Saturday, January 16, 2010

Protesting the Protestants: When Theology Doesn't Matter

There is an interesting pluralistic trend among many Protestants today to regard theology in general, and thus often theological difference as well, as unimportant. 

Now, this isn't interesting because it's unique among 21st century people. It's not. (In fact, it fits quite well with secular culture!)
And it's not interesting because it's surprising based on their beliefs. It's not. (I argued that pluralism is a natural result of their belief in sola scriptura here.)

It's interesting because of why protestants exist in the first place.

On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed an open letter to the Archbishop of Mainz and and Magdeberg to the door of Wittenberg's Castle Church entitled "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences", known today as "The Ninety-Five Theses".
After three years of dialogue, he was excommunicated. Then at the Diet of Worms, when asked to recant his beliefs, Luther famously stated, "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Luther took theology seriously - so seriously, in fact, that he was eventually willing to lead a major schism in the Church over it. The same is true of the other Reformers.

That's why the Protestant Reformation happened. That's why people broke off from the Church - because they took theology seriously.

When protestants today take the pluralistic attitude that theology doesn't matter very much - certaintly not enough to cause disunity among Christians - I have one question: So why aren't you Catholic? In other words, since you no longer seem to care about the reason for the existence of protestantism - theological difference - why not go to back to the Church that protestants split from? Remember that disunity is a serious place to be, especially if one doesn't have a good reason for it. Jesus' own words on unity:

"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17.20-23)

Such protestants must realize that they are no longer just protesting the Catholic Church, but also the protestant Reformers themselves. They are protesting the protestants! Actually, given the denominational splitting that has spiraled out of control among protestants to what's becoming an incalculable degree, they are most likely protesting those who protested those who protested those who protested those who protested the Catholic Church.
And they are left now with little connection to Christian history, whether that of the Catholic Church or the Reformation. They find themselves having more to do with 21st century post-modern secularism than anything Christian.


  1. I suspect that Protestants you describe aren't protesting anything. Those kinds of protestants are so befoulingly ignorant that the extent of their beliefs are summed up in a bunch of sappy, one-liners from Christian pop songs, while they fancy themselves so incredibly smart, that they just thought up the newest, most witty and intelligent idea about Christianity since Jesus himself (or if they are reformed, Calvin).

    Now certainly not all Protestants are that way. Some have truly thought through why they believe as they do.

    Yet I dare say the majority of Protestants think that Catholics worship a magic cookie and think that the Blessed Virgin Mary is woman God.

    I think these sorts lack any reason or thought on the subject, and their minds contain only ignorant prejudiced on issues they will never understand, merely because they haven't taken the time.

  2. Zing.

    Sadly, this kind of thinking exists to varying degrees among the faculty here at Wheaton College where I attend, something of an epicenter of evangelicalism in the world. In fact, Wheaton College itself as an institution is something of a less extreme version of what I have described. The college has no denominational affiliation, but does have a statement of faith. For some issues, its statement of faith is very specific and narrow (such as that Adam and Eve were real people), but on other issues it is entirely silent (such as baptism, communion, sacraments in general, ecclesiology, sexuality, etc...) Yet, all the faculty and students are supposed to put their theological and denominational differences aside to all be Christians together in a certain kind of community.
    This set up leads to a somewhat shallow and pluralistic mindset about Christianity, at least for the students. If you're a student thinking about baptism at Wheaton College, the message you'll get is that there are different views that very smart, educated, sincere Christians have, and that therefore we can't know what's right about baptism, but hey it's ok because we can still get along.

    There are even some faculty here, that I have heard about, that want to say that God WANTS there to be broad structural and theological disunity among Christians. The idea is that no body gets it quite right, we're all in some ways wrong, no one quite knows exactly where he might be wrong, that we all probably have our strengths and better understand something that another denomination maybe misses, and that we all sort of keep each other in check. This is held among educated evangelicals.

    And I can definitely vouch for the fact that this type of thinking exists among some of the students here at Wheaton College.

  3. "There are even some faculty here, that I have heard about, that want to say that God WANTS there to be broad structural and theological disunity among Christians."

    Where I'm from, that's called putting lipstick on a pig. More traditionally, making a virtue out of a vice. O tempora! O mores!

  4. I grew up in a home that protested the Protestants. None of the protestants have it right, and the Catholic church wasn't even seen as an option, so we had to go it alone. I was never inpired to do differently until I read the Catholic Catechism, since all the Catholics I knew (some I was related too) were nominal, barely attending much less practicing Catholics.

