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Sunday, August 14, 2005

The case for Protestantism

First of all, I'm sorry I've been away from the blog for so long. I worked for two weeks at a summer program at Duke University, the "Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation." I strongly recommend this program, by the way, to any of you who know (or are) intelligent, serious Christian young people who will be either rising juniors or rising seniors (in high school) next summer. I've also been trying to finish up the dissertation (at last!) and have agreed with my advisor on a target date for the defense (as soon after Oct. 15 as we can get the committee together). So it's been quite a full summer.

In my last post, I outlined the case for the "breakdown of Protestantism." In this one, I'd like to sketch a case _for_ Protestantism--specifically, for why those of us who are currently Protestants are justified in remaining so. I am not trying to persuade Catholics or Orthodox to become Protestants (God forbid!). I am not even trying to persuade Protestants not to become Catholic or Orthodox. I am trying to outline a rationale by which those of us who are not convinced that we should leave Protestantism can nonetheless be faithful to our vision of the unity of the Church, and can hold ourselves accountable to the Universal Church throughout space and time.

I've said in previous blogs that I think the norm for all of us should be faithfulness to the tradition in which we were raised. This is the normal way in which human beings reach truth--not because every tradition is equally true, but because as a rule we are only able to challenge our traditions if we submit ourselves to their discipline.

All religions contain what Justin Martyr called the "seminal Word" (logos spermatikos). As a Christian, I believe that submission to the discipline of the Logos in non-Christian religions naturally and ultimately leads people to Christ (this is not a judgment on the fate of those who do not get there in this life). Christians are able to respect those who, like the Tartar king in Chaucer's Squire's Tale, "keep the law to which they are sworn," while believing that faithfulness to the seeds of truth in that "law" ultimately tends to lead such people beyond it.

So obviously when Muslims come to the point where they recognize Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, they are no longer Muslims. When Hindus come to accept the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnation of God, they are no longer Hindus. When Buddhists accept that personal union with God in Christ is the ultimate goal of human beings (rather than a penultimate end for those not yet ready for nirvana), they are no longer Buddhists. These other religions are, in fact, other religions. Whatever points of contact they have with Christianity, they propose other ends for human existence than those proposed by Christianity. Conversion is therefore (we Christians must affirm) the ultimate goal which we desire for members of other religions, however much we may respect their faithfulness to the "law to which they are sworn."

The various traditions of Trinitarian Christianity are, however, _not_ different religions. Whatever their differences, they all propose that the ultimate end of human beings is union with the Triune God through the revelation of that God in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. The particular things they claim for themselves, and the particular doctrines they espouse, are (by their own hearty confession) subordinate to that ultimate goal. Furthermore, whatever the peculiarities of their reading of history, they all claim that Jesus Christ has been confessed for the past two thousand years, and that Christians today are part of that continuing story and claim unity with all who have truly called on Christ throughout space and time.

That means that (to take a tradition with which I strongly disagree) a Baptist who becomes convinced that baptism confers grace and that paedobaptism (however undesirable) is valid is not in the same position as the Muslim or Hindu who comes to believe in Christianity. While this person's belief is in contrast with the historic beliefs of his tradition, that tradition holds as one of its central principles that no human tradition has ultimate authority. Therefore, in a sense the Baptist is becoming more fully a Baptist by rejecting the errors of his tradition.

But enough of hypothetical cases. I am myself a scion of the holiness movement. My great-great-uncle and my great-grandfather left the Methodist Episcopal Church because they believed that it was apostate and that all true Christians should "come out" from existing denominations to form a holy community faithful to Christ. My grandparents, in turn, left the church in which they had grown up in order to minister to Christians who were outside that community. I grew up in what amounted to a house church, steeped in Scripture and in a piety focused on personal dedication to Christ. I was told over and over that we should be simply "Christians" rather than giving our loyalty to any human tradition. I was taught that we should seek for an experience of the Holy Spirit that led to our total consecration to God and hence to freedom from sin.

