On Still Being a Protestant ‘From a Protestant Point of View’: Contra Hauerwas

Today is a special Reformation Day. On this day, Protestants everywhere celebrate the 500th anniversary of the “beginning” of the Reformation—Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Or at least some of us do. Others seem to have trouble remembering what the whole thing was about.

hauerwasTake Stanley Hauerwas. Last week he wrote up something of a rambling rehash of his ambivalence over the whole affair, and a defense (of sorts) for why he remains a Protestant despite the fact he doesn’t, “see the gulf between us and our Catholic brothers and sisters as particularly pronounced.” He has reasons. Like the fact that his wife is ordained, and that he thinks his position as a Protestant allows him to keep Rome honest about its claim to be the “one true Catholic Church.” On his telling, though, most of the reforms the Reformers wanted were acted on and we don’t have much to “protest” anymore.  It’s sort of odd, then, that we haven’t all returned to “Mother Church,” since “from a Protestant point of view” it’s hard to understand why Protestantism still exists.

Now, I can appreciate a few of the points he makes. I’m happy to confess the Church didn’t wink into existence at the beginning of the Reformation after centuries of absence. Protestants ought to be happy to appreciate pre-Reformation theologians such as Aquinas and Anselm as part of our common, Christian inheritance. There are plenty of contemporary and post-Vatican II theologians I think are worth time learning from and engaging (Matthew Levering, Robert Sokolowski, Von Balthasar, etc.). It’s a good thing to think in “Mere Christian” terms much of the time, and in an increasingly secular, post-Christian West, an “ecumenism of the trenches” makes a healthy sort of sense.

All the same, Hauerwas’ piece is wrongheaded and misleading at a basic level.

In honor of the polemics that made the Reformation possible, then, I thought I’d pick at it a bit and try to offer a bit of a counter-explanation for why, 500 years on, there’s more reason for being Protestant from a “Protestant point of view” than this putatively Protestant theologian can recall.

First, let me quote what seems to be the most important paragraph, and we can roll from there. Here is Hauerwas’ summary view of the current situation:

Five hundred years after its inception, we are witnessing the end of the Reformation. The very name “Protestant” suggests a protest movement aimed at the reform of a church that now bears the name of Roman Catholicism. But the reality is that the Reformation worked. Most of the reforms Protestants wanted Catholics to make (indulgences are no longer sold, for instance) have been made. A few Protestant denominations might still be anti-Catholic (consider evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress’s claim, recently publicized, that Catholicism has Satanic origins ), but the original idea that Catholics adhere to a legalistic perversion of Christianity that does not admit the free grace of God is seldom seen, these days, as the Protestant difference from Catholicism. Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at the heart of the Reformation, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world. That emphasis turned out to be the overriding insight that shaped the work of Vatican II, meaning Catholics have overcome the major thrust of the Reformation.

This is a ball of yarn so tangled it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s try the meaning of the word “Protestant.” The term does not, in the first instance, mean “protestor”, but “confessor, or witness.” To be a Protestant in the Reformation was to be one who gave voice or testified to key truths. Indeed, originally they were simply called “evangelicals”, since their concern was to give witness to key truths about the Gospel they saw being denied. The “protest movement” that followed flowed from that basic instinct.

It’s true, then, that it was not primarily about being “anti-Catholic”, but rather reforming the catholic church’s Roman deviations and sectarian traditions. (Indeed, many called themselves “Reformed Catholicks.”) Sadly, though, the Roman church resisted much of that witness and formally condemned it in the canons of Trent, which still function as part of the authoritative dogma of the Church, no matter how much Vatican II “developed” the doctrines therein.

So what claims did they confess against the Roman, Magisterial hierarchy and the Popes? Hauerwas rightly says historians have shown there were many, not just one. But after shoving grace to the side as a possible area of dispute, he manages to reduce it back to the one main thing in order to suggest there isn’t a big problem, claiming it was “the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world.” And since Vatican II fixed that, what’s the problem? (Incidentally, Cardinal Müller recently described the Reformation as a “revolution against the Holy Spirit,” so I’m not sure he got the memo about the meaning of Vatican II.)

