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The Persistence of Protestant Identity: More harm than good?

Are the Reformation churches over? Does the existence of distinct Protestant churches continue to serve the gospel? … Is the proclamation of that gospel in all that the church is, says, and does served by the continuing existence of Protestant churches in anything like their contemporary form?The issue is not whether the contribution of the Reformation to the total life of the church would be better realized if there were not church division. Few would deny that. The question is whether, whatever may have been the case in the sixteenth century, the continuing existence of distinct Protestant churches now does more harm than good, more harm than good precisely to the cause of the gospel that called the Reformation forth. 

—Michael Root, “Is the Reformation Over? And What If It Is?” Pro Ecclesia 16:3 (2007), 344.

H/T: David

12 Comments

  1. Chris Enstad wrote:

    My answer is this: the presence of multiple denominations is a gift from God that so many people have experienced God in so many ways that no one institution can hold them in.

    Another answer: if the Reformation *is* over, I don’t think it’s up to Michael Root to make the call.

    A further answer: how in the world could we be asking this question in the face of a Catholic Church that is even more obstinate on the authority of tradition than ever before? As long as the Gospel is held in bondage to tradition and church politics then there will always be a reformation happening.

    A caveat: I know that there is little humility in my comment but humbleness does not require pretending that the reasons that Luther got kicked out of the Catholic Church don’t still exist today.

    One more question: I think the Catholic Church left us, not the other way around.

    Pax.

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  2. It’s interesting and somewhat compelling, though I don’t think properly explained, that the permanence of the Catholic Church as it stands has been the assumption behind all your recent posts and quotes on non-RC identity. Is it self-evidently untrue that the reformation, somewhere or other, produced a church that had truly been reformed in the perfect tense? So that the burden is on the Catholics to ‘come home’ to the church of Christ rather than on every other tradition? It’s difficult to affirm when we’re beginning from an ecumenical vantage point rather than from within any one post-reformation tradition, but it’s undoubtedly the way that many of those traditions have understood themselves historically.

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  3. David wrote:

    My answer is this: the presence of multiple denominations is a gift from God that so many people have experienced God in so many ways that no one institution can hold them in.

    That flies in the face of Jesus’ own prayer that “all may be one”. The cause of Christ is not well served by the countless divisions that have splintered the Church. They are a scandal and ought to be abhorred by all Christians.

    Your entire post, with its criticisms of ‘tradition’ and the gospels bondage to it within the Catholic Church fails to take into account that the gospel never was proclaimed outside of tradition. It’s the perennial flaw in the Protestant dictum of ‘sola scriptura’ that it fails to take into account the simple fact that scripture did not fall from the sky, ‘ready made’, so to speak.

    Halden: I feel if you continue to question the divisions and the continuance of Protestant identity, you may well come to agree with Cardinal Newman that “to be steeped in history, is to cease to be protestant.”

    Brian: in what aspect precisely would you consider the Catholic Church to be in need of ‘coming home’ to some supposed, truly reformed Church?

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Chris Enstad wrote:

    I would go one further to say that perhaps we should look back all the way to the original schism… what *about* the Orthodox?

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  5. David wrote:

    Well that’s a completely different issue in itself.

    As far as I can see, it doesn’t really bear upon the present discussion, as the reformers were quite explicitly trying to ‘reform’ the Catholic Church. The gulf between the Latin and Eastern traditions is quite possible greater than that between Protestants and Catholics. Although that may seem rather paradoxical in itself considering the different status the Catholic church accords the Orthodox and Protestant traditions. Nevertheless, I think it is easier to find some common ground between Catholics and Protestants than it often is between Catholics (or Protestants) and Orthodox (notwithstanding those Orthodox converts that have grown up within a Western tradition)

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Derrick wrote:

