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The “separation of church and state” was intended in part to prevent the sorts of religious conflicts that had racked Europe in previous centuries. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before the ambiguity of this figure of speech would be exploited…

secularizationDuring her confirmation hearing last September, Notre Dame law professor, Amy Coney Barrett, was openly interrogated about her faith. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) brazenly uttered the now infamous words, “the dogma lives loudly within you,” and went on to explain why that is “of concern” to her. This is but one manifestation of a new trend—one that many Christians correctly regard as ominous. How did we get to this point?

I am going to argue that the current state of affairs is the partial result of developments that transpired 500 years ago. My contention is that those who sought to reform Christianity in the West ironically set in motion a process that has increasingly diminished its influence on society.

This essay will focus on one of the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation: sola scriptura. It is the doctrine that the Bible, alone, holds religious authority for the Christian. I use the analogy of attendance at a rock concert to make sense of the Protestant view. Thousands of people can descend on the same spot, independently of one another, and experience the same thing. Just as the concertgoer needs nothing other than his map to guide him to his destination (let us use the term sola tabula to express this understanding), the Christian needs nothing other than the Bible to guide him to his.

This view is to be contrasted with what I call the “ecclesial perspective”—a view based on the conception of a visible, organic Church that is embraced by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians. As they would put it, the “pillar and foundation of the truth,” to use St. Paul’s description (1 Tim. 3:15), is not identified with the individual believer, but with the Church. This is because the Church is the visible body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), who is himself the Truth (John 14:6). Therefore, since the Church cannot err—being, as it is, the body of the inerrant Christ—the individual is expected to conform his mind to the mind of the Church. This, of course, is not to deny that some of the Church’s individual members remain deeply flawed. As Augustine exclaimed in a homily on St. John’s Gospel, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!”

Following the Reformation, the Western Christian world splintered into seemingly innumerable sects, all claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit in their interpretation of the same Bible. This should come as no surprise to proponents of the ecclesial perspective. For suppose you adhere to sola scriptura, and you come to read the Bible in a radically novel way, and articulate a new set of doctrines that you are anxious to promote. Should you really care if your church decides to excommunicate you on account of these new doctrines? After all, it is you who is the pillar and foundation of the truth; it is against you whom the gates of Hades shall not prevail. You are simply being kicked out of some earthly, replaceable organization, whereas, in the ecclesial view, excommunication from the Church means that you are being severed from a body—the body of Christ. Further, since you believe that there is no higher authority than your personal interpretation of the Scriptures, what would prevent you from starting your own church, being, as you are, your own pope?

This logic arguably goes a long way towards explaining why there are hundreds, some say thousands, of Protestant denominations in existence today. To be fair, many of these otherwise independent denominations hold similar beliefs and worship in similar ways. But it is transparently obvious that not all do. The Protestant world is divided over fundamental questions concerning the nature of Jesus, the Sacraments, and the proper way to interpret the Bible, among so many others.

In the midst of this religious fragmentation, it was clear to the Framers of our Constitution that, even if they had wanted to officially sanction a religion, they could not, at least without seriously undermining political order. This is, in part, why they included the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. As the late American historian, Leonard Levy, argued:

Given the extraordinary religious diversity of our nation, the Establishment Clause functions to depoliticize religion; it thereby helps to defuse a potentially explosive situation. The Establishment Clause separates government and religions so that we can maintain civility between believers and unbelievers as well as among the several hundred denominations, sects, and cults that thrive in our nation…

In other words, the “separation of church and state”—the metaphor Thomas Jefferson used to express his understanding of the Clause in a private letter—was intended in part to prevent the sorts of religious conflicts that had racked Europe in previous centuries. The intention was never to prevent people from participating in political life in ways that were motivated by their religious beliefs; otherwise, the oft-ignored Free Exercise Clause would have not been added (in the same exact sentence as the Establishment Clause, I might add) to the Constitution.

Nor, evidently, was the intention to prevent forms of direct government assistance for religious endeavors. Let us not forget that Jefferson, himself, was not averse to using federal funds to build churches and support missionary work among the American Indians. (What a contrast this is from the present context. Last summer, for instance, two Supreme Court justices appealed to the separation metaphor in objecting to the use of federal funds for resurfacing the playgrounds of religious schools so that children will get fewer bruised elbows). American University law professor, Daniel Dreisbach, attributes Jefferson’s commentary on the Establishment Clause to his anti-federalist views, not to the secularism that is so often ascribed to him today:

Jefferson’s wall, as a matter of federalism, was erected between the national and state governments on matters pertaining to religion and not, more generally, between the church and all civil government. In other words, Jefferson placed the federal government on one side of his wall and state governments and churches on the other.

Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before the ambiguity of this figure of speech—this “Separation of Church and State”—would be exploited. In the 1800s, a time of intense anti-Catholic sentiment, separation rhetoric was used by the Ku Klux Klan and the Know Nothing movement to prevent the growing Catholic population from wielding political influence. Today, some of the more radical proponents of secularism use separation rhetoric in their selective battle against religious people who want to exercise their faith in the public arena. I write “selective” because some secularists will condone religious arguments if they are used in support of policies that they happen to prefer. If secularists could travel back in time, I doubt that many would tell Martin Luther King, “You know, Dr. King, we’re totally down with the whole civil rights thing. But can you, like, keep the God stuff out of your speeches?”

New York Times op-ed published after Professor Barrett’s confirmation hearing serves to illustrate the process of secularization inaugurated by the Reformation. It sought to defend Feinstein’s remarks on the grounds that ours is a “nation dedicated to the separation of church and state.” This figure of speech, this elastic metaphor, continues to be used, and will likely continue to be used, in ways that our Founding Fathers simply did not intend. As I explained, this metaphor was based on a clause necessitated by the religious fragmentation made possible by the Reformation, and the specific doctrine of sola scriptura played no small part in this ongoing process.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (October 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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10 replies to this post
  1. May I suggest that the concept of being a ‘Christian’, which has been an honorable and noble one for decades, has become bitter in the minds of those who see US leaders self-identify as Christian yet support the actions and statements of both the current US President and his Vice-President. Those actions are certainly not in line with the Christian precepts that I learned as a child. Perhaps the medical dogma – Primum, non nocere — should be part of their oath of office.

  2. After reading this multiple times, I could easily feel part of the problem, as a protestent. If the church, in it’s Catholic or protestant forms, is still made up of people, then perfection is still to come. If the reformation has eventually led to the need for the establishment clause, then it would seem the founders either failed to see it, or hid their recognition well. They apparently proceeded under the general concept that people are broken, and need barriers to holding too much individual power.

  3. It is a difficult and impossible task to bring mankinds sinful nature and lay it at the alter of the Reformation, especially in a few paragraphs. It is not difficult, and needs no interpretation, to follow the course of sinful human nature all the way through the Holy Bible and see first hand mankind’s sinful nature as unchanged from beginning to end. I’m sure we can all testify that we are still in our sinful nature to this very day. Death is still with us, individually; the wages of sin is death. Now, that is one dogma that cannot, and will not change even within the secular realm of life. Debates about why we die will go on, that is a truth.
    Feinstein’s statement is really personally hers. She will have to answer for it to God. What she did by using the word dogma, was to continue the course of public opinion against religion. Most people do not even know what the word dogma is, even within Christendom, but it sure sounds scary, doesn’t it; church is a very, very threatening place, full of people who don’t want everyone to be free to be, and to do whatever they want!.
    The Reformation was about the Gospel, the Gospel in its “narrow” sense of justification. The Reformation is a marvelous, engaging course of unending study that is open to all. Jump in folks, it’s well worth one’s time.

  4. The view on what “sola Scriptura” offered by the author is simply wrong, particularly as given in the third paragraph. It isn’t a view that any of the magisterial Reformers would have recognized. It isn’t a view captured in any of the great Reformed or Lutheran confessions. It isn’t a view found in the best Puritan thinkers or their heirs. It isn’t the view of the Cambridge Declaration. It isn’t the view espoused by ministries such as Ligonier or the Gospel Coalition, or seminaries such as Reformed Theological Seminary or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The doctrine of sola Scriptura means that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith, the norming norm. But the Reformed and Lutheran traditions have always acknowledged the importance of tradition and authority.

    This is a straw man, a caricature, a cartoon. And it is easy to criticize a view of our own invention, isn’t it? Please be sure that you are getting it right when you describe or critique a position. The view presented here is shamefully inaccurate, both historically and theologically.

  5. It is true that the way in which this writer explains the principle of sola Scriptura falls far short of the ideal, the theory of it found in Lutheran and Reformed dogmatics, although not all other Protestant traditions. But the practical reality of the formal principle of the Magisterial Reformation itself falls far short as well. However much the right to private interpretation does not enter into the formal definition of sola Scriptura, it is an essential ingredient in any workable application. That this is true is evident in the contrast which this writer rightly makes between the Protestant and “ecclesial perspective” on biblical interpretation. If we are to separate sola Scriptura from the right to private interpretation, then the former is meant to describe the relationship between Scripture and the Church, not the Church and the individual believer. Even granting (somewhat inconsistently) sola Scriptura, according to which the Church’s teaching is subject to the Scriptures as the only infallible rule of faith, private interpretation nevertheless remains subject to the teaching of the Church as a higher authority – however fallible. To deny this is to include the right to private interpretation in the essential definition of sola Scriptura. To claim that individual Christians are subject to the Bible only, even if limited to extraordinary circumstances in which the Church’s teaching appears to them to contradict Scripture, is still to claim the right to private interpretation. The Lutheran and Reformed traditions are not based upon private interpretations subjected to the Church. If one were to completely reject the right to private interpretation on the grounds of a more theologically and historically accurate version of sola Scriptura, one would then still have to agree to subject one’s private interpretation to the Church. But the Reformers did not practice this version of sola Scriptura.

