Protestants, and Other Mythical Beasts

Protestants, and Other Mythical Beasts January 18, 2024

Whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. … To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

Well, that is an explosive sentiment if ever there was one. I’ll come back to that quote shortly – it’s from Cardinal Newman – but let me explain why I ran up against this issue quite recently. I faced a challenging question in an Episcopal church group aimed at preparing people for confirmation. It concerned a very difficult word. What, I was asked, is a Protestant? And was I one? This blogpost is an attempt to answer those deceptively simple questions. I’ll focus here on one aspect of a possible answer, and arguably the most important one, namely the role of the Bible in defining that faith. If we just rely on strictly Protestant arguments about that issue, we honestly can’t arrive at quite fundamental and even essential Christian doctrines. Protestants, in fact, rely on many unacknowledged assumptions, and most of those assumptions are in fact small c-catholic.

I stress that my problem word here is Protestant, as opposed to Evangelical or Pentecostal, terms that raise quite different questions –  and which, I think, are easier to address.

What is a Protestant?

“What is a Protestant?” is a much tougher question than we might immediately think. Look at various online sources, such as Wikipedia (of course) and they basically offer some very flexible answers. A Protestant is defined as:

a.Someone who belongs to a church with a history that tracks back to those bodies that broke away from the Catholic church in the sixteenth century, whatever they actually believe or practice. Hence that would include the US Episcopal Church, of which I am a member: but as I will explain, I do not consider myself a Protestant. Nor, I think, do many other Episcopalians, or Anglicans.


b.Someone specifically who holds to the doctrine of the solaesola Scriptura (scripture alone), sola Fide (Faith alone), and others, although finding the actual list of solae one may or must believe is tough, as they have varied so greatly through the years in number and content. The Five Solae (Five? Really?) are very different today from what they were just a hundred years ago.


c.Finally, there is the de facto answer that holds in the US and many other parts of traditional Christian world, namely that a Protestant is a Christian who is not a member of the Roman Catholic church (or the Orthodox Church either, but traditionally that option was not on the radar of Western Christians). And yes, that is about as useful as the line from (as I recall it) a fictional encyclopedia cited in a Monty Python offshoot, which defines “CAT: Not a dog,” followed by “DOG: Not a cat.”

That “anything but Catholic” idea explains the successive changes of name of the Episcopal church. When it was constituted in the 1780s, the name “Anglican” was tainted by association with England, which was perilous right after the Revolution. Hence, the new church adopted the usage common in Maryland, where Anglicans had been known as “Protestant Episcopal” to distinguish them from the other church with bishops, which was Roman Catholic. The “Protestant Episcopal” label survived as the title of the national church right up to 1964, when it just became the Episcopal Church. Other “Protestant” language disappeared from the institution over the following two decades.

Who Believes What?

In 2017, as part of the commemoration of the start of the Reformation, the Pew Research Center published a major study of Americans who defined themselves as Protestants, and found that “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later.” That is putting it mildly:

Nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide). But about half (52%) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic belief.

U.S. Protestants also are split on another issue that played a key role in the Reformation: 46% say the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians – a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura. Meanwhile, 52% say Christians should look both to the Bible and to the church’s official teachings and tradition for guidance, the position held by the Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation and today.

When these two questions are combined, the survey shows that just three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. One third of Protestants (35%) affirm one but not the other, and 36% do not believe in either sola fide or sola scriptura.

A striking thirty percent of the sample could not identify “the Reformation as the term commonly used to refer to the historical period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church.” I doubt that levels of knowledge have improved much since then.

So why, apart from habit and custom, do Protestants define themselves as Protestants?

The Bible and the Religion of Protestants

At some point, we have to stress the centrality of the Bible as an absolute and unquestioned authority. Biblicism, we recall, is one of David Bebbington’s four points for defining evangelicals. Now, that point is less clear than in earlier eras when the Roman Catholic Church was not as eager than it is today to exalt Biblical authority, but it still matters enormously. Surely, we can agree there about an impregnable core component of the Protestant package?

One classic statement of that Protestant view was written in 1638 by the brilliant Anglican scholar William Chillingworth, who pursued fierce controversies with Catholic thinkers, which all revolved around that ultimate question of authority.

Chillingworth was explicit:

By the Religion of Protestants, [he wrote] I do not understand the Doctrine of Luther, or Calvin, or Melanchthon; nor the Confession of Augusta, or Geneva, nor the Catechism of Heidelberg, nor the Articles of the Church of England, no nor the Harmony of Protestant Confessions; but that wherein they all agree, and which they all subscribe with a greater Harmony, as a perfect rule of their Faith and Actions, that is, The BIBLE. The BIBLE, I say, The BIBLE only is the Religion of Protestants!

