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The Protestant Identity Crisis

In a recent post on his blog, The Politics of the Cross, Craig Carter writes about the present “protestant identity crisis.”  In his post he poses a few key questions for evangelicals in light of the contemporary ecumenical situation.  He notes three key elements of the “ecumenical landscape” as he sees it.  First, he notes that Catholicism was saved from becoming “just another denomination” by the papacy of Pope John Paul II.  Second, he states the obvious truth that liberal protestant denominations are degenerating rapidly and more likely to be absorbed into the new age and neo-pagan religious milieu than into a united Christianity.  Thirdly, he notes that this puts evangelicals in a unique place.  They used to look to the leaders of the mainline denominations, but with that disintegrating they are looking more and more to the tradition as a whole (the Father’s, the Creed, etc.).  The most pressing question he poses for evangelicals is this:

“At some point, Evangelicals are going to have to decide if they are Protestants on-the-way-to-becoming-liberal or if they are catholics protesting the suppression of the Gospel in the church. If they choose the second option, then what are they to say in response to the pontificate of John Paul the Great, who was one of the great evangelical preachers of the twentieth century?”

The point on which Carter concludes which is, I think absolutely true is his prediction that, aside from the reunion of the Eastern and Roman communions, the most important ecumenical discourses will be had between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.


  1. Melissa wrote:

    I don’t really understand why there should ever be a need for believers to conform to any type of denomination.

    If we all believe that Jesus is our savior then why do we argue over issues that really have nothing to do with what Jesus said?

    I feel that it is sad that there is a word that means different denominations are working together (ecumenism).

    Shouldn’t there instead be a word that means they aren’t working together?


    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    Good points. I personally find the stance of “catholics protesting the supression of the Gospel in the church” to be ludicrous on its face, but perhaps that is what is implied in the final sentence of your quoted passage.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Well, I would imagine that a Catholic would find such a stance ludicrous! However, I think that Carter’s retort simply referring to the papacy of Pope John Paul II does not go to the heart of all the differences at work between evangelicals and Catholics, even though it rightly should give pause to any simplistic notion of how the gospel is “supressed” in the Roman church.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I suppose all I mean is that “protesting suppression of the Gospel” is thrown around quite a bit as a way to justify some kind of intellectually stable Protestantism, when in fact, if there is any suppression of the gospel taking place in our world, it certainly crosses denominational lines. One has to ask why it is that the denomination which is purportedly guilty of “suppressing the Gospel” is in fact the face of global Christianity and one of a handful of Christian denominations that has not experienced uniform decline over the past 300 years. And this ignores what is even meant by “suppressing the Gospel” as well as the absurdity of some kind of personal Protestant awakening in which one says “here in this moment, I officially stand in protest of the suppression of the Gospel by the church of Rome!” My point is that if the same ecumenical “charity” that accuses the Roman Catholic church of being guilty of a systemic suppression of the Gospel egregious enough to justify a continued Protestant movement were to be employed by all of the parties in our modern ecumenical discourses, it would be quite an ugly picture. Quite a bit of modern scholarship has been devoted to the ways in which Protestantism basically created capitalist modernity as we know it, but I typically refrain from employing this rhetoric in ecumenical apologetics, unless it is directly relevant, because it tends to be rather unhelpful. Likewise, making the rather bold claim that the Roman church continues to suppress the Gospel in a special and particular way (which is precisely the claim one makes by invoking this interpretation of modern Protestantism) seems at best misguided.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    if there is any suppression of the gospel taking place in our world, it certainly crosses denominational lines

    Indeed. Sadly I think this is not merely a hypothetical, but a reality. Thus there isn’t any immediate sort of clarity about “where” all protestants should “go”.

    For myself, if I was born a Catholic and believed everything I believe now, I would have no problem remaining a Catholic. However, having been born in a different ecclesial milieu, I can’t say that I find any reason to flee to Rome or Constantinople, not because there is somehow “more” suppression of the gospel there, but simply because in the face of a church that is divided and which supresses the gospel on all fronts the attempt to “choose” a realtively perfect communion seems like quixotic quest.