  6. Just a note. I’ve attended a few Protestant conferences regarding sola Scriptura who have defined it several ways, but hoping to gear it away from individualism and individual interpretation and toward an “ecclesial” understanding, i.e. one can only interpret the Scriptures according to a “church” or “Christian community.” The question always came up with various Protestant groups: WHICH community or church? There never was a consensus. The bottom line always appeared to be anyone can interpret the Bible according to any standard — even hermeneutics were debated. In point of fact, Luther not only rejected the authority of any Church councils, all bishops or priests, and any magisterium, but also the canon itself, and consequently relegated the commonly accepted canonical books he didn’t agree with to an appendix. And then he added words to the Bible that he thought “appropriate,” since they would support his own theological understanding. Even today Protestant scholars debate the authoritative nature of the biblical canon. So when it comes down to it, Protestantism is equated with individualism. The “church” is invisible, and it has fluid dogma. And consequently, we have thousands of denominations and even more independent churches and theologies. People like Rousseau contended that political society could no longer be based upon a Christian consensus due to “denominational” wars, and contended that it should be based upon “civil religion.” Hence, traditional Christianity has been relegated to the private sphere and is being forever forced out of the public sphere. A Church fragmented into thousands of warring pieces only causes division, and is not the Rock upon which a unified culture can be built. In contrast, Constantine found the Church is disarray in the 4th century, and immediately called an authoritative Council at Nicea to affirm a unifying understanding of theology about God’s nature upon which he could unify an empire. He was somewhat successful.

  7. I thought all was forgiven with the Majestic “NOSTRA AETATE” of 1965 A.D.

    Perhaps Pope Francis needs to reissue for today’s generation’s enlightenment?

  8. One of the most profound questions asked in the Holy Bible for me is when Pilate asked Jesus what is truth? The trial of Jesus before Pilate was rather swift, without testimony, witnesses, just a lot of shouting and mob rule demanding an imprisoned killer be released to them and kill Jesus, whom Pilate found no guilt. That mob was a representation of all humanity and remains so until the end of the world as we know it; His Word He promised would endure forever. He came first to His own and they knew Him not.
    Scripture was the center of Hebrew life. God chose these people, made them a nation, out of which His final work of salvation appeared when God humbled Himself and was incarnate and appeared to His own through His own created human flesh, Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph. And we knew Him not. God proclaimed openly through the clouds that this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen and believe in Him. Jesus went on to declare that all of the Scriptures were about Him! It was Me, Jesus, the Christ, that Moses wrote about. That was a bold and shocking statement that remains as bold and shocking today.
    We Christians appear to be, and are a motley crew. Without God in His Trinity within His Word and sacraments, calling and working His salvation for and within us, we would be nothing more than a ship of fools. God has declared that all Truth, knowledge, faith and life, is found only in Jesus Christ, His son, through the Holy Spirit, the very giver of life. It is us, this motley crew, His church, who continue to be His living witnesses. A very shocking reality, indeed: As the world hated Me, so too, will they hate you.

  9. The phrase ‘separation of church and state” would be better stated as “separation of any particular church and state”. This ,in my mind, would address any concern Jefferson had yet it would allow the state to deal with any church in a just manner but with no fear that that action would jeopardize the independence of the state from any church

  10. As a Lutheran, Ill say this, Luther never intended to split the Church. Luther was concerned with an individuals personal belief in God, but not their personal interpretation of Scripture. The Pope himself as well as many prominent Catholics have admitted that the Church was in a sorry state at Luther’s time. How does your “ecclesiastical” view of faith hold up when the Pope, his bishops and priests in the 16th century don’t believe the very faith they pretend to lead. Even many of the most well intentioned faithful priests had very little actual knowledge of Scripture. The “ecclesiastical” truth had become weighed down by secular interests and superstition under a Church corrupted by vanity and greed.This is why Luther stressed the importance of Scripture, so that the true message would not be lost. That being said, Luther did not want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” so to speak. He felt he was upholding the views of the Church Fathers as well as the early ecumenical councils. I think many Catholics lack an appreciation for what the Reformation exposed inside the Church, the problems that would later be fixed in the Counter-Reformation and Vatican II. Luther and the early reformers felt they had to choose between the Church and their faith in God and not without good reason. Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all have some part to blame in the sorry state of the faith today, and we would all be blind to not accept our role in it.

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