Friday, November 8, 2013

The End of Protestantism?

Peter Leithart recently posted a provocative article on First Things titled "The End of Protestantism." In this article, Leithart argues that there is a divergence between what he labels "Reformation catholicism," and "Protestantism." Protestantism, he argues, has been characterized by it's strong aversion to anything viewed as Roman Catholic. He writes:

"When I studied at Cambridge, I discovered that English Evangelicals define themselves over against the Church of England. Whatever the C of E is, they ain’t. What I’m calling “Protestantism” does the same with Roman Catholicism. Protestantism is a negative theology; a Protestant is a not-Catholic. Whatever Catholics say or do, the Protestant does and says as close to the opposite as he can."

This anti-Roman Catholicism has characterized many Christian traditions since the Reformation, as Rome has been viewed as the ultimate enemy of the Gospel, and anything resembling her must be destroyed. This was primarily the attitude of the Anabaptists and others who are considered part of the "radical reformation," rather than the traditional Confessional church bodies. 

Anyone who is part of a Lutheran or Anglican church has heard the retort from their Baptist and evangelical friends and neighbors, that their worship too closely resembles the "great whore" or whatever other derogatory name they apply to the Roman Catholic church.  The best of Reformation traditions attempted to be truly catholic in their beliefs and practices, keeping those elements of the medieval church that were Biblical, while rejecting aspects of theology and worship which were contrary to the Gospel. 

Part of this article hinges on the use of the term "Protestant." Historically, Protestantism referred to the Confessional Reformed and Lutheran traditions, as opposed to the Roman Catholic and Anabaptist movements. In the contemporary church, Protestantism has been the term applied broadly to any church that is not Roman Catholic. Roman Catholic apologists, for example, will commonly lump Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other heretical fringe groups in with "Protestantism." The name "Protestant," like the name "evangelical" no longer has any particular meaning, other than stating that one is "not Roman Catholic." That's why most Lutherans, many Anglicans, and some Presbyterians have rejected the use of the term.

Leithart is absolutely correct that what is needed is a Reformational catholicism. What the contemporary church needs is to find it's historical roots, and identify itself not simply with the church of the Reformation, but with the historic church--and that doesn't just mean Augustine. We need to view ourselves as the church of Justin Martyr, of Chrysostom, Bernard, and even Aquinas. That doesn't, of course, mean absolute agreement with all of these figures, but we need to recognize them as our forefathers as much as Rome sees them as theirs. 

The question I have often asked of Leithart and others involved in the Federal Vision movement, is: why Presbyterian? In some ways, articles like this tend to search for catholicism in Reformed Christianity where it simply is not there. The Lutheran Confessions contain citations from the fathers and medieval theologians along with Scripture to defend their teachings; the Reformed Confessions don't do this. This points to what I think has historically been a difference between Lutheran and Reformed Christianity. Lutheranism has generally seen itself (as has Anglicanism) as a branch of the historic Western church in a way that Calvinism hasn't. Certainly figures like Augustine and even Aquinas have been influential for certain Reformed writers, but there has not been a consistent emphasis on the continuity of the church.

Luther's Reformation kept the traditional Roman Mass with some necessary changes, while Zwingli rejected the traditional Roman service. While Calvin certainly held to a liturgical form of worship, the insistence on the regulative principle of worship essentially cut off the Reformed from continuity of worship with the patristic and medieval church. The Mercersburg and Federal Vision movements certainly are valuable in their insistence on the catholicity of the church. I simply don't think such a stance can be consistently held from  Reformed perspective, which is why the Federal Vision proponents have been so vigorously attacked in Confessional Presbyterianism. 

R. Scott Clark quickly posted a rebuttal to Leithart titled: "Contra Leithart: No, the Reformation isn't Over." I don't want to speak for Leithart, but I don't think he indicated in the article that the Reformation is now over. He is simply trying to point the heirs of the Reformation back to a catholic rather than a sectarian understanding of the faith; this is consistent with the thought of many of the reformers themselves. Clark's conclusion in his post is:

"The Reformation isn’t over, not at least for the confessional Protestant churches, who don’t equivocate, who understand what Rome is really saying, who still submit to the Word of God as the sole, unique authority for faith and life, who affirm the sole sufficiency of Christ and righteousness for us for acceptance with God, for salvation from wrath, and for sanctification, who are resting in Christ and in his finished work for us, and who find their assurance in Christ for us and his promises to us."

