Friday, April 9, 2010

How I Am Still a Protestant (and How I Am Not)

Warning: This post may be long. If you want the list for things I protest specifically in Catholics, see 1a,b and 3. If you want the list of things I see wrong with Protestant theology, see 1c and 4. But if you have the time, the whole list might be good because I'm sure some tendencies have crossed the Tiber to cross-contaminate one tradition or the other. While I'm sure some of them also have some of these issues, I'm not familiar enough with the Orthodox tradition to list anything specific to them here. If anyone has anything to add that I've missed, please tell me. I'm already thinking of stuff but I kind of want people who read this thing to have first dibs on the stuff that I've still missed as of this writing. I will give credit for suggestions in comments or e-mail.

I have remarked often both to Catholics and Protestants in my life that post-conversion I would still have a Protesant's theological mind. I think there is a good deal of truth to this. The question remains, if I am (like Peter Kreeft has said) striving to be more Protestant than the Protestants, against what do I protest? Surely I can't be more Protestant than Protestants without protesting something.

As a "newly minted Catholic" (as an atheist friend hilariously called me the other day), I am still a Protestant in the sense that I stand in protest against things that are not in line with the teachings of Scripture and the teachings of Christ. I am not a Protestant in the sense that I recognize the authority of something besides Scripture to interpret Scripture (at least in certain situations) without the possibility of error; this was, perhaps, the biggest thing, that a Protestant may protest, and a Catholic may not.

I daresay that it along with its logical implications (anything this authority declares to be true about the Faith, or declares to be apostolic teaching) are the only things I am really bound not to protest. A good portion of the things that Protestants were, at least in their minds, protesting in the first place, I am still not only allowed, but all but bound to protest, as someone who, at least in his mind, has some decent knowledge of theology. Thus I must protest:

