How Far Can a Doctrine Change Before Becoming Something Else?

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[Preliminary Note 1: This paper was written in 1990 to be presented (as indeed it was) at the meeting of the Second Assembly of World Religions, San Francisco, 1990. The Assembly took place from August 15 to 21, 1990, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco. It was sponsored by New ERA — New Ecumenical Research Association, an organization belonging to IRS — International Religious Foundation (Note added by Eduardo Chaves, on May 26, 2014, when this paper was transcribed here).]

[Preliminary Note 2: In the article “Duas Crises Hermenêuticas” (Two Hermeneutical Crises), published here [my blog Liberal Space], the day before [on May 25, 2014], in Portuguese [see the URL, I made a reference to the 1990 article, now published here, which was originally written in English, and up to that time was without translation into Portuguese (as it still is). The fact that few people had access to it was the main reason for publishing the 1990 article here as well. Even though written in the present form only in 1990, previous versions of this article were written beginning in 1970, as an attempt to achieve clarity about the reasons for my loss of religious faith in conservative, orthodox Christianity. And there are many points of contact and convergence between the 1990 article and “Duas Crises Hermenêuticas”, the 2014 article. But the older paper clearly contains elements which were not covered in the more recent article. This adds a second reason for publishing the 1990 article here in 2014. I feel it necessary to underline today (April 5, 2020), however, that my theological views were not stationary in the 24 years that went by between 1990 and 2014. As a matter of fact, they were (and still are) constantly undergoing change. As a result of some of these changes came back to the Presbyterian Church and am now a member of the First Independent Presbyterian Church of São Paulo, SP, here in Brazil. Additionally, I taught History of the Church and History of Christian Thought at the School of Theology of this church in São Paulo, SP, from August of 2014 to July 2017. I will eventually try to give an account of the changes my theological views have undergone in this period — especially since 2008, when I began returning to the church. (Note added by Eduardo Chaves, on April 5, 2020).]

[Preliminary Note 3: In reading a biography of Leslie Stephen, an English intellectual of the 19th century, who was an agnostic and a critic of Christianity, the author of the biography asks on p.255, in the chapter on Agnosticism: “How far belief may change and a man still call himself a Christian is a matter for much curious speculation”. Quite interesting, when compared with the title of this article — even though the question in the biography of Stephen has to do with someone’s right to continue to be called (or to continue to be considered) a Christian after his beliefs have undergone significant change. The title of the biography is Leslie Stephen; The Godless Victorian and the author is Noel Annan (Random House, New York, 1984). (Note added by Eduardo Chaves, on April 5, 2020).]

[Preliminary Note 4: The issue raised by Noel Annan in the previous Preliminary Note is discussed in great depth by J. Gresham Machen, in his book Christianity and Liberalism (New York, Macmillan, 1923), in which he defends the thesis that Theological Liberalism, in the version represented by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack, and several others, could even be considered a set of interesting theses or theological doctrines, but it was certainly not a version of Christianity, but a totally distinct and different religion, which shared with Christianity some vocabulary, but not the meanings that Christianity attributed to this vocabulary. (Note added by Eduardo Chaves, on April 5, 2020)]. 

[Preliminary Note 5: Compare the following passage from C S Lewis: “Here at the outset I must deal with an unpleasant business. It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. It may depart from Anglican Christianity in either of two ways: (a) It may be so ‘broad’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’ that it in fact excludes any real Supernaturalism and thus ceases to be Christian at all. (b) It may, on the other hand, be Roman. It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is — I am your pupil, not your teacher. But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrine will cease either to be Anglican or to be Christian: and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priests think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defence of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of another. [C S Lewis, “Christian Apologetics”, in God in the Dock (HarperOne. Kindle Edition. pp. 89-90) (Note added by Eduardo Chaves, on August 23, 2021).]

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John of Trier Eck: “Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us as an inheritance. … I ask you, Martin — answer candidly and without horns — do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”

Martin Luther: “Since, then, Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen” [1].

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I will try to wrestle with a serious theological problem from a very personal viewpoint.

The theoretical issue contained in the title of this paper will be given an autobiographical reply in the form of an answer to the following question: To what extent do I still have the right to call myself a Protestant, or even a Christian? [2].

