Protestant State of the Union (Part II)
This is the second article in a two-part series on Protestantism. The first article can be found here.
When the Augustinian monk Martin Luther penned his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, it can be argued that Luther never intended to start a movement that resulted in splitting the unity of the Western Church. Given that Luther was excommunicated by the Church, I have met Lutherans who do not personally identify as “Protestant.” Luther never left the Church, they say; the Church left Luther. Even a casual reading of the Ninety-Five Theses reveals that Luther’s concerns were primarily tied to the practice of indulgences. He had no intention to undermine the historic creedal beliefs of orthodox Christianity.1 For the magisterial reformers, their theology remained quite Catholic while their worship practices and church structures were reformed.2 The authority of the Pope was replaced with the authority of the Scriptures, clergy married and fathered children, superstitious worship practices were abandoned, and the Bible was translated into the vernacular. Yet, all the while, a thread of continuity was maintained between the reformers and the historic creeds, ecumenical councils, and Church fathers. In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Protestants should seek to recover their historic and theological connections to the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (Jn 17:20-21).”
For the past year, I have been attending a matins prayer service at an Orthodox Church (OCA). Recently during one of those services, the priest stopped in the middle of the liturgy and said to me, “How do Protestants understand John 17?” For the Orthodox, there can be no ephemeral, abstract unity without a tangible, institutional form of unity. One needs only take a short car ride down the street to notice the abundance of Christian denominations with little visible signs of unity. We had a brief conversation about the lack of unity within Christendom today, especially within Protestant Christianity, and then resumed our reading of the Psalms. His question has lingered with me since that morning.
Two things need to be said about the lack of unity in Christianity. One, in the last twenty or thirty years there have been great strides toward unity. More and more churches today are adopting a non-denominational approach to ministry. They avoid controversial and divisive topics and focus on the essentials of the faith. Even churches that belong to established denominations will minimize their connections to those denominations in order to attract a wider range of guests. Congregants, for their part, feel freer to flow between denominations over their lifetime. There are even increasing efforts between Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to bridge the ancient divide between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.3 Two, Protestants, in contrast to the Orthodox, see church unity as a spiritual phenomenon rather than an institutional phenomenon. Most of the Protestants I know recognize that all true believers–whatever their denomination or local church–belong to the mystical Body of Christ. Even if Protestants do not actively pursue visible unity with other believers, many of them practice their faith with an ecumenical worldview and a spirit of charity toward believers in other traditions.4
Yet, we also need to be careful about whitewashing over the fractured nature of Protestant Christianity today. We do not agree on many topics: church governance and structure, the nature of the sacraments, the gifts of the spirit, the possibility of Christian perfection, the eternal security of the believer, the interpretation of the Bible, the events at the end of time, and so forth. If Jesus’ final prayer for his followers was that they might have unity, why are we content to live with a situation where Protestant churches teach mutually exclusive doctrines? If unity is our testimony to the world about the truth of the gospel, why do we not seek a greater degree of institutional unity so that the world might see our oneness of faith? For too long Protestants have continued to divide over every matter of faith and practice. The time has come for Protestants to pursue reconciliation and reunification.
“So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
Protestants with their passionate adherence to the maxim “sola Scriptura” have forgotten that Scripture emerged in a particular history and context. In our radical adherence to Scripture as the sole authority for belief and practice, we have cut ourselves off from the tradition that gave us the Scriptures. Before any of the New Testament scriptures were ever written down, churches gathered together to worship God because of their shared faith in Jesus Christ. The worship of the church and the creeds of the church historically precede the final canonization of the Bible. The Church, as a worshipping and believing community, gave us the Bible that we treasure today.
