Ideas have Consequences

Henri Daniel-Rops wrote a ten-volume history of the Church. The final volume, Our Brothers in Christ, as the jacket blurb says, “covers the period 1870-1959 and gives a broad and comprehensive survey, from a Catholic viewpoint, of the activities of the Christian Churches throughout the world not in communion with Rome, including the Church of England, Eastern Orthodox, and the older Protestant faiths as well as some of the more recently founded denominations.” In chapter one he makes some interesting observations about Protestantism, including this:

Not one of the basic tenets of Christianity, as the Reformers conceived it, has been left undenied in one or other of the Protestant groups; if indeed there has been such a one, it has been so enfeebled as to be unrecognizable. [p. 60]

That might sound like a pretty extravagant claim, but he has in mind a fairly broad conception of what qualifies as “Protestant.” He includes, for example, Unitarians and Seventh Day Adventists among them, but the average conservative and Bible-believing Protestant today would be unlikely to say that Unitarians count as Protestant in any way. Depending upon whom you ask, the same goes for the Adventists. I think that the reason for this is more than likely an insistence that if one denies certain basic doctrines (such as the Trinity, in the case of the Unitarians), he can’t possibly qualify as Christian and therefore shouldn’t be labeled a Protestant either.

As a former Protestant I’m fairly sympathetic to this defense, but as a Catholic it seems to me that it might amount to nothing more than special pleading. Arius, for example, denied the Trinity, but we do not say that he was no Christian. Furthermore, as this article says, “Unitarianism, both as a theology and as a denominational family of churches, was first defined and developed within the Protestant Reformation.” So we might reply to the Bible-believing Protestant, “You can’t pick your family.” :-)

Daniel-Rops’ claim above comes at the end of a chapter in which he has surveyed the history of the major Protestant denominational groups, and stands as something of a conclusion. He observes that it’s consequently difficult to say what content that there might be in a universal sort of Protestant creed: granted that they have their distinctives, can we nevertheless enumerate some body of beliefs that might be held by most Protestants? The difficulty of doing so is pretty much granted by Protestants themselves. I have seen more than one Protestant write that it’s foolish and inaccurate to talk about “what Protestants believe” as though there is any substantial measure of doctrinal homogeneity to them at all. Nevertheless, Daniel-Rops makes an attempt at identifying “one irreducible kernel of convictions which all Protestants have in common, a minimum of articles of faith which unite them in a common destiny” (ibid.) and offers four such articles:

(1) A true Protestant is a man who believes in God, who sees God’s presence in all things, ‘in, for, and through the actions of men,’ a man for whom nothing counts save contact with God, either through faith alone or through human virtues, moral perfection, and charity.

(2) The Protestant wants this contact [with God] direct. … There must be no intermediary between him and God, no mediator save one, the only rightful one, Christ…

(3) The way of salvation, that which leads to contact with God, has been revealed by God in the Bible…

(4) Last but not least, the Word of God must come direct to the Protestant. It is in fact the corollary of the axiom that contact with God must be direct, without intermediary. … A Protestant is therefore more than merely a man of the Bible, for he reads the Bible alone, in the conviction that he is illuminated by the Holy Ghost. [ibid., 60-61 passim; italics in original]

Now there may be some small number of other doctrinal agreements among conservative Bible-believing Protestants, but it seems to me that this is a reasonable summary for them as a broadly-identified movement, and it seems justified based upon what he has said earlier in the chapter. For example:

Both Luther and Calvin had admitted that the human conscience, in order to come to God, had no need to be guided along its route by a magisterium capable of preventing it from falling into error. This was to open the door to individualism. From the moment that no infallible authority exists who can say this or that is true or false, all doctrinal deviations end up necessarily as a split, with very often the founding of a new group. …

That unchecked individualism risked incurring spiritual anarchy, and subsequently political and social anarchy, was well understood by the great reformers. Though their conceptions were different, Luther and Calvin had sought to establish a minimum level of beliefs common to all in Confessions—Augsburg and Calvinist. By these means they had, wrote a liberal Protestant in 1871 ‘restrained the liberty of their adherents by indicating more or less formally how they should understand the Scriptures.’ But this re-establishment of a creed was evidently contrary to the spirit which gave birth to the Reformation. The same arguments which were used against Catholic orthodoxy were used against the new orthodoxy. [Our Brothers in Christ, 17-18 passim; italics in original; bold emphasis added]

The same sort of issue pertains to matters of church discipline. A few years ago, for one recent example, RC Sproul Jr. was apparently defrocked by his denomination, but was almost immediately received into another where his ministerial credentials remain intact. The same sort of thing occurred a couple decades ago in a Reformed denomination that I know, where excommunicated men from one church were received as members in good standing in another one. And why not? If the individual conscience is supreme, there is no principled reason to suppose that one presbytery has authority that ought to be recognized by any other; the same obviously is true of denominations and elders of individual congregations.

The point is that division among Protestants isn’t just unfortunate (though of course it is). It is an inevitable consequence of the principle upon which the Reformation was founded. But in contrast, the same is not true of the Catholic Church, since it is not founded upon such a principle.

In the last analysis it might be said that the multiplicity of analogous divisions within Protestantism springs from its very basis, whereas if analogous divisions were to take place within the Catholic Church they would be contrary to the nature of Catholicism. [ibid., 55]

Ideas have consequences. Christ would have His Church be one (John 17:11), but unity is not possible on Protestant principles. This doctrinal disarray started me on the road to the Catholic Church.

Posted in Church History, Protestantism

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