Why the Protestant Principle Might Outlast the Protestant Church (Theology of Protest, Part 2)

Why the Protestant Principle Might Outlast the Protestant Church (Theology of Protest, Part 2) August 8, 2017

The following post is the first of a multi-post series called a “Theology of Protest: The Reformation and Paul Tillich’s ‘Protestant Principle’” by  Dr. Paul Capetz. The original essay was delivered at a conference at United Seminary of the Twin Cities devoted to the theme of the ongoing significance of the Reformation for Christianity. Dr. Capetz has given me permission to publish his lecture as a multi-part blog series. Capetz is Professor of Historical  and Systematic Theology at United. His full bio is below.

What does it mean to be Protestant today?

Public Domain, via Pixabay
Public Domain, via Pixabay

By way of answering this question, Paul Tillich distinguished between Protestantism as a historical movement beginning with Luther that resulted in “a special denominational form of Christianity” (PE, vii), on the one hand, and Protestantism as a critical insight into the divine-human relationship for the sake of which the Reformation was waged, on the other hand.  Tillich’s characteristic terminology here is the distinction between “the Protestant era” and “the Protestant principle.”

“Protestantism as a principle is eternal and a permanent criterion of everything temporal.  Protestantism as the characteristic of a historical period is temporal and subjected to the eternal Protestant principle” (PE, viii).

Luther protested against medieval Catholicism for its pretension to represent God infallibly on the authority of its tradition and to restrict salvation to those partaking of its institutional means of grace.  He did this in the name of the Protestant principle; but this same principle is the criterion for judging Protestantism as an historical form of Christianity.

I reiterate Tillich’s previous claim: there is something inherent in the nature of genuine Protestantism that it is not only critical (e.g., of medieval Catholicism) but also self-critical (of the historical manifestations and forms of Protestantism).  “It is judged by its own principle, and this judgment might be a negative one” (PE, viii).  Indeed, Tillich had great doubts about the future of Protestantism as a denominational form of Christianity, and if he were alive today he would have even more reason for doubt about its future prognosis. 

In a collection of essays devoted to the interpretation of Protestantism, The Protestant Era (PE), he concluded by asking whether we are indeed living at the end of the Protestant era.  I, for one, certainly think this is the case.  But the end of Protestantism as a historical movement does not mean that the Protestant principle will die—because Protestantism as a religious and theological principle does not depend on Protestantism as a denominational form of Christianity.

“The Protestant era might come to an end.  But if it came to an end, the Protestant principle would not be refuted.  On the contrary, the end of the Protestant era would be another manifestation of the truth and power of the Protestant principle” (PE, viii); “…it may be the way in which the Protestant principle must affirm itself in the present situation” (PE, xviii).

Protestant denominations may well deserve to die if they no longer embody or express the Protestant principle that gave rise to them in the first place and for the sole sake of which they exist.  This is the self-critical question we have to ask during this commemorative year.  So what is the Protestant principle on which everything hangs?

In the late medieval context Luther formulated it as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but Tillich understood that the Protestant principle can be formulated in other ways.   And it should be reformulated especially if we are no longer asking Luther’s particular question.  For Tillich, the Protestant principle is the recognition of what he calls “the boundary situation” of the human being: that we are finite, not infinite; mortal, not immortal; fallible, not infallible; sinners, not saints; relative, not absolute; creatures, not gods.

This means that we are limited in power, that our knowledge and perspectives on reality are always partial, that claims on behalf of our own moral goodness and righteousness are dubious, and that we are far from what it means to be authentically human, whether individually or collectively.  “

The Protestant principle, in name derived from the protest of the ‘protestants’ against the decisions of the Catholic majority, contains the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality, even if this claim is made by a Protestant church. The Protestant principle is the judge of every religious and cultural reality, including the religion and culture which calls itself ‘Protestant’” (PE, 163, emphasis added).

“The Protestant principle implies a judgment about the human situation, namely, that it is basically distorted” (PE, 165); this is what the concept “original sin” intended to express (to mention another venerable theological concept that most modern people, especially those on the left, can no longer understand).

The importance of the Protestant Reformation is that it illustrates vividly how religion, whether Christian or non-Christian, can and often does become the vehicle through which we seek to justify our sinful pretentions by appeal to an absolute divine authority.

“The first word…to be spoken by religion to the people of our time must be a word spoken against religion.  It is the word the old Jewish prophets spoke against the priestly and royal and pseudo-prophetic guardians of their national religion, who consecrated distorted institutions and distorted politics without judging them.  The same word must be spoken today about our religious institutions and politics” (PE, 185-86).

Tillich’s reference here to the Old Testament prophets illustrates his point that the Protestant principle transcends not only Protestantism but Christianity as well.  It also bespeaks his deep appreciation of the Hebrew heritage to which Christianity is permanently indebted.

Tillich was very critical of the ways that Protestant denominations had become aligned with the bourgeois interests of the middle classes in Europe and America.  (In this connection one should also read H. Richard Niebuhr on The Social Sources of Denominationalism).  Whereas the alliance of Protestant churches with the middle classes in Europe led to a complete secularizing of the socialist parties with their consequent rejection of the churches, the working classes in America have been bound to a pro-capitalist form of conservative Protestantism as is represented by the hordes of evangelical voters who supported Trump in the recent election.

