Protestantism: Compromising & Liberalizing Tendency

Protestantism: Compromising & Liberalizing Tendency November 19, 2018

[from the original 1994 manuscript of my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism; this portion dated 6-20-91]

1. Louis Bouyer

Bouyer continues his remarkable analysis of Protestant historical pathways in his chapter, “The Decay of the Positive Principles of the Reformation”:

What the Reformation took over from the Middle Ages was just what it should have criticised and rejected; in fact, it led the positive principles the Reformers had brought to light to assume a negative and polemical aspect. This was the origin of the heresy and schism which Protestantism was fated to become.

This unhappy association of the great religious affirmations of the Reformation with the disastrous ‘a priori’ principles of nominalism not only led Protestants to a one-sided development of their own insights to the neglect of the complementary aspects of Christian truth; it ended by strangling in Protestantism itself its own finest principles . . .

Lucien Febvre, in his very original essay on Luther (12), has clearly set forth the personal drama of the Reformer who saw, in his own lifetime, the principles he wished to reinstate opposed and hindered by the very structure his protest had created. But M. Febvre does not bring out sufficiently that it was Luther himself, and not only the stupidity of his followers, who provided all the elements of the system which was to imprison, rather than protect, the original doctrine.

Two phases may be distinguished in the gradual suffocation of the positive principles of the Reformation . . . In the first phase . . . the system, by its own weight, stifled the views it claimed to serve. In the second phase . . . the most remarkable example being the ‘liberalism’ of the 19th century, the desire to reject that crushing weight led to the rejection of the views so imprudently attached to it. In this way, Protestantism, by a very logical process, has paradoxically come to carry to an extreme all the errors it had begun by attacking . . .

Melanchthon had already observed with disquiet that the preaching of salvation by faith alone, as an abstract truth, led only too easily to a general condoning of the indulgence of animal instincts, freed from all restraint. Later on, what strikes us more is the withdrawal of religion from contact with ordinary life . . . the pursuit of private interests without regard to anything higher.

Extrinsic justification, devised originally to assure the absolute domination of grace, came to prohibit it from giving any sign of its presence; so it excluded God from both the public and private life of man, and made even the interior life a sphere closed to his intervention.

. . . Pietism, in spite of excellent intentions, culminated in a moralism and a religion of experiences, largely sentimental, which slowly degenerated into the ‘natural religion’ of the 18th century, at the furthest possible remove from the ‘sola gratia’ of Luther. This evolution towards a conception of the Christian life in which what are called ‘good feelings’ is the essence, if not the whole, was bound to happen, once the mind was conditioned to confuse the religion of grace with one where man had nothing to perform . . .

The semi-Pelagian, or Pelagian, or even purely ‘naturalist’, tendency to overlook grace in favour of some ‘inner light’ . . . arises from the disastrous equating of grace with extrinsicism, of religion as a pure gift of God . . .

We have a fact constantly present in the history of Protestantism. ‘Neo-lutheranisms’ and ‘neo-calvinisms’ regularly, and very promptly, usher in a counter-offensive of ‘neo-liberalisms’ and ‘neo-rationalisms’, or ‘neo-naturalisms’, more bitter and negative than ever . . .If ‘orthodox’ Protestants regularly beget ‘liberal’ Protestants, the ‘neoorthodox’, whom liberals engender in their turn, only bring forth atheists, who view no longer with hate, but merely with scorn, any religion claiming to be transcendent . . .

The sort of dialectical intoxication in which a man may revert to and refine upon the preaching of a grace which saves the sinner without changing him in the least, a faith which depends on nothing outside itself, a God who can only be acknowledged as Creator by the annihilation of his creatures . . . lasts only for a time . . . (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A. V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, 201-205, 212)

2. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman 

Newman reiterates Bouyer’s contentions in his commentary on the history of Lutheranism:

Luther started on a double basis, his dogmatic principle being contradicted by his right of private judgment, and his sacramental by his theory of justification . . . On his death . . . the dogmatic gained the ascendancy . . . Next a reaction took place; private judgment was restored to the supremacy . . . Pietism for the time died away; but rationalism developed . . . A sort of philosophical Pietism followed . . .

