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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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The Unfinished Reformation

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

When President Van Dusen of Union Theological Seminary was recently asked, “What are Protestants protesting against?” he sharply replied, “They are not protesting against anything.” Their name, he said, means a solemn affirmation of religious belief.

However, all that we know of Protestantism as a historical movement confirms the judgment that its nature is less positive than sectarian. Protestant churches cannot grow without dividing in protest against their opponents, and their culture cannot flourish without schism. This is one of the best ways of understanding a form of Christianity that for most Catholics is nothing more than a strange and alien creed.

The process of disintegration began on the last day of October in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door of the castle at Wittenberg. Three years later the revolution was in full swing, when Leo X condemned Luther for denying the Roman Primacy and freedom of the will and for claiming that no matter how ostensibly good; every human action is a sin.

While it is true that Luther was chronologically the first of the so-called Reformers, and until his death in 1546 was the mainstay of opposition to Rome, the Protestant churches of modern times really had four beginnings. Luther told the people they were all priests in their own right; that every Christian, no matter how lowly, was inspired of God to interpret the Bible without dependence on ecclesiastical teaching. Thousands took him at his word, and as early as 1520 the Anabaptists rejected infant baptism and the kind of ministry organized by Luther. Their radicalism gave birth to such disparate bodies as the Mennonites and Congregationalists, the Baptists and Quakers, and into modern times the Unitarians and Seventh-Day Adventists. Most of the Protestant culture in America is of this independent variety.

The stream of Protestant origins also included the Presbyterian concept of Christianity, with an emphasis on absolute predestination. In 1536 John Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which he declared that “by an eternal decree God has decided in His own mind what He wishes to happen in the case of each individual. For all men are not created on an equal footing, but for some eternal life is pre-ordained, for others eternal damnation.”

Finally, in England, the uxorious Henry VIII set in motion a resistance to the papacy that his daughter Queen Elizabeth, fixed into a theological system. Her parliament of 1563 made the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion obligatory on all citizens under heavy penalties. Instead of “papalism,” as in the Church of Rome, Anglicans profess an Episcopalian form of government in which the bishops and not the Pope are the seat of final authority. Dependence on the State has given Episcopalians a measure of external stability. The only major schismatic’s were the Methodists in the eighteenth century, when John Wesley broke with the English ritual and assumed Episcopal powers to consecrate the bishops he needed to perpetuate his “witness of the spirit.”

What is the picture of world Protestantism after four hundred years? The best description in one word is disunity. While more pronounced in America than elsewhere, the dissonant tendency at the heart of the Protestant religion goes back to the time of the Reformation and is now universal.

In less than a generation after Wittenberg there was such a medley of opinion on fundamental teaching that the Reformers themselves, in the words of Luther’s friend Melanchthon, feared “the utter destruction of religion from all these dissensions.” In our own day, every possible form of discord is apparent and frankly admitted. Churches differ radically in their official statements of doctrine; within denominations of the same family are further varieties; periodically the churches change their professions of faith and repudiate what formerly was required belief; most vacillating are the positions of churchmen and theologians, normally at variance among themselves and often against what their churches profess, while remaining in good standing in the ministry or representing the very institutions they oppose.

On the broadest level, the confessions of faith and opinions of churchmen differ especially in three areas: the meaning of the Incarnation and the divinity of Christ, the relation of grace and free will in the economy of salvation, and the function of the Eucharist or, in Protestant language, the Supper of the Lord.

In their statements of doctrine, Protestants still profess to believe in the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God. With rare exceptions, they include among their symbolical writings the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Nominally, therefore, they would accept a distinction of persons in the Godhead and the fact that Christ was in some sense divine. But beyond this verbal agreement the variety of interpretation is infinite.

A minority of churchmen explains the Trinity and Christ’s divinity with complete deference to Christian tradition. Concordia Lutheran seminarians are taught that God is absolutely one and that He is also three persons, really distinct; that “when Scripture calls Christ ‘God’ and ‘the Son of God,’ it uses these terms in their proper and metaphysical sense.” Baptist evangelists such as Billy Graham and fundamentalists generally, subscribe to the same doctrine.

At the other extreme are liberals in every denomination who claim that the Trinity and Incarnation are a product of later reflection and not a kerygma or message originally found in the Scriptures. In Germany, Rudolph Bultmann says “it is beyond question that the New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the Son of God, a pre-existent divine being, and therefore to that extent a mythical figure.” What he leaves of the Gospels after “demythologizing” them has not the slightest resemblance to the teachings of the Lutheran Church in which Bultmann is a leading figure. The American Reinhold Niebuhr stands in the same relation to the United Church of Christ. He considers the Incarnation “impossible” and the Council of Nicea “absurd” for condemning Arius who taught that Christ was only the greatest of creatures.