I now believe that much that I was taught was wrong. Our belief in the "invisible Church" led us to downplay the importance of actual, organized Christian communities. More seriously, our commitment to entire sanctification and "keeping ourselves unspotted from the world" led us to look down on the flawed and worldly Christians who make up practically every actual Christian community. Our belief that the Church had historically compromised with the world led us to despise much of the tradition of Christianity (especially since Constantine), hence insulating ourselves from the challenges posed by that tradition.

I have had to reject much of what I was taught. And yet I have only been able to do this because I was trying to be faithful to the things that I was taught were absolutely central. I was taught that above everything else I should follow Jesus Christ. I find that this leads me to treat with respect every manifestation of the Christian tradition in history, however compromised with the world it might be. I was taught that the pursuit of holiness is the only thing that really matters; I have found that the sacramental and liturgical traditions of Christianity kindle in me the desire for holiness. I was taught that the Church should be countercultural and challenge the world; I find that the Roman Communion often does so more effectively than Protestantism.

None of this is, on the face of it, incompatible with conversion to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Such converts (especially to Catholicism) often claim that they have simply come into the fullness of what they were always taught. But from my perspective this is true only in a highly theoretical sense. Allegedly all the good things of Protestantism are implicitly possible in Catholicism (leaving Orthodoxy aside for the moment). But that is not the practical reality I find. I find that the traditions of Wesleyan Protestantism foster holiness and Christian faithfulness in ways that the structures and traditions of the Roman Communion do not (the reverse is also true). The priesthood of all believers (with a consequent tendency toward democracy in church polity), the evangelical conception of saving faith as an inseparable unit (as opposed to the Catholic compound of faith and charity), the vernacular hymn-singing tradition, and the stress on the study of Scripture as a central means of grace are all valuable aspects of Protestantism to me. Perhaps everything true in them can be reconciled with Catholicism (this is more obviously true of the latter two items than the former two). But for a convert to do so implies that one is converting to a tradition in order to change it.

Conversion, by its very name, implies a radical change of heart. It implies that one's priorities have been radically reoriented, however much continuity one may experience. It requires a radical humility toward the tradition one is accepting. That is not to say that the convert has nothing to offer from her former tradition--but all such offerings must be made humbly and tentatively, subject to the new rules by which one is playing. This requires an act of ultimate trust in the integrity of the tradition to which one is converting.

It is this act of trust which I have so far found impossible in the case of Catholicism. Because it is precisely the central elements of my Wesleyan tradition that have led me toward Catholicism, I am only capable of considering conversion to Catholicism _if_ those elements can be preserved within Catholicism. I would therefore be coming in with a set of mental qualifications. I can accept the hierarchical priesthood _if_ it does not violate the underlying primacy of the universal baptismal priesthood. If I found that in practice the ministerial priesthood did not serve the universal priesthood, I would be compelled to question it. I can accept the equality of Scripture and Tradition _if_ it does not make me regard Scripture with less reverence or see it as a less central means of grace than I have heretofore done. I can possibly accept the doctrine of unformed faith if it still allows me to place my trust in Jesus Christ with the same confidence and simplicity that my evangelical tradition has taught me to do.

On the face of it, judging from the behavior of the average Catholic and the life of the average Catholic congregation, it looks as if all these things would be very difficult. Not impossible, but working uphill at every step, against the inertia of centuries and against many of the cultural and devotional patterns that have become ingrained in Catholicism. I see many converts who are doing just that. I wish them well, but I'm not sure it's an enterprise I should embark on.

In conversion stories (or stories about switching traditions, which in many cases should not be called conversion) one often finds a pattern like this: the convert tried for some time to practise his newly discovered truths within the confines of his own tradition, only to decide that this somehow violated the integrity of that tradition. But one has to question this. If the practices or beliefs in question were matters of personal taste (even if they were genuinely superior in ways that are theologically and devotionally significant), then the "conversion" or shifting of allegiance was (however understandable) frivolous and ultimately indefensible. I may prefer Gregorian chant to praise choruses, but does that justify my abandoning one group of Christians for another?