Now, this take might work if he were solely describing the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists. But it’s idiosyncratic to the point of dishonesty if that’s supposed to cover the various claims of Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, or the majority of the Reformers who led the Reformation.

Let’s concede for the sake of the argument the idea that the issue of the nature of grace or justification by faith wasn’t still a major issue of dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Are there not still significant issues at stake for those claiming any sort of continuity with the concerns of the original Reformers?

For instance, one might have thought the pattern of interpretive authority and the status of Scripture to be central. Does the Church create and authorize the Scripture (“creature of the Church”)? Or do the Scriptures authorize and create the Church (Luther’s “creature of the Word”)? Can the Spirit speaking in Scripture ever correct or trump the Roman Magisterium and Papal pronouncements ex cathedra, or does the final authority over matters of faith and doctrine lie in the Teaching Office of the institutional church?

Because unless Protestants have just ceded Sola Scriptura, then I’m not sure the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics have been smoothed over. As recently as 1950, Pius XII infallibly declared the Assumption of Mary a de fide dogma in Munificentissimus Deus despite its paper-tissue thin support in Scripture. On the Roman view, denial of it on the authority of God’s Word is now a condemnable heresy incurring “the wrath of almighty God.” For a Protestant who actually takes a Protestant view of the domain of Christ’s Lordship through the Word, this is still an outrageous overreach on the part of the institutional church to bind human consciences beyond God’s Word.

Incidentally, this also brings up the encroachment on Christ’s sole mediation by the entire practice of praying to and through the entire panoply of saints or venerating Mary as “Queen of Heaven.” If you’re still basically unconvinced by appeals to the distinction between latria and dulia, then the fact that this is still on the books (and a regular feature of parish life across the world) might ruffle your Protestant feathers.

Or again, what do we make of the priesthood of all believers? It’s true the concept has suffered degradation and drift in some quarters of Evangelicalism. All the same, the basic claim of the teaching remains at issue no matter how many times the Roman church attempts to engage the laity. If you actually hold to Protestant teaching here (instead of merely claiming Protestant lineage), the changes are basically window-dressing since the underlying ecclesiology and polity—the structure and mediatorial power of the priesthood, the sacraments, etc.—haven’t been reformed in that way. Romanism without the Medieval abuses is still Romanism.

Finally, you might also have thought the nature of the Mass and communion to have been a central dispute. It certainly was among the Reformers themselves, which tells you how important it was to them. And even there, despite their differences, all of them stood opposed to the doctrine of transubstantiation whereby there is change “of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (Trent). They had faith God could use ordinary matter to communicate grace, without God needing to destroy its nature by turning it into something else.

Disputes about the agency of Christ’s real presence aside, neither Luther, Calvin, or the rest of the Reformers thought the bread and wine had to become something else to convey the promises of God. But transubstantiation is still Roman doctrine and most Protestants still can’t stomach it, for many of the same, Biblical reasons. That seems like a big deal. And it’s still unresolved.

I could keep going here, and notice again that I haven’t even touched on justification by faith, which, no surprise, I think (and many with me) is still at issue. Especially since the dispute in the Reformation wasn’t whether God showed grace in salvation, but how he did so, whether it involved human merit, whether a Christian could have assurance of that grace in Christ…but again, I’ll leave it to the side for now.

In sum, if you hold to Protestant theology, there are still good reasons to be Protestant and to celebrate the Reformation’s reminder of these catholic Christian truths. Which brings me to one of the oddest paragraphs in the whole piece:

But I am still a Protestant, even though I remain unsure I know what I am saying when I say I am a Protestant. I can think of my life only as a living ecumenical movement — raised Methodist, taught for Lutherans (Augustana College), overwhelmed by the Catholic world, deeply influenced by the Mennonites and finally back with the Methodists at Duke. All of which, of course, means I have ended up worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C. That I am a theologian more defined by where I went to graduate school than by any ecclesial tradition mirrors changes in the Protestant world — in particular, that the gulfs between the denominations seem only to feel smaller and smaller. And so does the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism.

