Does Protestantism Have A Future? The answer to that question depends on what we mean by the word “Protestantism.”
We Protestants typically think of Protestantism in doctrinal terms. Protestantism is the solas, justification by grace through faith, opposition to the merit theology of medieval Catholicism. These doctrines are associated with certain practices. Protestantism is preaching, and vernacular liturgy, and the liberation of the Bible to be taught to, read and understood by common believers.
If the question is, “Do the doctrinal achievements of Protestantism have a future?” the answer is Yes, because these Protestant teachings are biblical, which is to say, they are true because they conform to the revelation of God in the Scriptures.
As soon as we say that, we immediately have to ask, Whose doctrinal achievements? At a certain level of generality, we can speak of “Protestant doctrine.” Once we poke, the calm surface breaks and roils.
Protestants are united, more or less, in opposing transubstantiation, but there is no Protestant doctrine of the real presence. Protestants differ in their view of the church, in their liturgical practices, in their understanding of ordination and the responsibilities and authority of ministers.
Even on basic doctrines of Protestantism, there are variations. How are law and gospel distinguished and coordinated? Reformed and Luther arguably give different answers to that question; whether or not they give different answers is part of the argument. How are faith and works, justification and sanctification, distinguished and connected? Is double predestination necessary to ground the primacy of grace? Reformed theologians have generally thought so, but Lutherans disagree, sometimes vehemently.
And that’s not even to get into questions raised by Anabaptists, or by post-Reformation developments in Anglicanism, or by Methodism and Pietism, or by the development of Baptist and free-church traditions in Britain and America, or by Pentecostalism (assuming we think Pentecostalism a variety of “Protestantism”).
So, if we say Yes, the doctrinal legacy of Protestantism has a future, we need to address the question, Which doctrinal legacy?
Here I want to tack in a different direction, because Protestantism isn’t simply a set of doctrines, confessions, or theological positions. “Protestantism” has a sociological, or socio-ecclesial meaning. In this sense, Protestantism is a family of churches and traditions, sharing some family resemblances despite their differences, and distinct from Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and to a lesser degree distinct from Pentecostalism and other movements that have emerged in the past century.
In this sense, Protestantism is defined by its negative relation to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Of course, Protestantism has its own positive features, but as a sociological entity it will be defined, in part, by its differences from other similar entities. No matter how doctrinally and liturgically proximate an Anglo-Catholic church may be to a Roman Catholic church, it is defined by its difference. At some point, it will be not-Catholic.
Now, we can revise our question in two directions. First, does the current configuration of Protestant churches and traditions have a future? Or, more specifically, will the same denominational system be in place when we celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Reformation? Second, does Protestantism as a distinct set of churches, as a socio-ecclesial entity, have a future?
And this latter question, after much harrumphing and throat-clearing, is the question I want to address.
My answer is, Yes, Protestantism in this sense has a future. And that future is, and should be, a catholic future.
In saying that Protestantism’s future is catholic, I do not mean that Protestantism will or should be reabsorbed into the Roman Catholic church. I entirely agree with Ephraim Radner’s recent assessment: “The old enclaves are simply not up to the demands of the era. Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal: these are fading ecclesial relics, not without their eternal giftedness and bequests that demand safeguarding and hence continued institutional forms. But their exclusive finalities have been clearly subverted, and their demands made upon other Christians for conformity in return for acceptance are now vain.”
This claim isn’t based on assessment of global mega-trends. It’s a confession of faith. To put it simply, perhaps simplistically: Jesus prayed that His disciples would be one as He and the Father are one, that the disciples would indwell one another as the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father. The Father won’t deny the Son. Right now, we aren’t one as the Father and Son are one. Someday, we will be.
Some might respond with: We are one. The Father hasn’t denied the Son; as soon as Jesus prayed, the church was one and always has been. Even if I concede that, it doesnt’ let us off the hook. If we are one, and if Jesus prayed for us to be one, we should act like it. And, in many respects, we don’t. Jesus prayed for a visible unity, empirically evident enough to convince the world that the Father sent the Son. Is the world convinced by our unity?
Others might respond with: It’s a prayer for eschatological unity. Perhaps we will never see anything resembling this perichoretic unity in the historical churches. If not, we’re in trouble, because that perichoretic unity is, Jesus says, the way the world will know that the Father sent the Son. If we are never going to be one, then our evangelistic efforts are pretty well doomed. Our unity will be perfected in the eschaton, but God is committed to unifying His people in this age. That, in fact, is at the heart of the gospel, the good news that announces the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. That is why the Spirit is given, so that the fragments of Babel could be put together again. If the gospel is true, division is at best provisional.
In this respect, Protestantism’s future is the same as the future of all other churches, a future of unity and catholicity. Protestantism’s catholic future will be the end of Protestantism, Protestantism defined as a socio-ecclesial entity distinct from Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and the rest. Of course, the catholic future will also be the end of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy as socio-ecclesial entities distinct from Protestantism and from each other. There will just be churches, with all their variety of cultural and theological expression, yet united as a global communion of communions.
To say that the future of Protestantism should be catholic is also to say that Protestants should – and that’s an imperative, biblical should – pursue reform that will have the effect of making them more like Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Protestant churches that ignore the riches of tradition should learn to treasure those riches, all of them. Protestant churches that believe the church disappeared from the earth between 500 and 1500 AD should mine the wealth of medieval Christianity, east and west. Non- or anti-liturgical Protestant churches should adopt liturgies that more closely resemble the Roman Mass or Lutheran or Anglican liturgies. Non- or anti-sacramental Protestant churches should start having weekly communion, and nurture Eucharistic piety, and confess without any mental reservations what the Bible teaches about baptism. Protestant churches who refuse to consider any but the literal sense of the Bible should learn to read typologically and cultivate an allegorical imagination. Free churches that see the church as a voluntary gathered community should give way to churches formed by ecclesiologies that incorporate public and visible dimensions of the church. Protestant churches that have no theology of orders or ordination should acknowledge the goodness of ecclesial authority.
I don’t propose these reforms because they will make Protestant churches more like Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. Protestant churches reformed in these directions will in fact more closely resemble other traditions, but the rationale for pursuing these reforms is a good ol’ Protestant rationale: These reforms are biblical. It only seems a paradox to say: Protestant churches will grow more catholic as they are more deeply biblical, as they are, in a sense, more deeply Protestant.
(This post is based on a lecture given at John Brown University on October 12, 2016, sponsored by the Paradosis Center and the Faculty Development department at JBU.)