What makes a Protestant?

One evening, as a friend and I walked to Vespers at the local Orthodox Church, he remarked that he had invited some of our other friends who had responded by looking at him as though he had three heads. Another time, these same friends had chuckled in a, “Yeah, right,” sort of way when he said that he was as much a Protestant as they were.

The question has been raised here as to why I am not Eastern Orthodox, given that I seem to embrace so many Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The question is related to the response of more evangelical, Reformed Protestants who don’t see my Methodist/Episcopalian friend who appreciates Aquinas, incense, and Kallistos Ware as being “as Protestant” as they are.

What makes a Protestant?

GK Chesterton, in The Thing: Why I Am Catholic, takes issue with some of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century responses to this question, when people such as Dean Inge argued that basically being a Protestant was rising in protest whenever things were going wrong. He also has trouble with the fact that those things that make a Milton or a Bunyan delightful to the modern Protestant are things that Milton and Bunyan share with Catholics — not things that make them Protestant.

This question has needed answering for a good while, then.

According to Bruce McCormack at the University of Edinburgh’s Croall Lectures for this year, Protestants — the theologians, at least — should be working from within the framework of their confessional statements to produce a comprehensive worldview. He was not fond of those Protestants who produce either Catholicism light or a Patristic synthesis to theological issues. We should be identifiable through our adherence to the confessional statements of our tradition, according to McCormack. At least, that’s what I think he was saying.

For many contemporary Protestants, this is probably a bit of a problem, especially if we consider the very large number of Anglicans who are Arminians and thus cannot throw themselves wholeheartedly into Article of Religion 17, “On Predestination.” For me, saying that I must pledge my allegiance to a particular confession and produce theological thinking in accord with it is a definite problem, if we recall this post.

Nonetheless, I would still like to say that I am a Protestant. And being Protestant requires more than a rejection of papal claims. There are, I believe, certain doctrinal positions Protestants emphasise as well as certain approaches to doctrine and worship.

First of all, justification by faith. As a Protestant, I believe that nothing we do can make us justified before God. No amount of condign merit will justify me. It is the faith within the heart and life of the believer that justifies. God will justify those who have chosen to follow Him and put their trust in Him. From true faith will flow a life of good works, yes; but the good works are not what justify us but the fruit of the justified.

Second, the primacy (supremacy?) of Scripture for faith, life, and doctrine. A lot of Anglicans like pointing to Hooker’s three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, from which the removal of a single leg means utter disaster, saying that people like Mark Driscoll are troubling because of how much they overemphasise Scripture.

Well, the fact of the matter is, Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation. Other things might be okay, but they aren’t necessary. If it’s not in Scripture, it is not binding. Now, tradition and reason are important for the interpretation of Scripture. We can never escape them. That is the point of this whole website. But Scripture still stands supreme. If tradition, through the years, has come up with something counter to Scripture, the Church — the same Church who handed down the tradition — can jettison it after a long, painful process of prayer and searching the Scriptures together.

Third, I do not believe that a true Protestant will have a Roman understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. That is to say, the idea that Christ himself is offered upon the altar as an immolation for our sins by the Priest who stands in Christ’s stead each Sunday. Now, the idea that there is a twofold sacrifice of ourselves, our souls and bodies, along with the gifts of bread and wine at the Holy Table — this is acceptable. It is also acceptable to say that the Eucharist recapitulates Christ’s atoning work and brings its benefits to the assembled Body through the Sacramental act (see Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New).

As regards other aspects of the Sacrament, Protestants are divided. I, myself, follow Luther in The Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as explained here. I affirm with my Anglican heritage that the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism are outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace.

If to be Protestant one must sign on to a confessional statement, most Protestants would have to believe in penal substitutionary atonement. And most of us do. And some of us believe in Christus Victor. Some of us, rascals that we are, believe in both. But this issue is more of an East vs. West question than a Protestants vs. the World question.

In fact, most of the major questions of Christology and Triadology (the study of the All-holy Trinity) do not have a particular spin from the Protestants, outside of heretics like Oneness Pentecostals. We tend to follow St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas on these issues. Some, like Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance, turn to Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria for their Christology. I, myself, follow a sort of Neo-Chalcedonian, Conciliar Christology with something of an Augustinian-Thomist Triadology for good measure. There’s nothing un-Protestant about that!

I’m getting tired. But I think that the issue of justification, the place of the Bible in the Christian life, and the question of the sacrifice of the Mass (tied into how you answer the first two) are among three of the defining points of Protestants.

I am a Protestant, and maybe even an Anglican.

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Tomorrow: John Calvin on the Holy Trinity

Somehow, poor John Calvin has his name associated with a certain breed of hardheaded, argumentative, internet-addicted, theological-nitpicking jerk.  This is really too bad because John Calvin (though I personally would not go so far as to say that he completed the Reformation that Martin Luther started) was a brilliant man who wrote insightful Bible commentaries and sound, orthodox theology.  Besides that, lots of people of the Reformed/Calvinist position aren’t jerks and are open to thoughtful discussion of their beliefs, including things besides predestination again.

I’m not saying I agree with everything John Calvin ever wrote, especially regarding icons, and I’m not overly committed to the mechanics of predestination, but he is worth reading.  And worth reading for more than predestination.

So if all you think of when you hear, “John Calvin,” are those hardheaded jerks and endless arguments about predestination, please read his words on the Holy Trinity here (for those with their own print copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, it’s Book I, Chapter 13).

There you will find defense of the word “person” as well as a very brief history of it and its use (nothing as mind-crushing as Zizioulas’ in Being As Communion), a defense of the divinity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, and a discussion of how the Unity in Trinity runs down the middle course between Arianism on the one hand (only the Father is God) and Sabellianism on the other (all three are different “modes” of God’s being).