It’s one thing to grow in your appreciation of a deeper unity between the various branches of Christianity as you see a fundamental overlap in the gospel, the confession of Christ, etc. But it is precisely as you grow in that appreciation that Rome’s wildly sectarian claim to the “one true Catholic Church” widens the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism. Ironically, the entire logic of this paragraph ought to have made Hauerwas’s reasons for confessing the name Protestant all the stronger and clearer.

As Fred Sanders notes, “We are Protestant specifically to be more catholic, to avoid the constriction and reduction that Rome requires.” Or Kevin Vanhoozer puts it this way: “the real conflict is not between Scripture and tradition but between catholicism and one particular tradition (Romanism).” If he wasn’t so interested in sighing his ambivalence and sounding more ecumenical-than-thou, Hauerwas might have been able to give testimony to that.

Remaining Protestant is not, then, a matter of being “anti-Catholic”, or keeping Catholics honest when they claim to be the one true Catholic Church (because if they actually are the true church, you’re just being spiritually disobedient and, as my Catholic friends say, you should “repent and submit to the Pope.”) Instead, it’s about giving testimony that the catholicity of the Church extends far beyond Rome to all of God’s people who worship their Lord according to his Word.

At least, from a “Protestant point of view.”

Soli Deo Gloria

A Few Reformation Day Reads

martin-lutherIt’s Reformation Day again–the day we celebrate the Reformation of the Church (and mourn its current disunity) by remembering Martin Luther’s nailing of The 95 theses to the door of the Church in Wittenburg. Last year I wrote a little piece on the proper way of celebrating Reformation Day through repentance. This year, I’d simply like to include a few links and readings for your Reformation Day.

First of all, there’s the 95 Theses themselves, or more properly “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Now, you need to know these are a series of theses to be argued about in a theological context, so some of it inside baseball that only medieval theology experts will get. What’s more, most Protestants, and Luther himself, would come to dispute plenty of these. Luther was still a good Augustinian monk at the time he penned these. That said, there’s real power in some of them, that non-experts like you and I can benefit from, starting with the first and most famous of them all:

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

If you want a good understanding of what all went into that from one of those medieval experts, Justin Taylor has an interview with Carl Trueman on it that’s pretty helpful.

Following that, it’d be wise to work your way through Luther’s more mature letter to Pope Leo, commonly known as “The Freedom of the Christian.” It’s really just fabulous. After you get through the hilariously sarcastic opening, (vintage Luther) you get to some truly meaty Reformation spirituality as Luther explains the true righteousness and freedom that God gives us by faith.

Behold:

Now since these promises of God are words of holiness, truth, righteousness, liberty, and peace, and are full of universal goodness; the soul, which cleaves to them with a firm faith, is so united to them, nay, thoroughly absorbed by them, that it not only partakes in, but is penetrated and saturated by, all their virtue. For if the touch of Christ was healing, how much more does that most tender spiritual touch, nay, absorption of the word, communicate to the soul all that belongs to the word. In this way, therefore, the soul, through faith alone, [110] without works, is from the word of God justified, sanctified, endued with truth, peace, and liberty, and filled full with every good thing, and is truly made the child of God; as it is said: “To them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John i. 12.)

From all this it is easy to understand why faith has such great power, and why no good works, nor even all good works put together, can compare with it; since no work can cleave to the word of God, or be in the soul. Faith alone and the word reign in it; and such as is the word, such is the soul made by it; just as iron exposed to fire glows like fire, on account of its union with the fire. It is clear then that to a Christian man his faith suffices for everything, and that he has no need of works for justification. But if he has no need of works, neither has he need of the law; and, if he has no need of the law, he is certainly free from the law, and the saying is true: “The law is not made for a righteous man.” (1 Tim. i. 9.) This is that Christian liberty, our faith, the effect of which is, not that we should be careless or lead a bad life, but that no one should need the law or works for justification and salvation.

It’s probably best to print this one, as it’s a longer read.