But if the newly discovered beliefs or practices _are_ necessary to a fuller incorporation in the mystery of Christ, then surely talk of respect for one's old tradition is rather disingenuous. As I said earlier, all Christian traditions claim before all else to be faithful to Christ and the Word of God. If this faithfulness involves abandonment of praise choruses for Gregorian chant, or institution of weekly communion, or adoption of prayer for the dead, then so be it. Methodists (to take the tradition I will probably embrace if I remain Protestant) claim that being Christian is more important than being Methodist. Why not take them at their word? That is to show true respect for a tradition--to challenge it to be more fully what it claims to be, rather than stuffing its good points into a metaphysical suitcase and packing oneself off to an allegedly fuller tradition (which one nonetheless finds the need to improve in myriad ways).

In this post and the previous one I've tried to outline the two sides of the dilemma that confronts me. I have no doubt that Protestantism cannot function as an autonomous expression of Christianity. What I do not know is whether it has so completely broken down that I am obligated to abandon it, or whether (as I've been suggesting) faithfulness to my own heritage and to the Universal Church requires me to remain within my tradition (a tricky point for me owing to my nondenominational upbringing) and try to coax it toward greater faithfulness (even as I submit to its disciplines and hear the voice of the Universal Church through it, however distorted by local traditions and the poisonous heritage of schism).

By posting this I am of course asking for arguments on both sides, and yet I'm tired of the whole struggle, which has gone on for ten years now. I'm less and less confident in the possibility of big answers. I think grace comes to us through the cracks in our paradigms rather than through the harmony of a grand, consistent system. A hymn here and a prayer there, the taste of God's blood in the winecup and the handclasp of an old WWII veteran whose hair has fallen out from chemo--these mean more and more to me, and confident answers mean less and less. All I ask is enough certainty to enable me to live with faithfulness and joy, enough confidence to keep me from continually second-guessing my motives (and I will tend to do this do this no matter which path I take--I can make an excellent case that either remaining Protestant or becoming Catholic is fundamentally selfish and cowardly).

I welcome your arguments and comments, but I crave your prayers.

12 comments:

Antonio said...

"All I ask is enough certainty to enable me to live with faithfulness and joy, enough confidence to keep me from continually second-guessing my motives".

Edwin:
For a not very intelligent (and quite coward too) Roman Catholic as me, your (and many others') sincere and painful "struggle" is a proof of why Jesus did found one Church, and chose one single man to give him "the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven".
Authority is necessary. It could have been exercised in different ways, maybe. But "the gifts and call of God are irrevocable".
I promise to offer my poor prayers for your intentions.

Pontificator said...

Trackback Pontifications

Derek Jenkins said...

Edwin:

Thanks for your thoughtful post. For the past several years I have lived in the very environment on which you cut your teeth. I was one of the 'pastors/leaders' of a 50 'member' or so home church where most of those participating held almost exactly those views which you outline. I never quite subscribed to all of that but I was very drawn by the desire for a tighter sense of community in my Christian experience.

As someone who has come out of this environment and into the Catholic Church (beginning RCIA next month) I would like to offer the following.

It seems to me you are judging the Catholic Church from very Protestant categories. And you may say, "What else can I do"? Indeed, I know how you feel. Here is the challenge, and T.S. Eliot is where I first encountered it: In order to judge a thing you must make every effort to die to yourself and your 'opinions' and enter into the essence of the thing you wish to judge. After you accomplish this, and it requires a quite profound investment, you can 'return' to yourself and right before you have regained all of who you are and before you have forgotten what you were looking at you can make a judgement.

It sounds daunting, but it is quite exhilirating, and in the end, enormously satisfying.

You were raised in a tradition that is as anti-dogmatic as any. You must study the history of the early heresies and learn why this is a tragedy.