    I’d also say that protestantism “creating” capitalism and experiencing nothing but “uniform decline over the past 300 years” is a bit theatrical – at best. Let us not forget that whether we like it or not, non-denominational free church and charismatic movements are the fastest growing segment of Christianity which will be more than half the size of worldwide Catholicism in less than 20 years. The future of the Christian church certainly doesn’t belong to oldline protestant denominations, but I don’t think it belongs to Rome either. At least not in the sense that Rome is always going to want it to.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    But, I also want to say that I agree with your first point, that throwing that phrase around to justify an intellectual stable protestantism is all to common and probelmatic.

    To my mind the questions are rather different for what it might mean to be protestant versus Roman catholic today. But such questions are pretty much left unasked, unfortulately.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I basically agree with all of your points. I think there has to be some sense of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome (even the East and West are in agreement on this) and it isn’t a stretch to connect this to the church of the fathers if not the apostolic church. Beyond that, both JPII and BXVI have repeatedly made known their willingness to put virtually any aspect of the papacy on the table for discussion (in the context of east/west ecumenism). Unfortunately, much of Protestantism has an inadequate (at least in the eyes of the apostolic churches) view of the nature of authority and the teaching office within the Church, so such discussions are likely not going to be fruitful at this point. At any rate, I think that the ecumenical landscape is as promising and hopeful as it has ever been.

    Slight aside to address your point about non-denominational and charismatic movements within Protestantism. While I don’t want to over generalize, it has to be said that there are grave theological problems (and I mean very grave) with many of these movements. I’ve seem some compelling scholarly work on how in many ways they constitute a kind of hyper-modernity, and I think there is something to be said there. I haven’t spent enough time studying the phenomenon, but I have had some rather troubling encounters with brands of Christianity which, while they have tremendous momentum, seem rather alien to the historic teaching of the church, even loosely understood.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I agree with you on both counts there. Protestants, if they are going to stand agatinst the tide of late modern capitalism have to get over this Enlightenment aversion to authority – like, actual embodied authority.

    And I find some of these contemporary movements pretty troubling as well. Philip Jenson’s The Next Christendom is a good introduction to the contemporary expansion of the church in the second and third worlds. It’s pretty interesting, and should not be ignored. But indeed, there are grave problems here. I guess my only point was, if we thought things were bad with liberal protestants, we’re going to be in for something altogether different on a global scale within the next half a century. And I really have no idea what it will look like.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  9. Craig Carter wrote:

    It is interesting to hear my post being discussed, but could I just offer one clarification? I did not say that it is my opinion that the Roman Catholic Church supresses the Gospel. What I meant to say was that this is how the Protestant Reformers justified having divided from Rome. Also, I meant to say that this is the only serious reason why ecclesial division ever could be justified – if the Gospel itself is at stake. Further, I meant to place that view ((that the Gospel is suppressed in the Roman Church) in serious doubt by pointing out how Gospel-centered the preaching and teaching of John Paul the Great was. In other words, if the Gospel is ringing forth from the Pope, is the Reformation still necessary? My own view is that, although there is still much work to do, ecumenical dialogue is both necessary and promising. I recognize the ministry of Peter in the person of John Paul the Great as a unifying ministry that deserves the attention of all who call themselves “Evangelical.” I hope this puts to rest the false impression that I am just another anti-Catholic Evangelical.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    I hope I wasn’t giving that impression, Craig. It certainly wasn’t how I took the post. Indeed, I resonate with it very much. In fact, really all I was hoping to do was generate some attention for your post, which I take to be very important!

