Why, Today, I Am Still a Protestant

Tomorrow is Reformation Day, the day on which, 495 years ago Martin Luther posted his Facebook protest. Er, I mean, Wittenberg protest. I remember many years ago hearing a chapel talk that was supposed to be on the glories of the Reformation, but was instead a reflection in the tragedy of the Reformation. That speaker was not-so-gently chided about his point of view.

As a church historian of sorts, I’ve circled around these ideas for some time. Glories? Tragedies? Hopefully I’m not circling a drain. Nearly thirty years ago, when I became an Episcopalian, one beloved professor asked, “So you’re on the road to Rome, eh?” I’m not even sure I’ve made it to Canterbury, and I steadily fend off any proximity to 815 Second Avenue, New York (The Episcopal Church headquarters in the U.S.). So, no, Dr. Shelley, I’m not on the road to Rome.

I happily remain a Protestant.

This is no diatribe against Roman Catholicism. I’m not a happy Protestant because those Catholics are so nefarious and misinformed. I like Catholicism—its spirituality, its universality, its wild and madcap diversity; I consider myself Catholic in every ancient sense; and I would become a Roman Catholic in a heartbeat if they would simply make certain accommodations for my, shall we say, Protestant convictions. I’m not holding my breath.

So why celebrate Protestantism if I’m so enamored with Catholicism? Here are 95 reasons. No, just kidding, only the first five. Maybe not the best five reasons in the world, but my top five.

1) Scripture: first, last, always. I am fully aware of the can of worms that Martin Luther and his fellow reformers opened when they advocated the idea that every believer should have full access to the scriptures and understand its meaning for themselves. Absolutely shocking. And yes, deeply problematic in innumerable ways. In Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution, Alister McGrath writes of it like this:

“The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisaged or predicted … that gave rise to an unparalleled degree of creativity and growth, on the one hand, while on the other causing new tensions and debates that, by their very nature, probably lie beyond resolution.” (2)

Crazy dangerous, and yes, divisive and sometimes even deadly. (I did read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs at a very impressionable young age, and I’ve never recovered. Why that was in our church library I will never know.)

And still, I believe that its power and beauty and meaning simply must be appropriated by the individual, not mediated. I’m not saying we can do whatever we wish with it (see #2 below), though that is of course what happened, and I do believe we should be reading and understanding it within the context of the church community over the ages, which is of course not what often happens. I was always taught the “perspicuity of scripture,” that its meaning was clear and accessible. Sometimes. Sometimes not. Yes, it’s dangerous; and yes, it’s worth the risks.

Nevertheless, for me, scripture gives the first word and always has the last word: Sola scriptura in that scripture gives all we need for the knowledge of God’s call on our lives, but prima scriptura in that scripture is enhanced and supported by a myriad of other “words”—nature, writings of the saints, witnesses through the ages, the arts, etc.

2) Tradition: the Church through the ages. Perhaps this surprises you. Number one is to be expected. Number two sounds quite Catholic. But as I said, I consider myself Catholic in all the ways that the ancient church would have recognized. And thus I cling to the Tradition of the Church, expressed most fully in the lived Tradition of worshiping Jesus Christ as Lord, and expressed particularly in the reflections and experiences of countless voices through the ages who have meditated long on the scriptures and have directed me to vistas of faith and the love of God I could never have found on my own.

There is a “Jesus story” that is at the heart of Christian life, and that story has majestically infused Church thinking and teaching about God, creation, redemption, and destiny in ways that draw us into a center of orthodoxy. And that’s where I want to be.

3) Laity: the priesthood of all believers. I don’t mean to sound too terribly anti-clerical here, but the whole “Father knows best” line sticks hard in my throat. There is a paternalism and a patriarchalism and a sexism to professional ministry (both Catholic and Protestant!!) that seems completely counterintuitive to the freedom and Spirit-driven gifting of those who are in Christ. Yes, we need order and functionality within the Church, and yes we thus need some who are appointed to certain tasks. But these my brother priests and pastors are servants of the same Grace and, like them, I am a dispenser of it as well, when and as God so works in my life.

4) Music: hymns. I like to sing, and I like all of us singing together, and I like the old Protestant hymns. They’re rich and poetic and stately, and when we all sing them together, I feel a deep connection with generations of simple, devout believers who have lived and died in quiet faith. My experiences in hymn-singing in Catholic churches have been, well, less than satisfying. And don’t get me going on chorus crooning. We’ve definitely and sadly neglected the visual arts, but we have excelled in the hymns.

5) Family: my own traditions. I am fortunate enough to come from a vital stock of godly Protestants. They are mine, and I am theirs. Some of us have been dysfunctional believers, to be sure. But we share parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and perhaps much farther back, of solid, rooted Protestant faith. They’re my family, of origin and of faith. I treasure the shared experiences—past and present—too much to abandon them.

