Sunday, June 13, 2010

Making It Up

Most evangelical churches, especially non-denominational ones, don't have anything that comes close to comparing to the depth and breadth of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Most groups have a "What We Believe" section on their website with a few points. Here are links to the statements of belief of some of the most influential evangelical churches in the US: Saddleback Church (Pastor Rick Warren, Lake Forest, CA), Lakewood Church (Pastor Joel Osteen, Houston, TX, church pictured below), Mars Hill Bible Church (Pastor Rob Bell, pictured on left, Grandville, MI)  Eagle Brook Church (Pastor Bob Merritt, Lino Lakes, MN).

None offer a developed Christology or Trinitarian theology.
None explain their views on the relationship between God's sovereignty and human free will.
None explain their view regarding gender roles, or the lack thereof, in their church or in society.
None state what they believe about any major social issues, such as abortion (or the death penalty, or euthanasia, or war, etc), let alone why they believe what they do or offer a consistent system with which to judge other ethical matters.
None of them even list out which books they accept as the Bible.

I could go on.

(Amazingly, many evangelicals think that this is a good thing, that they have avoided the dangers of dead theology.)

But here is my question: What do they believe on all of these issues, as well as many others? If an issue isn't mentioned in their statement of faith, is it open for disagreement? (If so, are all of the issues I listed above open for disagreement in those churches?) How does the pastor know what to preach on Sundays? Of course, they want to preach the Bible. But the teacher's job is to interpret. That's why churches have teachers in the first place. Churches could just have someone read Scripture aloud every Sunday in place of the sermon. We have teachers to give us the interpretation. Theology is complicated. It's not always immediately obvious what the Bible teaches on a given issue. Someone needs to bring it all together.

So, with nothing guiding their interpretations (at least officially), the pastors make it up. They might think within a theological tradition, or decide to draw from several (who knows?), but they ultimately just give their own personal interpretations.

Let's say you have a question about one of the many things not covered in the church's statement of faith on their website. You go to your pastor for an answer. The pastor might have an opinion, he might not. He might be somewhat educated on the issue, he might not. There might be disagreement within the leadership of the church on the issue. It might be something that no one in the church had even talked about yet.

Let's say you get an answer. What if that particular pastor retires or leaves? The new one says he agrees with the church's written statement of faith, but he might disagree with what the previous pastor taught that isn't in the statement of faith. I guess the church teaches something different now.

Churches are placed at the whims of whoever happens to be teaching in them.

I anticipate two objections.
(1) Catholic priests don't always preach in line with what the Catholic Church officially teaches. This is true. But at least the Catholic Church has a foundation, something solid, something with which one can judge whether a priest is teaching what he is supposed to be teaching. Most evangelical churches lack this almost entirely.

(2) Someone could point out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church may cover a lot but does not cover every possible issue either. The Catholic Church and evangelical churches simply disagree how much of their beliefs need to be worked out in advance. The difference between the Catechism and the statements of faith of evangelical churches is a matter of degree, rather than kind. This is also true. But I have two responses. First, the difference is so overwhelming and has such major consequences as to practically be a difference in kind. Second, the Catholic Church has a means - at least theoretically with its claimed apostolic authority - by which to determine what teaching needs to be made explicit and definite and what doesn't. Evangelical churches don't even claim to have a way to determine what teachings should or shouldn't be made explicit and definite. Whoever founded the church or whoever happens to be in charge just decides.

In other words, they make it up.


  1. The coherence and authority of the Catechism is one of the major reasons I joined the Church. Reading through it with a Catholic friend, it was really quite easy to become acquainted with Church teaching and it is pretty clear what you are getting yourself into when you join the Church.

    One of my favorite things about the Catechism is how it is organized, especially the first section, as an extended explanation of the Apostle's Creed. It really brings every part of the faith into perspective of the whole, and shows a more coherent and intricate faith than any I have ever come across.

    More specifically related to "making it up," the conclusions of many evangelical Christian books on various topics often bothered me because there was never any really compelling reason to accept what the author proposed, except that he thought it was right. When you look at any of hundreds of sincere interpretations of some section of Scripture that all seem to contradict each other, it is hard to believe that there really is a true interpretation.