1. Inefficient pastoral practices and outlooks related to things like Church discipline, or how the Church sees the world.
1.a In particular for the Catholics, it seems plain on the surface that more reform is needed in the area of how priests are disciplined for serious crimes against children, and in particular when and how they are handed over to police. I do acknowledge that lots of reform has been done, in part thanks to the current Pope Benedict XVI in his later CDF years, but I am still hopeful for more, especially on a local level.
1.b Also in particular for Catholics (related, sadly again, to the pedophilia issue): Some church officials have been too much whine, not enough work on the issue. I trust that many of them (especially current CDF head Cardinal Levada, and I really do trust this) will be working where they can see it necessary for reforms and to prosecute as much as they can within the current system of Canon Law.
1.c. In particular for Protestants, the sometime practice of "church splits" where a church splits over some doctrinal issue that really isn't that big. We're talking about something like drinking wine, or worship styles, more than something like gay marriage.
2. Bad liturgy. Lex orandi, lex credendi after all. Theologically questionable worship lyrics also go here, but they also occur plenty of the time when there's no liturgy proper happening.
3. Bad theological practice, including for Catholics:
3.a. Seeing the Protestant traditions in an uncharitable light, or not giving Protestants enough credit as Truth-seekers.
3.a.1. Treating all Protestantism as necessarily unhistorical. Most notable exceptions coming to mind: N.T. Wright and Justo L. Gonzalez, both of whom have studied Christian history considerably and yet somehow haven't come to endorse the Roman Pontiff as a theological leader.
3.a.2. Leading into the next point, acting like the Biblical cases for well-known Catholic doctrines (e.g. the Eucharist in John 6 and 1 Corinthians, or the Perpetual Virginity in the Lukan Anunciation) are so painfully obvious that nobody could possibly resist them but for fear of the Truth of Catholicism. While some undoubtedly resist for this reason, some people just don't see the arguments as easily. (And I, for one, am not entirely sold on John 6, though I see much potential for a double-layer of meaning there.)
3.b. Doing no investigation into matters, especially Scriptural matters, that the Magisterium has settled or the cases for these matters, thus leaving themselves wide open to the charge of being "unbiblical" by those Protestants who believe such.
3.c. Failing to read the Scriptures or interact with them outside of the Mass, leaving themselves somewhat legitimately open to the charge of not really engaging the Bible.
3.d. Misinterpreting the doctrines of sola scriptura and prima scriptura such that they sound more circular and baseless than they actually are. (I think there's definitely a truth to them, by the way, even though I think that prima and the Catholic viewpoint are more coherent with history.)
3.e. Treating (even if only in some quarters and/or for some purposes) Thomas Aquinas, like he is a minor Magisterium. He is awesome, but not even a minor infallible voice.
3.f. How we treat dissent, that is, improper lack of assent to Magisterial teachings.
3.f.1. Usually we crack down more on dissent we don't like, sometimes to a point where we raise the standard of orthodoxy higher than it was meant to go for a given issue (a conservative example would be pretending that anyone who uses NFP for anything less than a life-threatening condition is dissenting from proper church teaching on sexuality. A liberal example would be pretending that anyone who favors a more anarchic free market is automatically unconcerned for the poor.)
3.f.2. Usually we show more sympathy, sometimes too much, to dissent that arises from an overemphasis on those things we like to emphasize theologically. (A conservative example would be sympathizing too much with sedevacantists. A liberal example would be sympathizing too much with those parishes which neglect the rubrics for liturgy almost to the point of invalidating the Masses they celebrate.)
3.g. Treating Protestantism as not only lacking in the fullness of the faith, but in such serious error that every soul within it should be regarded as having a state of grace that is nebulous at best.
4. Including, for Protestants:
4.a. Calling everything "unbiblical" that does not resonate with one's particular interpretation of Scripture.*
4.a.1. Gathering that something must be unbiblical if it is taught only in Catholicism/Eastern Orthodoxy, even if it was taught by several of the Early Church Fathers.
4.a.2. Automatically classifying as unbiblical doctrine that teaches a cooperation of man with God in the project of Salvation (synergism.)
4.a.3. Believing and claiming proudly that one's own conclusions are the "clear teaching of Scripture," found without any tradition, even though the fact of debate presents a serious prima facie challenge to this assertion--and often without going the extra mile to counteract this prima facie case.
4.b. Being much more wary of the influence of philosophy than anything Paul said actually warrants us to be. Noticeable exceptions, I think, include persons as prestigious as Alvin Plantinga, a good number of Prosloblogion Protestants, and the Christian Carnival's own (well, also the Prosloblogion's) Jeremy Pierce.
4.c. Treating (even if only in some quarters and/or for some purposes) John Piper, or Brian McLaren if you're postmodern, or Rob Bell if you like Metrosexianity**, like us Catholics treat Thomas Aquinas.
4.d. Treating Catholicism not as a less Biblical form of Christianity but one which does not deserve to be called Christianity at all--and thus one which places all the souls it holds in peril. I was especially aggrieved, even with the qualification given in the ensuing article, that George Fox University claims to be the highest-ranked Christian college in the nation according to Forbes. Three or four recognizable Catholic schools rank higher on the Forbes list.***
5. For all Christians:
5.a. Conflating Biblical inerrancy and Biblical historical-scientific literalism.
5.b. Ignoring actual reasons that real and logical people might actually choose to reject the Truth, even if we believe that these are the results of a malformed reason and/or conscience, that does not equate to saying that all those who reject Christianity just want to have more fun in bed.
5.c. Fearing especially the philosophical 'modernist' and 'postmodernist' movements enough that one sometimes suspects we have not a real hope in the Resurrection.
5.d. Taking such a highly providential view of church membership that it almost seems to render obsolete any notion that the differences between the Protestant denominations with each other, with Rome, and with the Patriarchs, really matter. Why should those things matter if it is truly God's best ideal that one person be a Calvinist, and another an Arminian? (Given their coexistence under the roof of Rome with at least a provisional blessing to both, I do not feel the same applies, at least not in full force, to Thomist and Molinist accounts of predestination; also, Rome has never to my knowledge in one of her infallible moments said anything implying that one person might be called to be a Thomist and another a Molinist.)****
5.e. Running more than an acceptable risk of heresy in an attempt to exercise our Christian freedom, or to be relevant to the modern world.
5.f. Demanding that the teachings of one's accepted infallible source be not just accepted even in the face of doubt, but accepted without searching and question on the matters at hand, thus neutering the process of seeking the Truth.
5.g. While there is some room for trusting and assenting to doctrines not fully understood once a certain groundwork of doctrines has been laid, I believe it is imperative to most Christians at least to know why they believe what they believe. It may be that in God's design some are not bound to do so, at least not much, but more of them need to do so. (I especially wish more American Catholics would do this, as it might seriously drive down the amount of dissent.)
6. Ignoring social justice in our focus on the need of each individual for redemption from sin by Christ, OR Ignoring the personal aspects of the Life, atoning Death and the Resurrection of Our Lord in our drive to focus on the social gospel.
7. Thinking that a personal relationship with Christ must always be or feel close, especially as a matter of emotion.
8. Wearing the Cross on our faces every day and almost never acknowledging in our faces or our writings (at least, so far as tone can tell) that we are a people who have hope in the Resurrection. Big Offenders: Triablogue. Big Hopers: Al Mohler and Richard Mouw among the Protestants, Archbishop Tim Dolan among the Catholics. (The current Pontiff has an evil-looking face in general, but every non-evil picture of him is simply delightful.)
9. Trying so hard to be pragmatic and realistic that we wind up in cooperation with evil.
9.a. In particular, I think some people (Catholic and Protestant) did this with the recent health-care bill. Considering more fully the matters of abortion on which Catholics and (what I would call good) Protestants agree on, that is, that elective abortions at least, are wrong: I'm still not convinced that we aren't funding further the intrinsic evil of elective abortion. And if we are, at least from the Catholic ethical standpoint...we can be happy about the coverage, but we sure as heck can't be happy about the further intrinsic evil.
9.b. Also in particular, certain groups of Catholics and Protestants, many of them staunch in their traditions, have attempted to fudge on the torture issue, or on a reasonable definition of it, often out of a misguided sense of loyalty to country. 
9.b.1. I fully acknowledge that certain people are genuinely uncertain as to whether waterboarding constitutes torture; while I think that in all relevant contexts it certainly does, it is not those people to whom I am speaking, provided they truly seek the Truth.
9.b.2. Kind of going along with this, treating our country like it is too special to really be at fault morally. Chesterton (someone I think we can all generally agree is decent to read), while quite a nationalist, was also apparently quite skeptical of nationalistic spirit that aimed in any way to elevate the expectations for the state below the typical standards for morality.
10. Making long and judgmental and possibly overly negative lists of things that we feel must be protested against which don't necessarily offer a ton of awesome solutions, even though they're highly critical of the churches we've grown up in, or grown into, when really, all we are is college-graduated kids with a theology blog and too much free time on our hands, and no real right to judge anyone at all, without taking the time to acknowledge...