I certainly can claim to have a Protestant background: I was born into a Protestant home, my father was (still is [3]) a Presbyterian minister, I accepted, for some time, the main tenets of one of the Protestant denominations, I have a degree in theology from a Protestant Seminary, etc. I cannot see how my Protestant background can be questioned.

If I had converted to, say, Roman Catholicism, I could well see that I no longer had the right to call myself a Protestant. However, that did not happen. Today, I am not affiliated with any religious body, Protestant or otherwise. I do not regularly attend any church. I cannot say that I maintain some form of private piety. From an intellectual point of view, I became skeptical of the claims not only of Protestantism, but also of every other religious body that I know, and consider myself a skeptic and an agnostic, as far as religious and theological doctrines are concerned [4].

And yet, I feel that Protestantism is not something you put on or shed at will and I think that, in a sense, I still have the right to call myself a Protestant (although, let me admit, I do not normally do so, except, perhaps, when filling out the forms for a Conference such as this) [5].

Let me clarify what I mean.

I will not try to define (as many have done) the essence of Protestantism. I will only describe what remained in my mind as characteristic of Protestantism.

First, Protestantism involves the right to search for truth and to not accept traditional ideas as to what truth is or as to where it should be found;

Second, Protestantism, as the name implies, and as history somehow corroborates, involves the right to protest when this search for truth becomes a firm conviction that one has definitively found it and that it is not compatible with the prevailing “ortho-doxy” [6];

Third, Protestantism involves the right to stand by what one believes to be true, even at the cost of having to leave, or being forced to abandon, the religious group to which one belongs (“Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders“).

I do not pretend that I am exhausting the meaning of Protestantism, not even that I am giving an accurate description of it. What I am doing is offering a set of norms or criteria as to what being Protestant means to me. Being Protestant, in this sense, means, basically, that one has some rights over against the religious body to which one, by chance or decision, is committed, including the right to leave it and, in a sense, go on belonging to it, just because one had the courage to protest by leaving.

As I mentioned, I was born into a Protestant home of a very conservative and orthodox Presbyterian minister, a convert from Catholicism. Living in a country which, at the time I was born, was about 95% Roman Catholic, my father hesitated considerably to send me to public school — which, in his view, was totally controlled by the predominant religious view. I remember quite clearly that I had (by my father’s determination) to leave the classroom whenever there was religious instruction (which even the public schools were compelled to offer but which was optional to students, since, at that time, it was given almost exclusively by Roman Catholics). Since the public schools were dominated by Catholics and Protestants did not have their own schools where I was growing up, I was taught to read at home, from the Bible. From my early days I was instructed to read the Bible and find out by myself how the Roman Catholics were wrong…

But the Roman Catholics were not the only object of attack by my father. Fellow Protestants of other denominations would also regularly receive their due, especially the Pentecostals (which were beginning to grow in Brazil, as in the whole of Latin America), the Baptists (because of baptism by immersion), Seventh-Day Adventists (because of the Sabbath), Methodists and Anglicans (because they had bishops and so resembled too much the Catholics…), etc. Voodooism, then, was one hundred per cent devilish. Doctrinal controversy was not only allowed: it was stimulated. My father wrote articles and pamphlets against every religious group which was not his own — and even some subgroups within his particular religious denomination eventually received their share.

Of course, my father believed that controversy was beneficial to his cause because he was firmly convinced that the only possible outcome of controversy was persuading the others that they were wrong — unless, of course, they were already so firm in the hands of the Evil One as to be practically beyond the stage where they could be reached by reason and argument. It never occurred to him that he could be wrong.

This was the environment into which I was born. In this environment, the doctrinal elements of religion were most important, since truth mattered more than anything. Doctrine was more important than ritual, experience, and conduct. Lapses in ethical behavior and in religious practice could be forgiven, but not willful persistence in heresy. Reason was also important, for it was with its help that one’s convictions were promoted and defended. I learned to read in English with the help of an old book of Christian Apologetics.

In this context, I did not have any major intellectual difficulties with remaining Protestant and Presbyterian (except for some doubts as to the doctrine of Predestination) — until, of course, I went to Seminary, to study theology. The process which was supposed to strengthen my faith ended up destroying it — as is frequently the case. In Seminary I came in contact with Karl Barth, who did not accept the inerrancy of the Bible and the Virgin Birth of Jesus, with Rudolf Bultmann, who went further and considered a lot of the New Testament just plain myth, and with a number of minor theological stars, whose only consensus seemed to be that traditional Christianity was no longer acceptable. In Seminary, I became quite interested in history and in philosophy. In history, because of my interest to find out how much of the Bible was historically reliable, how historical was the Jesus of the Gospels, etc. In philosophy, because I wanted to sharpen my mastery of logic and epistemology, in order to better search for truth.