You were raised, whether you were conscious of it or not, to place your own private interpretation and judgement of Scripture above all others. You must see where this contradicts the whole history of the church and why.

You must see what the Catholic idea of the Church is. It seems you are just kind of going point by point in various areas and comparing that to what you think is true. By what authority have you accepted the ideas you hold to be true. Your private judgement? A certain tradition? But who gave them authority?

I would say it would take 3-6 months of devoted study to be able to see Catholicism as an informed mature Catholic sees. Only then will you be able to make an informed judgement.

If you care to try I have a few recommendations on where to begin.

Warmest Regards

Derek Jenkins said...

My apologies Edwin, I came to your sight via Pontificator's and failed to scan thru some of your previous posts before commenting. I see now you are much further along than this post alone could have revealed.

Have you read any of the following:

Louis Bouyer's The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism

Karl Adam's The Spirit of Catholicism

Vladimir Soloviev's The Russian Church and the Papacy

Hans Urs Von Balthasar's The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church

I still think it would benefit you much to enter into the skin of a fully informed Catholicism.

cparks said...

Lots of good stuff, Edwin. I'd also add that I think our domestic situations greatly influence our thinking about these matters, possibly even in ways we don't realize.

In addition, who we're married to may very well, in addition to affecting the conclusions we reach, influence what questions we ask to begin with.

What you've shared about your journey with your wife is one example; my own is another: I was raised Baptist and my wife Catholic; she was no longer practicing, for various reasons, and Orthodoxy, without trying to cheapen the import of the decision, was a good "middle ground" for both of us to meet on, relative to our unbringings and formations. IOW, ISTM that where we're each ending up is somewhat "natural." Another example (we know of many of this type, from various boards) is where one spouse is really interested in, say, Orthodoxy or Catholicism, and the other spouse doesn't want to have anything to do with it. Each of the three examples will tend to end up in a different place, not necessarily because one makes a right choice and another makes a wrong choice, but because a different course of action may be best in each case.

At the end of the day, I doubt we can be as "objective" about these things as we'd like to be. But I don't think that's a bad thing. I think, on some level, we all realize that What God Wants Us To Do not only involves persistently seeking the truth, wherever it may lead, but learning how to apply those truths within the contexts of the various situations in which God has placed us.

Contarini said...

Binx,

Thank you very much for your comments. You're right that I have been on this journey for a long while and have thought through the issues more than you realized--but you couldn't be expected to! I do come from a nondenominational holiness background, but I have been an Episcopalian for seven years now. However, I've married a Methodist (a very high-church Methodist, be it added) and have recently been rediscovering much of the value of my Wesleyan heritage.

The advice you gave me is advice that I tried to heed many years ago. In fact, your estimate of how long it takes to be able to "see Catholicism as an informed mature Catholic sees" is far too conservative. I've been studying these issues for ten years now--perhaps not as devotedly as I might have, but quite consistently. And I certainly don't claim to see things as an informed mature Catholic would. How could I?

I have in fact been focusing mostly on the big issues of authority. I am, in the end, totally unconvinced by the appeal to authority as a way of shortcutting substantive discussion of the issues (and I know that's not what you think you were doing, but I think it is). You can find some of my thoughts on this earlier in the blog--if you are interested, I suggest that you begin with the post "Two Reasons for Converting" from January of this year. I don't think substantive arguments need authority to make them true. Authority is necessary to keep the vagaries of private judgment from destroying any semblance of unity. And that is the fatal flaw of Protestantism. The question is not whether Protestantism has gone fatally wrong here (unquestionably it has), but how to fix it. Is unconditional submission to Rome the answer? That's what I'm not convinced of.

I know I need to clarify my position on this more fully. But in the process of writing these posts about authority and tradition I came to realize that as my views on the "big picture" have crystallized, and as Anglicanism has given me a more stable sense of what I believe and how I relate to Christ, I've actually come to some clarity on many of the specific issues that I used to find insoluble and hence (as you seem to be recommending) had put on the shelf.