  2. The Catholic Catechism continues to be my strongest pull into the Catholic church, even though christian people seem to be largly the same regardless of the church. Catholics just proof-text the catechism (similar to the way evangelicals proof-text the bible) to prove whatever point they want to over emphasize.

  3. Great post. I think you hit the nail on the head for why many conservative evangelicals are being drawn to Catholocism. They see the inconsistencies in the new mega churches as troubling and especially what their church's identity after the retirement of the founder. My problem with the Catholic church is the idea that the church leaders can come up with a definitive answer to so many different detailed questions and then declare any other interpretations as heretical.

    I believe that God gave each of us the ability to reason so that we can wrestle with these issues internally. I believe that two seemingly diametrically opposed theological interpretations can both be fundamentally right at the same time. I don't know if Catholicism as you describe can allow for that.

  4. Thanks for everyone's comments!

    A few thoughts:

    YoungMom, you wrote:
    "Catholics just proof-text the catechism (similar to the way evangelicals proof-text the bible) to prove whatever point they want to over emphasize."

    A difference with the Catholic Church with this issue is that there is the living apostolic authority to settle issues if people truly cannot figure out what the Catechism is trying to say. You don't have to get stuck in never-ending proof-texting battles.

    Anon, you wrote:
    "I believe that two seemingly diametrically opposed theological interpretations can both be fundamentally right at the same time."
    It depends on exactly what you mean. There is definitely mystery in the Christian faith. But there is no place for contradiction. Is abortion permissible or impermissble? Some Christians think that it is, some think that it's not. Someone's right and someone's wrong. It's not just that the Catholic Church doesn't allow for those two beliefs to be true at the same time, logic doesn't allow for it.

    You mentioned that your "problem with the Catholic church is the idea that the church leaders can come up with a definitive answer to so many different detailed questions and then declare any other interpretations as heretical." I'd be interested in hearing more exactly what your problem is. Do you have a problem with authority in general? Or is there something about the Catholic Church's account of apostolic authority and succession that you think is wrong?

    Thanks for commenting,

  5. I actually have a few comments not related to objections you anticipated--mostly with your relatively (in my opinion I confess) unfair characterization of Protestant churches.

    First, putting Saddleback (which, little known to many, is a Southern Baptist church, and thus DOES have a developed Christology, stance on gender roles, and all the other things you mentioned--of note, the SBC probably has the most developed thinking of most protestant denominations on social issues)and Joel Osteen in the same boat is just not fair. Joel Osteen is not orthodox, never has been, and most orthodox Christians--protestant or Catholic-- doesn't even consider what he does Church. No thank you.

    I'm not emergent in any sense (I actually have many problems with the movement), but putting Rob Bell in the same category as Mr. Osteen isn't quite fair either. Bell's theology is very postmodern, and driven by a desire to reach the lost--regardless of what can be said against his (in my opinion, lacking) theology, I will note that I have met more people from Bell's church or churches like it who can articulate what they believe theologically than Catholic believers who can articulate the catechism (present company excepted of course;). There's something to be said for that, especially given the comparative numbers advantage for the Catholic church. I free admit that this is, however, as I am sure you will point out, not an adequate substitute for good theology.

  6. I don't know much about eaglebrook (I haven't even heard of it, and considering I went to Wheaton and am from an area quite close to Minneapolis, I wonder how exactly influential it is), so I can't comment on that.

    Finally, you forgot to mention "influential" Protestant churches such as Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC (Tim Keller's church), 10th Presbyterian in Philadelphia (the new President of Wheaton College, Phillip Ryken's church) and John Piper's Bethlehem Baptist that have a rich denominational history, and well established positions on all of the issues you mentioned. In addition, the Lutheran church has quite a nice catechism as well;) I guess my point is that while it might be convenient to build a straw man (and I challenge you to argue that what you did above is not a straw man--it's the very definition) to make an argument, I would plead that you be fair, which in all of my time reading your blog, I have felt you have been-- until this post. As Christians we are to have uncommon civility in our discourse--it's the basis of Christian tolerance (not the same as acceptance...), which allows us to disagree with every fiber of our being, yet understand that the people we converse with are made in the image of God, and thus should be loved even when the rational thing to do is hate. (I admit that love is sometimes "tough love" as well:)

