great friends, and some quality enemies.
. . . And Even More About the Blogger
Since you are still reading I feel I can safely assume that you find me fascinating and want more to read. So I will continue with a 4,500 word essay on my beliefs. What follows is no grand theological treatise – it’s just about me and my thoughts, so feel free to stop reading if that’s not interesting to you (I won’t be offended). If you do read on, note that since I have tried to cover all the major bases, there’s a lot here. So also feel free to skip to areas of interest – but please read the conclusion in any case.
What I Am / Am Not: A Mere Christian
“Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.”
Although it is an attractive position, I will not weasel out and claim to be a “mere Christian” or “just someone who loves Jesus.” While true in many ways, the connotations of such statements are problematic. No one “just loves Jesus” without having some idea of who Jesus is and what it means to love him; further (pace Lewis), even those on the “mere Christian” fence have at least made their best guess as to where to balance. Perhaps “merely orthodox” is more appropriate – for what I am is a Christian who is committed to the historic Christian faith as communicated in the biblical canon and defined by the united Church in the ecumenical creeds.
This does not, of course, solve all theological difficulties. I have heard the proposal of Lancelot Andrewes that Christian unity is found in “One Bible, Two Testaments, Three Creeds, Four Councils, and Five Centuries.” The problem with this formulation is that the Church had seven ecumenical councils and remained united for nearly ten centuries. This “consensual ecumenism” or “paleo-orthodoxy” (as Thomas Oden calls it) is perhaps best (and most idealistically) expressed by Vincent of Lerins: ”that which has been believed in every place, in every time, by everyone” (the quote in Latin above). The issue then becomes one of discovering who counts as “everyone.”
So, depending on what one means by the label, I am / am not a mere Christian. That said, I will now discuss, in greater detail than probably anyone will ever care to read, my current thoughts (subject to revision and clarification) on the following:
- Roman Catholicism
- Eastern Orthodoxy
What I Am / Am Not: Evangelical
For most of my Christian life I have called myself “an evangelical” in order to indicate my fidelity to conservative, non-denominational Christianity. I owe a lot to previous churches, para-church ministries, and I am extremely grateful for what I have learned at my Evangelical seminary. At the same time, for well over a decade I have also been fairly critical of the Evangelical movement as a whole. I won’t rehearse the various issues that prompted these criticisms – you can find them scatted around this BLOG if you are interested.
I do wish to highlight the fact that it is a logical fallacy to confuse criticism of a view with its denial. Being critical of some view or facet of a view is not equivalent to its wholesale denial. For example, Americans can be extremely critical of the direction America is going, or the state that it is in, without being traitors. In fact, it is often the most patriotic Americans that are the most critical! Similar cases could be easily multiplied. So, simply because I am critical of Evangelicalism that does not mean that I deny it as a legitimate viewpoint.
Concerning viewpoints, whenever suffixes like “ist” or “ism” are appended to a term, it often reflects an alteration of the root word’s meaning. For example, “rationalism” is not simply the state of being rational; rather, it is a philosophical stance that elevates human intellectual activity to the point of being the sole authority in matters of truth. A rationalist is one who affirms rationalism. So one can be rational without being a rationalist or a follower of rationalism. I think the term “Evangelicalism” represents another case where the root term is not necessarily reflected very well in the movement. While “evangelical” could simply mean “pertaining to the gospel,” the word “Evangelicalism” usually refers (in the West, at least) to a popular, quasi-Protestant movement that usually mimics Baptist theology but wants to avoid any icky Fundamentalist overtones. I argue that one can be evangelical without being “an Evangelical” (i.e., a member of Evangelicalism).
The problem, then, is how to speak of those within the popular movement as distinct from those who simply hold to whatever set of Evangelicalism’s definitive marks one adopts. I have suggested that since we use the word “Evangelicalism” we should also use the term “Evangelicalist.” For, just as a rational person is not necessarily a rationalist (i.e., a follower of rationalism), an evangelical Christian is not necessarily an Evangelicalist. (Interestingly, Baptists have the exact opposite problem as Evangelicals – being “a Baptist” does not make one part of a movement known as “Baptism”!)
But even if we adopt the term “Evangelicalist,” the issue is not easily solved. The “Evangelical Movement” is, in reality, very difficult to pin down. Bebbington famously lists four marks of Evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism; but this seems too broad – for many mainline Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox could be said to fall into those categories, although most Evangelicals would not agree to their inclusion. Further, Evangelicalism is rarely referenced (outside of the more precision-oriented literature) according to these criteria. Often it is Evangelicalism’s political, social, and cultural features that set it apart from not only the unbelieving world, but also from other Christians.
