Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.
Today1, Protestantism turns 500. And this month, we’ve been reflecting on this anniversary here at O&H in multiple ways—straight history, historiographical criticism, theological critique, as well as what the Orthodox can appreciate about and learn from Protestants.
The piece that thus far has probably come closest, however, to addressing what it seems to me is the core question of the Reformation is Fr. Stephen De Young’s “The True Church and the American Church: How Protestant Ecclesiology Got Here.” In that piece, he shows us exactly what he says—how Protestantism went from having a sense that there was one, true Church to what we now have today. I very much recommend reading it. In this piece today, I would like to analyze where Protestantism is now regarding this question in terms of a recent attempt to speak for all or many Protestants.
I sometimes hear people in both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism refer to “the Protestant church” (sic), and that expression always sends up red flags in my head, usually because it’s then followed by some generalization that doesn’t universally apply or even applies only to some minority of Protestants. It is probably hard to hold in your head all the differences between Protestants (probably especially if you’re not interested in learning about them). Yet even for those who know better, there is still this commonplace way of speaking.
I thought about that last month, when something called the “Reforming Catholic Confession” was released. It is essentially an attempt to assert that there really is such a thing as the Protestant Church and, indeed, that Protestantism is actually more Catholic than Roman Catholics or the Orthodox. Christianity Today summarizes:
The “Reforming Catholic Confession,” released today, aims to demonstrate that—despite “denominationalism”—Protestants are remarkably unified.
Additionally, the new statement of faith, crafted by a team of Protestant theologians and church leaders, aims to show that Protestants are actually more catholic (meaning “universal”) than Roman Catholics, who demand allegiance to the Roman pontiff, or than Orthodox Christians, who reject the claims of Rome but still rely heavily on apostolic succession to guarantee faithful Christianity.
As I read about that, it occurred to me that here was a useful moment to discuss what really is the biggest problem with Protestantism—it simply is not a Church. And because it is not a Church, it is neither unified nor [C/c]atholic (that is, with neither a big nor small C). We’ll start with the question of unity.
Protestantism is Not United
The signatories of the Reforming Catholic Confession (hereafter “the confession”) see their task this way:
One of the best ways to commemorate the Reformation is to remember the Reformers’ original vision for Catholic unity under canonical authority. This original vision has sometimes been forgotten not only by the heirs of the Reformation, but also by its critics, who often fixate on the divisions within Protestantism. Thus, a number of leaders from across the Protestant spectrum have come together to honor the original vision of the Reformers by demonstrating that, despite our genuine differences, there is a significant and substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as “mere Protestants.”
As Fr. Stephen showed us in his piece, what the authors say here about “Catholic unity under canonical authority” is certainly true about the vision of the Reformers—well, at least some of them. It was not long before cuius regio, eius religio became the religio-political principle of Europe with the Peace of Augusburg in 1555, and “canonical authority” came to be determined by secular authority. It was not a big jump from there to the idea that canonical authority had nothing to do with a single, worldwide Church, which was the accepted normative principle of ecclesiastical governance for the fifteen centuries prior.2
The authors of the confession here can wistfully turn toward an early Reformation ideal of Catholic unity under canonical authority, but they don’t actually insist on returning to one anywhere in their confession. There is literally no call for that anywhere in the confession itself nor in its accompanying explanation.
The explanation even sets aside this idea of coming together in true unity, and there is not even a call for this confession itself to become doctrinally normative in any binding way:
We do not intend the present statement to replace the confessional statements of the various confessional traditions and churches here represented but rather to express our shared theological identity as mere Protestants through our common testimony to the triune God of the gospel (we are catholic) and the gospel of the triune God (we are still reforming – constantly praying and working to ensure that our faith conforms to the Word of God). This Christ-centered consensus is a concrete gesture of the unity we already enjoy as members of Christ’s one church.
What we offer is not a harmony of Protestant confessions, or an attempt to discover our lowest common doctrinal denominator, much less a charter for a new denominational entity or ecumenical organization. Rather, our statement aims at displaying an interdenominational unity in the essentials of the faith and agreement that the Word of God alone has final jurisdiction – hence “mere” (focused on the essentials) “Protestant” (founded on the Bible).
In other words, this confession is actually not about unity in canonical order nor even unity in doctrine, and even if it were, it is explicitly non-binding. It is therefore not really like the creeds of the Ecumenical Councils, which really were about canonical and dogmatic unity. What is the difference? The Ecumenical Councils set boundaries and actually anathematized those who did not sign on to them. But this confession doesn’t want to do that:
We primarily see ourselves not as Protestants defining themselves against others but rather as mere Protestant Christians who affirm the common spiritual tradition to which creedal Christianity bears eloquent witness. Some of us have been further “denominated” into particular Protestant family traditions and others not. Yet we all value the Reformation solas, not simply because they distinguish us from Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians, but rather because they are salient reminders to the whole church that God alone saves in Christ alone through faith alone.
So, we’re not drawing the line. But… we are drawing the line.