    To whit--making the statement that "Evangelical churches don't even claim to have a way to determine what teachings should or shouldn't be made explicit and definite. Whoever founded the church or whoever happens to be in charge just decides." is absolutely wrong. Of course evangelical churches claim to have a way to determine what teaching should or shouldn't be made explicit and definite. Let's not forget that Protestants are not the enemy here-- Satan is. I actually share your lament about non-denominational Churches lacking a rooted theology, but just because you don't agree with them doesn't mean they don't have a methodology/ reason for believing what they believe(whether you like it or not, and I know you don't;) Sola Scriptura counts as a methodology to most Protestants). Similarly, my not being Catholic doesn't mean I'm entitled to make outlandish statements about the Catholic church like "Catholics worship Mary". I'm sure that would irritate you, as you would feel it's misrepresenting your position. And, Ummm... that's pretty much what you just did to all Protestants. Speak the truth, yes, but in love. Always love the blog in any case:)
    Grace and peace,

  7. Hey Andrew,

    Thanks for the taking the time to respond.

    I will admit that there is something of a strawman to my post. I did choose churches that illustrated my point. A lengthy, more serious paper on the issue would need to acknowledge and take into account the full spectrum. I was aware of this when I wrote the post and actually somewhat anticipated this response.
    I still wrote the post because, even with the fuller picture acknowledged, I do think that this is a real, widespread problem within evangelicalism. It seems to me that most of the most influential evangelical churches around are lacking in theology. Part of this is because we are witnessing the fall of the mainlines denominations and the rise of the non-denominational church, but that's another topic. More examples that I didn't mention in the post for simplicity's sake: Willow Creek has a 2 page statement of faith, The Rock Church of San Diego has a 4 page statement of faith, Times Square Church in NYC has 13 points. Let's look on the local level too, let's say in the Wheaton area (we're both familiar with it I presume). College Church has 10 points. Wheaton Bible has 12. Antioch Community Church in Wheaton actually tops them with 15 points. I could go on. These are just examples.

    Responses and clarifications to other things you wrote:

    I'd like to point out that this post was directed only toward Evangelicals, not Protestants in general.

    I did not know that Saddleback was a Southern Baptist church. I have confirmed that now on the Souther Baptism Convention website. In any case, I could not find that mentioned anywhere on Saddleback's website or in their statment of faith section (it's possible I've missed it). What I linked to in the blog is all I could find.

    Here is a link to what I could quickly find on the Southern Baptism Convention website regarding their beliefs: "" Longer than the one on Saddleback's site, but still incredibly lacking compared to the Catechism. When I say developed Christology and Trinitarian theology, I'm talking about developed to the level at least of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon (remember, they considered themselves to be the minimum).


  8. So you reject Osteen and accept Bell, others do the opposite and call themselves Evangelical. Of course it is very difficult to define exactly who counts as an evangelical. Osteen certainly seems to be very influential among evangelicals on a popular level (and how else does evangelicalism view the church but the popular level?).

    You wrote:
    "I will note that I have met more people from Bell's church or churches like it who can articulate what they believe theologically than Catholic believers who can articulate the catechism"
    Of course whether or not this is the case is irrelevant to the point of this blog post. In any case, I have not argued that the congregants or even the pastors don't have opinions or thoughts. On the contrary, they might have their personal take on just about every issue in theology. But that's all it is, their personal take. Who knows what they think, because it's not out there in writing. And if I wanted to join a church like Mars Hill, how do I know that they will be preaching the same thing week to week on so many issues that are not stated in their statement of faith?

    Regarding Eagle Brook: According to one listing I found, Eagle Brook is the 38th largest church in the US by attendance with over 10,000 weekly. It was on my mind because I have a family connection to it.

    It is true that there are some evangelical churches that have more worked out theologies. But many do not. I don't have stats to back it up but it seems to me that many if not most of the most influential evangelical churches around do not.

    You wrote:
    "Sola Scriptura counts as a methodology to most Protestants"
    Not the kind of methology I'm talking about. Sola Scriptura only says that the Bible is the only final authority. Sola Scriptura doesn't say which issues in theology need to be explicit and definite and which ones don't.

