Wednesday 12 September 2007

On remaining Protestant

In an excellent post, Halden observes: “protestantism is always the question, the objection, the provisional mode of protest that takes place within the wider presupposition of the givenness of the Catholic church. It is always protestants who must justify their identity as non-Catholics rather than the other way round.”

And this means that “we cannot assume the perpetual existence of protestantism. We must be open to the possibility of the end of protestantism if we are to be true to the aims of the Reformers themselves.”


Robert Cornwall said...

Hasn't the term Protestant simply taken on the identity of party label. It has less to do with the original debate than one's current separation from other parts of the Christian community. That being said, there remain many points of difference between Protestantism and Catholicism -- but over time as we all know Protestantism has broken into a myriad of parts.

Being from a Restorationist tradition (though I don't buy the entire premise of restorationism) I could say that we aren't Protestants, but are instead Christians only.

Anonymous said...

What I reject is that ecumenical goal of visible unity is necessarily corporate or institutional unity. I see ecumenical unity more like a choir singing 4 part harmony than singing in unison.

I remain Protestant, from the Radical Reformation or Left Wing of the Reformation (which had a restoration impulse, Bob), because I think we have emphases the wider church needs to hear that would be lost in the "merger model" of ecumenism. Unlike Halden, I do not find denominations to be a scandal per se (although non-denominational fuzzy congregations are). What is scandalous is the refusal to have the Eucharist together as sisters and brothers and to insist on agreement in theology and/or apostolic succession and/or institutional unity before such Eucharistic celebration is possible.
What is scandalous is mutual excommunication and hatred and, often enough, even war between different groups of Christians. If we welcome one another in love, I see no reason why all of us must go to Rome or Canterbury or Constantinople--or Wittenberg, Geneva, Westminster, etc.
When I am embarrassed about being a Baptist it is not because we are Protestants, but because so many Baptists have ceased to stand for our Anabaptist-Free Church heritage. I have Catholic family members and love them. But I feel no call from God to cross the Tiber.

Anonymous said...


Should Protestants share the Eucharist with those (Catholics) who believe that a meritorious sacrifice happens in the Mass/Eucharist. That is clearly heretical.

Furthermore, would anything ever be sufficient enought for you to say the anathema with Paul against those who preach a different gospel and say that you wish that those who unsettle would emasculate themselves? And remember, the Judaizers would good (to use an anachronistic yet accurate predicate) Nicene believers.

To be honest, I feel as if many in the post-liberal (if that is a wrong nomenclature for you, I appologize) or mainline denominations think that naked unity is always worth it.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

First, the objection to sacrifice noted in the comments is an objection to the worst Roman Catholic theology on the subject. There is a good understanding of sacrifice, one that is well-expressed by many Roman theologians, and agreed to by many Protestants. (as to the question of real presence, none of the mainstream reformers rejected it, with the exception maybe of Zwingli, although they all had a slightly different take on it)

Secondly, thanks for the post. What a great reminder that we should all be willing to say that "I wish I was not Lutheran (or Methodist, or Baptist)." The division of the church is a scandal - but our bland acceptance, and even encouragement, of such division is even more scandalous.

Halden said...

Thanks for the link, Ben!

Anonymous said...

To be honest, you seem to be speaking a whole different ecclesiological language than I would. True Protestantism shouldn't be about a constant state of flux because Protestantism was about being truly Catholic. The Reformation didn't occur in a vacuum: it was the Catholic church that was being reformed.

Calvin, Cranmer and to a certain extent Luther, were all attempting, I suggest, to keep in balance both an Augustinian Ecclesiology as well as an Augustinian Soteriology.

So how could Protestants (i.e. "Reformed Catholics") go "back"? In theory, there was never an attempt to end or attack catholicity.

I want to be able to wear the badge of Catholic without having to look over my shoulder.

Anonymous said...

JBH, I think it was C.S. Lewis who correctly said about the Eucharist, "The command was to take and eat, not take and understand." I see no reason why I cannot disagree with someone's sacramental theology (or any other part of their theology)--even in the strongest terms--and not Commune with them. Judas Iscariot, after all, was welcome at the first Eucharist and if the meal on the way to Emmaeus is supposed to be Eucharistic, then it involved faithless deserters.

Without getting into specifics here, yes, I think there are heresies in Rome--but not only there. However, I think ALL of us are heretical in our theologies SOMEWHERE. (If we knew where, we would change. If someone corrects me, s/he does me a favor.) In the Eschaton, I expect to meet only heretics--or former heretics who have had their theologies corrected. I definitely include myself in that category.