That many of the things on this list are things we college-grads with blogs need to work on just like everyone else. Even if in some respects my eye has more of a speck than a plank, I must still search for the planks that can be removed--this will enable me more accurately to see the specks and planks in others' eyes.

Okay, so I got a little personal there. But I think in some ways it was good to get that list of things I do feel compelled to protest out there. And yes, I've stopped protesting the big thing. I no longer protest the notion of the infallible Magisterium, and in that sense I will never again be a Protestant. But I have brought with me something that the Catholic Church has perhaps been missing in the same numbers for a few hundred years, the hermeneutic of suspicion of structures and authority that is over-emphasized in Protestant Christianity, but too often under-represented by the Catholics. It is my hope that taking a largely Protestant theological mind with me into the Catholic Church will prove to be a sort of theological completion that will, eventually, help bring a real visible unity to fruition. Eventually, hopefully, the hermeneutic of suspicion and the overwhelming trust some Catholics place in the institutional church will balance out to the proper trust Christ intended. But to contribute to that that, I must continue to protest, and I must continue to suspect--even when it's uncomfortable. Even to those things which I assent, I must strive to know the reason. At any rate, someone must. It is certainly not my job to do this for every doctrine the Church holds true, but it is my job as a Christian to cover my basics.

And while it may have begun as an attempt to state things against which I still protest, and gathered the sum total of many of my frustrations along the way to its completion, this list--especially the part I made for Catholics--would be good to take into theological discussion as a reminder that some of my own bad habits are also on the list.