    Lastly, the theological issues I highlighted were just examples. Some churches will be explicit about some things that other churches aren't. The point is that overall they lack a whole lot of worked out theology.

    Thanks so much for reading the blog and taking the time to respond. Keep me honest!


  9. How about we draw the parallel where it should be drawn, in terms of belief statements. Let's take the westminster confession of faith, and put it next to the catechism.
    In the end, interpreters are interpreters, striving - Lord willing - to say what the word of God means for us. But the word of man remains the word of man, and it will pass away. If the writers of the Westminster Confession just "made it up," then so did the authors of the catechism. They are both subject to God's word, which has ultimate authority. The first step toward agreeing on what it says is to agree on what it is.

  10. littlewarriorjd,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I think you have misunderstood our disagreement. Most evangelical churches do not recognize the Westminster Confession nor have anything like it in its place. What I have given links to is all that many churches have. Their 2 page statements of faith is all that there is to compare to the catechism.

    You wrote:
    "In the end, interpreters are interpreters, striving - Lord willing - to say what the word of God means for us. But the word of man remains the word of man, and it will pass away."
    This, of course, is only true if the Catholic Church's claims regarding apostolic authority are false.
    And by the way, this is exactly the attitude that sola scriptura leads to. These discussions are never ending battles of people's personal interpretations with no way to resolve them. God did not intend for his Church to be like that. That's why Jesus didn't just have disciples, he chose apostles - people he gave special authority to run the church after his ascension.

    You wrote:
    "They are both subject to God's word, which has ultimate authority. The first step toward agreeing on what it says is to agree on what it is."
    It is true that we are all subject to God's Word, and that we first need to agree on what God's Word is. Protestants and Catholics don't. In the Reformation, Protestants decided to reject certain books of the Bible, as well as reject the belief that Tradition was a way that God's Word has been passed on to us. But even if we were to agree on what God's Word is, the next question would be who gets to interpret it?


  11. Thanks for the response:)
    I do want to make it abundantly clear that I don't accept Bell either, and actually agree with you on a lot of what you say about his teaching-- I'm sorry if that wasn't evident in my past post. My only point with the statement about mars hill peeps knowing there theology is that those who live in glass houses should be careful where they throw stones;) All else, indeed, was irrelevant to your larger argument, as I previously noted. As an aside, for a pretty clear reason why from a protestant prospective why the emergent church is sketchy in some ways, the book "Why We're Not Emergent: By Two guys who should be" is a good resource. It's a well done, well grounded (and fair) critique of the emergent movement.

    I would also remove people who consider Osteen anything other than a shill (ok, that might be mean, let me use biblical language then: False Shepherd) from the definition of evangelical, which, while difficult to define (I agree, after all, I did attend Wheaton:), finds a fairly good definition in the Lausanne covenant (which specifically affirms the nicene creed)
    So I know there's at least a few evangelicals that don't just view the church at a popular level.

    I accept the criticism of many evangelical churches lacking a worked out theology. If I'm reading it correctly, your criticism is really just an extension of Mark Noll's "Scandal of the evangelical mind" into the realm of theology. In that case, I agree. I'm doing research right now in bio-ethics, and have found few evangelicals doing research in the field (I can only name one in the specific field I'm working in, and while he's great, he's only one). Indeed, most of the Christian witness in bio-ethics comes from Catholic thinkers. I will note two exceptions, first, perhaps the most influential modern Christian bioethicist, a man by the name of Paul Ramsey, was Methodist, and second, many Anabaptists have been quite involved.

    However, your point is well taken, as there has been a lack of thinking about how evangelical faith carries over into the public square, not to mention a weak ecclesiology. Yet there are signs of hope, not the least of (in my opinion) being the institution we both graduated from, and the Manhattan declaration calling for renewed engagement (and the closest thing to a council non-catholic Christians can have). So while I acknowledge the failures of evangelical thought, I will also strive to make sure future generations will not have to make defend in the same way I do:)

  12. My last comment got swallowed by the internet:(
    I'll summarize quickly.
    First, I don't accept Bell-- the book "Why We're not emergent" provides a good protestant critique of the emergent movement. I share many of the same ideas you do about the movement.