The same considerations that make Evangelicalism difficult to define also makes “evangelicals” difficult to define. I, for example, do not partake of much that cultural Evangelicalism has to offer. The Christian entertainment industry (e.g., “Christian music,” “Christian movies,” or much of anything sold in “Christian Bookstores”) has little effect on my life. I do not attend a “non-denominational” church. I do not think that witnessing is limited to confrontational gospel preaching. These sorts of things remove me from membership in popular Evangelicalism, but not from being evangelical (which I am, per Bebbington’s criteria). The same considerations would apply, mutatis mutandis, to other groups to the degree that they imitate or descend from Evangelicalism – such as those within the Charismatic Movement such as Pentecostalism, Four Square, Assemblies of God, etc.
Thus, depending on the terminology adopted, I am / am not an evangelical / Evangelicalist. (Sorry for the confusion – but it’s not my fault that the term hasn’t caught on yet!).
What I Am / Am Not: Catholic
Before moving into considerations of the system of Roman Catholicism, we have some etymological issues here. The word “catholic” means something like “universal.” This is why traditional Protestants can recite the Nicene Creed which affirms “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” without feeling guilty. So, to be a member of the “catholic church” could simply refer to one who is a member of the body of Christ, regardless of where the individual has church membership. Often today, however, when someone hears “catholic” they consider it shorthand for “Roman Catholic.” A similar issue results from the difference between being “orthodox” and being [Eastern] “Orthodox.” So keep in mind that a claim to be [small-c] catholic or [small-o] orthodox is not to claim membership in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. [NOTE: from now on I am just going to use capital-C “Catholic” instead of typing “Roman” every time.]
Now, as indicated by some of the comments on this website from some Catholic readers, a lot of what I have written is in agreement with their positions. Some of my friends have found Catholicism to provides, at least in theory, solutions to many of Evangelicalism’s looming problems (disunity, subjectivism, lack of historical rootedness, etc). That, plus the fact that I am critical of many features of Evangelicalism, seems to lead many to conclude that I am, or will shortly become, Catholic. The potentially confusing result is that I have some people asking why I haven’t become catholic yet, and, at the same time, others attacking me for becoming Catholic. So it is to this question that I now turn.
However, just as it is a logical fallacy to confuse criticism of one view with its denial, it is also fallacious to confuse criticism of one view with the affirmation of one of its contraries. In this case it is important to realize that while Evangelicalism is often contrary to Catholicism, it is not necessarily contradictory (I can work this out on the Square of Opposition if I must!). Thus, it is not the case that denying one is equivalent to affirming the other. For example, my Ford is, much to my chagrin, a non-Porsche. But so was my former car (a Toyota). Now, criticizing my Ford’s lack of pep is not an automatic endorsement of Porsche, for there are other non-Fords out there besides Porsches (e.g., my Toyota – which was quite peppy!). In the same way, criticism of Evangelicalism does not equate to a promotion of Catholicism. Only when there are two – and only two – opposing options does a contradiction arise.
Thus, affirmation of a doctrine to which a group holds is not an automatic affirmation of that group. Because there is overlap in the beliefs of many different groups, endorsement of a common feature cannot be equated to endorsement of any one view. Now, it is clear that many non-Catholic Christian groups embrace doctrines and practices held in common with Catholicism, but which are not limited to it (such as the Trinity or the Incarnation of Christ). It should be obvious that affirming the Trinity is not tantamount to affirmation of Catholicism – and it is the same with any other overlapping doctrines.
Further, several non-Catholic groups hold non-Evangelical views in common with each other as well (the real presence of Christ in Communion, non-symbolic-only views of Baptism, the authoritative status of ecumenical creeds/councils, etc.). So to promote any of these views is not to be equated with promotion of Catholicism either, because they are common to non-Catholic groups. (To give a recent personal example, I had one person complain that I was too Roman Catholic because I was giving up coffee for Lent. Such a blunder would appear ludicrous to the majority of Christians in the world.) It is, therefore, only affirmations of positions that are found only in Catholicism (such as papal infallibility, Mary’s immaculate conception, or the authoritative status of Rome’s last 14 church councils) that should be taken as affirmation of Catholicism itself.