  5. "They find themselves having more to do with 21st century post-modern secularism than anything Christian." That definitely seems to ring true of non-denominational Christians.

  6. This is a wonderfully insightful post...I am blown away. I hadn't ever looked at it this way before, but now I'm thinking 'exactly!'

    I'm really enjoying the topics you're writing about!

  7. Great post! You are quite the apologist...have you taken courses in apologetics? I love reading stuff where I know it's right, but I couldn't have written it myself!

  8. Hey,
    I've been an snooper here for a while-- and I've found the blog quite interesting. I'm a recent Wheaton graduate (I actually taught Sunday school with Brantly at College church). I had a few questions and a few responses to the above post.
    First off, I consider myself a Confessional Lutheran (Not the ELCA, which is neither evangelical, Lutheran-- or even Christian in some sense) with strong leanings towards natural law. In short, I consider myself an evangelical protestant (not emergent), and strongly rooted in reformational thought (more Luther and Calvin, less reformed/Zwinglian -- if that makes sense at all:) I also have the utmost respect for a lot of the things the Catholic Church does: The Pope's proclamation referring to a Culture of Life is simply outstanding, and much of the health care provided by Catholic charities in the US and around the world is a true example of being the hands and feet of Christ (point of disclosure, I’m currently a medical student). Nonetheless, I am not Catholic. Why? Theology.
    My only extensive work in theology is in political theology. I’ll state that up front, not wanting to make it seem like I’m talking out of no experience. It is thus here that I have decided why I am not Catholic. I simply don’t have a high enough view of man to hold a Catholic political theology. I have theological problems with the Catholic view of the state as a pre-fall institution (Most Catholic political thinkers, would argue the state would have been necessary even in a perfect world, though I freely would accept any thinking rooted in Catholic theology that would illustrate a post-fall interpretation of the role of the state), as I believe that it is simply impossible to argue this from scripture (or logic) in an indisputable way. There seems to be no biblical command that indicates the state would have been necessary in the garden, and furthermore (to my eyes, which are certainly fallible), to ascribe power to a state in the garden would have been contrary to the ultimate authority of God.
    Secondly, the historical Catholic view of man, from what I know of history, views original sin as something that is broad across all of humanity, but isn’t necessarily deep within each human. (This is one of the things Luther railed against) The practice of indulgences (low blow—sorry)and purgatory flow out of this belief of sin as affecting every human, but not necessarily to a degree that makes it impossible to do good. Instead, I take Jeremiah’s principle that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) (This verse also illustrates my profound problem with the doctrine of papal infallibility, no matter how limited it is) and Isaiah’s noticing that “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6). In sum, I think sin is deep as well as wide. Going further, the Catholic Church (read Erasmus’s correspondence with Luther on this one) has—in general-- a more favorable view of human free will than I am wont to have (I would actually much prefer the Catholic view to be true, but I don’t find it supported in scripture or in practice!). I actually don’t have any more time to write, so let me get to my questions (which I ask out of true interest, not as a “gotcha” as many like to do), which will be in the next post.

  9. 1.What are your thoughts on the doctrine of papal infallibility?

    2.Why should I become Catholic when an article like this seems to illustrate a distinct—and quite serious—weakness in Catholic education (and implicitly, Catholic theology)? I know this is anecdotal, but on perhaps the political issue where there is the most clear consensus among evangelical, theologically conservative (both Protestant and Catholic) Christians, there seem to be a problem in Catholic Universities. Of course, it is entirely possible this question is unfair, but nonetheless I’d like to hear how a serious Catholic would respond.

    3.Why can’t Catholics and Protestants remain one body? I know this seems like an odd question, but there are many theological issues that do not have stone-cold, absolutely “right” answers. (Infant baptism anyone… with good scriptural evidence on both sides… how do we deal with this one?). Why can’t we be one “catholic” (by this I mean universal) Church, regardless of denomination? The cross of Christ, whether Catholic or Protestant, must remain central, and after all, that is what all of us who call ourselves Christians truly identify first and foremost with. Regardless of theology (I completely agree, by the way, that it is very important!), our purpose on earth as illustrated in scripture is to let God love us, and because he loved us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, love one another. Let us be wary of debate and theological thinking that is not rooted in that simple fact. God loves us. Despite all our imperfections, sin, and inability to live the lives we were intended to have, that MUST remain preeminent. Our only goal as the church (no matter what denomination) is to make disciples of all nations (and theology can help with that), not to win doctrinal arguments. Of course, that’s my opinion, but I challenge anyone to find scripture that runs contrary to what I just said (and I’ll immediately revoke my statement in that case).
    Thanks for reading, and God bless.