A few years ago while I was driving from Texas back to Minnesota I kept seeing billboards by the side of the highway that only had four words: “Reclaiming America for Christ.”  I texted a few friends about this slogan and asked whether they thought this was a good idea or a bad idea!  Although the sign contained only four words, I knew immediately what the subtext was: it was white nationalistic Protestantism speaking, with its anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-science agenda.  This is the kind of captivity of American Protestantism to certain cultural, social, economic, and political interests that Tillich was referring to.

“The question of whether Protestantism as a determining historical factor will survive is, above all, the question of whether it will be able to adapt itself to the new situation; it is the question whether Protestantism, in the power of its principle, will be able to dissolve its amalgamation with bourgeois ideology” (PE, xx).

Here, of course, he is referring to ethical critique of itself and he points out some obvious failures in the history of Protestantism in this regard:

“Protestantism has not developed a social ethics of its own as Roman Catholicism has done…The Protestant principle cannot admit an absolute form of social ethics.  But, on the other hand, it need not surrender its development to the state, as it did on Lutheran soil, or to society, as it did on Calvinistic soil” (PE, xxi).

In the Lutheran countries there was a “romanticism without justice” whereas in the Calvinistic countries there developed a “puritanism without love” (PE, xxi).  In other words, love must always be combined with justice if it is not to be sentimentalized, and law must always be combined with mercy if the gospel is not to be perverted into works.

Tillich is particularly instructive on the relation of theology to the political and economic arenas, since, like Barth, he was a socialist.  Tillich believed, as do I, that unbridled capitalism is anti-human and thus anti-Christian.  Anticipating the basic insights of liberation theology, Tillich declared that “there are situations in which the perversion of [humanity’s] essential nature is manifest primarily as a social perversion and as social guilt” (PE, 166).

Like liberation theologians, Tillich believed that the fundamental insights of Marxism (but not, however, all of its doctrinaire assertions!) are complementary to those of Protestantism into the distorted character of human existence.  Tillich also recognized that universal claims about the distorted character of human existence do not invalidate the recognition of concrete historical manifestations of this distorted human existence.

“The category of ‘the universally human’ [does] not lead away from the particular human problem of a definite social situation.  The ‘universal’ and ‘the concretely historical’ do not contradict each other” (PE, 168).  Examples: “So primitive Christianity challenged the Roman state as a demonic power having the ambiguity of the demonic to be creative and destructive at the same time, establishing order and compelling [people] to the worship of itself.  So Luther saw in the papacy in Rome the ‘Antichrist’ dominating Christendom and attacked it with all his prophetic wrath, although he knew he risked the unity of Christendom” (PE, 168).  “To reveal these concrete ideologies is one of the most important functions of the Protestant principle, just as it was one of the main points in the attack of the [Old Testament] prophets on the religious and social order of their time.  Theology, of course, must provide general insight into human nature, into its distorted character and its proneness to create ideologies.  But this is not enough.  A religious analysis of the concrete situation must unveil concrete ideologies, as Luther and the Reformers did when they unveiled the all-powerful Roman [Catholic] ideology” (PE, 170).

Accordingly, Tillich was keenly aware that Protestantism needed to undergo a transformation in the light of the Protestant principle so as to relate effectively to the challenges presented by unbridled capitalism with its attendant ills.  As a member of the “religious socialist” movement that tried to affirm the valid insights of Marxism apart from the dogmatic atheism of Marxists, he called upon Protestantism to free itself from its ideological captivity to capitalism.

“Protestantism,” he wrote, “must decide for the Protestant principle as against historical Protestantism” (PE, 180-81).  In our American context this would mean freeing Protestantism from its alliance with right-wing politics and its support of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class, its racism, its sexism, its heterosexism, its xenophobia, its intolerance of real science and of free humanistic learning.

Protestantism would have to lend its support to a democratic socialism in which all would be equal and to become identified with the cause of the liberation of the oppressed, and no longer as the religious and ideological prop of the oppressor. But what, I ask, could be more un-American in this present climate than a democratic socialism?

“The end of the Protestant era is not the return to the Catholic era and not even…the return to early Christianity….It is something beyond all these forms, a new form of Christianity, to be expected and prepared for, but not yet to be named….For Christianity is final only in so far as it has the power of criticizing and transforming each of its historical manifestations” (PE, xviii).


Paul E. Capetz was educated at the University of California at Los Angeles, Georg-August Universität in Göttingen (Germany), Yale University Divinity School, and the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and has taught at numerous colleges and seminaries including Macalester College and Claremont School of Theology in addition to United. His research interests focus on the Protestant Reformation and modern Protestant theology. He has authored two books and published many scholarly articles in academic journals such as the Journal of Religion and the Harvard Theological Review. He is currently working on a book about Martin Luther and Rudolf Bultmann as well as preparing a volume of translated essays on theology and ethics by Ernst Troeltsch.

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