I’d also commend this article by Michael Horton on the 5 Solas or “Onlys” of the Reformation (“Only Scripture,” “Only Christ,” “Only Grace,” “Only Faith,” and “To God Alone Be Glory.”) It’s a good summary and explanation of the significance of each of these “Five Pillars of the Reformation.”

Finally, Calvin fan that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you to this excellent recent article by Chuck Colson (no, not that one) over at Mere Orthodoxy on Calvin’s view of salvation and sanctification through union with Christ. One of the chief calumnies against the Reformation is that taught a doctrine that cut the nerve of Christian holiness. It seems fitting end by remembering that receiving a justifying righteousness by the free grace of God comes only through union with Christ, and therefore necessarily results in a deeper holiness than that secured by fear or self-justifying works. The Reformation was not only about recovering a true understanding of God’s justifying grace, but his sanctifying grace, through Christ alone.

To quote Calvin:

Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces (1 Cor. 1:13). Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness (Institutes, 3.16.1)

Soli Deo Gloria

Happy Reformation Day! Now Repent

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

-Martin Luther, the 95 Theses

Among the many important letters Martin Luther wrote in his storied career, the one he wrote in protest of the sale of indulgences to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, on October 31, 1517 might have been the most important. The letter itself isn’t the important part, but enclosed within it was a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Now, scholars debate whether or not Luther actually took up a mallet to nail the theses up on Wittenburg’s Castle Church on that same day. Also up for debate is whether or not Luther actually intended to accomplish anything more than invite a scholarly debate between solid, Catholic theologians on an issue of importance. What is not up for debate is the colossal significance these theses had in instigating a theological and socio-political revolution that ripped open Europe, changing the face of Western, indeed global, Christianity to this day: the Protestant Reformation. 

This is what Protestant churches celebrate on Reformation Day. Now, to be clear, we don’t mainly celebrate the politics, although a few good (and many bad) things followed. We certainly don’t sing about the tearing of the visible unity of the church. We don’t rejoice in the centuries of acrimonious disputes that followed. No, in fact, many of these are things we lament–at least we ought to.

What we celebrate is the recovery of an essential insight into the Gospel: the good news that Jesus’ reign and rule are freely available to all, without regard to their present ‘righteousness’, or meritorious works; that we are saved by the grace and good will of our heavenly Father through the work of Jesus Christ; that we are justified, declared righteous because by faith we are united with the Righteous One, King Jesus. As it was later summarized in the 5 Solas: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, for God’s glory alone.

Celebrate by Repenting

Unfortunately many of us don’t know how to celebrate this Gospel properly. We sing, we praise, we write blogs about Martin Luther and the message of justification by faith, and in general have some nice, warm thoughts about the whole affair. Now this great news is certainly worth singing about; it’s definitely worth a blog or two. For these truths, unfortunately clouded over and muddied up however temporarily in the dominant, late-medieval theology of the day, to be regained and preached loudly and clearly for all to hear is a glorious thing.

Still, if we want to celebrate Reformation Day properly, there is only one truly appropriate response: repentance. See, surprisingly enough for many Protestants, Martin Luther never mentioned the phrase “justification by faith” in the 95 theses. Not by name at least. He certainly spoke of grace and the nature of forgiveness, issues connected to it, but the subject he opened up with was the nature of repentance.

For centuries Jerome’s mistranslation of Matthew 3:2 as “Do penance” instead of “repent”(as well as some other doctrinal developments) had led to a misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to respond to the Kingdom of God. The Greek term metanoia means a deep, internal change of mind–a reconsidering of one’s course of action in light of new realities. Luther saw that when Jesus called for people to repent, he wasn’t calling for a simple change of external actions, or for meritorious acts of penance, and certainly not for people to buy themselves some grace through indulgences. He was calling people to recognize the arrival of God’s reign and rule by turning and submitting themselves to it; it was an invitation to consciously live in the new reality of God’s kingdom made available by grace through Jesus.