As Paul suggests in his second letter to the Thessalonians, not all of the ancient traditions of the church were written down (2 Thess 2:15). Some things were taught word of mouth. Even in the early history of the faith, much of what Christians believed and practiced was based on the oral traditions handed down by the first apostles. The Gospel stories of Jesus were written down 30-60 years after the events they describe. Yet, the book of Acts portrays Peter and the other apostles proclaiming the oral message of Jesus before the gospel became a written tradition (Acts 2:22-36). The Church and her liturgy, creeds, and succession of leadership are, in addition to the Bible, our link to these original apostolic traditions. Yet, for many Protestants the history of the faith only goes back to 1517 and Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Even worse, some elements of Protestant Christianity, specifically Fundamentalism, have roots that go back no further than the 1800’s. Scholars of the history of Christian doctrine would contend that belief in a pre-tribulation Rapture and strict biblical literalism are modern novelties, not ancient fundamentals of the faith.
Protestants today would do well to study the history of the Christian church in all its historical fullness. Specifically, a return to the Church fathers offers a kind of medicine for the ills of modern Protestantism. Whenever I discuss the Fathers with the local orthodox priest, he is fond of telling me, “The Fathers are not Protestants.” While that point is historically obvious, I am thankful for his reminder that cautions me against filtering Chrysostom or Irenaeus through my modern Protestant lens. What the Fathers offer us is the opportunity to step outside both our historical bias and our theological bias for a few minutes, giving us the chance to see the faith in fresh ways.
A Way Forward
In any age, the Christian faith is at risk of spiritual stagnation, institutional rigidity, and rote traditionalism. The idea of reformation is, therefore, a perennial idea. The church is always in need of people who seek to enliven the vitality of the church. My own tradition, Methodism, emerged in England in a time when the Christian experience was lifeless for many people. John Wesley and the other members of the Oxford Holy Club decided to be more intentional about their spiritual growth, and in the process were viewed negatively as being too “methodical” about their faith. Later, through Wesley’s encounters with Moravian Christians and intimate Christian fellowship, he found his heart “strangely warmed.” This sparked a movement of field preaching and small group structures that challenged the religious establishment and fueled a period of revival.
As we carry the Reformation forward into the next 500 years, Protestants should seek out opportunities for greater unity. For example, drawing on our history of ecumenical councils, we might pursue more theological dialogue between Christian traditions. Without trying to diminish the importance of the historic creeds, could there be opportunities to draft new common statements of faith to be shared amongst many churches? Or could clergy from different denominations assemble to create a shared Christian witness in regards to the most pressing issues of our time such as human sexuality, poverty, racism, environmentalism, and terrorism?
Lastly, for Protestants to continue to carry the Reformation forward, we may need to first go backward into our own ancient history. At minimum, clergy should mine the rich resources of the Church fathers as a part of their own devotional experience and professional development. Since many of these writings can be accessed for free online, there is no reason not to utilize the depth of wisdom that comes from the early years of the faith.5 When preparing sermons, pastors should not only consult modern commentaries but consider reading ancient sermons and commentaries. The Fathers read the scriptures differently than most interpreters today, and their sermons were not constructed around the goal of entertainment. If nothing else, the Fathers will stretch clergy to re-think the way they understand the scriptures and preach to their congregations. As clergy recover these ancient sources, perhaps they will find a growing sense of unity because the Fathers represent our common heritage as Christians.
(1) For a deeper look at the connections between Lutheranism and Catholic Christianity, here is an article from First Things. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/06/are-lutherans-catholic
(2) Here’s an article on the magisterial reformers for further reading: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/reformation-and-men-behind-it/
(3) Here’s an article about Bartholomew attending Pope Francis’ installation: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-extraordinary-historical-significance-of-ecumenical-patriarch-bartholomew-s-presence-at-pope-francis-installation-as-bishop-of-rome
(4) You could hypothesize that much of this was influenced by C.S. Lewis’ sense of a “mere Christianity” that was common to all traditions of the faith. Lewis is, of course, a major influence on many Protestants.
(5) I took a class on the ethics of Thomas Aquinas at Emory University, and we simply printed selections of the Summa Theologica from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (http://www.ccel.org/). No expensive textbooks needed! I’ve been using it ever since to access free resources from Christian tradition.