    The complex question is of course what the “de-seperation” of the church can, should, and will entail for the wounded body of Christ. I agree that there probably has never been a brighter ecumenical future for the church, even though it is, of course still very daunting to look at.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    My apologies Craig. I wasn’t intending to impute any intent to you at all. It just got me thinking about a nominally related topic. I took a look at your blog after reading Halden’s post and was encouraged and enlightened by what I found. Sorry if I have implied something otherwise. Thanks for responding.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  12. shane wrote:

    “First, he notes that Catholicism was saved from becoming “just another denomination” by the papacy of Pope John Paul II.”

    That just seems patently ludicrous. I know people are really leaping to attribute all sorts of great things to JPII these days because they want him to get sainted. “JPII destroyed communism with his bare hands.” “JPII saved catholicism!” “JPII was the greatest theologian and the greatest philosopher of the last 400 years rolled into one!” “JPII cured my cancer (literally)!”

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  13. We are going some place we have never been before. Just as christendom had never had a Reformation before and then later had never done Enlightenment before and the new ways and new institutions that were born from those things, so what is coming will be new and unthoughtof.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    Shane, I agree with you to a degree. God saved Catholicism, as he always has and will continue to. John Paul II just happened to be a particularly blessed and glorious instrument of that continued salvation. I’m sure he would agree with me. I don’t think he saw Catholicism as under any kind of threat fundamentally different than those she had faced since the beginning. That being said, he witnessed to the broader non-Catholic and non-Christian world in a way that few prior to him had been able to. It ultimately speaks to a profound personal charism that he possessed that so many heap such praises on him, even if they are sometimes a bit overstated in an objective sense. While he may not have single-handedly defeated communism, saved Catholicism, revived theology or cured cancer, the power of the totality of his witness is unsurpassed by anyone in recent memory.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  15. WTM wrote:

    I agree with Shane. As far as I’m concerned, the mere existence of Protestantism should produce an identity crisis in Catholicism. We Protestants have more important things to attend to than worrying about what the Catholics think of us.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  16. I definitely think that as Christianity becomes poly-centric with the growth of churches (especially Pentacostalism) in the Global South, it will reshape our conversation of ecumenism because it will radically reshape the churches in the West. Case and point: the US is both the largest missionary sender and the largest missionary recipient. For ecumenism to have any meaning, it must come back to “what is the Gospel?” In order to do this, all churches and traditions will have to be able to differentiate between their culture and the Gospel (as Western missionaries have been forced to do in a post-colonial age). I hope that the new confessions and authoritative documents from the “young churches” provide some possible bridges to heal the wounds felt all over Christ’s body – even those in the West (which sees itself as the groin of Christ when it speaks of “ecumenism” without these churches). Missionary activity was what got the 20th century ecumenical movement started in the first place, even if the movement had ulterior motives and destructive tendencies that were all too colonial. It will get it moving again.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:

    It’s interesting how, beyond being an opportunity to pile on a great man on the anniversary of his death, WTM’s post had nothing to do with Shane’s. But hey… never pass up the chance to spew some venom in a one-off 15 second blog post, right?

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  18. Jason Oliver wrote:

    With respect to the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements, I would agree there some grave theological problems, particularly within North American contexts i.e. Word-Faith movements, and Oneness Pentecostalism.

    However, there is great scholarly work coming from Pentecostals from around the world. I refer you to the Journal of Pentecostal Theology, PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society of Pentecostal Studies, the Journal of Asian Pentecostal Studies, and GLOPENT: The European Network on Global Pentecostalism to name a few.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    I think one of the problems with understanding “Pentecostalism” is the difficulty of a stable definition, at least for me. Where I grew up (30 miles from Sand Mountain), Pentecostals were snake-handlers and strychnine drinkers in one room cinderblock churches, but I’d like to think that isn’t representative of the worldwide phenomenon of “Pentecostalism.” If you know of any attempts at a theological definition or description or even a provisional confession, I’d love to read it.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:30 pm | Permalink
  20. Jason Oliver wrote:

