The meaning of “being protestant” continues to be an aporia that eludes firm definition and direction. For most evangelical protestants, there is little notion of what it might mean for them to take their distinctively protestant status with any seriousness. In other words, for many evangelical protestants, they think of themselves, not as “protestants” but simply as the normative instantiation of Christianity that is fine the way it is without reference to anything else. We have, in other words, a distinctly ahistorical view of the particular mode(s) of Christianity deriving from the Reformation. Most evangelical protestants really have no idea whatsoever about what being distinctly “protestant” might mean other than the fact that they are not Catholic.
As a protestant, I feel I must protest against such a (non)understanding of being protestant. To be a protestant is to be situated in a particular historical stream of the Christian faith. To be a protestant, if that term is to have any real meaning at all, is to live one’s ecclesial life precariously, in essential vulnerability while attempting to call for radical reform of the Roman Catholic church. There can be no severing of the churches of the Reformation from the Roman Catholic church. We cannot think of the heritage of the Reformation in abstraction from the Roman Catholic church. If protestantism can be truly said to exist, it most exist as an ongoing form of engagement with the Roman Catholic church for the sake of the proper embodiment of the gospel.
However, if protestantism has ceased to be such a form of ongoing engagement with the Roman Catholic church calling for reformation, then protestantism as such seems to have ceased to exist and something altogether different has come into being. Insofar as protestant churches have ceased to see their particularly protestant identity as qualified by historical connection to the Roman Catholic church they have ceased to be protestant. So, the question I have is, does protestantism exist, and if so, where?
In his helpful guide through Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics, Aidan Nichols points out key themes that mark out Balthasar’s Christologically-centered theological aesthetics. For Balthasar, theological aesthetics must not become simply an “aesthetic theology” which simply offers a “correction of a deficient philosophical ontology.” Rather, theological aesthetics, as offered by Balthasar “centers on the confrontation of beauty with revelation in the context of dogmatic theology.” For Balthasar the event of revelation which takes place in Jesus Christ is the full disclosure of God’s glory and as such is the criterion of transcendental beauty. For Balthasar, theological aesthetics must be grounded in a thoroughly aesthetic Christology.
Nichols notes six key themes that characterize Balthasar’s aesthetic Christology. First, Jesus embodied a paradox in that he is what he expresses (God himself), but not whom he expresses (the Father). For Balthasar this differentiated unity within God is “the fountainhead of a distinctively Christian aesthetics.” Secondly, in order perceive Jesus as the Word incarnate, it is necessary for us to be familiar with his “life-form”. For us to discern Jesus as the Logos we must “abide” in the Johannine sense in Christ. Thirdly, “just as a viewer must step back from a painting to ‘take it in’, so the disciples could only discern the true content of Jesus’ life and teaching with the benefit of hindsight.” For us to truly discover Christ, we must engage in a protracted act of remembrance. Fourthly, what we see when we look at Christ in this mode of remembrance is the full disclosure of the relation between divinity and humanity, the visible and the invisible. All relationships, in other words are seen in and through Christ, including that between the Old Testament (promise) and the New (fulfillment). Fifthly, the testimony of the disciples to Jesus as the Word came not merely in oral, but in written form. The canonical expression of the New Testament reproduces what was originally perceived by Christ’s witnesses. Thus the Scriptures are the “likeness” of the original image. The shape of the canonical Scriptures non-identically replicates the archetypal form of Christ disclosed therein. As such, the most fruitful form of biblical study will come from the reality of the biblical texts as they exist in their final form, beginning with them and returning to them. Finally, the effect of beholding Christ, of “seeing the form” is that the disciples are enraptured and trans-located by the beholding of the form. Beholding the beauty of God in Christ leads inevitably to contemplation of the divine mystery of glory. And this contemplation leads to and births the initiative of mission. Here we see what Balthasar will continually develop throughout his work, the unity of contemplation and action, of activity and passivity in the interplay of divine and human relationships.