But unity is still on their minds:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). The Protestant Reformers were not indifferent to this appeal. Several attempts were made to reconcile differences over interpretations of Scripture, for instance regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In response to the Pauline injunction, and in the spirit of the Protestant Reformers at their best, then, we humbly set forth our reforming catholic confession: reforming, because we do not pretend to have captured all biblical truth; catholic, because we stand in continuity with the consensus tradition of the ancient and medieval church even as we contribute to it; and humbly, because we know that apart from the light, life, and love of God’s Word, and the grace of God’s Spirit, we will divide Christ even further.
This paragraph alone illustrates the problem. It first acknowledges that the Reformers themselves couldn’t find unity, and then it sets forth its own confession, which is explicitly “reforming, because we do not pretend to have captured all biblical truth.” Does that mean that what is needed for salvation is not really yet known? That there is continuing revelation? What about the problems of even determining the canon which is the source for that biblical truth? This is a huge chasm yawning along the road to unity, and this confession’s official explanation just burned whatever might have bridged it.
And what about the Zwinglian vs. Lutheran vs. Calvinist readings of sacramental theology? This confession basically passes over these problems in silence, but isn’t it pretty important whether or not one really is eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ or just a symbol thereof? Or what about baptismal regeneration? We could make a big list here of doctrines on which Protestants are not united, and perhaps the authors do not wish to fight about these things any more. But they were huge questions for the first Reformers and for many of their heirs. Why is unity on them no longer important?
This confession, despite its similarity to those creeds and to historical Reformation confessions, is actually of that modern genre of Protestantism, the “agreed statement.” Agreed statements are fine, of course, if you’re willing to accept the limitations of what they’re actually for. They basically say, “Hey, we agree on the following things.” But agreeing on things is not the same thing as doctrinal unity, and it definitely does not make for a common canonical order. They long for “ever greater displays of our substantial unity in years to come,” but they neither require “substantial unity” nor even suggest a plan for it.
I join with the authors in lamenting the disunity of Protestantism, but I am amazed that they’re not only not willing to suggest a path toward unity (even among Protestants) but continue to affirm that which disunifies Protestants to begin with, that they do not really believe in a catholic Christian faith.
Protestantism is Not Catholic
This is the point where the confession really falters. The claim here is not only that these Protestants are catholic but that they are indeed more catholic than Rome or the Orthodox. Catholic is used but once (for the church) in the confession proper, but it’s all over the official explanation. Oddly, it is never clearly defined. Yet it seems that it is used to mean something like “universal” (“on behalf of the whole church”) or even approaching the Orthodox understanding of “wholeness” (“to bear united witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its length, depth, breadth, and width – in a word, its catholicity”).
This is probably the crucial part of the explanation regarding what catholic means for the authors:
The Reformation itself was the culmination of a centuries-long process of reform. More pointedly: the Reformation was quintessentially catholic precisely because of its concern for the triune God of the gospel. The Reformation was as much about catholicity in the formal sense of the term (i.e., universal scope, related to the principle of the priesthood of all believers), as canonicity (the supreme authority of Scripture). The Reformers also affirmed the material sense of catholicity (i.e., historical consensus; continuity in doctrinal substance) in retrieving the great tradition of the church fathers, insofar as it was in accordance with the Scriptures. In sum: the Reformers directed their protest against the Roman Catholic Church not at the concept of catholicity but towards those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to human tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
From the Orthodox point of view, however, catholicity is about the wholeness of the Christian life and faith within the one Church, and that wholeness is expressed as Holy Tradition, which includes, flows from, interprets and even established the Scriptures. One of the basic problems of the Reformation is that Scripture is held to be the highest authority, yet without defining what authority it is that interprets it. The various kinds of confessionalism attempt to overcome this deficiency by establishing norms for scriptural interpretation, but their adherents still appeal to Scripture as though it were simply obvious to any who read it. This present confession does exactly the same thing.
While we repudiate the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8) – teachings that conflict with or have no clear basis in Scripture – we affirm tradition insofar as it refers to the church’s continuous attention to and deepening understanding of the apostolic teaching through time and across space.
The Reformers acknowledged that church councils stand under the authority of Scripture, and can sometimes err. A conciliar decree is authoritative only insofar as it is true to Scripture. Yet, given the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus, individuals and churches do well to follow the example of the Reformers and accept as faithful interpretations and entailments of Scripture the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) concerning the nature of the Triune God and Jesus Christ.
Talked about mixed messages! Here, the first four Ecumenical Councils (why only those?) are held to be authoritative, “orthodox,” representing a “catholic consensus,” but they are normative only if they are “true to Scripture.” But whose reading of Scripture? Not the councils’, surely, because they’re the ones under scrutiny. So we are left with councils whose authority to tell you how to interpret Scripture is binding only if they are found (by whom? me?) to be true to Scripture. We have to assume that Ecumenical Councils 5-7 are just the “traditions of men.” But who says so? The constitution of those councils is made on the very same basis as the first four.3
Prior to modern Protestant ecclesiology, the Church (however perceived) could actually tell you if you were wrong about the Bible. But in this vision, who can tell you that? You could theoretically reject Nicea itself (which predates the canon of the New Testament) if it is found not to be true to Scripture, and this despite the fact that those who canonized the Scripture were already adherents of the Nicene creed and no doubt had that in mind as they produced their canonical lists.