    Walter Hollenweger, preeminent scholar on global Pentecostalism, wrote a short article called “Introduction to Pentecostalisms” in the Journal of Beliefs & Values. It’s thesis is basically is that their are different forms of the movement depending on the context. A book I can recommend to you is Allan Anderson’s An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity. It was published in 2004.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:45 pm | Permalink
  21. Jason Oliver wrote:

    One systematic theology from a charismatic perspective would be J. Rodman Williams’ Renewal Theology: 3 vols. Also Frank Macchia’s Baptized in the Spirit, and Amos Yong’s The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: A Possibility of Global Theology, and Velli-Matti Kirkkainen’s Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International, and Contextual Perspective. Also W. Hollenweger acclaimed monograph, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide. I hope this helps, Hill.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 9:53 pm | Permalink
  22. Bobby Grow wrote:

    As far as I can see ecumenical dialogue is never really that ecumenical. I mean we have a “few” Lutherans, who aren’t even representative of every Synod within Lutheranism doing dialogue with some Roman Catholics; or we have “some” Evangelicals (ECT) doing dialogue with some Catholics—at least the Protestant side is not truly represented.

    Bottom line to me, I just can never conceive of Protestants bowing the knee to the Pope; and I don’t see this as an “authority” issue (IOW, Prot. have their knees bowed, ideally, and that is to Christ alone)—but rather an issue of who has the “keys”—which comes back to the “Priesthood of ALL believers,” and not just some.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  23. WTM wrote:

    In brief response to Hill: If I agree with Shane, why would I repeat what he said? Does it not make more sense to go on and say something different? Also, it should be noted that neither my nor Shane’s posts “spew some venom” upon JP2 himself. Our ire is reserved for his more single-minded admirers and – at least in my case – especially his Protestant ones.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  24. Dave Belcher wrote:

    I think the very problem in these messy issues is the recourse we always, inevitably and initially (!) make to “identity.” This is not to say — as is also par for the course in these messy issues — that Protestantism is illegitimate because it has no “stable” identity, whereas Rome certainly does, and thus, let’s all return to Rome or something. In fact, this would be the opposite of what I’m saying (that Rome “has” a “stable identity” is equally as patently false, in other words).

    What is truly needed in our time is to wrest ourselves from “ecclesiology” and particularly as that is manifested in “ecumenism.” Ecumenism is a meta-ecclesial function attempting to legislate some kind of “identifying” unity, when unity can and must only take place for us all as Christians at the level of praxis (and let me be clear here that praxis will always be variegated in different contexts…I don’t mean some kind of “conformity” or “uniformity” to a prescribed set of practices, or liturgy…but this unifying praxis must always carry the same shape…and we can only know that shape as unifying if we first recognize that our identity as Christians is “in Christ,” and nothing/no one else, as St. Paul says over and over and over…and is not this very insight what is most unique to Protestantism in Luther and Calvin?).

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 7:40 am | Permalink
  25. Dave Belcher wrote:

    And I really need to add here….I mean, please don’t just dismiss this as fanatical….this is actually an “argument” I’m making here…I’m not just “dismissing” ecclesiology and ecumenism…this is much more nuanced for me, growing out of things I wrote in my master’s thesis, and in conversation with many other scholars, blah, blah, blah.

    I am still very much concerned for “unity” and I am still very much concerned that what I say theologically is both very much ‘catholic’ and very much ‘protestant.’ So, I hope this disclaimer might put a little bit of water on the fire already preveniently growing…I’m not just trying to be contrary here…really want to discuss these issues I’ve been thinking about for a LONG time now. Thanks. And peace.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 7:44 am | Permalink
  26. Hill wrote:

    Your post served no purpose but to inject a bit of vitriol into an otherwise civil discussion. Imagine the response if I had said that Catholics ought not to care what Protestants think of them? If that’s really how you feel about the unity of the church, I’m curious why you read this blog, as presumably you disagree with essentially everything Halden posts, except maybe the stuff about Mormonism.