These are not going to satisfy you theologically, I am sure. And the remaining ninety reasons would, perhaps, be equally maddening to some of you: Marianism, the role of the saints (pray for me, Genevieve), purgatory, the “management” of the sacraments, the titles of eminence, assimilationist practices, and on and on. But like I said, this isn’t about a rejection of Roman Catholicism, but a hearty embrace of Protestantism.

At least, for today.

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.

  • David

    +Glsory to Jesus Christ !
    In context of the ancient Christian faith. The people changed to the FULLNESS of the faith and not the faith changing for the people. This is why Western Christianity has found itself in slow decay of division of beliefs. In general, Protestantism keeps reinventing itself almost daily. As if to say, if a denomations doesnt match your private belief then jump to another or to a non denomination. Also, to add to this cancer is sectarianism etc..

    Respectfully submitted

  • http://theunlitcigarette.wordpress.com/ Val

    I appreciated your post, Ms. Mulhern. I knew my views were changing as the evangelical church became more ensconced in conservatism, far right politics, and anti…everybody?

    After reading “The Ragamuffin Gospel” and writings by Hans Denck (I love his heart), and I’m in the middle of reading, “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,” by John Shelby Spong, my need to find Jesus is alive once again. It’s funny that I’ve been writing on all of this before I knew it existed, and before I knew there were other Christ-followers like me out there. Truly there is one Spirit and He speaks to those who seek Him.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts in writing. It helps.


  • http://www.highmountainlodge.com Tom Beckwith

    Kathy, as always, thank you for your oh-so-thoughtful posts. Some preliminary thoughts before addressing the meat of your argument: am I the only person who finds it doubly ironic that Reformation Sunday fell on Halloween, which in addition to its occult connotations is also “All Hallows Eve,” the vigil for All Saints Day—the first feast the Church observed (though its date has bounced around a bit).

    Similarly, I find it just plain silly that Protestants assume that anybody who becomes an Episcopalian/Anglican is in a transitional phase that will lead to the Ultimate Betrayal of becoming a Catholic. Walking the Canterbury Trail does not, inevitably, lead to swimming the Tiber. Just after the most recent millennium (and what a disappointment *that* turned out to be), I made my first pilgrimage to Rome with the Denver choir I’d been singing with for about a year at that time. The director (whom I call the über-Catholic to her face) and her husband presented me with a mask, snorkel, and fins just before we got on the plane “to help you when you decide to swim the Tiber.” I’d never make it as an engineer, but right about then, the physics I learned in college (as well as reading Dante) began helping me calculate just how cold it would have to get before hell froze over.

    Sadly, I must challenge you on your statement that you consider yourself a Catholic “in every ancient sense.” Which one of the Church Fathers (Polycarp? Ignatius?) was it who observed that the first evidence of schism was when the schismatics established their own altar? Sadly, this is what Anglicans and Protestants (if they have altars at all) have done. So don’t kid yourself. You’re not a Catholic. Sorry about that. But you are an Anglican. Congratulations!

    Over the years, I have had quite satisfyingly heated screaming quarrels with people who consider themselves Catholics “in the ancient sense” and are in high dudgeon over the Catholic Church’s denial of Holy Communion to people who are not Catholics (or, as Anglicans would style them, “Roman” Catholics). My response has been that you don’t go into a friend’s house and begin rearranging the furniture. It’s just bad manners.

    I have been blessed and graced to have taken Holy Communion in St. Peter’s, Rome, through the gift of a papal indult John Paul II issued to the choir I sang in. That indult lapsed when he died, and I have not received the Eucharist in a Catholic church since then.

    This is just good manners and a recognition of the “sad divisions” that exist between our communions.

    All that being said, I’ll address my comments of your less-than-95 theses in a separate comment.

  • http://www.highmountainlodge.com Tom Beckwith

    Scripture First Last Always

    A few years ago, there was a popular Anglican blog on the net by a high-church, very conservative Episcopal priest who documented what ultimately became his conversion to Catholicism. I’m pretty sure he was one of the signatories of the Baltimore Declaration, one of those American Anglican early creedal manifestos (pre-1979 Book of Common Prayer) by conservative clerics that the Episcopal Church chose to ignore in her leap to the left of latitudinarianism.

    This cleric concluded that Protestantism was doomed because there was no authority that could decide, ultimately, what Holy Scripture meant, with the exception of the magisterial teaching authority of the Catholic Church (guided univocally, as they claim, by the Holy Spirit). And so he converted.

    He concluded, and I believe rightly so, that the central problem surrounding our divisions was that of authority—or maybe I should write that “Authority.” The mitosis of Protestantism during the last several hundred years, to which you allude in your essay, is astonishing and embarrassing. Perhaps even more embarrassing is the fact that, with a few notable exceptions, we admit each other to our Holy Communion regardless of what we believe about the nature of that which we are receiving. This begs the question, if we recognize other denominations of being worthy of coming to our Table, then why the hell are there so many protestant denominations out there and why do we persist in our separation?