During all of this period, my conviction that truth, reason and history mattered only increased. Even though both Barth and Bultmann did have considerable impact on the development of my present views, I could not accept the Barthian claim that reason was unable to have a say in religious matters. Nor could I accept the Bultmannian views that the Jesus of History was not relevant for faith and that the resurrection need not have historically happened. In all of these issues, I was squarely on the side of the traditional Protestantism represented by my father. I agreed with Paul that if Christ did not raise from the dead, then our faith was in vain (I Corinthians 15:14). And, for me, resurrection from the dead was resurrection from the dead — and not some attenuated form of daily resurrection in the preaching of the church, as some theologians seemed to suggest.

My main theological interests in Seminary were in the so-called natural theology (the issue concerning its possibility, the arguments for the existence of God, the relation of reason to revelation, the question of miracles, including the issue of the resurrection, etc.).

My main philosophical interests, which had always been logic and epistemology, became centered on Analytical Philosophy, by then very much involved, under the sharp leadership of Antony Flew, in the analysis of religious discourse. Here also, even though I benefited tremendously from my studies, I could not agree with those philosophers who claimed that religious discourse lacked “cognitive significance”, and that, consequently, the categories of truth or falsehood could not apply to it. Richard B. Braithwaite, for instance, claimed, in his “An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief” [7], that religious language does not make claims which are either true or false, but is much more like literature (about which no one asks whether it is true or false). For me there was no doubt that when most religious persons (philosophers, perhaps, excluded) say that God exists and that he is perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscient, they mean these assertions to be true — literally true, as a matter of fact.

The net result of all these theological, philosophical and historical concerns was that it seemed to me profoundly dishonest what many liberal theologians were doing, especially Bultmann and Paul Tillich: they were denying the truth of traditional doctrines, but reinterpreting them in such a way as to make them acceptable to “modern man” — whatever this expression meant. “Christian Atheists” appeared declaring that one could be Christian without believing in God — something entirely preposterous to me.

Why could I not accept the reinterpretations of Christianity which were being offered by the “demythologizers” of the Bultmanninan school, by “the Ground-of-Beingers” of the Tillichian school and by the Christian “secularists” and “atheists”, or even by my fellow countrymen with their “Liberation Theology”? The answer was simple and straightforward: because whatever they proposed as a reinterpretation of Christianity seemed to me to dispense with everything Christianity had been associated with in the past. One does not need Jesus, and not even Paul, to be kind of Christian Existentialist that Bultmann proposes: it suffices being somehow Heideggerian. One does not need most of traditional Christianity to accept the doctrine of God as the Ground of Being. And certainly one does not need to be a Christian to be an atheist or a marxist.

The religious doctrines of traditional Christianity, in these cases, were so drastically reinterpreted that, in my view, they ceased being the same doctrines. They became something else, entirely different. And for this something else, the original religious doctrines seemed entirely dispensable.

My main question, then, became: why pour new wine into old vessels? Why not just drink the new wine, or keep it in its contemporary vessels? [8] Why pretend to believe the same thing as most of the faithful, when you no longer do? Why resort to every form of intellectual gymnastics in order to claim that this or that is what the Bible has been saying all along, when a plain reading of the Bible suggests the contrary?

Here my readings of Albert Schweizer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus [9] bore fruit: given enough ingenuity, one can make the Bible say anything one wishes, one can paint the “historical” Jesus with the colors of one’s preference.

The new theologians prevented me from continuing to accept traditional Christianity, because they convinced me that it was not true. But my respect for truth prevented me from accepting their theologies, which tried to make what they believed to be unduly sound as if it were true — only in another, and “deeper”, sense. This, to me, was only a poor attempt to revive the medieval hermeneutics of the sensus plenior.

The end result of this phase of my religious quest was that I lost my faith and, in a coherent manner, left the Church, and became a secular teacher of philosophy (including philosophy of religion in the analytic — metadiscourse — sense).