The equable and orderly march and natural succession of views, by which the creed of Luther has been changed into the infidel or heretical philosophy of his present representatives, is a proof that that change is no perversion or corruption, but a faithful development of the original idea. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame, Indiana: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989 [orig. 1845], 192-194)

3. Adolf von Harnack

The liberal Protestant scholar, assuming momentarily the role of an “orthodox” Protestant, observes:

From this point of view the whole development of Protestantism from the end of the 17th century till the present day must necessarily appear a mistaken development, nay, an apostasy. It is a pity, only, that almost all thinking Protestants have apostasized, and, for the most part, differ from each other only according to the clearness and honesty with which they admit their apostasy. (Adolf von Harnack: Liberal Theology at its Height, edited by Martin Rumscheidt, London: Collins, 1989, 258; from History of Dogma, 1890)

4. G. K. Chesterton

The great writer and convert identifies the leading characteristics of the liberal theological mindset:

These people merely take the modern mood, with much in it that is amiable and much that is anarchical and much that is merely dull and obvious, and then require any creed to be cut down to fit that mood. (The Catholic Church and Conversion, New York: Macmillan, 1926, 95)

5. Os Guinness

This evangelical Protestant, in his fantastic book The Gravedigger File (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983, 199-200), writes in a fashion similar to C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which demons plot together how to undermine Christians and Christianity. In his chapter on religious liberalism, “Trendies and Traitors,” Guinness probes the tragi-comic shortcomings of “liberal Christianity,” which has, all too often, typified Protestantism, and inevitably so, if the above hypotheses are correct:

Instead of ‘being all things to all people’ in order to ‘win them to Christ,’ modern Christians tend to become all things to all people – and then stay there and move in with them . . . At the outset, nothing may be further from the liberal’s mind than compromise, but like the Chinese journey of a thousand miles, the liberal road to compromise must begin somewhere. This step is taken when some aspect of modern life or thought is entertained as not only significant . . . but superior to what Christians now know or do, and therefore worth assuming as true. All we need do then is circulate the judgment with a growing chorus of conviction (‘Today it is no longer possible to believe x, y or z . . .’), and it will soon seem self-evident and unquestionable . . .

Only rarely does this happen consciously or deliberately. Most people do it without realizing it. This lack of consciousness is how we can take theological conservatives and turn them into cultural liberals, and how we can move theological liberals toward heresy.

6. Ronald Sider 

This orthodox evangelical who could be described as “liberal/ left” on the socio-political scale, thinks that evangelicals may trod the same primrose path:

To a tragic degree, we evangelicals fail to obey the Scriptures we so proudly claim to believe . . . We are in increasing danger of wholesale accommodation to fundamentally unbiblical values in the larger society as our popularity increases . . . I fear that evangelicals may succumb to theological liberalism . . . The essence of theological liberalism is allowing our thinking and acting to be shaped by surrounding society rather than biblical revelation. That is precisely what current evangelical success tempts us to do. (Johnston, Jon, Will Evangelicalism Survive Its Own Popularity?, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1980, from Foreword by Ron Sider)

7. The Evolution of “Orthodox” Protestantism Into Heresy

As a quintessential example of the strange evolution of “orthodox” Protestantism into hostile and opposite belief systems, we shall look at the striking history of Calvinism mutating into Unitarianism:

A. Christopher Dawson

The Puritans who founded the Churches of New England were the Founding Fathers of American Protestantism. But the decline of Puritanism in England after the Revolution was accompanied and followed by a similar weakening of Puritanism in America. Its last great representative, Jonathan Edwards, was already an anachronism, and his successors, like Samuel Hopkins, were conscious that the spiritual forces of New England Puritanism were becoming sterile and losing their hold on the mind of society, so that by the beginning of the 19th century, religion had ceased to be a living issue in the traditional strongholds of New England culture. In spite of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, the history of the native religious tradition in New England follows a very similar course to that of English Presbyterianism, by way of the Enlightenment, to Unitarianism and Liberalism. (The Dividing of Christendom, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1965, 233)

B. Martin Marty [“Liberal” Lutheran historian]

These great-grandsons of the Puritans still respected Jesus but did not favor doctrines that defined him as being uniquely divine . . . When in 1805 Henry Ware, an open Unitarian, became the Hollis Professor of Divinity, Harvard fell to the heretics. The Orthodox fought back in 1808 by founding a new seminary at Andover, but found that they could not rouse the relaxed lay people who kept drifting from Puritan ways. (Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America, New York: Penguin, 1984, 181-182)