In my experience, this distinction can be a problem for both Evangelicals and Catholics. Most Evangelicals are quite clear that they are non-Catholic, but often seem to forget that they are also non-Orthodox, non-Anglican, and in some senses non-Protestant (see below). Thus, when an issue like infant baptism arises, they cannot see past the fact that Catholics baptize infants, and end up considering the two as equivalent. Many Catholics, too, do not see past these commonly accepted positions either, and so see any support for them as support for their own views. But again, while affirmation of infant baptism does indirectly affirm Catholicism (just as affirmation of the Trinity does), it also indirectly supports the majority view of Christianity throughout history and today. Thus, affirming Christ’s presence in communion is really no more a support for Catholicism than it is Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, or most classical Protestant groups. (Similar theological positions include infant baptism, liturgical worship, an episcopal hierarchy, etc.)
Now, I have made no secret of the fact that I have embraced some of the positions held by the early Church which are not often held within Evangelicalism. Some of them are, of course, held by Catholics as well. But one does not become a good Catholic by picking and choosing from among Rome’s dogmas like food in a cafeteria. Thus, while I affirm dogmas of the traditional church which Roman Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the majority of Protestantism) also affirms, I have not embraced those dogmas that only Roman Catholicism teaches. Therefore, while I may be “catholic” in the creedal sense of “universal,” I am not Roman Catholic.
What I Am / Am Not: Orthodox
Before looking into Eastern Orthodoxy, once again an etymological issue needs to be quickly cleared up. The word “orthodox” refers to a belief or person who is in line with the standard of some group. In Christianity, this standard has generally been understood to be the Nicene Creed. In any case, when the great schism occurred near the beginning of the second millennium, the Church (which, at the time, was both catholic and orthodox) split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Thus, one can be orthodox without being Orthodox. [NOTE: Similar to the "catholic" / "Catholic" distinction used above, I am just going to use capital-O “Orthodox” instead of typing “Eastern” (or “Oriental,” or “Armenian,” or “Coptic,” etc.) every time.]
For one who embraces the teachings of the orthodox historic Christian faith, but is concerned over developments in later traditions, Eastern Orthodoxy would seem to be a good fit. Not only are the doctrinal requirements to become Orthodox less detailed, the Orthodox do not have to answer for the Crusades, the Inquisition, problematic Popes, or the divisions resulting from the Reformation. Plus, Orthodoxy has not succumbed to the modernistic trends plaguing the western church, and their liturgical worship is undeniably beautiful. However, I have issues which keep me from being able to make the leap here too. In the interest of space, I won’t rehearse any overlapping concerns that Orthodoxy shares with Catholicism, but simply focus on issues which make Orthodoxy distinct from both Catholicism and Evangelicalism.
First, Orthodoxy has only the seven ecumenical councils as their source for defined dogma. The good news is that there is a wider array of belief options available to the Orthodox believer, but it also means that new issues are more difficult to deal with definitively. Thus, while Orthodoxy does not suffer from many problematic developments, it can also seem to suffer from being under-developed. Further, lack of agreement among the Orthodox hierarchy cannot be resolved by a higher principle of unity (which, the Orthodox could respond, also makes it more difficult to fall into error!). So there is that to deal with.
Second, there does not seem to be as much for Orthodox scholars to do as for those in Western traditions. For better or worse, an academic life is the course I have attempted to follow, and while Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Universities and Seminaries abound, there are not as many academic opportunities in Orthodoxy as such. On a related note, the East also tends toward a far more “mystical” bent when it comes to theology than the West. For one raised in a Western Christian tradition (both theologically and philosophically), it would be a difficult transition.
Third, there is a serious (and generally acknowledged) lack of western cultural involvement within Orthodoxy. Being a recent transplant to the USA, most Orthodox communities remain bound up in the culture from which they came (e.g., while the worship in a Russian Orthodox Church and a Greek Orthodox Church may not differ formally, it will differ materially – at least in language). Since there is not much of an “American Orthodoxy” yet, it is often simply seen as “odd” that an American would even want to become Orthodox, because each Greek/Russian/fill-in-the-geographic-blank Orthodox Church is so culturally locked.
All of this, plus any aforementioned “Catholic overlap issues” make Orthodoxy a tough sell. Thus, I am / am not orthodox / Orthodox.
What I Am / Am Not: Protestant
It may come as a shock to hear this, but although I’ve never been Catholic or Orthodox, I have also never been Protestant. This is another one of those areas where labels become confusing. A Protestant is, technically, one of the continental groups that (rightly) protested the corruptions of the medieval Catholic Church in the 16th Century. So Lutherans, Presbyterians, and some Reformed groups are most properly classified as Protestants. Groups coming from the Radical Reformation (i.e., Anabaptist) are not really Protestant, because they did not have their origin in the Reformation proper (in fact, many Protestants actually persecuted the Anabaptists). And then there is the English Reformation which birthed Anglicanism (which, in turn, gave rise to Methodism). It began in England due to more personal and political reasons than doctrinal. For these reasons I will discuss these groups separately.