Sola scriptura is the principle being expressed here, and it fails the catholicity test. Despite very high views of the authority of Scripture, the Church of the Ecumenical Councils never holds Scripture up as being essentially self-interpreting nor as an exclusive record of all that is required of Christians. But because Protestants hold to sola scriptura, they (usually unwittingly, these days) end up jettisoning much of what was held to be the catholic faith of the early Church, including (among other things) eucharistic doctrine, church polity and (not least important here) a substantial unity.
As such, both Protestantism in general and this confession in particular fail to realize the very thing it is claiming to represent—the historic, catholic Christian faith. The best we have here is the observation that most of what the confession affirms is in agreement with much of what is in the historic creeds. It is, again, basically just an agreed statement.
Protestantism is Not a Church
Here is what the confession has to say about the Church:
That the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is God’s new society, the first fruit of the new creation, the whole company of the redeemed through the ages, of which Christ is Lord and head. The truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is the church’s firm foundation (Matt. 16:16-18; 1 Cor. 3:11). The local church is both embassy and parable of the kingdom of heaven, an earthly place where his will is done and he is now present, existing visibly everywhere two or three gather in his name to proclaim and spread the gospel in word and works of love, and by obeying the Lord’s command to baptize disciples (Matt. 28:19) and celebrate the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19).
And here is the most relevant part of the explanation:
The Reformers’ robust emphasis on the gospel as the saving activity of the triune God also led them to view the church as called forth by the gospel, a community of believers vitally united to Christ, and to one another, by the Spirit, through faith. In Christ, the church comprises a new humanity, the harbinger of the new creation. This conception of the church as an organic fellowship under the lordship of Christ, ruled by Scripture as his sufficient word and illumined by the Spirit, led the Reformers to correct certain misunderstandings and problematic practices of the church’s leadership, ministry, and sacraments.
The glaring omission here is any reference to the Church as the “pillar and ground [or foundation] of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). There is not even a reference to the Church’s authority to “bind and loose” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18) in forgiving sins. I understand that Protestants haven’t simply missed those verses and have their own interpretations of them, but these clear statements in Scripture about the authority of the Church ought at least to be interpreted in some way in an article on the Church. But they are simply left out here and also not mentioned in the explanation. Why? I think it is because of the stated hermeneutic affirmation—Scripture is the highest authority—as understood by the unstated one—no one can tell you how to interpret it. (But, hey, we suggest you check out those councils, but only if you think they’re up to snuff.)
The Church is “ruled by Scripture,” but who does the ruling? Doesn’t the Church itself do any ruling? The Scripture says it does (again, however you want to interpret it), but we get no vision of what that looks like here.
The Scriptural language about Christ Himself being a member of the Church (as her head) is also simply absent here. One gets the sense that Christ is not a member of the Church, especially since it is “ruled by Scripture.” Is even Jesus below the Bible? (Surely not, but one could get that impression if this logic is followed.) The allergy to giving Church leaders or tradition any binding, authoritative role makes for a very muddled ecclesiology. I am almost tempted to conclude that this confession really includes no ecclesiology.
And even in the most existential sense, Protestants do not live together in worship communities that cross their divides, do not confess a common faith and do not have a stake in each other’s fortunes. Protestantism cannot be a Church because it is not a community. It is not even a federation of its communities.
The Church is therefore reduced to a group of like-minded believers. I was glad to see that they included some specific things that those like-minded believers ought to be doing together, but it’s still little more than people who come together on the basis of, well, an agreed statement.
A Final Note
None of this is to erase or problematize any of the significant work I’ve done both in writing and in recordings to express my appreciation for the faith I have seen and experienced among Protestant Christians of many stripes. I continue to love them, and I continue to want to explore what they believe and how they pray and worship. And this especially is not to lay down any claim about the eternal destiny of any Protestant believer. If I am truly trying to work out my own salvation in fear and trembling, how can I claim to know whether any other person I meet is being or will be saved?
I remain committed to what I see as the true ecumenism, which is to have earnest discussion, especially between friends, about both similarities and differences, with neither compromise nor polemic. It is also, as Fr. Georges Florovsky once emphasized, to keep in mind that, in the phrase separated brethren, both separated and brethren are equally important and true.
It is on that basis, therefore, that I submit to my brethren some of what continues to keep us separated. I pray for our true unity in the Orthodox Catholic Christian faith.
- Well, not accounting for calendar changes.
- This was true for both Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West even after the Great Schism. Both saw themselves as the Church. One does not have to believe in papal supremacy in order to affirm a single canonical order to which all at least ought to belong.
- And one also has to conclude that the authors may not have read all the decisions of those councils, which go far beyond their specific professions of faith. What would they do, for instance, with Canon 16 of Nicea, which forbids clergy from entering the territory of a bishop not their own? It gets even more interesting with the other councils.