    To Bobby, a few things. First, you are being rather crude to suggest that Catholics “bow the knee” to the Pope at all, much less in the same way they “bow the knee” to Christ (and they do, multiple times a week). If anything this proves my point that some forms of Protestant suffer from a rather stripped down concept of embodied authority. The existence of apostolic authority within the Church that does not extend to the entirety of all believers is perfectly scriptural, and in fact affirmed by many Protestants. It’s fairly obvious that Peter has the keys. It would require an exigetical somersault to somehow conclude otherwise. If you haven’t read a Roman (or Eastern for that matter) treatment of the concept “priesthood of all believers” it would be helpful to find one. I unfortunately can’t recall one at the moment, but I’ll work on that. It is simply inadequate to suggest that a gesture to “the priesthood of all believers” in anyway calls in to question apostolic Christianity. This leads to my second point about your characterization of ecumenism. You’ve already come to the conclusion that Protestants could never acknowledge the Popes authority. There are two problems with this: first of all many Protestants in fact do informally and are seriously considering what that means for their ecclesial future. The second, revealed by the first, is that you simply can’t refer to a monolithic Protestantism in this case any be coherent. The ecumenical discourse, among other things, reveals the significance of the differences among Protestants. For those Protestants for whom certain core aspects of Catholicism are absolutely unthinkable, such as yourself, what would be the point in coming to the ecumenical table in the first place? The Protestant side is well represented by those interested in ecumenism, and that is all that could be expected.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 7:50 am | Permalink
  27. Hill wrote:

    I agree with your sentiments, Dave. Ultimately, in my mind, the goal of ecumenism is a unified Eucharistic table. There are of course myriad “issues” to be “solved” along that path (to a goal we will only likely reach eschatologically) but nonetheless, the unity of our voice in worship, beyond a purely theological agreement, is the end of this striving. In voicing my optimism, I didn’t mean to suggest that a great deal of formal ecumenical work had in fact been done. I put very little weight on the various declarations, etc. as I feel like they are actually subject to many of the criticisms mentioned above. That being said, at least from my point of view as a Catholic, it is becoming increasingly easy to have discussions with Protestants about what divides us that bear more light than heat, although of course, there is still often plenty of heat.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    This discussion seems to have passed me by, but let me just say three things.

    First, while the praise that is often given to JPII is indeed a bit overblown in some circles, I’ll happily be counted among his “more single-minded” protestant admirers rather than among his more single-minded protestant despisers. After giving a thorough reading of Redemptor Hominis I don’t know how anyone could say that the Pope was not an evangelical preacher of the highest order.

    Second, to Hill, WTM and I do agree on a great many things, though he finds himself much more happily at home in the Reformed tradition than I ever could. So hopefully ya’ll won’t all need to think badly of one another.

    Third, we should all care what we think of each other, not because we should be insecure or uncertain in our ecclesial identity, but simply because our ecclesial identities are fractured attempts to conform to the Word of God in Christ. We don’t know where or how that Word will come to us and make itself present amongst the ruins of the church and therefore we ignore one another to our peril.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  29. Dave Belcher wrote:


    My point is that to persist in laying claim to “our ecclesial identities” is a way of eschewing that our only identity is in the particualrity of Jesus Christ (by being baptized into his death to share in the newness of the resurrecting life of his Spirit, we are “dispossessed” of all claims to identity, to who we are, and given over, engrafted into, the body of Christ…into the “identity” of God — I still really dislike this word though — who God is made known to be in his Son, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ). I am certainly not saying that we should “ignore” one another (and I think you were responding to Hill there)….I am saying that “unity” can only take place as we are living into our baptism — out into the dispossession of our claims to identity…which is made manifest in our loving unity in praxis.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  30. Dave Belcher wrote:

    And this is kind of a way of repeating in a somewhat different way Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 6: What then shall we say, shall we remain disunited [in sin] because grace has abounded all the more [because we have been made one in Christ by his Spirit]? By no means! For all who have been baptized are baptized into his death [are dispossessed of all claims to identity] that they may walk in the newness of life [a unifying praxis that joins us together as joined under the living Lord Jesus Christ as our head by the power and working of his Spirit].