The original cleavage between evangelical and reformed churches stems from the contrary emphasis that Luther and Calvin placed on the mystery of predestination. In both systems the slogan was “to God alone the glory,” with a corresponding denial or obscuration of man’s efforts on the road to salvation. But where Calvin stressed the divine transcendence and sovereign will, was little concerned with man’s sinfulness as such; its theory of arbitrary consignment of some Luther favored sentiments of absolute trust in God’s mercy. Reformed theology was little concerned with man’s sinfulness as such; its theory of arbitrary consignment of some people to heaven and others to hell, irrespective of their deeds, looked upon sin as a mark of perdition and on sinners (defined by Calvinist standards) as predestined victims of divine justice. Evangelists softened or ignored the Calvinist side of Luther and built a system of grace in which the sinner must not despair but trustfully hope that, in spite of his impotence to avoid evil, God will finally save him through the imputed merits of Christ.

Protestant churches and theologians have either followed one of these conditions, or combined the two in a strange mixture, or departed from them in the direction of Catholic principles. In South Africa, much of the current trouble over race relations stems from the dominant Reformed Church’s attitude on predestination applied to the social sphere. To cut across barriers established by God is simply to resist providence. Hence the need for keeping the Negroes and whites separated, as pre-ordained by the divine will. Yet the same Calvinist (Presbyterian) churches in America have repudiated Calvin. Their Westminster Confession reads that “Men are fully responsible for their treatment of God’s gracious offer to salvation, and no man is hindered from accepting it.” Methodist churchmen are perplexed because John Wesley fluctuated between Calvin and Catholicism on the question of human freedom.

The Lord’s Supper was a bone of contention from the first days of the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cranmer each had his own theory on the Real Presence. They oscillated among four variables: whether the Eucharistic presence was real or only symbolic; if real, whether it was bodily or only spiritual; and whether bodily or spiritual, does it take place at the words of consecration or in the act of communion; and if the words of consecration effect a change, is it transubstantiation or only impanation - does the substance of bread and wine remain or is it converted into the Body and Blood of Christ?

These differences still remain, except that four centuries of rationalism have corroded much of the Protestant belief in a Real Presence as understood by Martin Luther or even Cranmer. Zwingli’s pure symbolism is practically common doctrine among the free churches in the Baptist and Congregational tradition. Calvin’s theory of a spiritual presence has entered Presbyterian and Methodist theology. “The body of Christ,” says the Methodist ritual, “is given, taken, and eaten only after a heavenly and spiritual manner.” If certain Methodists believe in a corporeal Eucharist, they do so on their own and quite against the church’s official formulary. Confessional Lutherans “unanimously reject the doctrine that the bread and wine are only figures” and postulate “a sacramental union of the in transubstantiated essence of the bread and of the body of Christ.”

Episcopalians of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion go further. They believe in a real bodily presence under the species and explain the article of their creed which denies transubstantiation as “antiquated” and directed against certain Catholic abuses of the sixteenth century. Several congregations of Episcopalian nuns express this faith in their practice of adoration “before the Blessed Sacrament exposed” on the altar. One of the heaviest trials for an Anglo-Catholic minister is to have a Low Church bishop who places restrictions on his clergy’s profession of faith in the Eucharist.

Although Protestant disunity is nothing new, the churches’ awareness of their condition and desire to improve it are so widespread and profound that observers regard this as the greatest development in religious history since the Reformation. Its technical name is the ecumenical movement which may be described as a revolutionary change in attitude among non-Catholic Christian bodies which, for the first time in four hundred years, are seriously trying to heal their disharmony.

For practical purposes the ecumenical movement in modern times may be identified with the formation of the World Council of Churches, whose juridical existence is less than twenty years old. In 1910 the Protestant World Missionary Conference held its first meeting at Edinburgh, Scotland, on the basis of national representatives. To remedy the evil of competition among the churches in the mission field, the conference delegates suggested that a study group be formed to explore and, as far as possible, solve the points of disagreement.

The American Episcopalians took the lead by inviting “all churches which accept Jesus Christ as God and Savior to join in conferences for the consideration of all questions pertaining to the Faith and Order of the Church of Christ.” Due to the approaching World War and its aftermath, it was not until 1927 that the First World Conference on Faith and Order was held at Lausanne in Switzerland and laid the doctrinal foundation of the future World Council.

