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Crying peace, peace, when there is no peace.

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Congregations in Protestant denomination are notorious for their diversity.

For example, both the Uniting Church in Australia and the Anglican Church host ministers and priests who are attached to some part of the spectrum between biblical fundamentalism (evangelicalism, I use the terms interchangeably) and liberalism. The difference between these two groups lies in how Scripture is read. While the evangelicals place emphasis on the bible being evidence that certain events actually occurred, liberals attempt to broker an understanding with modernity that would smooth the way into the Church. Nothing should be included in a worship service that could not easily be assimilated by the "man in the street".

Biblical fundamentalism has been described as Protestant Scholasticism because it mimics the logic chopping methods of Catholic Scholasticism only applied to biblical texts rather than canon law.


Both of these movements are "modern" in that fundamentalism adheres to a positivistic reading of Scripture that owes much to the epistemology of the natural sciences and liberalism seeks not to offend people whose world-view is conditioned by the same natural sciences. Liberalism conforms itself to the world that surrounds it and loses the sharpness of the gospel that would turn the world on its head. Fundamentalism insists on biblical exegesis that is provided by modernity itself.

Thus both fundamentalism and liberalism are responses to Enlightenment thought, fundamentalism being seduced by its insistence on evidence and liberalism attempting to avoid scientific censure by reducing everything to metaphor. They are both therefore contextual theologies that live under the shadow of modernity.

On the face of it, Church organisations have come to some kind of understanding that respects both sides and often ordains ministers and priests from both sides of theology meanwhile congratulating itself on its tolerance and acceptance of other views.

However, behind the façade of tolerance there exists a tribalism that splits the church in two. Since in Protestant denominations the selection of priests and ministers is largely in the hands of the congregation, liberal congregations remain liberal and fundamentalist remain fundamentalist. The lines are drawn so tight that members of one camp may never experience worship in the other. Thus the accusation that Protestantism is schismatic is, under the covers, true.

However, there is only one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church whose foundation is the life, work, death and resurrection of the one Lord Jesus Christ. There is a unity in the Church that has been fought for through the ages. This is the task given to the discipline of theology with its long conversation with heresy.

This is not to say that in an ideal world in which the Church is a unity, Christians would be identically orthodox. Geoff Thompson makes the point that "there is an indisputable theological foundation for the diversity of the church which finds its unity in the faith provoked by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus." We can point to a variety of theological traditions in which this is the case. However, there is a difference between this kind of diversity and "the rhetorical appeal to a more generic principle of unity-in-diversity used as a tool for managing that diversity in the midst of ecclesiastical conflict."


The danger here is that we give lip service to unity in the face of glaringly different theologies. The actual situation is that in private, there exists a great chasm, fixed.

The truth is that Protestant denominations are divided along fundamentalist and liberal lines, on how the bible is to be read, on the centrality of sacraments, on the source of morality and the Being of God.

This division is taken as the norm and anyone who protests that the Church be truly unified in its theology will receive the usual accusation of intolerance. It is obvious that we believe in tolerance more than we believe in unity.

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Quotations are from Geoff Thomson "Disturbing Much Disturbing many" Uniting Academic Press, Melbourne 2016.
Also Nicholas Lash "Theology on the Way to Emmaus" London SCM 1986.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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