C. Perry Miller [Secular expert on Puritanism]

The Puritan philosophy . . . remained a fairly rigid orthodoxy during the 17th century. In the next age, however, it proved to be anything but static; by the middle of the 18th Century there had proceeded from it two distinct schools of thought . . . Certain elements were carried into the creeds and practices of the evangelical religious revivals, but others were perpetuated by the rationalists and the forerunners of Unitarianism . . . Unitarianism is as much the child of Puritanism as Methodism . . . Descendants of the Puritans who revolted against what they considered the tyranny and cruelty of Puritan theology . . . substituted taste and reason for dogma and authority. (Perry Miller & Thomas H. Johnson, editors, The Puritans, New York: Harper & Row, vol. 1, revised 1963, 3-4: Introduction by Perry Miller)

D. The Inevitable Reaction Against False Theology

It was no coincidence that Unitarianism sprung up in New England, the very area where Calvinistic Puritanism dominated for 150 years or so. The false conception of God predestining men to hell collapsed under its own weight.

It is also interesting to note that many founders of religious Cults (which reject the Trinity and Christian doctrines of salvation and man), had Calvinistic backgrounds or family pedigree:

Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses)

Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science)

Joseph Smith (Mormonism)

Victor Paul Wierwille (The Way International)

Calvinism, therefore, as the most consistent and faithful theological proponent of the classical Protestant system, has not proven its staying power. Most Protestants, in reaction, have rejected the Protestant Founders’ low conceptions of God and man, and have adopted free will, which was always the Catholic position.

We see, then, that Protestant sects which start out “orthodox” (holding to the historic doctrines of the original Protestants), inevitably “go liberal” or at least provoke disenchanted members to found heretical sects, for reasons which Bouyer and Newman think they have identified. Today’s United Methodist Church is not the Methodism of founder John Wesley. Nor do the largest Lutheran and Presbyterian bodies correspond to the visions of Luther and Calvin (there are, however, it should be noted, small conservative groups within all these denominations).

Historic Anglicanism is diminishing too. For instance, bishops of the (American) Episcopal Church, in September, 1990, could barely pass (80-76) a Statement declaring the ordination of practicing homosexuals “inappropriate.” Imagine a debate among so-called Christians on that! (Christianity Today, October 22, 1990, 53-55). As of 1982, virtually all Protestant “mainline” denominations (i.e., the liberals), espoused “freedom of choice” to kill one’s preborn child, in some or (usually) all circumstances, according to a fact sheet of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, which quoted these groups’ own statements and official declarations. This position is, of course, opposed to the Bible and all of orthodox Christian tradition.

As one final (and altogether typical) example of the absurd lengths religious liberalism will go, I cite some ads from The Nave, the student bulletin of Harvard Divinity School, America’s oldest theological institution:

For instance, one could have attended ‘A Spring Equinox Ritual based on pre-Christian and present-day pagan celebrations honoring the Earth’s renewal.’ . . . ‘Belly Dancing and Women’s Spirituality: Learn to use muscles you never knew you had, wear exotic costumes, and enjoy moving . . . to sensual Middle Eastern rhythms’ . . . ‘It’s a Baby! Kevin Cranston, visiting Lecturer on Ministry, and his lover, John Enos, proudly announce the birth of their daughter, Amber Enos Cranston, February 6.’ We hope little Amber is not as confused as we are. (Derek Cross, “Belly Dancing Spirituality,” Crisis, May 1991, 6)

It should go without saying that there are still many fine, orthodox Protestant groups and individuals, who hold, essentially, to the traditional Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. Orthodox believers can be found in virtually all denominations. Evangelicals would no doubt argue (validly) that most if not all of the foregoing does not apply to them, and that they find these permutations as repugnant as Catholics would.

Nevertheless, these fatal tendencies stem from the very founding principles of the Protestant Revolt, and will continue to exert their force, especially if good, solid, “conservative” Christians are unaware of their inner dynamics. A certain cold, ruthless logic seems to universally prevail whereby all groups are ultimately true to, and follow their initial premises, oftentimes without conscious deliberation.


Photo credit: Jared and Corin (9-8-07). Peacham Congregational Church is the Olde Meeting House in the Village. It is one of the most photographed churches in Vermont and was built in 1806 [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license]


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