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  31. Halden wrote:

    I agree indeed, Dave. None of my comments above were really directed at you, actually. I suppose a better way of saying what I said is that we need not be insecure about our identities when we enter into dialogue precisely because our baptism calls us out of the fear of having those identities put into question. Our baptism into Christ in fact frees us from the compulsion to secure our identity by locating it outside of ourselves in Christ.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  32. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Absolutely right. Thanks for the clarification Halden, and thanks for the reflections.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  33. Bobby Grow wrote:


    you’re wrong, I do hold to apostolic authority within the church, it has been deposited in scripture and her witness to Christ.

    If you dislike my “crude” description of authority and what keeps Protestants from reconciling with Catholics, then instead of making some sort of “superior” esoteric assertion about authority; you need to go ahead and explain what in fact you mean on that issue. Isn’t the Pope Christ’s vicar on earth? If I don’t bow the knee to Him, how can I bow the knee to Christ . . . sorry if you don’t like my rather simple vulgar language (I’m taking it from scripture Phil. 2:9,10).

    As far as the caricature of Prot. disunity vs. Roman unity please spare me. Are you honestly asserting that Rome is united on doctrinal issues anymore than Prot.? What of your various orders? What of the Jesuits vs. Dominicans? Sure Rome can assert a sort of ad hoc unity in the name of the Pope, but in reality this unity is certainly only “visible” externally.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  34. Hill wrote:

    I’m sorry Bobby, I may have spoken somewhat crudely myself. Here is my point distilled into less ambiguous and hopefully more charitable terms: the question is about the mediation of the authority of Christ through humans. This very clearly takes place in Scripture (“as the Father hath sent me, so send I you” among many other passages). The question then is, does this then pass down through the apostles to their successors or does it not? Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox hold that it does, as do some branches of Protestantism. Other branches of Protestantism assent only to the authority of Scripture, which seems to be what you are insinuating. A cursory investigation of the history of Scripture reveals that this implicitly asserts the mediation of authority through human beings, which is precisely what is trying to be avoided by those with a foundational vision of sola scriptura. The canon emerged much much later. One either has to assert that it magically assembled itself and announced its authority to those present, or that some mediatory authority in the Church (i.e. the continued apostolic office, through the direction of the Holy Spirit) provided the means by which Scripture became Scripture). This is the sense in which the Protestant aversion to embodied, human authority constitutes a major theological problem. As for the question of our deference to the Pope, he is seen as preeminent among the bishops that retain that apostolic office (being the vicar of Christ in the precise scriptural sense of possessing the keys, which was a particularly apostolic function), and should I ever bend the knee to him, it would be in that sense. To suggest that Protestants can’t “bend the knee” to the Pope because they only “bend the knee” to Christ ignores all of the potential intermediary authorities, both religious and secular (in the old sense of the word), a position which is clearly unscriptural. These assertions are far from esoteric. They are in fact the teaching of the Church for well over 1000 years. It isn’t so much that one concept of authority is “superior” to another. It is that many Protestants have ruled out one concept in contravention of both the historical witness of the Church and a clear reading of the Gospel.

