Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Protestantism is dangerous?


"Protestantism is dangerous. ..."

It is an explosive and ultimately uncontrollable force that can destabilize and undermine church and government. It can reject time-honored truths, traditions and institutions—including its own—and posit new ones in their place, only to repeat this process again and again. Protestantism is infinitely restless, constantly moving in many divergent directions at the same time. Like evolution, it possesses astonishing power to create highly adaptive religious organisms and equally astonishing power to destroy them if they fail to develop appropriately.

No, that isn't from a Catholic apologist; it is from Ronald K. Rittgers, who teaches German Reformation studies at Valparaiso University in Indiana, in his review, for The Christian Century, of Alister McGrath's recently published Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First:

This is how Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at the Univer sity of Oxford, depicts Protes tantism in Christianity's Dangerous Idea. Why is Protestantism so dangerous? Because it is based on a dangerous idea: that the Bible is the main source of authority for the Christian religion and that all Christians have the right to interpret it for themselves. This conviction is the source not only of Protestantism's vitality and flexibility, but also of its lack of fixedness and its innate tendency toward schism. McGrath makes much of the former without losing sight of the latter.

McGrath also stresses that early Protestantism was not a single, unified, coherent movement; it was a movement of movements that was characterized by conflict, tension and flux from the start. The only thing the early Protestants shared was the dangerous idea. And they quickly learned just how dangerous it could be when they found themselves unable to reach consensus on important matters of doctrine. After examining the failure of Luther, Zwingli and others to resolve their differences on the Lord's Supper, McGrath observes, "We see here the fundamental difficulty that the Reformation faced: the absence of any authoritative interpreter of scripture that could give rulings on contested matters of biblical interpretation."

And? What then?

Protestants attempted to remedy this problem by constructing various interpretative authorities—Luther's catechisms, Calvin's Institutes, the marginalia of the Geneva Bible—but none could furnish truth claims that were accepted by all Protestants. Whatever external coherence early Protestants had was largely dependent on the presence of a defining other—Catholics in the early modern period and secularists in the later modern era. This need for an external source of self-definition became part of the core of Protestantism.

Which finally leads to this:

It is true that the defining Pro testant idea is dangerous. But one can question whether McGrath has plumbed the full depths of its threat. The real danger is that when confronted with the competing Protestant truth claims about crucial matters of faith—including those that touch on salvation—theologically reflective Protestants may lose confidence in their ability to interpret or even trust scripture, and thus their ability to know God. Sebastian Franck saw this danger already in the 16th century and thus opted for a Spiritualism that sought to transcend all dogmatic claims about God—except Spiritualist ones, of course. Fortunately, most Protestants do not experience this complete loss of epistemic confidence, at least not on a permanent basis, which may be the reason McGrath avoids discussing the risk.

Some people view the Bible largely as a human artifact that contains important human wisdom about God but needs to be supplemented and corrected by more modern sources of wisdom. McGrath makes clear that such liberal Protestants are a small minority in the Protestant world. It seems that most—including McGrath, perhaps—continue to believe in the perspicuity of scripture. It is remarkable, after all, that the vast majority of Protestants agree with one another and with most non-Protestant Christians about the essentials of salvation—that is, that it comes only through Christ and requires grace and faith. But one wonders if this surprising agreement is not owing to another yet dangerous idea that was present in the primordial materials from which Protestantism burst forth and that thus became part of its genetic code: the importance of clinging to the ancient rule of faith. If this is the case, Catholicism did not simply motivate the construction of a unified Protestant front; it also provided Protestants with a certain immunity against the most destructive possibilities of their core idea.

That is part of the argument, interestingly enough, made by Fr. Louis Bouyer (a former Lutheran pastor), in his important book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. In reviewing that book, Mark Brumley wrote:

The negative principles of the Reformation necessarily led the Catholic Church to reject the movement–though not, in fact, its fundamental positive principles, which were essentially Catholic. Eventually, argues Bouyer, through a complex historical process, these negative elements ate away at the positive principles as well. The result was liberal Protestantism, which wound up affirming the very things Protestantism set out to deny (man’s ability to save himself) and denying things Protestantism began by affirming (sola gratia).

Bouyer contends that the only way to safeguard the positive principles of the Reformation is through the Catholic Church. For only in the Catholic Church are the positive principles the Reformation affirmed found without the negative elements the Reformers mistakenly affixed to them. But how to bring this about?

Bouyer says that both Protestants and Catholics have responsibilities here. Protestants must investigate their roots and consider whether the negative elements of the Reformation, such as extrinsic justification and the rejection of a definitive Church teaching authority and Tradition, are necessary to uphold the positive principles of sola gratia and the supremacy of Scripture. If not, then how is continued separation from the Catholic Church justified? Furthermore, if, as Bouyer contends, the negative elements of the Reformation were drawn from a decadent theology and philosophy of the Middle Ages and not Christian antiquity, then it is the Catholic Church that has upheld the true faith and has maintained a balance regarding the positive principles of the Reformation that Protestantism lacks. In this way, the Catholic Church is needed for Protestantism to live up to its own positive principles.
Read Brumley's entire review essay, "Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick: Louis Bouyer on the Reformation."

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