Clark's point is correct. The Reformation is not over, and the difference that divide us are deep and important. We cannot simply ignore our difference and pretend the issues the reformers had with Rome have now suddenly been fixed. We still disagree over Sola Scriptura, as well as Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide. We can't simply ignore these issues in the interest of ecumenism. However, the fact that the Reformation is still important does not necessitate Clark's assertion that Rome is a false church. Can't we, as a church, recognize our catholic heritage without having to compromise our Reformational beliefs on the one hand, and condemning all Roman Catholics to hell on the other?


hayesworldview said...

Fantastic post. This thinking is exactly what brought me out of fundamentalist (including some Reformed)Baptist thought, and into the center of classic Christianity. I actually received my Masters from Liberty University, was recommended by an Independent Baptist etc...and came out a tradition-respecting Lutheran, after reading church history and discovering the Sacraments and Creeds anew.

I agree with Leithart for the most part (have you read his book on Athanasius?), and also you in that the Reformed confessions are stunted historically, however positive they me be on the basics. There is a big difference between reading Chemnitz and Hodge.

David Gray said...

The difference between Chemnitz and Hodge is measured in centuries among other things. And Hodge said the RCC is a true Christian church.

Nicholas said...

Clark has been critical on his blog of Reformed people whose worship too closely "resembles" that of us Lutherans. Not surprised that he would be irked by Leithart's post.

Gary said...

Excellent post, Pastor.

However, it is not just the Reformed who condemn all Roman Catholics to hell. There is a small but vocal minority of ultra-conservative Lutherans who emphatically state that it is impossible for any Roman Catholic, who follows 100%, all the teachings of his Church, to be saved. Check out Intrepid Lutherans blog if you don't believe me.

I don't think that the majority of confessional Lutherans believe this fundamentalist nonsense. We need to speak out against this "Rome-hating" theology.

Jordan Cooper said...

The "all Roman Catholics are going to hell" Lutherans also tend to be extremely anti UOJ and angry about it. Intrepid Lutherans are a great example.

David Gray said...

Not all Reformed think all Roman Catholics are going to hell.

J. Dean said...

You can be "catholic" without being "Catholic," and Lutheranism is very good at grasping this.

As for the "All Roman Catholics are going to hell" point, I concur about its over-generalizing nature. BUT... I would also say that Roman Catholics who are saved are saved despite their theology, not because of it.

Gary said...

I have to disagree with J. Dean:

Your comment infers that something that the sinner believes could stand in the way of his justification. This is the theology of the fundamentalist evangelicals and the JBFA ultra-conservative Lutherans. This theology denies Monergism, the bedrock of Lutheran theology.

God creates and gifts faith.
God creates true belief.
God does all this in each and every baptism in which the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is invoked, and each and every Roman Catholic baptism does just that.

God saves Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists in Holy Baptism, regardless of the doctrinal stance of the recipient of his free gift.

J. Dean said...

If that is the case, then Paul wasted his time with the Galatians in his letter to them. What you are proposing is akin to hyper-Calvinism, and that is not scriptural.

Gary said...

Are you Lutheran? Are you a JBFA Lutheran?

A hyper-Calvinist would say that he was born saved. I would never say that. I was saved in Holy Baptism, due to God's divine will to quicken my spiritually dead soul, gift me faith, belief and repentance. I had nothing to do with my salvation, including "believing the right doctrine" first...before God could or would save me.

I would like to hear from Pastor Cooper on this issue.

Gary said...

Pastor Cooper,

Do you agree with my position or that of J. Dean, or neither?

Gary said...

