A Question I Was Asked:

Am I Too Individualistic?

The Question:

How do you feel about the following statement? Could it even apply to you?

'While we certainly are responsible individually to be in the Word and seeking to understand it, we learn from a study of church history that it is the lone interpreter of Scripture who can easily go astray. Theologian Harold O. J. Brown notes that "Solitary study, cut off from the fellowship of believers seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and lacking any awareness of the faith of the church through the ages, is often a source of serious error." "Evangelicals should come to grips with the fact that the Bible belongs to the church," says Robert Webber. "It is the living church that receives, guards, passes on, and interprets Scripture. Consequently the modern individualistic approach to interpretation of Scripture should give way to the authority of what the church has always believed, taught, and passed down in history."'

That article comes from Rick Wade and includes several quotes from other writers. It appears on your own website here. But could this be applied to you? Are you too individualistic?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Before I attempt to respond to the question, let me say that I am substantially in agreement with the quote you used - I have no problem with it.

The point here is: Most of the cults and sects were founded by people who rejected the established doctrines of the church, arrogantly refusing to even consider their own theological conclusions at a deeper level, and coming to believe - usually from a very inadequate base of knowledge, Bible study and learning - that they knew better; that can be applied to countless founders of these groups!
This quoted article, by the way, appears on our website because I substantially agree with its conclusions. However, as in all cases, when we carry an article from another writer - whilst UK Apologetics substantially supports it - that does not necessarily mean every detail! However, I agree with the general approach of that article, but with one or two provisos which I will consider as my very last point. The article makes two overall points:

a. Not all tradition within the church is bad (evangelicals sometimes infer that it is, even when we evangelicals often have our own traditions!)

b. There is a danger of too much individualism within Protestantism (I heartily agree, and I have made the same point myself on several occasions; Protestants don't stand under papal authority, but only under the great Christian creeds, this gives us great freedom, but it is frequently abused: witness the often outrageous behaviour of numerous US-based "evangelistic ministries" just as a 'starter').

But to answer the direct challenge to myself: My own approach to Scripture is certainly not "individualistic" in those vital areas of Christian doctrine which really matter. In the past I have thoroughly immersed myself in the teachings of the church. I have taken the time to read Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, I have read good parts of the 'Great Fathers,' that is, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Ambrose. I have read the 'Apostolic Fathers,' that is, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, plus several of the 'Greek Fathers,' such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen and Athansius. Have I read everything by all such writers? Of course not, absolutely not - nobody ever could, but I am broadly aware of their theological conclusions. I also hold an honours-level theology degree from Cardiff University (1995-98). At that university, I also studied liberal scholars, despite being totally out of sympathy with many of their conclusions, these included Paul Tillich, Bultmann, Macquarrie and several others. One of my dissertations compared the doctrine of election in Calvin and Karl Barth. This, I may say, was highly-praised. At the same time I also studied both Hebrew and Greek, and still occasionally like to read my Greek New Testament. Now I write none of this to boast, but to illuminate the fact that I have thoroughly immersed myself in the teachings of Christianity. When I answer Bible questions, I am operating from this base - I am no "lone wolf," offering private interpretations!

So I support the church, I am only 'individualistic' to the degree that my wife and I mostly now worship at home, keeping communion once a month. We have just had too many bad experiences in "churches." Not even sure that some of these places should even be referred to by that name! Would we ever worship with a larger group again? Certainly, we keep our options open. But we take comfort when Jesus spoke about two or three being gathered together in His name (Matthew 18:20). From the New Testament, it appears that the most ideal church scenario is a 'home church,' led by the Christian 'elder' of the home, this, perhaps being kept to no more than 12-25 people before another elder (having been carefully tutored in Scripture) is encouraged to set up another 'homechurch.' The early church appears to have operated this way for 300 years until the time of Constantine. We operated as a 'homechurch' during much of the 1990s, with a successful 'Sunday School' and with myself occasionally going out to preach elsewhere. It was successful and we are now back to that. Trouble is: in this world, large organisations always lead to corruption, even big churches seem to have problems.

So whilst I agree that individualism within Protestantism has often led to many problems, I think that is a tough charge to level personally at me. Doctrinally and theologically I am not out there 'doing my own thing,' I support Christianity, I support the great Christian creeds, but we are also very committed to the concept of 'small church,' avoiding all the organisational headaches and the backbiting sometimes prevalent in large church organisations.

Now back to that article. The quoted article is a generally good one, nevertheless, it is somewhat pro-Catholic, as any careful reading will reveal (one quoted writer, Daniel Williams, whilst a baptist minister, regularly lectured at Loyola, a Catholic university, another, Harold O. J. Brown, who died in 1974, whilst a very good man in many areas - especially in his opposition to abortion - was heavily into ecumenism and wanted to see Protestants and Catholics together). So not a bad article, and much food for thought, but one might just bear such background influences in mind.

Robin A. Brace. August 18th, 2013.