    Second, your critique of a lack of evangelical theology seems to be an extension of Noll's "Scandal of the evangelical mind", and is well taken. In many ways I agree with you. I think the real issue here is that most evangelical churches are postmodern, and thus appealing to a different type of thinking. We cannot deny that modern Americans aren't really the deep thinking type;). Thus, a number of "points" are more likely to convey a church's beliefs than the (admittedly beautiful) council writings. Furthermore, evangelical churches (and Protestants in general) are a historical reaction to the top-down model of church found in Rome. It's unrealistic to think they'll act the same way.

    Additional point of clarification: Joel Osteen is not an evangelical, and anyone who considers him for anything but what he is (False teacher comes to mind) doesn't really jive with what, in my opinion, is the best definition of evangelical:
    Thus, while he might be influential, I would go as far to say that most who listen to him (and agree with his teaching) aren't even Christians in anything but the "cultural" definition. The fact that Osteens "church" is one of the largest in the country is a crying shame, and a testament to the wiliness of the enemy. Can you tell I have strong opinions on him? :) My point is that while Bell might not be a perfect theologian, to put him on the same level as the phoniest person I've ever seen in my life just isn't fair to Rob Bell--it's a punishment I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Saying Osteen is a representative of evangelicals is the equivalent of taking Gustavo GutiƩrrez (Liberation theology) as representative of Catholics. Actually, it's worse, because at least Gutierrez cares about something other than his own pocketbook.

    I also agree somewhat with littlewarrior's critique-- most denominations have statements of faith, and as I mentioned, there are a lot of churches that still are affiliated with denominations. In addition, most aren't laid out only in "statements of faith", but in position papers and the workings of denominational seminaries. Your critique of the SBC doesn't seem to be fair to me in this sense, as by it's very nature the SBC church doesn't have a titular head like the pope, and works out theology in many different (disconnected) papers. From personal experience I know the Lutheran Missouri synod has position papers on pretty much everything you can think of, but the statement of faith on the website is quite rudimentary compared to the catechism. I think this is because Protestant churches aren't as interested in systematic theology, and are more interested in issue driven theology. There's positives and negatives to that.

    You said: "Not the kind of methology I'm talking about. Sola Scriptura only says that the Bible is the only final authority. Sola Scriptura doesn't say which issues in theology need to be explicit and definite and which ones don't." For most protestants it does (I know you will not agree, and I don't expect you to:). The ones that are in scripture are explicit and definite, and the ones that aren't are not. I know that's probably too simple to be acceptable to you, yet that's what most evangelicals think. I, however, unlike most evangelicals, won't discount the role of natural theology either-- see J. budziszewski, "What we can't not know" for a brilliant explanation--by an evangelical protestant--of how natural law gives us an idea of what theology should be looking at.

    Thanks for the response!

  13. Sorry for the double post, much of which is repeated:( Some is different though:)

  14. Thanks to both Andrew and Brantly for your posts. I am an evangelical dating a Catholic, and feel (as Brantly does) that we have things to learn from each other.

    In response to the comment about a lack of theology, the evidence given is a church website's "statement of faith." As others have noted, this does not seem like a fair parallel to the Catechism. Brantly, have you considered evangelical church membership documents as another indication of their theology? I am going through a church membership class at my evangelical church right now, and have been required to read 60 page documents on my church's beliefs. And that's per class! I understand that you still may disagree that this still varies local church to local church, but is certainly more representative than the "2 page statement of faith" for what a church believes. You are not going to find something universal like the Catechism because evangelical churches don't have the hierarchical, unifying structure over all of the local bodies. But you know that.

    I don't know enough about Catholic church membership and what that means to be able to draw a parallel, but I think these types of documents would give a better idea of what a church believes doctrine-wise.

    And I'm with Andrew, where's the love on this post? Evangelicals were blind-sided!

    Oh, and one last question for Brantly: In light of the more local structure of evangelical churches, what would you like to see in terms of presentation of doctrine for Evangelicals? In other words, how do you view the Catechism as translating for Evangelicals?

    Thanks again!