The endless internecine battle over which Christian church is the real church of Christ and which ones are not is ill-conceived and wrong–headed. Every one of the combatants is wrong.
Jesus was not a Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Russian Orthodox, or Methodist. The list could be expanded indefinitely so as to include every church on the planet. He was, of course, a messianic Jew, something none of those churches is or will consent to be. Naturally, they all acknowledge that He was the Messiah, and they should. But that does not make them messianic Jews. Indeed they are not Jews at all, messianic or otherwise. It means only that they acknowledge a truth but do not conform to it. They remain outside the Jewish fold inside of which He always remained. They stand on the wrong side of the important difference noted by Adolph von Harnack: the difference between the religion of Jesus and the religions about Jesus.
They have the latter; He had the former.
When this enormously important difference is pointed out to them, a difference that pits them and their churches against Christ Himself, they posture grotesquely and argue falsely to advance the stunning pretense that they really are Jewish after all -- as did the man who affirmed to me yesterday that, “Nothing is more Jewish than the Roman Catholic Eucharist.”
Once a man or a church says something so utterly preposterous, why need one pay any further attention to any theological statement he or it makes on any theological subject whatever? Life is too short, and the stewardship of our personal time and resources is so important, that we simply have to move on. The time comes to shake the dust from your feet (Matt 10: 14), to cease casting pearls before swine (Matt. 7: 6), and to stop answering fools according to their foolishness (Prov. 26: 4).
When such Christians and churches make their theological appeal to the Reformers, to the ancient church fathers, or to this or that council or tradition, they are telling you, without intending to, that they advance church-ianity rather than Christ-ianity. Rather than making Him the touchstone of their faith, their doctrines, and their practices, they turn to later innovations and to the accretions that have built up around the faith of Christ over the centuries and separated it from their own.
Let me be clear: To appeal to the reformers is better than to appeal to Rome because the reformers were at least partially successful in throwing off some of the multitude of errors and accretions piled on top the religion of Jesus over the centuries. A move back to the Bible is better than a move back to Rome precisely because it gets you closer to Christ. On that point, I stand closer to the reformers than to Rome on all counts. I cannot think of one -- not one -- issue over which Protestants and Catholics disagree where I think Rome is correct, whether it be transubstantiation, purgatory, the apocrypha, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the immaculate conception, papal primacy, papal infallibility, apostolic succession, etc. But to the degree that the reformers fall short of returning to the religion of Jesus, I am disappointed with them, heroic and insightful though they often were.
In other words, while they pose as theological conservatives, they are defenders of innovation and invention, which means they are not sufficiently wary of human nature and the way it habitually distorts religion whenever it can. They do not see that the idolatrous innovations condemned by Paul at the end of Roman 1 are things that arise habitually and willfully from the fallenness we all share. We cannot be trusted. Jesus can.
I remember saying to a colleague some years ago, a staunchly conservative man who then was an Anglican, something that I think must have shocked him: “You’re not conservative enough. You keep going back to Cranmer. I want you to go back to Christ. I’m outflanking you from the right.”
It isn’t that Rome, Canterbury, Geneva, or Antioch shine light on Christ. He shines light on them. We see them better by means of Him, not we see Him better by means of them. It’s downhill from Christ, not from, say, the Vatican, which is not the home of messianic Judaism either.
As long as you are pitted against Him, you lose.
As long as you fall afoul of the difference between the religion of Jesus and the religions about Jesus, you are fighting the way, the truth and life.
In short, prepositions matter.