Anything someone might hold over and above that is a matter of opinion, but can decide neither faith nor religion. Historically, you can point to Popes contradicting Popes, Councils fighting other Councils, and Fathers disagreeing with each other (and as a major scholar, he knew those texts very well indeed). But the Bible was consistent, and utterly dependable:

In a word, there is no sufficient certainty but of Scripture only, for any considering man to build upon. This therefore, and this only I have reason to believe: This I will profess, according to this I will live, and for this, if there be occasion, I will not only willingly, but even gladly lose my life, though I should be sorry that Christians should take it from me. Propose me any thing out of this book, and require whether I believe it or no, and seem it never so incomprehensible to human reason, I will subscribe it with hand and heart, as knowing no demonstration can be stronger then this, God hath said so, therefore it is true.

That would roughly define the faith of a great many modern believers.

Calvin and the Self-Authenticating Scripture

Chillingworth was an Anglican and a Royalist, who died as a prisoner of the Puritan Parliamentarian forces in the English Civil War, Even so, in his views on the Bible, Chillingworth was echoing the views of John Calvin, who had held that scripture was not just infallible but it was also self-authenticating, autopiston, and that it owed nothing to the intentions or devices of any human authority. It was unnecessary and even sinful to try and prove it in human terms, or through human reason:

Nothing therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent. As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their color, sweet and bitter of their taste.

Even more than much else that Calvin wrote, his argument has aged very poorly, not least because he so often asserts the unquestioned authority of scripture on the basis of what he believes to be knockdown quotes from that very same scripture. The argument is totally circular. If I say I am infallible, I must be infallible.

As Calvin’s words were adapted into the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646):

The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

Whose Bible?

Obviously, such views can be criticized in a number of different ways, including the insights of critical scholarship over the past couple of centuries. These show to the satisfaction of a great many Christians (certainly not all) that not every word of the Bible is to be taken as literal historical truth.

But quite apart from that, there are other significant problems, the most basic of which is “which Bible?” Bibles vary according to time and place.

For about half its history, all Christian churches accepted several other books as fully canonical parts of the Old Testament, and a majority of Christians today (that is, the Catholic and Orthodox) still accord them that status. Up until the nineteenth century, these books were included in Protestant Bibles, but safely ring-fenced in the inferior category of “Apocrypha,” rather than fully authoritative. Those texts – such as Sirach, Wisdom, Tobit, or Maccabees – pose no threats whatever to conventional Christian orthodoxies as Protestants understand them, but they do raise the question of just what “Scripture” entails, and how that was defined. Chillingworth’s THE BIBLE as he knew it in 1638 was a considerably shorter book than would have been recognized by the Early or Patristic Church.

As is well known, the Church also made the decision not to include plenty of other candidates for the canon of either the Old Testament or the New, and they took those decisions on both historical and theological grounds: the Gospel of Thomas is one famous example of a non-finalist. After battles spanning several centuries, the Revelation of John made the cut, while the Revelation of Peter did not. The Catholic Epistles were accepted (generally, and with many holdouts around the world). The author of the Epistle of Jude, which is canonical, believed that 1 Enoch was part of Scripture, although most later churches disagreed.

The Bible is not a free-standing, well-defined, and self-contained thing that emerged directly from Heaven, roughly on the lines that Muslims understand the Quran. It was compiled over several centuries, and decisions were made about what to include, and what to exclude, usually after prolonged and bitter debate. Those decisions were made by the Christian community – or rather, by multiple Christian communities as they existed over many different regions and eras. The Bible, in short – at least, the Christian Bible – was created by the Church.

The earliest church used a Bible that was roughly the Old Testament, but a more voluminous and hazily defined Old Testament than we know presently. That church, of course, pre-existed the New Testament, and created that collection.

You cannot understand the Bible without the Church, and the evolving body of tradition and debate on which it relied. That in itself is quite a catholic, or Catholic, view, is it not?

How Tradition Made Christian Doctrine

The same points apply far beyond the Bible itself. By definition, a sizable majority of Protestants believe in certain core doctrines as fundamental components of the Christian faith. That includes the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures. But here’s the problem. Those doctrines cannot be derived simply from Scripture, but rather grow out of church tradition. Once you have formulated the belief, you can if you wish select or cherry-pick Biblical verses to support it, but you would never have reached the position through Scripture alone.

The obvious example is the Trinity itself, which is a fundamental belief for anyone claiming Christian credentials. Yet it is not explicitly stated in the Bible, with the arguable exception of one lone verse at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel (28.19). Other Biblical writers make no reference to the doctrine, and you can point to other texts that seem to contradict it. At John 14.28, Jesus says “the Father is greater than I.” Yet the Trinity is very deeply rooted indeed in church tradition. The doctrine was certainly held by Christian believers in the second century, by Apostolic Fathers such as Ignatius and Justin Martyr. To speak of church tradition does not, of course, mean that such later figures invented doctrines for their own sinister purposes. Rather, as Catholic and Orthodox theologians would claim, the church was, and is guided by the Holy Spirit. But without such a belief in the power of continuing organic tradition, how can anyone justify the doctrine of the Trinity?