Following my understanding of Protestantism, I believe that, in a sense, I was being consistently Protestant even when I left the Protestant church. “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”. And even today, I can call myself a Protestant, because I still keep an open mind and I do not allow my present religious unbelief to prevent me from continuing to search for truth in religion. Following the suggestion of my main philosophical mentor, David Hume, I am skeptical even of my own skepticism [10]. My behavior is (I presume) quite compatible with that of most believers, and I derive great emotional satisfaction from religious ceremonies and rituals — especially from singing the hymns I learned in my infancy. But since I do not believe the doctrines which give support to this behavior and to these rituals, I choose to behave in the way I do and attend religious services whenever I feel like, without identifying myself as a member of the religious institutions which patronize the behavior and the rituals. But even this may change… 

As a final observation, I must register, however, that it is far from me to suggest that in order to be truly Protestant one must abandon Protestantism.

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[1] Apud Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Mentor Books, New York, 1955, 1963), p.144.

[2] This question was already much discussed in print. See, especially, William Warren Bartley, III, “I Call Myself a Protestant”, Harper’s Magazine, May, 1959, reprinted, with parallel articles by Walter Kaufmann, Arthur A. Cohen, and Philip Scharper, in Leo Hamalian & Edmond L. Volpe, eds., Essays of Our Time (McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, 1960). Warren W Bartley, III was my doctoral adviser at the University of Pittsburgh (1970-1972).

[3] This note was added on May 6, 2017, after the article was written and published. When I wrote the article, in 1990, my father was still alive. He came to die less than one year later on March 5, 1991.

[4] This note was also added on May 6, 2017, after the article was written and published. Beginning around 2008 I consciously decided to reexamine and review my beliefs and my outlook on life and the world. Most of what I wrote in this paragraph is therefore suspended. In November of 2010 I became a member of the First Independent Presbyterian Church of São Paulo, which I still am. [Since March 2020, I am no longer, but my leaving this local church does not have anything to do with change in my beliefs.]

[5] This note was also added on May 6, 2017, after the article was written and published. Beginning around 2008 I went back to calling myself a Protestant without scruples and misgivings.

[6] This note was also added on May 6, 2017, after the article was written and published. The text that was distributed in 1990 had a different wording for this paragraph, that was clearly inadequate. The present wording is more accurate. The original wording was: “Second, Protestantism, as the name implies, and as history somehow corroborates, involves the right to protest when this search for truth becomes a firm conviction that one has definitively found it in some form of “ortho-doxy”. 

[7] The Eddington Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of Oxford in 1955, reprinted in Ian T. Ramsey, ed., Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy (The Macmillan Co., New York, 1966).

[8] Matthew 9:16-17: “And no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved”. Cp. Mark 2:21-22 and Luke 5:36-38.

[9] The Macmillan Co., New York, 1957, translated by W. Montgomery from the original German edition, Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, published originally in 1906.

[10] “A true sceptic will be diffident of his philosophical doubts as well as of his philosophical convictions …”. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Section VII, edition by L. A. Selby-Bigge (Clarendon Press, Onford, 1888, 1964), p. 273. I wrote my Ph.D. on Hume, under the title David Hume’s Philosophical Critique of Theology and its Significance for the History of Christian Thought (Pittsburgh, 1972).

© Copyright by Eduardo Chaves, 1990, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2021, 2022.

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[The text of the 1990 paper was transcribed here on this blog on May 26, 2014, in São Paulo, SP, occasion in which the text underwent minor revisions and received Preliminary Notes 1 and 2. The text underwent minor revisions again on May 6, 2017, in Salto, SP, Preliminary Note 3 being added at that time. Also, End Notes [3], [4], [5] and [6] were added at this time, the remaining end notes being renumbered. Preliminary Note 4 was added on April 5, 2020, in Salto, SP, occasion in which minor revisions were again made to the text. On December, 15, 2020 and on August 23, 2021, in Salto, SP, minor revisions were once more made in the text. Preliminary Note 5 was added during the revision of August 23, 2021. On June 7, 2022 (the day I write this), new revisions were made to the text. None of the revisions made to the text substantially altered the meaning of the original 1990 paper (except, perhaps, the one to which present End Note 6 is attached). Finally, it should be added that the original title in German of Albert Schweitzer’s book mentioned in End Note 9 was complemented with the sub-title on May 26, 2014, because the sub-title was omitted from the first edition of this paper (the 1990 edition).] 

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