    David

    I dont want to get too far afield here, nor do I wish to be accused of being nieve regarding the harm that denominationalism has caused, but I think it is a hasty observation to simply assert that denominationalism and plurality “fly in the face” of Christs call for unification. Tradition is inexhorable, and as we are all finite, situated human beings (which is a partial definition of what it is to be human) different traditions spring up. Of course there is bad tradition, but to dismiss denominationalism with such a carefree hand simply begs the question of the type of unification possible for the church. One could point either to Pentecost, or to Paul’s metaphor of the body composed of many parts, to understand that there is not first unity that then splits into plurality, but the very unification of the church is based upon, if I am to be allowed the theologism, a perichoresis of differentiation, both of gifts and function. Obviously these references are not addressing the issue at hand, but they do allow one the opinion that unity need not be undifferentiated or “non-denominationalized.”

    Tuesday, September 18, 2007 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  7. David wrote:

    I wouldn’t want to say that there is no room for any diversity whatsoever. That clearly isn’t the case in the Catholic Church with the existence of different liturgical rites (such as the Eastern rites).

    That said, the doctrinal divisions between Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church, if they are ever overcome, will necessarily have liturgical repercussions. For example, I can’t really see any place for a very ‘low church’ liturgy in the Catholic church as different forms of worship are inextricably intertwined with different doctrinal beliefs. One obvious instance of this would be the Eucharist and the different liturgical practices that revolve around it.

    Thus while possible reunion can involve a ‘difference in unity’ (and there were talks for example of a particular rite for Anglo-Catholics at one point I believe, plus the readmission of the Latin mass as perhaps a means to reincorporate the lefebrists), I can’t really see every denominational type as reconcilable to the Catholic Church.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 3:01 am | Permalink
  8. That flies in the face of Jesus’ own prayer that “all may be one”. The cause of Christ is not well served by the countless divisions that have splintered the Church. They are a scandal and ought to be abhorred by all Christians.

    I can be a different gender, race, religion, or political party, and still be an American. Why can’t I disagree on some aspect of theology or polity, and still be a brother in Christ?

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  9. That said, the doctrinal divisions between Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church, if they are ever overcome, will necessarily have liturgical repercussions.

    I think this is only half the point. The polity differences are pretty huge, too. Although I suppose you can trace those back to doctrinal divisions (e.g. primacy of the Pope).

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  10. Bobby Grow wrote:

    David said:

    . . . I feel if you continue to question the divisions and the continuance of Protestant identity, you may well come to agree with Cardinal Newman that “to be steeped in history, is to cease to be protestant.”

    How about: to be steeped in history, is to cease to be protestant (a la Newman); and to be steeped in the Bible, is to cease to be Roman Catholic (a la me).

    Sorry couldn’t resist.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 2:21 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    “I can be a different gender, race, religion, or political party, and still be an American. Why can’t I disagree on some aspect of theology or polity, and still be a brother in Christ?”

    You can actually disagree on various aspects of theology and polity and still be a Catholic, too. I think this point has been alluded to above, but the diversity within Catholicism (capital C) is being neglected by a lot of the comments here. It is misguided to suggest that Protestantism somehow represents “diversity” whereas Catholicism represents something like the opposite. The real question is what kind of diversity does each represent: formless plurality for the sake of plurality or a true multiplicity of good things within a broader unity.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 6:37 pm | Permalink
  12. Joe wrote:

    There are many Protestants who are converting to Orthodoxy so that they can receive the Sacraments and be under real ecclesial authority (Apostolic Succession), but still maintain protest against the Catholic Church. That is always an option if it is perpetual protest one seeks.

    Of course, once you get that far, the writings of the Early Fathers and Tradition becomes more important in understanding the Church that Christ instituted. Then what must be reconciled is whether or not St. Peter was not only named head of the visible Church by Christ Himself but that this was also the common belief of the Early Fathers East and West before the Great Schism.

    Ultimately, it comes down to this: what can you do in good conscience? Can you remain Protestant in good conscience? Can you become Orthodox in good conscience? Can you become Catholic in good conscience?

    Friday, September 21, 2007 at 10:49 am | Permalink

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