|Volume III, Issue 1
|Shaeffer’s Dancing Alone
Jefferis Kent Peterson
O Theophilus is the Quarterly Journal of The Center For Biblical Literacy
Frank Shaeffer’s Dancing Alone: The Quest For Orthodox Faith In the Age of False Religions
Iniquity abounds in the Western world and there seems to be no consensus on what is right and what is wrong. There is no agreement on how to stop the decline of our society. Underlying this confusion is a passion for selfish individualism falsely called “freedom” which has become a substitute for liberty built upon character and self discipline. Our day is reminiscent of the time of Israel’s Judges when people worshipped many gods because there was no king in the land and everyone did “what was right in his own eyes.” Frank Schaeffer attributes much of this moral decline to Protestant Christianity in his latest book, Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions, 1994 Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, MA.
Frank is the son of the famous Francis Schaeffer, but has rejected the evangelical, Protestant Christianity of his father. In a scathing indictment of the Protestant Reformation, which he calls the Protestant Rebellion, he attributes the rise of selfish individualism, secularism and humanism to the crowning of individual conscience in matters of faith and practice. The right of every individual to interpret the Word of God for himself, or herself, is a fundamental principle and practice of Protestant philosophy and theology. The results of such a principle, however, are a splintered Protestant Church into over 20,000 sects and denominations, doctrinal squabbles, emotional mishandling of God’s truth, heretical excesses, ignorance of Church history, and counterfeit religions. The philosophical underpinnings of Protestant thought make it hard to justify the absolute, unchanging authority of the Scripture to the culture when the final authority is dependent upon personal interpretation. Since the Church gives no single clear witness, (observe the disagreements in the Church over abortion and homosexuality), the people of the world are forced to conclude that there is no universal truth, only relative opinions. Finally, everyone is left to be his own god in matters of religion, truth, and morals.
What is missing, says Schaeffer, is the idea of the corporate authority of the Church where truth is proved through the wisdom of the Body through the ages. Truth does not depend upon one person’s interpretation, but upon the Word of God interpreted through Holy Tradition and confirmed by the Councils of the Church that guard the Church from heresy and error. This Tradition, says Schaeffer, has only been authentically preserved in the Orthodox Church which claims to trace its leaders (priests and bishops) to the first Apostles.
While I don’t agree with all his conclusions, Schaeffer’s cultural analysis of modern Christendom is excellent, and he makes a good case for Protestant theological participation in the causes of our state, especially our divisiveness and our doctrinal, scriptural, and historical ignorance. The book is worth a read to wake you up, and his criticisms need to be faced head on.
On the downside, Schaeffer’s personal bitterness and hurt emerge in a polemic that is as acerbic as anything Martin Luther or John Calvin ever wrote. Midway through the book, the analysis of our errors, rather than being helpful, degenerate almost into name calling. The book becomes harder to read not for what is being said, but for the way in which it is said. Its tone represents an angry man more than an orthodox faith.
Another flaw is Schaeffer’s tendency to force all of Western history into one particular interpretive model blaming all of the West’s problems solely on Protestantism. That focus is unjustly narrow to account for all the influences affecting the West in its decline, even though Protestantism may be more susceptible to the assault than Orthodoxy.
While surely the West can benefit from the corporate wisdom of Orthodoxy, the argument of historical continuity is insufficient proof that the current Orthodox Church has faithfully preserved the interpretation and practice of the Scriptures. The Old Testament is replete with examples where the Levitical priesthood compromised itself by its allegiance to the power structure of Israel. Corrupt and idolatrous kings and priests had to be confronted by prophets who bore the fresh Word of the Lord.
Levitical tradition and lineage were not guarantees of faithfulness then; neither are they today. There are further examples in history, from Constantine to Henry VIII, where alliances of church and king produced political and economic benefits for the Church at the expense of faithfulness to the Word of God. That Orthodoxy has been preserved from such influences to such a degree that it has no need of prophetic challenge cannot be demonstrated either by history or by current practice.
Schaeffer’s book will undoubtedly rub the Protestant believer’s fur the wrong way, which is perhaps a merit in itself. His criticisms, however, are less remedial than irksome, since he dismisses any possibility of reform. His condemnation of Protestantism is utter and complete, leaving no alternative except caustic rebuke. Rather than coaxing more Protestants to “return” to Orthodoxy, Frank may have to continue to dance alone.
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