    As for the relatively unity of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, while I would be hesitant to apply some linear measure to the question, I can’t help but think you are either being disingenuous or defining the terms in a way that is unfamiliar to me. Do you honestly believe that there is no qualitative difference between the unity enjoyed by thousands of different Protestant denominations spanning from snake-handling Pentecostals to High Church Anglicans and the unity enjoyed by Roman Catholics? You have made reference to the various orders within Roman Catholicism, but I’m really not sure what you are referring to. The orders are not defined against each other theologically. They merely represent different ascetical traditions. They also represent a tiny fraction of all Catholics and in fact a small fraction of priests generally. The absence of a purely monolithic and homogeneous theology is a good thing, not a bad one, nor is it a sign of disunity. There are no major theological controversies taking place currently between any of the religious orders. If anything, the discrete theological controversies that have taken place between various Roman Catholic theological schools are just evidence of the larger unity that renders those exchanges controversial. I don’t know what else to say. If Catholicism doesn’t enjoy a greater unity than “Protestantism,” defined in its typical fashion, then the word unity has no meaning. I would venture to say that this claim ascends to the level of anthropological fact.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  35. Bobby Grow wrote:


    this has to be way too brief . . . I have one foot out the door.

    I’m not denying some sort of mediation, but instead of “normativizing” a hierarchy of leadership (i.e. apostolic succession)—what I think is normative is the “Gospel” itself—i.e. the Person of Jesus, and as embodied in the “proclamation” and witness of the church (II Cor 3). As far as the churches’ recognition of the NT canon, later on, how does this this then become normative relative to the teaching of Apostolic Succession? This is petitio principii, assuming the Roman/Eastern view of Apostolic authority in order to establish it—in other words this is ad hoc. The OT was the “Churches” Bible during the development of the NT witness . . . should I take the council of Jamnia as holding the keys? As far as the one holding the keys, again what basis do you have to establish your assertion except the layering of “tradition.” Scripture and exegesis of Mt 16 and 18 certainly do not support the doctrine of Apostolic Succession . . . but that will have to remain assertion for now.

    Anyway I’ll have to get to your unity points later.


    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  36. Bobby Grow wrote:


    let me end my exchange with you . . . since I really don’t see much more fruitful ways forward between us. Unity for the Protestant obviously is rooted in the Gospel, in the Person of Jesus, as is for the Catholic—I’m sure you would say. Unity for the Prot. is “invisible” (since He is seated at the right hand) . . . visible unity for the Prot. is only reflected insofar as she reflects the Gospel accurately in doctrine and practice.

    In the end it is our ecclesiological assumptions that cause us to part . . . of course. I am committed to a different ecclesiology (much more universal than the so called “Roman Catholic” version in my view) than you, of course. Anyway I know you know this, I just don’t see any further discussion as necessary, at least on this stuff.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  37. Hill wrote:

    I actually agree with most everything you say, but I think I would want to radicalize it. The entirety of Christianity is in a sense ad hoc. The life of Christ is in fact the only true normative content. However, it is impossible to encounter that life in an unmediated way. Once this is acknowledged, the radically ad hoc character of Christianity is revealed. The only arbiter we have is the historical witness of the Church, which is necessarily ad hoc, though guided throughout by the Holy Spirit. As Halden mentioned there is a tendency on both sides to refer to a self-justifying ecclesiological prime mover that doesn’t exist, whether it be “Scripture” or “the Magisterium.” I think the Magisterium, properly understood, can occupy this more provisional space, as can scripture as “the book of the Church.” In other words, I think the absolute normative character of the Magisterium is overstated, even by some Catholics. It may make normative judgments on doctrine, but even this judgments have a radically provisional character and are a mediated form of guidance from the Holy Spirit.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  38. Hill wrote:

    I also want to say that I really do enjoy these discussions and that where my specific prose may fail to attest to it, I intend all of this in the spirit of charity proper to true theological discussion.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  39. Hill wrote:

    Bobby, I can’t help but respond. I don’t think in this case, the unity is an ecclesiological issue. Ecclesiology comes from unity and not the other way around. I have Protestants friends that think salvation is achieved once and for all by asking Christ to be your personal savior and that no subsequent act can revoke one’s status in “the book of life.” I have other Protestant friends who absolutely disagree with this. How could there possibly be unity between people who fundamentally disagree how it is we go about seeking our salvation? The Gospel ought to be the centerpiece of any unity, but there are factions within Protestantism who have ideas about the content of the Gospel that are so different as to actually be virtually different religions. This type of unity is a unity of the lowest common denominator and “universal” only in a nominal sense.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  40. Bobby Grow wrote:


    why do you assume that Roman Catholicism represents THE ONLY TRUE expression of the Church of Christ?