Protestantism arose, as many Catholics admit, for legitimate reasons and produced some fine theologians, preachers, and teachers. But, as many Protestants admit, the Reformation principles that might have served to heal the Church’s wounds, ended up (unnecessarily, I think) causing even more of them. Thus, the first problem with “becoming Protestant” is that there is no Protestant Church – only churches grouped into denominations within the Protestant category. So, to be Protestant one must now choose from among a bewildering variety of Protestant denominations. To do so, one must not only grapple with all the issues that distinguish the major denominations, every major Protestant denomination is itself sub-divided into various groups split across the conservative-liberal spectrum. These sub-denominations often share little more between them than their title or governing principles. So being Protestant is not as easy as one might think!
A related issue is that these Protestant denominations usually require agreement with detailed theological statements for membership. My issue here is that if I am going to be held to some dogmatic statement of faith or creed, I would need it to be trustworthy to a very high degree. This seems more easily argued in the case of the early ecumenical creeds than post-15th Century confessions, because if the Reformation was about getting the Church back to its truest expression (i.e., its state prior to the errors of the medieval period), why not just fall back on the creeds of the early, united Church? The answer seems to be that these individual Protestant denominations not only wish to correct medieval Catholicism, but also to add to / change the dogmas of the ecumenical Church. To do so seems to me to introduce some difficulties (that I have written on elsewhere) which are made all the more difficult by the fact that these individual denominations do not agree among themselves on which changes are “truest.”
The solutions to the above issues that are offered by many Protestant groups often only seem to reintroduce the issues inherent in a Catholic or Orthodox system – but without an ecclesiology that can support them a (hence the denominational splits). The problems with Protestantism are basically the same problems within Evangelicalism simply dialed back a step – which does not seem worth the energy to attempt to embrace or fix. But even if these objective obstacles were removed, both my philosophical and theological backgrounds would keep me from being able to affirm the details of most Protestant theological systems. Theologically I do not fit neatly into typical presentations of Calvinism, Arminianism, or Covenant Theology, for example. And the philosophy that undergirds my theology is Aristotelian and Thomistic. This would not work well with most Protestant denominations which tend toward Nominalism and Kantianism.
So although I am not Catholic or Orthodox, I also am / am not Protestant.
What I Am / Am Not: Baptist
Closely related to (and often indistinguishable from) Evangelicalism is the Baptist movements. My Christian upbringing has been primarily Baptist (depending on the acceptable usage range of that term between “Fundamentalist” and “Evangelical”). I was saved in a generic Evangelical ministry, and spent most of the first two decades of my Christian life at either non-denominational Evangelical churches like Calvary Chapel (which is, ironically, far more “denominational” than most denominational churches!), or with various Baptist churches and para-church ministries. In fact, I am an ordained Baptist minister.
So it will probably come as no surprise that I do not have a lot of technical theological issues with Baptists in general, primarily because they are pretty simplistic when it comes to dogma which leaves (again, technically), a wide latitude for personal beliefs. It could be argued that there is hardly anything distinctly dogmatic about Baptists except that one must legitimately profess faith before being baptized. I am not saying this pejoratively – it is simply that because of the Baptist emphasis on individual ability and responsibility with regard to doctrine (“soul sufficiency”), distrust of universally binding creeds, and their firm commitment to avoiding ecclesiastical hierarchy above the local church level, there is quite a bit of variety among Baptists.
The wide theological path that Baptists may walk is generally limited, however, to Baptists–in –General. Once one enters a particular Baptist Church (pun intended), it is a different story. This is why there can be a Baptist Church on every block of a given city – the real distinctions between them are many.
So why not land here and be done with it? Well, the basic reason I cannot be a good Baptist is that I do not hold to adult-believer-only baptism. I explain why more thoroughly elsewhere, but suffice it to say that I see baptism as the act by which one enters the New Covenant Church (much like how circumcision functioned in Old Covenant Israel). Thus, baptism need not be restricted to the professing Christian faithful (much like how circumcision was not limited to professing and faithful Israelites). [GEEKY THEOLOGICAL NOTE: As indicated in the article referenced above, I do not see this as a Covenant vs. Dispensational issue.]