I am neither attached to the label "postliberal," nor do I object to it. As an (Ana)baptist, however, I think few would consider me a "mainline" Protestant, but if they do, fine. But I do NOT think that "naked unity" is always worth it. I was objecting to one model of unity already.
Here are some other places where I think other values than unity matter: I am willing to risk disunity for the cause of faithful nonviolence; I think ending the subordination of women (including ordaining called and gifted women to every ecclesial office) more important than a unity achieved at the expense of women; I consider the full inclusion of GLBT persons to be worth risking external divisions.
These are just a few places where I am willing to risk disunity and often impatient with those who value external unity too highly. But I would still celebrate the Eucharist with my opponents and I would not deny them the name "sister or brother in Christ."

Halden said...

Michael, what moral value do you think unity has at all? I respect your passionate commitment to the ethical issues you mentioned (though I differ from you on the GLBT issue - charitably I hope). However, why are these issues of more significant moral weight than division?

I don't think such a perspective comes from Jesus. His prayer to the Father was for unity. I agree that there are conditions under which unity is not of the moral type Christ prayed for, but I'm wary of the rhetoric of this cause or that cause being more important than unity. I fear that leaves the church naked before all manner of ideological pilliging.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Halden, I do not question the unity for which Christ prayed. I question the MODEL of Christian unity which is institutional, includes the pope and top-down authority, includes uniformity of views, has a strong clergy-laity distinction, etc.
I do not think that when Jesus prayed that we "might all be one" he meant that we had the same institutions, same orders of ministry, same (false) claims to "apostolic succession," etc.

There was, as Raymond Brown showed in The Churches the Apostles Left Behind and James D.G. Dunn showed in Unity and Diversity in the New Testament more diversity existed even in apostolic times.
I find it odd that JBH and you, Halden, both misunderstand my position of seeking unity in diversity. JBH thinks it means that nothing is important enough for me to risk unity. You think it means that I find unity of little value. Neither is true.
Institutional schisms are often painful. They should never be sought and wherever healing can be found, it should be. But this need not result in institutional unity. That is not the nature of Christian unity we need. We need the kind of unity that allows diverse expressions (even denominations) while welcoming each other and respecting each other--even when we think the other wrong.
But a "visible unity" attained by suppressing others is a false unity.

Halden said...

I guess my real question is that what I'm hearing from you is something like "Unity's great, but moral issues are more imporant." To my mind unity is a moral issue.

And I share you critiques to some degree of the proper mode of unity, but I don't think you can dichotomize "institutional unity" from some other sort of relational-communual unity. All unity takes a shape, a form. Whatever we have it will be some sort of "institution". The idea that insitutions surpress differences at the expense of visible unity is manifestly false. I defy anyone to show me a communion more diverse in regards to race, class, gender, etc, than Roman Catholicism.

In other words, I think the kind of unity you describe as "the kind of unity that allows diverse expressions (even denominations) while welcoming each other and respecting each other--even when we think the other wrong" is precisely what is present in the Catholic Church. That's why there are multiplicities of orders, ministries, and types of parishes that are all in communion with each other in all their differences. That is exactly what I don't see in the broad stream of protestantism, particularly in denominational and independent evangelical protestantism.

Anonymous said...


I find your three criteria for legitimate criteria deeply troubling. Note a couple of things:

1. All three of your criteria are nominally in Scripture. Of course, this is not the be all and end all, but it is a sobering test.

2. The Apostle Paul disagreed with you on at least two of those. You will certainly claim that those are cultural applications of a certain principle, but as in the last one, that should be a good test.

3. Nowhere in Scripture does any of the authors countenance disunity for the sake of any of your reasons.

4. The reasons that the writers do give for disunity are missing from your list.

Anonymous said...

I meant nominally absent in Scripture. (not to mention the inverse affirmed for at least two of them)

Anonymous said...

Great discussion. I'll pick up just one point.

I agree entirely that unity is a moral issue, perhaps the moral issue - and that is precisely my problem with Rome. My problem is not that the Roman model of unity is institutional, it is that it institutionally enshrines disunity (de jure I mean, we all express disunity de facto), e.g. Michael's examples of the exclusion of women from the ministry of word and sacrament and the theological pathologising of homosexuals (and this, of course, goes for many Protestant churches too). That is, it's not that unity is not a moral issue, it's that what Halden calls "moral issues" are themselves unity issues.

And that is why I am equally unhappy with "spiritual" unity models - precisely because unity must be materially embodied in what is actually a quite Marxist way (cf. McCabe and Lash!). That is why I would read the Barmen Declaration as an "ecumenical" document in the deepest sense of the word: it was issued precisely to preserve the unity of the church of Jews and Gentiles. And that is my reading of the Reformers: in intention, they acted to preserve the unity of the church.