    And I have spoken with both Fr.’s and PhD students (Catholics), and they disagree with each other in the same way that you describe of the Protestants. That’s why I, earlier, noted the Jesuits (Molinists–theologically–Arminian) and Dominicans (Thomists/Augustinians–Prot. counterpart, Calvinist). I’m not making this up, both of these fellows, in correpsondence with each other both confirmed this difference between themselves. Catholicism is at odds as Prot. is at odds on important soteriological issues. Btw, Prot. share unity in first order concerns (as I’m sure Catholics do), i.e. that simple faith in Christ alone is all that is required to appropriate “salvation.” The “disunity” comes in at a second order level when these variant “traditions” work out their particular “mechanics” relative to describing “how” they think salvation is appropriated. So I think your example of the Prot., above, is mis-guided . . . and really does not accurately represent genuine “disunity”—at least of the kind that you are describing.

    As far as “mediation,” of course I believe there is “mediation”—but I think it is “immediation” via the objective Word of God (the instrumentality of scripture), and the subjective witness bearing of the Holy Spirit to the Logos via the “spectacles” (to borrow a word from Calvin) of scripture.

    Of course I believe that scripture is the norming norm, even for the Pope . . . which means we can all check to see if the Pope and Cardinals are communicating a gospel that reflects the one articulated by the “First Apostles,”(just like the Bereans with Paul) if they are not then their “Apostolicity” should be questioned. Isn’t this all the Protestant Reformation was, a questioning of the Pope’s accuracy relative to the fidelity of “gospel message?” Sure we can question, as some are, whether Luther and Rome were just mis or under-communicating with each other about the gospel . . . but the principle still stands. Pope’s and Apostles are all subject to questioning, and even correction, at least the Apostle Paul thought so.

    Hill, I too enjoy this dialogue, some-times you get under my skin . . . but that’s not all bad.

    Friday, April 4, 2008 at 2:35 am | Permalink
  41. Hill wrote:

    Thanks Bobby. It is actually immensely helpful to hear your position clarified. Being a Catholic from the deep south, virtually all of my Christian friends are Protestant (my very closest spiritual companions, in fact) so I am always thankful for the opportunity to cultivate my ecumenical charity and refine my understanding of positions that are not my own.

    Friday, April 4, 2008 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  42. nick wrote:


    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that Protestants don’t have a problem with bending their knees to authorities, but simply with the insinuation that there are embodied authorities to which they shouldn’t stop bending their knees. There’s obviously a lot more nuance here (Catholics don’t tend to be passive receivers in practice either) that needs to be considered. But essentially, I think, it’s a recognition that our attempts to embody the person of Christ on earth are necessary and important human attempts that can (and will) humanly fail.

    And trying to set up a dichotomy of unity vs disunity in regards to Roman Catholics vs Protestants seems contingent upon a whole other set of definitions. When I was going through High School, most of my friends were Catholics, and yet none of them believed the pope carried anymore authority than any other smart guy out there. I also had a few buddies who were wary of the whole “inerrancy” thing when talking about the Bible. The difference was that each of the Catholics remained in their given communion (even when it’s difficult to say that they’re unified to it) and each of the Protestants either ended up going to different churches or converting to another set of religious beliefs altogether. The visible unity of Catholics goes far beyond any underlying spiritual unity (and more often seems to be a matter of cultural unity), whereas the visible unity of Protestant groups tends to be coextensive with their spiritual beliefs and/or practices.

    Monday, April 7, 2008 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

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