    Oh, yeah, I forgot. It’s because we disagree with ideas of the nature and efficacy of the agency of salvation. Or the place of music. Hell, there’s probably a denomination out there the product of a disagreement over when to plant onion sets in the springtime. In our own diocese, priests have separated themselves because they don’t like the bishop or disagree with his teachings.

    And all of us “believe” the Bible. I don’t think the issue is sola scriptura or prima scriptura. The issue is that we all want our own way, and biblical principles notwithstanding, we are neither humble enough nor intelligent enough to recognize just how arrogant and willful we are. Protestantism as it is currently constituted is about getting our own way, ignoring those parts of the very Bible we claim to be primary in our lives when it demands that we behave in ways we find inconvenient or contradictory to how we think and want to live our lives. The issue is that there is no authority left to challenge us on our solecism and sin.

    Sola scripture be damned. We are so far beyond actually engaging the Bible that the very concept is laughable. William Butler Yeats wrote, “the circle cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” And that is, in my mind, where Protestantism finds itself these days.

  • http://www.highmountainlodge.com Tom Beckwith

    Tradition: the Church through the ages

    Not much to criticize here, except that little problem of considering yourself a Catholic when no Catholic would admit you to their Lodge if you don’t consciously align yourself with their teachings—all of them, including the crazy ones they’ve come up with the last couple of hundred years.

    Just sayin’.

    That being said, the Tradition of the Church is a strong corrective to the innovations of Rome—and don’t get me started on Protestantism (actually, you already have; sorry about that!). Certainly the Orthodox would agree here. I asked a Russian Orthodox priest about some pressing social issue when I was teaching in the same school as he a couple of decades ago. “What does the Orthodox Church teach about “so-n-so?” He shrugged. “I dunno,” he said. “I’ll get back to you in a couple of hundred years about whether the Church wants to consider thinking about it.” Not considering it; just thinking about it. Making a decision would take longer. There is something so captivating about an institution that doesn’t worry about being relevant. Their certainty that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” is a true statement is almost enough to make me brush up on my Greek and enter their catechumenate. So much for Rome.

    There is tradition, Kathleen, and there is Tradition.

    • KMulhern

      Tom, I was so hoping I could sneak this post past you, that you would be busy with guests, or plumbing, or something like that. And I know I’m taking my life in my own hands by even replying. Formidable as you are, though, I still rest quite easy with my arguments. They are, after all, only my own. The whole Church phenomenon–Roman, Orthodox, Protestant, and all the weird fringes–is so gloriously chaotic that my breath is taken away. There is no membership that can guarantee what people are believing–as they take the Eucharist, as they call on the saints, as they read their Bibles, as they start a denomination. But most definitely, there is an ancient definition of Catholicism that would recognize even me, and would certainly not recognize some of the practices that go by that name today. What we today call the Catholic Church is in continuity with–but is not identical with–the earliest Catholic/Orthodox Church. And, I believe, through its brotherhood with the Roman Catholics, so is the Protestant Church(es). But all that is neither here nor there. You and I are here, and I hope and pray that we, at least, will always be in communion!

  • David

    +Glory to Jesus Christ !

    Historically, Christian beliefs has always been Holy Scriptures/Holy Traditions INSEPERABLE.

    For the “bible only” people, let me remind you of Apostle Paul words on Holy Traditions being of the faith in 2 Thess. 2:15.

    Also, remember Holy Traditions of Christianity is not to be misunderstood as the traditions of man.

    Best regards

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  • Jackie Shives

    Kathleen, I really enjoyed this post. I could agree on most of them!

    First of all, I am so thankful that I have the privilege to read Scripture on my own and let it speak to me!

    Your piece on laity was just as much moving as the others, too! What would leadership for women look like in our church today?

    Ahhh music :) Last week, I sang for church and enjoyed every bit of it. There is such richness to the hymns!! We ended our service with “Victory in Jesus.” Boy, was that fun!!

    Family…well…I hope to someday have a family where my husband and I can be the start of a root system where our children and their children’s children are connected to the Vine :)

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

    I am visiting your blog for the first time right now, but this post goes quite a long way to making Dry Bones a regular stop. You have expressed pretty much exactly my feelings on the subject.

  • Mike Peterson

    You love old Protestant songs. Are there any “old” protestant songs.

    • Kathleen Mulhern

      I guess I would count anything written in the 16th-19th centuries “old,” at least relatively…

  • Simon

    People I’m a nondenominational and I was originally doing a
    post refuting church authority and exorcism rights but this Catholic
    ludi-literarum posted a few big paragraphs under my post challenging any
    protestant to trade barbs with him.

    This is outside my specialty. I can argue with him on the
    supremacy of the Church but I am sure Catholics have done many wrongs
    throughout the centuries. I just haven’t been up to the news lately, as we
    nondenominationals are a small bunch.


    Help me, for I am defeated and ridiculed by the Catholic

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