For instance, if my conviction about the Eucharist grows much stronger it will soon be easy to slip into the trap of the two subpoints of the first point on the Catholics. I pretty sincerely believe as a combined consideration of Scripture and history that if we desire to believe what the Early Church believed and taught, we must maintain a sense of real presence in the Eucharist in our theological worldviews. This does not qualify me to practice the incredibly un-Christian practice of uncharitably assuming that such things are blatantly obvious to anyone who has looked into them for even five minutes. Indeed, considering again Wright and Gonzalez, it definitely doesn't qualify me to assume that men and women who are well-studied like them in history and Scripture are deliberately or obstinately misreading anything to avoid being Catholic.

As far as feedback goes on this list, I'd love some. If I missed stuff, let me know. If you think I'm being unfair about something, let me know. I might not agree, of course, but that doesn't mean I don't want to know where I might be neglecting one thing or over-emphasizing another.

I hope as you read the list and post I have written that you read it charitably; I hope that you can take for yourself a sampling of what you might feel called most to protest within and without your own tradition. I hope it gives a decent understanding of the meaning I feel specifically as a Protestant gone Catholic. I hope that reading this will call everyone, including myself, to a greater self-examination and seeking of the Truth, as we seek to expand God's kingdom together.

And as I am often wont to say to people, please pray for me as I seek the Truth. I will do the same for you.


* Note that this is not meant to say that all claims on what God intends to teach us in the Scriptures are equally valid. It is merely meant to say that the waters are usually muddier than anyone really wants to admit. Really, sometimes they are muddy and sometimes they are clear. Providentially enough, the clearer portions, at least to staunch Catholics and Protestants, seem to be those which present us with serious admonishments to personal (and sexual) purity, even if the exact form of that purity is not always so obvious, and to work for peace in the world when possible, and to work for justice, including an avoidance of social justice, where we can. This whole section is really, truly, an attempt to euthanize the term "unbiblical" forever, because as both a Protestant and a Catholic I generally see that it gets us nowhere in our efforts towards Truth.
** Unless someone gets really offended, I'm so using that again. That said, while Rob Bell's tone does annoy me some (at least from the video I've seen) he appears to be one of the few people who's written actual cyberpunk theology, and I look forward to interacting with his ideas whenever I finally get around to reading him. I just find myself highly amused by how 'indie' and/or 'metro' some of the newer evangelical movers/shakers look, because, God help me, I don't understand it.
*** In my mind, the fact that the clarification has to be to a degree searched for makes this almost a claim by GFU, however unintentional, that Notre Dame and St. Mary's College of California are not Christian colleges. Last year's Obama controversy notwithstanding, I'm 99% sure they still are, what with the first being run by the Holy Cross order of priests, and the second run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, they are still Christian.

**** This footnote is for the picture: I am thinking specifically of the type of Christian who might subscribe more to the ideals of Relevant magazine, and whether they'd really approve of what I'm writing here (obviously, I suspect not, but if such a Christian is reading this blog right now and approves of what I am saying in the paragraph directly right of said button, they should tell me. I'll probably be some combination of embarrassed and relieved.)


Kev Johnston said...

Dan, thanks for the observations. I heartily agree with the ones that I understood, especially the critique of Catholicism.

One point where I would disagree is the uncharitable-ness of Catholics toward Protestant brethren. After being hailed as the Mark of the Beast for hundreds of years by so many Protestant denominations, and yet still seeking an ultimate rejoining of sects, I think the Church is one of the more charitable Christian entities out there (who actually stick to doctrine, that is. Many churches believe themselves to be so charitable that they even water down teaching - though one could obviously say truth is always the most charitable position to stay in). And sure, not all Protestantisms - nor even a majority of them - are like this. And yeah, I can be pretty dismissive of Protestants, as can many Catholics, but usually it is only toward hostility, like some kind of defense mechanism. Over all, I think this critique is for both sides of the schisms, and one side more than the other...

Thanks again man.


P.S. I'm linking to this!

Jeremy Pierce said...