Dave Belcher said...

I really think that Kim is right here (and especially the last sentence needs to be emphasized--as Pelikan tried to in his dissertation on Luther: what must be retained in protest is "catholic substance and protestant principle"). Just as with Augustine, unity is thoroughly historical (and thus also "moral") is a synonym for caritas--the gathering of the scattered Adam into loving unity by the power of the Holy Spirit. Unity is not invisible, though the intentionality towards such unity is invisibly granted in the is in fact to forsake that invisible donation when we refuse to make unity/love a visible, historical reality. In fact (as I have tried to argue elsewhere), I would suggest it constitutes the "disappearance of the Church" (and I have chosen my words carefully here...this does not signify an ontological cessation, but a phenomenal disappearance: visible disunity is a failure to make present the invisible grace of the Spirit's gathering us together in love). And I really think this is the intention of "protest" that must be retained ("always reforming" or not, there is not always the need for protest--whether it has existed in history or not, historical unity is demanded of which case, protest is necessary so long as we do not move out into the grace of God by the power and movement of the Spirit to make us One body, united by one baptism, one faith. Peace.

solarblogger said...

"JBH, I think it was C.S. Lewis who correctly said about the Eucharist, 'The command was to take and eat, not take and understand.' I see no reason why I cannot disagree with someone's sacramental theology (or any other part of their theology)--even in the strongest terms--and not Commune with them."

But aren't you still left with the question of when are we taking and eating the same bread and cup? For those who take 'This is my body' as primary, merely offering bread to people is not enough, for we don't come together to eat mere bread.

And 1 Corinthians 10:15 which speaks of judging Paul's doctrine and 11:29, which speaks of "discerning the body rightly," are taken by many who believe in the Real Presence to mean that understanding is important.

"Judas Iscariot, after all, was welcome at the first Eucharist."

Intriguing point. But how are we to apply it? That if Jesus and the disciples didn't discipline a betrayer, that nobody should ever discipline anyone? It is clear that St. Paul believed that table fellowship should be suspended with open sinners (1 Cor. 5:11). And St. Paul's admonition to remove the wicked from among the believers (1 Cor. 5:13) is said despite Judas having been allowed to remain the the disciples' midst.

We have to wrestle with St. Paul in addition to the Gospel accounts. I take them as ruling, but I don't want to do so in a way that makes St. Paul wrong.

Strider said...

May I offer a Catholic dissent?

What perhaps is most lacking in this thread on catholicity is the spirit of catholicity. To be catholic, I propose, is to trust in the Church and thus be willing to subject one's opinions to the judgment of the Church.

Thus Kim writes:

"My problem is not that the Roman model of unity is institutional, it is that it institutionally enshrines disunity (de jure I mean, we all express disunity de facto), e.g. Michael's examples of the exclusion of women from the ministry of word and sacrament and the theological pathologising of homosexuals (and this, of course, goes for many Protestant churches too)."

This is a remarkable claim; indeed, it is a Protestant claim. Kim would have us believe that those Churches that those Churches that adhere to the traditional teaching of the Church on the the ordination of women to the priesthood/episcopate and the restriction of sexual intercourse to the bbonds of Holy Matrimony are guilty of instutionalizing ecclesial disunity. I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous. This is nothing but private judgment run amok.

If catholicity means anything it means that at some point we finally must trust in the judgment of the Church. Without such submission, ecclesial unity is impossible. Newman saw this clearly:

"There can be no combination on the basis of truth without an organ of truth. As cultivation brings out the colours of flowers, and domestication changes the character of animals, so does education of necessity develope differences of opinion; and while it is impossible to lay down first principles in which all will unite, it is utterly unreasonable to expect that this man should yield to that, or all to one. I do not say there are no eternal truths, such as the poet proclaims [Note 15], which all acknowledge in private, but that there are none sufficiently commanding to be the basis of public union and action. The only general persuasive in matters of conduct is authority; that is, (when truth is in question,) a judgment which we feel to be superior to our own. If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England, an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution, and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of the Revelation."

Dave Belcher said...