No church tradition, no Trinity.

Proving the Incarnation

Scarcely less fundamental is the belief in Christ’s Incarnation. The New Testament certainly allows us to form ideas of Christ’s divinity, and his becoming human. Relying on those Biblical texts, though, gave early believers huge leeway in how they defined the relationship between human and divine. Was Christ literally God walking on earth in human guise? Or if he was human, did divinity or Sonship descend on Jesus at a specific moment in his life? Plenty of early Christians read the New Testament as a clear statement that this is exactly what had occurred at Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan. If so, then that divinity might have left him at another moment, presumably at the Crucifixion.

Or did Jesus become the Son of God? In Romans 1, Paul reports how Christ “was appointed [or declared] the Son of God in power” (τοῦ ὁρισθέντος υἱοῦ θεοῦ ἐν δυνάμει) by his Resurrection, and presumably, only at that moment. Compare Acts 10.42 and 17.31, both of which use the same “appoint” word, ὥρισεν.

Christians argued about these complex doctrines for centuries, basing their opinions on their interpretation of what seemed to them to be plain scriptural evidence: the problem was that those interpretations were mutually irreconcilable. Those Christian believers only settled these questions decisively at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.  In other words, the doctrine was settled by debate within the Church, on the basis of scripture and tradition, and (as they would have asserted) under the guidance of the Spirit.

As John of Damascus rightly asked in the eighth century, listing what had become critical words in fundamental Christian doctrine:

Where do you find in the Old Testament, or in the Gospel, the Trinity, or consubstantiality [homoousion], or one Godhead, or three Persons [hypostaseis], or the one Substance of Christ, or His two Natures, expressed in so many words?

The obvious answer was “You don’t.”

No church tradition, then, no doctrine of Incarnation.

Protestants and Tradition

Protestants have always held the early church in high esteem, and distinguished evangelical scholars publish learned works on the early Fathers (and increasingly, Mothers). The evangelical press IVP has presented a wonderful series of volumes under the title Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.  Having said this, Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular still balk at using the wisdom of the early Church to establish doctrine.

But suppose they do admit that key doctrines like the Trinity are in fact grounded on the traditions of that early Church. How do Protestants define “early”? Do they see the workings of the Spirit still in action at the Council of Nicea in 325, or might they extend that latitude to the time of Chalcedon in 451, as they must if they are to accept the Incarnation? If they accept the ideas of St. Augustine as authoritative, then that already takes us well into the fifth century. Both Luther and Calvin venerated Augustine, and would certainly have seen him as the crucial forerunner of the Reformation they were undertaking.

But when Protestants do venture into the fourth and fifth centuries, they are looking at a church that must, to them, seem disturbingly medieval and even Catholic. Suppose we take the church as Augustine knew it, around the year 420. This was very much a hierarchical organization with strong ideas about the status of clergy, and definite rules about clerical celibacy and monasticism. Pilgrimage was also a well established custom. From the second century, moreover, ideas about the exalted role of the Virgin Mary were becoming ever more popular and mainstream in the church. Are they then any less authoritative than doctrines like the Trinity? So why not Mary?

And as I have described, the Bible canon that Augustine knew was substantially broader than the standard Protestant version familiar to Chillingworth.

Relying on Scripture alone simply cannot take us to what we are told are some fundamental Christian doctrines. Whether they admit it or not, Protestants hold firmly to ideas that depend on small-c catholic assumptions about historical tradition and the central role of the Church. That does not necessarily mean accepting Roman Catholic claims about the Papacy and that particular version of the hierarchical institutional church. But it does mean going far beyond that list of solae, of “onlys.”

To Be Deep In History

To borrow the famous words of John Henry Newman, which I mentioned at the start of this post:

Whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism has ever felt it so. I do not mean that every Protestant writer has felt it; for it was the fashion at first, at least as a rhetorical argument against Rome, to appeal to past ages, or to some of them; but Protestantism, as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone; men never would have put it aside, unless they had despaired of it. …

To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

We might perhaps find a compromise in the words of W. H. Auden: “in each of us, there is a bit of a Catholic and a bit of a Protestant; for truth is catholic, but the search for it is protestant.” But do note the principle suggested there of what the truth actually is!

If you ask me to define “Protestant,” I would begin with “It’s a long story.” To the specific question “Are you a Protestant?”, the answer is “No.”

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