Kev, I could probably name off a handful of Protestant teachings that Catholics almost always misrepresent, sometimes in pretty gross ways. It's not worth spending a lot of time figuring out which side misrepresents the other more. A particularly egregious example is taking justification by faith alone to mean that works aren't important or that genuine faith could produce a life that has no change in external works. Another is the idea that sola scriptura means having no sources for truth besides scripture rather than its actual claim, which is that scripture is the only infallible guide to matters of the good news of salvation itself. Protestants certainly misrepresent Catholic doctrine, sometimes egregiously, but that doesn't mean the Catholic misrepresentations of Protestant doctrine are less common or less egregious. Both strike me as being pretty awful.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Dan, I'm going to have to disagree with you on the word 'unbiblical'. I think it's perfectly legitimate to conclude after careful study that a certain view is unbiblical if it does in fact conflict with what you've concluded the Bible teaches. It seems to me to be dishonest to say otherwise. I get the impression that you think calling a view unbiblical amounts to calling it so obviously unbiblical that anyone who considers the biblical text should find it obviously in conflict with it. There's plenty of room for thinking our epistemic access to what scripture teaches is fallible while also thinking there's a fact about what scripture teaches and coming to a conclusion that it rules out a certain view that other people might have arrived at in good faith. What I think we ought to resist is assuming that someone who holds a view that we conclude is unbiblical must be doing so because they know the truth and stubbornly resist it. Sometimes that might happen, but sometimes people just read the scripture, draw false but somewhat understandable conclusions, and then believe the view in good faith. I see nothing wrong with still calling such a view unbiblical if one sincerely believes it conflicts with the Bible's obvious teaching.

On Catholic colleges: I teach at one, and it's extremely hard for me to see it as a significantly Christian college. That's not at all because it's Catholic but because the Catholic model of education makes it not a Christian college, in my view. What I think of as a Christian college would have a statement of faith, which all faculty adhere to. In the philosophy department at the Catholic college I teach at, a few faculty are Jesuits, but only one of them is full-time teaching. A couple others are nominal Catholics or liberal Protestants. One is a mystic who is officially Catholic, but I'm not sure how serious she is about it. One is a lesbian who considers the Catholic teaching on homosexuality and on gender to be evil. Several are secularist postmodernists, and one is a fairly anti-religion secularist modernist. One of the more friendly to Christianity is actually a Reform Jew.

They hire people like me as adjunct faculty because the college likes it when there are people who can teach Aquinas sympathetically, and most of them can't. The student body consists mostly of people from the local area or not too far away who see it as an inexpensive local college. Many of them are nominal Catholics, and I occasionally encounter a serious Catholic. There seem to me to be as many faithful Protestants, though, and quite a few students who have little to no interest in the religious identity of the college, which I think for most students and faculty plays no role in their being here. It's extremely hard for me to see this as a Christian college in any robust sense, and I think that's how a lot of Protestants view Catholic colleges. Maybe some of them are different, but there's a big difference between the Catholic model of education and what you get at, say, Wheaton College.

Dan Lower / KKairos said...


I had typed a huge response but then there was a blogger error. So in a nutshell:

Re: sola scriptura

Agreed on misrepresentation of ss, but I think that was addressed more at Kev J.

Re: Colleges

(a) Aquinas: Condolences about your philosophy department. We've got one Aquinas scholar in the department here (one of the ones I suspect is an actual theist.)
(b) I'm not sure I agree totally about statements of faith and Christian identity, but I do agree partially, insofar as (1) I think theology faculty signing a statement is a good idea, one possible exceptions (2) I have major concern that lack of such statements for faculty in general may be part of what has led Catholic universities to where they are philosophically. That said I'm not sure how relevant a statement of faith is in, say, biochemistry.
(c) Though I still would prefer GFU had made a more qualified statement about being the best Evangelical college in the nation, I am not unconcerned about the Christian identity of Catholic colleges which ranked above it.
(d) I have a theory which just began forming when I typed v1 of this reply, so it might suck: Catholic universities have tried too hard to be open to modernist philosophy and (especially feminist) deconstruction; if anything brings down Evangelical colleges like SPU and GFU it will be too much openness to new theological movements. (I suspect that some of the post Vatican-II excess and overzealous desire to be seen as in dialogue with the world played into the Catholic universities' problems...It makes some sense.)

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

Ack, this wasn't a huge content thing but I did want to say at the end of that, thanks for making me think.

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