Now, along with Baptists, I do not believe that baptism is salvific any more than any act is salvific apart from faith (yet again, much like how circumcision did not save unfaithful Israelites). And, although I think that baptism ought to be denied to those who refuse to believe, I do not think that the corollary is that baptism should be denied to those who cannot believe, or to those we are unsure about (e.g., babies or the mentally disabled). So, while I agree with the Baptist affirmation of adult-believer baptism, I do not agree with its limit.
Other disagreements I have over church hierarchy and worship styles could fall into the “willing to agreeably disagree” category (and Baptists do not necessarily agree on the details of these issues either), but, since the Baptist view of baptism is practically the only unique doctrinal requirement to be a good Baptist – and although I personally do not make a big deal about it – this alone would keep me from being able to minister or work as a member of most Baptist churches. Thus it seems that I am / am not Baptist.
What I Am / Am Not: Anglican
That leaves Anglicanism, which I saved for last because at this time my family attends an Anglican church. We have not, however, gone through any induction ceremony or anything like that (nor does our church require doing so for membership). Since we have made this choice, some explanation is in order.
First (once again!) a note of terminological clarification. The word “Episcopalian” used to simply indicate the “American Anglican” denomination. Today, however, many communities – including ours – have sought to dissociate themselves from Episcopalianism due to moral and doctrinal disagreements. Many churches have thus adopted the more generic label of “Anglican” to indicate both their separation from the liberal Episcopal churches and their communion with world-wide Anglicanism. That is how I am using the word here.
OK, so why an Anglican church? Simply put, it fits where I am right now. My appreciation for the early church precludes me from unequivocally affirming anything that is against its teachings, yet I remain open to the many views that go beyond them. This openness also prohibits me from claiming to hold firmly and exclusively to some of the particular beliefs required by some modern churches for membership. The Anglican doctrinal ideal is that one must hold to, or at least respect, the ecumenical creeds and councils but few additional details. So, while often Reformed in its doctrine, Anglicanism gives a lot of latitude with regard to the Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox spectrum. Yes, it has the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book – but these are usually seen more as helpful guides than established dogma.
I am, of course, well aware of problems caused by this openness, which has been said to be both Anglicanism’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Anglicanism is both criticized and applauded (depending on one’s preference) for its broad range of accepted doctrines and practices. In seeking their admirable goal of unity, Anglicanism has basically institutionalized the very problems that divide most other Christian groups. While such a system can work out for the good, doctrinal and moral orthodoxy has, unfortunately, become accidental to being Anglican in many circles. The alleged essential (holding to the orthodox creeds and councils) cannot guarantee a position on many other issues, whether theological or moral.
Despite Anglicanism’s goal of unity in essentials and charity in non-essentials, issues of doctrine and practice have indeed resulted in numerous divisions and splits. Further, it is not simply the particulars of the cases that are causes for concern. Lacking a binding, universal authority structure, Anglicanism has no way, even theoretically, to guarantee that these issues can ever be firmly and resolved. And the Anglican ideal of unification fails in more than one way. While the Anglicanism family tree is nearly as complicated as Protestantism’s, Anglican churches can divide along virtually any line and still remain “in communion.” The result is that to say, “I am Anglican,” is not to say much. One may be Anglican and be either extremely conservative (doctrinally and/or morally) or extremely liberal (doctrinally and/or morally).
For me to become 100% on board the above issues would have to be solved, and I doubt they will be. So, while I have been attending Anglican churches for the last couple of years, I am not, technically, Anglican. (Or maybe I am . . . it’s hard to say sometimes!)
Given all of the disagreements mentioned above, I question the legitimate level of certainty a Christian should claim on doctrines that go beyond the “mere orthodoxy” I suggested at the beginning. Although one cannot remain agnostic on all secondary issues forever, I think that a “gradated dogmatism” is certainly called for in light of the repeated experience of the Church. Avoiding dogmatism, however, does not mean avoiding agreement. Dogmatism is more of an attitude with regard to what one thinks is true. My background in apologetics has confirmed a spirit of overconfidence and arrogance in many circles which does not help either party in a debate. But if a given view was so airtight that no legitimate questions remained concerning it, then there would not be other positions to consider. Therefore, I make a conscious effort to fight the tendency toward dogmatism on secondary issues when I see it in myself or others.
All That to Say This: I am sure of what I am sure of, and I will fight for those things as best I can. I am also sure of what I am unsure of, and I will continue to investigate those things as fairly as possible whether I have taken a position on them or not.