For those who are thinking, “You say The Shack isn’t really theology, but where do I turn?”  Turn here!  It is briefer than Augustine’s On the Trinity, more modern than Boethius.  Here you will find the true, orthodox doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity expounded.  It is honey and sweetness to your ears, balm to your soul!  Read it and praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Spirit — Three in One!

The Trinity, the Shack, and Mark Driscoll

First, I would like to point out: The Shack is not a brilliant piece of theology.  It’s not really theological at all.  It is a novel, a story, an idea, an image.  Its Trinitarian theology is weak and clearly the product of someone who sat at a few typical Protestant sermons but never actually spent time reading up on the Trinity.

Because once you’ve read up on the Trinity, you are never so bold as to attempt something like The Shack.

However, The Shack does not commit all of the sins that Mark Driscoll claims it does.  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read.  I should qualify that:  Perhaps this is because Mark Driscoll can’t read literary endeavours (not that The Shack is a shining example of that, either).  Unsurprising amongst the New Calvinists is this idea that we can read a work of fiction as though it were theology.  Everyone already did this with The Da Vinci Code.  I’d hoped we’d become a bit more nuanced in our reading than that.

Nevertheless, Driscoll first says that The Shack commits idolatry, that in representing the unseen, invisible Members of the Trinity, Young has made a graven image.  Wm. Paul Young has not, in fact, made a graven image, and not only because you don’t engrave novels.  Young is not saying in The Shack that God the Father is a black woman named Papa, nor that the Holy Spirit is a small Asian woman named Sarayu.

These characters are merely representations of the characters* of the First and Third Persons of the Trinity.  They are meant to help show Mack and the reader what the inner heart of these Persons is.  No one has seen God; neither did Mack in the book.  The possibility of God showing Himself as a vision is, however, real.  Isaiah had a vision, Ezekiel had a vision, John the Divine had a vision.  These visions were not actually sightings of the invisible God but representations of Himself that he chose to give to His children so that they could understand better a certain aspect of His character.

Then Driscoll argues that The Shack is guilty of modalism (or Sabellianism).  This heresy is the same thing as what Oneness Pentecostals believe — God is One, and the Son and the Holy Spirit are different modes by which He has chosen to operate in the world.  The heresy denies any difference of person amongst the members of the Trinity.  Driscoll’s argument for that is when Papa says that she has already been human through Jesus.

This is further evidence that Driscoll is not a subtle reader but out for the kill.  Yes, when God the Son was incarnate, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit were not.  However, since we believe in one God, not three, the remarkable thing is that they have an intimate sharing of each other’s experiences.  God the Father, being in a state of perfect, unbreakable communion with God the Son, knows exactly what God the Son went through during His days on earth.  Therefore, God the Father, in a very true sense, was, in fact, human through Jesus.  He was never incarnate.  He did not die or rise from the dead.  Yet He has shared intimately those things that Jesus went through while on earth.

St. Athanasius teaches that while God the Son was incarnate, His divine nature never ceased ordering the cosmos and keeping the stars in place (De Incarnatione).  If He could engage in that work of the Godhead whilst confined to a human body, no doubt the Father knows exactly what it is to be human as a result of the Son’s incarnation.

Driscoll proceeds to argue that The Shack promotes Goddess worship.  This is because God the Father is portrayed as a black woman.  Of course, Papa admits that He is not always female, as we see at the end of the book, when He portrays Himself as a man to Mack.  God the Father reveals Himself to us in a myriad of ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, but always in the way that we need at that time.  There are times He gives us the tenderness of a mother, times He gives us the sternness of a father.  He is the perfect Father, and so, for the purposes of this fiction, Mack saw Him more as a mother, an image that is used to demonstrate the warm, nurturing heart of the Father.

The final argument made by Driscoll is about hierarchy.  I broadly agree with him.  In The Shack, the Trinity has no hierarchy of any sort, no Person of the Trinity being above the others.  They are simply in an endless, loving communion with one another.  Driscoll points out that, while all the Persons of the Trinity are equal, they still have deference, for Jesus says that He only does what the Father tells Him to do, and that He does the will of the Father, and that the Father sent Him into the world.

The Shack is a novel, not a work of theology.  We cannot take its images of the Trinity as being theological, because then we would be on the start of a road to the modern heresy of vagueness.  I believe that both its supporters and its opponents have completely missed the boat, however.  Regardless of its merit as a novel, it is art.  We should treat it as art, not as theology, which both sides of the argument miss.

But where do we go for Trinitarian theology in a world that has lost its focus on the true nature of God?  People are turning to The Shack as theology (both for a lovefest as well as for the attack) because not a lot of people draw nigh to this question.  “Theology” today is usually actually, “A Christian/biblical approach to issue x, y, or z.”

Start over on the right on the main page with The Creed of Saint Athanasius.  I have a friend whom it once saved from Arianism.

“Beyond Personality” in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  I read it on Trinity Sunday a couple of years ago and benefitted greatly.  There is a reason Mere Christianity is a classic.

Intimacy and Ecstasy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit by Edith M. Humphrey.  This book is principally a book about Christian spirituality, but it takes its starting point as the Holy Trinity and deals with various aspects of Trinitarian theology, asking along the way, “How now then shall we live?”  Humphrey is a real, live theologian, unlike certain other writers out there.  Plus, she’s an orthodox Anglican.

Understanding the Trinity by Alister McGrath.

The best guides are likely the ancients, however.  Here are two:

Boethius On the Trinity and St. Augustine On the Trinity.  Boethius is shorter; both are online.

*I would have said personae, but that word has been co-opted for theological purposes at this time.