As for the books you recommend, I have read Bouyer and parts of Adam. I've read bits of Soloviev but not that particular book, I believe, and I have not yet succeeded in getting deeply into Von Balthasar. The 20th-century Catholic theological writers (as distinct from the imaginative writers like Chesterton, Claudel, Waugh, Flannery o'Connor, etc.,) with whom I'm most familiar are the French "nouvelle theologie" types like Bouyer, De Lubac, Danielou, and to some extent Congar. I've also read quite a bit of Ratzinger, and among English-speaking theologians Avery Dulles and Aidan Nichols. I confess that my reading has been far more desultory than it should have been, but I have covered quite a bit of ground. I'm always willing to hear new recommendations, though, and I recognize that I've given the Germans short shrift (especially, no doubt, because I have to read far too much scholarly German stuff for my studies as a Ph.D. student in Reformation-era church history!). The Catholic writers I know most about (again, other than lighter modern writers like Chesterton or Tolkien) are the Fathers and the scholastics, and that no doubt has shaped my development. I'm a lot more convinced that I need to be in continuity with the pre-Reformation Church than I am that post-Tridentine Catholicism is the only true heir of that Church.

Derek Jenkins said...

Greetings Edwin:

I am still in process trying to catch up on your blog. I am wondering if you could possibly email me?

I would be glad to post an address if that it possible.

Regards

HGL said...

Before reading your case, as an ex-Protestant I say there is really none.

There might be a case for not yet becoming Catholic or Orthodox, as in the case of not knowing which of them one should try.

From my experience, I do not recommend trying both.

It can become a pretty hard life if one bishop prays for you to not do this and another bishop prays for you to do that and you are in Communion with both and to you "that" involves "this".

But I am not at all saying this justifies going to the next Anglican Communion.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

I've said in previous blogs that I think the norm for all of us should be faithfulness to the tradition in which we were raised. This is the normal way in which human beings reach truth--not because every tradition is equally true, but because as a rule we are only able to challenge our traditions if we submit ourselves to their discipline.

As a preliminary norm, yes.

But this does not mean one can continue to belong to a Tradition, after following the criteria of which one has concluded one must challenge it.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

All religions contain what Justin Martyr called the "seminal Word" (logos spermatikos). As a Christian, I believe that submission to the discipline of the Logos in non-Christian religions naturally and ultimately leads people to Christ (this is not a judgment on the fate of those who do not get there in this life).

Leads up to a moment where they can chose Christ or reject him, yes. A false religion does not continue to lead up to Christ in virtue of its logoi spermatikoi any person who has already rejected him.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

While this person's belief is in contrast with the historic beliefs of his tradition, that tradition holds as one of its central principles that no human tradition has ultimate authority.

You confuse "traditions of men" (like the "it is korban" pilpul as opposed to the actual laws of Moses) with "tradition among men" (like, up to then, the Hebrew Tradition as opposed to Ethnic Traditions, or Jewish as opposed to Samaritan).

My view is that Orthodoxy might be a form of the one Christian religion, Protestantism is not.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

The priesthood of all believers (with a consequent tendency toward democracy in church polity),

Accept hierarchy, and it is Catholic. All baptised are adoring at Mass, but it is the ordained priests who offer it.

the evangelical conception of saving faith as an inseparable unit (as opposed to the Catholic compound of faith and charity),

A hardened sinner is not saved becase he refuses to apostasise from Christian truth.

the vernacular hymn-singing tradition,

Exists, like during processions or pilgrimages, while walking.

and the stress on the study of Scripture as a central means of grace

Is it for all? It cannot be as central as learning the set pieces and prayers of the Catechism, which is for all.

are all valuable aspects of Protestantism to me. Perhaps everything true in them can be reconciled with Catholicism (this is more obviously true of the latter two items than the former two).

Everything true in them is actually there in Catholicism. Without changing it.

But for a convert to do so implies that one is converting to a tradition in order to change it.

A thing to be avoided, for sure.