The Reformation was, in many ways, an attempt at this kind of repentance not only in the life of the individual Christian, but in the life of the Church as a whole. For those of us claiming the mantle of ‘Protestant’ there can be no question whether the whole of our lives need be one long process of reconsidering everything in light of the Gospel. Repentance is not simply a one-time act but a life-long task. Sin is too deep and Jesus is too good for us to think we ever have it handled–there will always be some sin our heart needs to release and some gift of God’s grace to embrace. God’s liberating reign in Christ is something we’re called to dive into daily.

So, this Reformation Day celebrate the Gospel by repenting–call to mind the goodness of God, the new reality made available in Christ, and live in light of that. Can’t think of anything? Here’s a starter list:

  • Pride – Consider God’s glorious humility in Christ and get over yourself–discover the joy of self-forgetfulness. In fact, try to practice humility by serving someone else without being able to take credit for it.
  • Lust – Look to God’s beauty in Christ and realize He’s the summit of true desire.
  • Gluttony – Take hold of God’s feast provided in the body and blood of Christ and pass the plate to those in need.
  • Greed – Observe of God’s riches, his generosity in Christ and remember that God provides all we could ever want. Give generously to those who do not have.
  • Sloth – See God’s active drawing near in Christ and respond–act–turn to him. Begin (or re-engage) in the spiritual disciplines that draw you to Christ.
  • Wrath – Remember God’s putting away his own righteous wrath toward you in Christ and put away your own unrighteous rage towards others. Instead, be gracious in word and deed towards those around you–especially the aggravating ones.
  • Envy – Recognize God’s gifts toward you in Christ and be grateful for what you have, not bitter what your neighbor has instead.

These ought to keep you busy for a while. Now, start celebrating!

Soli Deo Gloria

The Gospel According to Bach

Because Chris Tomlin just wasn’t good enough for Reformation Sunday, our choir performed a majestic rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No. 4 this morning. Now, I have to admit I am a bit of a neanderthal and growing up in the churches I have, great as they were, I was never really exposed to high church culture; it’s not my natural jam. Still, I was deeply moved by this piece.

Musically, it was Bach–’nuff said. Lyrically, again, it was Bach, but this particular piece was based on Martin Luther’s hymn, “Christ Lay in Death’s Cold Prison.” While it was meant to be heard, not merely read, I’d encourage you to take some time this week to work your way through the verses, meditating on the deep, Gospel truths about Christ’s death for sin, and hard-won victory of the powers of hell and the grave. It is heavy with theological and spiritual substance; rich food for the soul. Eat up.

Christ lay in death’s cold prison
bound fast for our transgression;
but now he has arisen
and brought to us salvation.
Let us all be joyful, then,
praise God and give thanks to Him
and sing Hallelujah,
Hallelujah!

O Death, you spared no mortal soul
of any race or nation,
for all were under sins control,
none was without transgression.
Therefore came grim Death so soon
and with swift advance it brought our doom,
and held us in its realm of terror.
Hallelujah!

Our Savior Jesus, God’s own Son,
here in our stead descended.
The knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended!
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death’s gray shell;
It’s sting he now has ended.
Hallelujah!

It was a war of majesty,
of Life and Death together;
but Life gained the victory,
and did destroy the other.
Scripture has proclaimed it so,
how one death devoured its foe,
and mocked its fleeting power.
Hallelujah!

Here is the spotless Easter-lamb,
that God the Lord did give us,
who high upon the cross was hung
and sacrificed to save us.
On our doorposts is his blood,
The price he paid to conquer Death:
the Strangler now cannot destroy us.
Hallelujah!

Then let us keep this holy feast
with all delight and pleasure,
which God the Lord makes manifest;
he is our light and pleasure,
who through the splendor of his grace
has lightened our most sacred place.
The night of sin has vanished.
Hallelujah!

So Christians, feast with joy each day
on Christ, the bread of heaven,
the Word of grace has purged away
the old and evil leaven.
Christ alone, our holy meal,
the hungry soul will feed and heal;
faith lives upon no other!
Hallelujah!

Soli Deo Gloria