This seems to be par for the course in discussions such as these: Protestants are seen as attempting to wry themselves from authority, structure, and submission (i.e., to wry themselves from "catholicity"), whereas Catholics are seen as attempting to reify catholicity in the form of institutional authority (nay, in a single deified human being). To defer to Newman's authority (the submitter to Catholic authority par excellence) in fact is just to recapitulate the tired and nasty rhetoric of a Richard Neuhaus (where Anglicans are not only viewed as the worst kind of Protestantism--precisely because of their nearness to Catholicism--but are viewed such as a way of calling them to follow their former Anglican brother Newman back into Mother Church). So, I suppose I could just as easily retort: "It seems to me that what is most lacking in this discussion is a spirit of catholicity"...we can all see how unhelpful this is, though, right? Failure to be truly catholic is in fact not the problem, but merely its symptom (though it is the long as we understand catholicity to be love granted in the power of the Holy Spirit and her gathering of the scattered Adam together in loving unity--as I tried to say in my previous comment). The problem is in fact sin (a very corporate sin)...and I think it would be prudent of us to define sin in this instance as: claims to possession of "Church," to attempt to locate "Church," rather than realizing that as baptized into one body--the body of Christ--we have been dispossessed of our former identities and fashioned into gifts for the life of the world. Now, of course there are plenty of folks on "both sides of the aisle" (or perhaps all 387,000 sides), so to speak, who would claim that this (the gift language above) is precisely the kind of Church they see and claim in their own body, raising the issue of what authority can actually arbitrate between conflicting claims (though this is indeed important question, I hope you can see how contradictory this language of "claiming" is to language of "gift")...this is exacerbated in debates between east and west, both of whom can claim a valid apostolic succession. All of this, however, completely misses the point of what "love" or "unity" means. These cannot be separated out from praxis, from a union of loving praxis of dispossession, of the relinquishing of sin...after all, as St. Paul rhetorically asks the Romans: "What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life" (Rom. 6:1-4).

Dave Belcher said...


I was also curious what you meant by the need "to subject one's opinions to the judgment of the Church." I suggest that this is actually not what it means to be "catholic"...and folks like Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa have my back on this. The allowance of "opinions" (though this word of course does not mean the same thing when Newman uses it so negatively) are allowed to proliferate within the Church so long as unity (again, meaning "catholic charity"...the love that is spread abroad the world) is not threatened. Theologians have no freedom to do speculative work if this is not the case. This does not mean that there is not in some sense a "submission" to the judgment of the Church, but this is a submission to the judgment of the Church that is arrived at by unity. Improvisation on such judgment is actually encouraged by folks like Augustine (and Cusanus drawing on Augustine in his Catholic Concordance), especially in order to deal with new developments in history that would have been unable for past folks to see. I just find your reasoning at least incoherent and incomplete, if not altogether wrong. I'm adding this second comment in hopes of dialogue, though, so please take these words in a spirit of charity and catholicity. Peace.

Strider said...

Thank you, Dave, for your comment. I didn't realize the thread was still live and had not checked it for several days.

Michael Liccione has just blogged on this thread, and since I agree with his analysis I refer you to his article. I do have a couple of remarks, though.

You write: "This does not mean that there is not in some sense a "submission" to the judgment of the Church, but this is a submission to the judgment of the Church that is arrived at by unity."

It is not clear to me precisely what your argument is. Are you simply noting that the Church's teachings enjoy different levels of authority, some being proposed with the full authority of the Church, some being proposed with less authority and conviction? If so, I of course agree.

Nor do I disagree with you when you continue, "Improvisation on such judgment is actually encouraged by folks like Augustine (and Cusanus drawing on Augustine in his Catholic Concordance), especially in order to deal with new developments in history that would have been unable for past folks to see."

The question is when, if ever, does theological opinion become doctrine that requires the unreserved assent of faith. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have answers to this question; but as far as I can determine, no Protestant body does, for no magisterial organ exists within Protestantism. It is easy for me to assent to a proposed doctrine when I agree with it. The problem arises when I am confronted with a doctrine (and here let us specify a doctrine proposed with the full authority of the Church) with which I disagree. Newman rightly objected to subscription to confessions because they require the subjection of conscience to mere opinion. Conscience may only properly assent, Newman writes, to “teaching which comes from God.”

Dave Belcher said...

Pontificator, thanks for the response (I will certainly check out the article).

At this point I think I can only request that when I say that there remains a necessity for one to be protestant, that this be understood as a kind of "principle" and not within the confines of "actually existing Protestantism." I recognize the danger of trying to separate such things point is simply a recapitulation of Jaroslav Pelikan's in his doctoral thesis on Luther: "Protestant principle" (e.g., in Luther, and as a "break") cannot be separated from "Catholic substance" (he borrows this terminology from Tillich, but effectively moving beyond Tillich at the same time). In this case, I really am referring to an abstraction (not necessarily a "regulative ideal," though) and especially am referring to a necessary protest and reform within the Catholic Church. Hope this helps a bit...I'll clarify a bit more later, I'm in the middle of a class right now! Peace

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