Just to be clear, I do not believe that just because someone was baptized that he has an automatic ticket into heaven. Belief in Christ as one's Lord and Savior is always necessary. A correct position on all doctrine is not.

Nicholas said...

Of course, Gary Matson believes that support for same-sex marriage or some abortions shouldn't warrant excommunication from an LCMS church:

Justification is by faith alone. Denial of this places one outside of Lutheranism.

Nicholas said...

I am not, however, one of the anti-OJ people, which is evidently what Gary Matson is calling "JBFA".

Gary said...

I am disappointed Pastor Cooper that you are not responding to my question but you are posting comments from far-right, LCMS fundamentalists who would use a Doctrinal Purity Test at the door of every LCMS church to excommunicate those who do not follow the straight "party line".

For the record I denounce all sexuality activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman as sin and I oppose all abortions as sin. I would oppose any move to remove either of these activities from the category of Sin. In the Church, they must be condemned. However, I believe in the Separation of Church and State, otherwise known as the Two Kingdoms.

However, these issues are not the topic of this post. The comments against me above are an example of the vicious, angry, "attack and destroy if you disagree with me" attitude and behavior of self-righteous fundamentalist extremists in the LCMS.

Jordan Cooper said...


Don't be offended because I didn't answer right away, or assume I am refusing to answer. I'm busy, and I can't always respond to comments right away. I'm currently working on finishing a book project, editing a theological journal, and finishing an article for publication. And I have full time pastoral duties along with all that.

Trinitarian baptism is efficacious regardless of the communion it is performed in. The one exception to this would be Mormonism, because what the institution means by "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" references something other than the Biblical Trinity.

We are justified by faith alone, not by our belief in the doctrine of justification by faith. However, there is still a place for heresy, so that certain doctrinal aberrations can result in the loss of justification. Faith is trusting in the Gospel, and if there is such a thing as another Gospel (as Paul testifies to in Galatians) then one can be damned for trusting in something other than the Biblical Gospel.

The central message of the Biblical Gospel is that Jesus Christ came into this world as a man, lived a perfect life, died on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. He did all this for the salvation of humanity. So long as one believes the essence of this message, he is justified. However, certain beliefs like a denial of the Trinity or Pelagianism negate the essence of that Gospel message by changing who Jesus is, and why he did what he did.

I'm not convinced that the RCC denies the Gospel in the same manner that the Judaizers did. There are a number of reasons I could give for that, but it would need to be a separate post.

D G said...

Mr. Cooper, not sure what qualifies as a lot of references to the church fathers, but if you look at the Reformed creeds of the sixteenth century you will find more than your post suggests.

Jordan Cooper said...


It may very well be the case that the 16th century Reformed Confessions cited the fathers alongside of Scripture. But how many contemporary Reformed churches subscribe to these Confessions of faith? The Westminster, Heidelberg, etc. which contemporary Reformed churches subscribe to lack citations of the fathers. I'm not alone in observing this; Barth makes this point which to him demonstrates the superiority of the Reformed in their strict adherence to Scripture rather than the utilization of the fathers in the Lutheran tradition.

Andy said...

Pastor Cooper,
Thank you for articulating things I've been wrestling with for the past couple years. Since teaching an adult Sunday school class on church history a couple years ago, I have been more keenly aware of the lack of any reference to the Church fathers (other than perhaps Augustine) in the sermons and lessons I hear each week in my PCA church. I strongly believe that our doctrines should be Biblically-based, and line up with the trajectory established by the primitive church. In my research, this is what I understand classical Anglicanism to be and perhaps (although I am unfamiliar) this is also the essence of classical Lutheranism.

Jordan Cooper said...

Lutheranism and Anglicanism share this as a common concern.

Nicholas said...


I apologize for and retract my comments here and at the Steadfast Lutherans thread I posted.

Gary said...

Thank you for your gracious apology, Brother Nicholas.

I apologize to you for not speaking with you with brotherly kindness and compassion in our original discussion on BJS. I let my temper get the best of me.

God bless you for having the courage to post this retraction. I am very happy that God has restored our Christian fellowship.