Subsequent meetings at Edinburgh, Oxford, and Utrecht joined the forces of Faith and Order with another group, devoted to Life and Work and supplying unity among Christians on the social and economic level. In 1948 the World Council of Churches had its first international assembly at Amsterdam, where representatives from 147 churches “united their praises to God and their fervent prayers that His Holy Spirit might help them to carry out His design in a disordered and frightened world.” While the membership includes a number of “Orthodox” churches, the whole structure and orientation of the Council are Protestant.

Six years later the second world assembly met in Evanston, Illinois, with 1,200 delegates representing 170 million church members. After three weeks of deliberation they issued a formal manifesto on “Our Oneness in Christ and Our Disunity as Churches.” It was a pathetic mixture of hope and despair.

Still wedded to the Lutheran concept of total depravity, the Council pessimists said the Church of Christ has been divided from the very beginning. Therefore the most we can look for in this life is that God will make all things work together unto good, “even our divisions.” Against this defeatist attitude, the less Protestant element observed that in spite of their differences the churches still have something in common: they all respect the Scriptures and honor the name of Jesus and, with some exceptions; all receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Why not build on this foundation in the spirit of self-surrender, by giving up whatever belief or practice obstructs understanding?

The success of the ecumenical movement will depend on what values become dominant in the member churches. If the rigid Reformation theory prevails, according to which the Church’s unity is invisible and her disunity inevitable, then the ecumenical movement is destined to failure. Members in the World Council may still co-operate in solving their social and economic problems, but real unitive progress is impossible where sectarian discords in faith and worship are conceded, on principle, to be incurable.

A more hopeful judgment is given by those who take their stand with the actionists in the World Council. Without trying to rationalize their disunity or, as some did at Evanston, accuse the Catholic Church of “monstrous heresies,” they prefer to work and pray “as the Holy Spirit may guide us.” The sanguine element wishes to find “the way that leads beyond mere co-operation to a true unity that will make it clear to the whole world that as there can be only one Body of Christ, so there is only one Body which is the Church of His people.”

Coming from the Calvinist Secretary-General, these sentiments reflect a balanced appraisal of a new spirit in Protestantism that the Holy See has recognized in official documents and described as an inspiration of grace, leading all men to the unity for which Christ had prayed to His Father.

In January Pope John XXIII announced that he was planning a General Council of the Church to promote Christian unity. Protestant reaction was spontaneous but not enthusiastic. The liberal press ran a series of articles and editorials that ranged from discourtesy to open derision. According to the Christian Century, the chief service of the forthcoming council would be “one which it is entirely unlikely to render: the repeal of the dogma of papal infallibility. Unless a miracle occurs there will indeed take place a great religious congress which press releases will refer to as ‘the ecumenical council.’ It will, however, be a denominational synod.”

At the other extreme, Episcopalian leaders said they looked forward to entering into “consultive dialogue” with Catholic churchmen, and the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated that the Anglican Church would send observers, if invited. Secretary Visser ‘T Hooft of the World Council of Churches commented that much would depend “on how ecumenical the council will be in composition and spirit.”

But the majority were cautious and noncommittal. President Marc Boegner of the Federation of Protestant Churches of France recognized that a new climate of friendship was developed among the great Christian confessions, but as between Protestants and Catholics, “there are barriers that are humanly insurmountable.”

His American counterpart, President Dahlberg of the National Council of Churches, was equally coy. “Anything that would bring together all the churches of Christ would be blessed of God.” But he added, “It would have to be a mutual coming together, not under conditions laid down by one church for all the others.” In other words, if Rome gave Protestants the right to pass judgment on her teaching, they would be happy to join in the twenty-first Ecumenical Council.

A Catholic estimate of Protestantism must take into account two sets of factors that are frequently overlooked, one variable and the other constant.

The variables are the whole complex of changes which the imagination of the Reformers added to the teachings of Christ or subtracted from Christianity. Their number is myriad and in fact as large as the number of Protestants who, on Luther’s word, are all personally instructed by God.

The stable part is whatever the churches of the Reformation have retained or borrowed from Roman Catholicism, which is often much, as among Anglicans, and often obscured by a strange vocabulary that sometimes borders on jargon. Yet, for many Protestants, this constant element is the most precious heritage of their faith which they seek to preserve at any cost: and they want nothing more than to increase their possession of what, objectively, is derived from the Catholic Church.

Copyright © 1996 by Inter Mirifica

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