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Sunday, June 12, 2005

The "breakdown of Protestantism"

"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.


Anonymous said...


You truly are past my level of intellect on the subject. Thank you for your insight, it gives me many things to study in the Bible. I will always be thankful for the two Baptists who came to my door when I was 15 and told me about Jesus Christ.

Thanks again Contarini,

John Student

sam said...


I really appreciate your insights here. For a while people have asked me what I am looking for in churches, and often I say that I want a church to see itself as Church. But here you've better articulated what I mean by that. You've scratched some sort of abstract itch that I haven't been able to reach for a while. So thanks.


CPA said...

As a "wacky and idiosyncratic" Lutheran (actually that sounds kind of attractive in a postmodern way), I think you are a bit distorting our position (wacky and idiosyncratic no doubt) on ecumenism.

Lutheranism sees the fundamental nature of the Gospel as a promise. The Bible is basically a promise, the liturgy is a promise, the sacraments are a promise, the sermon is a promise. (The promise makes sense only with a preceding warning, but leave that aside). The promise is all the same: all your sins are forgiven for Jesus's sake. Wherever the promise is made by a person (whether in liturgy, in sacraments, preaching, whatever) and is believed, there is the church.

The whole scaffolding of doctrine (in which I believe) is designed solely to keep that promise a pure and reliable promise. Thus all the doctrines are to serve the proclamation of the promise, which creates (through the Holy Spirit), the church. So technically speaking, none of the Lutheran beliefs need to be present for a church to be a church, as long as that promise is purely and reliably given and believed. Historically, we believe without the Lutheran beliefs that promise will get more and more obscured (like dust preventing the light coming through a stained glass window and illuminating the pattern), but those doctrines are like cleaning the glass, it's not to illuminate the pattern, but to allow the pattern to be illuminated by the light (the Holy Spirit). But that light is pretty strong and it shines through the dust in every Trinitarian church. (although not every one in any church, sees it.)

Anyway, I know this probably won't change your point of view, but I wanted you to be clear about what we actually believe.

Bix said...

There will not be a big hurrah when the faithful gather at the end, thats my feeling. Don't look for big manifestations. It will be the work and labor of the Lord. He will fool any human efforts which by all means must be futile.

But the road goes via Rome before we can enter the blessed city. Look for the trash of this world, they will lead the way. Not the big shiny guys. Look in their eyes and you will recognize them.

God bless!

Patrick, Sweden

Anonymous said...

"Contarini" (my good friend!):

Have you seen Telford Work's piece on the "One True Church" at You know Telford, I believe, from our Duke days--he was headed out when we were headed in. I'd be interested to hear your comments on this essay of his.

Recovering Student

philos said...

Contarini, you have put your finger on a pulsing sore in Christendom. Division is troubling, rationally as well as emotionally, to all who care about Christ's church. But I'm not sure that in any ways that matter this is a "breakdown" of any one group of Christians more than any other.

Once we accept--and I don't really believe that you don't accept it--that all "orthodox" (Biblical, Trinitarian, rule-of-faith) fellowships are indeed part of the Church, then there is no way around the fact of division.

I think most Christians are in denial. Some--(for example, many RCs) assert: WE are the only church that matters, and WE are not divided. BOTH claims are laughable. Others (including many prominent evangelicals) pretend that all the church's divisions (whether doctrinal or structural) are cosmetic and unimportant.

Neither works. Christ's body is divided. But I'm still not sure why you see this as a breakdown in Protestantism specifically.

I do like your emphasis on accountability--though accountability is INCREDIBLY messy, and deserves a separate essay to define it. For example, does it mean mutual accountability within a consensual unity; or that a power-broker can tell dissenters to shut up or be ejected? Many RCs are asking themselves this very question.

You are far more a historian than I am. But I've never understood why you can look at warring cardinals and burnt Wycliffes and see "unity"--but miss the underlying unity in the modern Protestant landscape, in which different traditions ARE (slowly--over decades, not years) holding one another accountable, calling one another back, to the basic Biblical doctrine that really can be conceived of as being believed everywhere by everyone.

I guess I'm with Newbigin. I do think we learn from each other, and that there's hope. But the fact remains that the Church is divided, in a way that remains agonizingly painful to anybody who really cares about the church.

Antonio said...

Have you ever read the decrees of the Council of Trent?
(I think they are available here: )

Abu Daoud said...

Indeed, which is why technically according to RC theology the various Protestant churches are actually "ecclesial communities" and not really churches in the full sense of the word. So the Anglican Communion is not so different from, say, the YMCA.

I think that the Latin "churches" (Lutherans and Anglicans included) are closer to Rome than Rome is to Constantinople though. It is beyond me how the Orthodox can insist that RC's need to be re-baptized. I like that RC's accept that even Protestants can baptize validly.

Antonio said...

Are you still there?

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