"John Student" asked in a comment to my last post why I thought Protestantism had broken down. Well, that is precisely the question for me. Has it? To defend the affirmative response to this question, I could refer John to Pontificator's eloquent posts over the past year or two, but then I don't agree with everything Pontificator has said by any means (he's coming from an Anglo-Catholic point of view in which Protestantism is not really a live option). So here goes:
Protestantism as a coherent form of Christianity is untenable for me because of the vital importance of the unity of the Church in both Scripture and Christian Tradition. I believe with all my heart that salvation means incorporation into Christ's Body. To be saved is to be brought into a living relationship with God through Christ, and this means that each individual believer forms an organic part of the mystical reality called the Body of Christ. So far, I think few if any Christians would disagree.
But here's the catch--this Mystical Body cannot _simply_ be thought of as an "invisible" reality. To do so is to deny both the full meaning of the Incarnation and our own nature as embodied creatures. It is not enough to say "as a Christian I have spiritual unity with all other Christians." This unity must have _some_ practical consequences for how I live my life and how I worship on Sunday morning.
It follows that any particular Christian body is a true church only insofar as it connects me with the universal Body of Christ. It must therefore either claim to be the universal Church or have a plausible account explaining how it is related to the universal Church as a part to the whole. And it must have some way of being accountable to the universal Church. For an intrinsic part of the visibility, the concrete reality, of the Church is that we can be held accountable to each other. This is one of the reasons why "spiritual unity" is so radically insufficient. (Another is that it allows us to continue to despise one another and see ourselves as superior--but that's actually just another facet of the lack of accountability.)
For many Protestants, the claim to be the universal Church (made by any particular Christian body) is an intrinsically absurd one. Of course such a claim must be nuanced, along the lines of Vatican II's clarification that non-Catholics participate to a great measure in the reality of the Church. And historically confessional Protestant churches (Lutheran and Reformed) have made such claims. Confessional Lutherans traditionally saw themselves as the one true visible expression of Christ's Church on earth. Similarly, many Reformed will say that the true Church in its fullness is the Church that holds Reformed doctrine. This approach is different from the Catholic one insofar as it makes doctrine primary--the true Church is just the Church that holds true doctrine (and administers the sacraments truly). But like the Vatican-II approach, this Protestant ecclesiology allows imperfect churches to have a measure of reality without participating in the fullness of the Church in the same way that doctrinally correct churches do.
I do not find the claims of confessional Protestantism in this regard persuasive. I do not believe that either Reformed or Lutheran theology, in their coherent, developed, confessional forms, represent the fullness (or even the fullness as it has been understood up to now) of God's revelation in Christ. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are, from my point of view, possible candidates. Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism are not. (Lutheranism is basically orthodox but wacky and idiosyncratic; Calvinism is more balanced but is seriously heterodox at several points.) None of the other forms of Protestantism can make a better claim in this regard--most, as far as I see it, don't even try.
The only tenable form of Protestantism for me, then, will be a form that can give an account of itself as a _part_ of the universal Church. But this means that the part must understand itself in relation to the whole, and it must have a way of being accountable to that whole. This is where Protestantism completely collapses, as I see it. The two forms of Protestantism with which I currently have some connection--Anglicanism and Methodism--speak of being part of the one holy Catholic Church of the Creeds, but do not in practice seem to have any way of living out this claim. This has become most glaringly obvious in the Episcopal Church since General Convention 2003, but the current crisis is just a symptom of a much deper problem.
This is what I mean by the "breakdown" of Protestantism. At the Reformation Protestants believed (with some reason) that they were accomplishing a much-needed reform of the Church that would lead to the collapse of the Papal "Antichrist" and the restoration of true Christianity in its purity. This clearly is not what happened and not what is going to happen. Again, in the 18th and early 19th centuries evangelical, revivalistic Protestants believed that through revivals and missions true Christianity was going to spread around the world, once again bringing about the collapse of false religion and ushering in the reign of Christ on earth. This too has not happened. Then, in the 20th century mainline Protestants (I'm thinking of solid, orthodox theologians like Lesslie Newbigin) believed that through ecumenism and mutual understanding Christians could get beyond their historic differences and discover the historic core that underlay their particular expressions, recognizing in each other the gifts missing in their own traditions. This too seems a failure now.
Of course Christ can bring success out of failure--it's his job description. But I see no reason to believe that any of these projects are rooted in any promise of Christ. I can see why Protestants during the heyday of each of the movements I mentioned (the Reformation, revivalism, ecumenism) saw a rationale and a purpose for Protestantism. But I can't. The earlier forms of Protestantism that saw Catholicism as an enemy were (I believe) clearly wrong, and the more ecumenical approach is incompatible with the dogmatic claims of Catholicism, and seems in practice to be fatal to orthodoxy even within a Protestant framework.
I could make a case on the other side. But this is the pro-breakdown case as I see it. I'm happy to elaborate on it further as needed.