Still Protestanting

Heck, we were even kicking and bellyaching back in Rome’s post-Vatican II glory days (from the forum, “We Protest,” a series of reflections on the legacy of John Paul II in the October, 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.

13 thoughts on “Still Protestanting

  1. The only orthodoxy is the Bible. That was the protest of Martin Luther. Not being married, not many of the things he’s been accused of, but the lack of Christ in the RC of his day. Note how much has been banned by the RC since then. While I give every respect to all clergy and holy sisters, I do not follow the vast addition to the Bible. The Bible states that if so much as a jot or title is added to His Word, that person is cursed. Note, as well, that Protestant nations not fallen into apostacy thrive, while those that are now atheist or agnostic (like the so-called mainline Protestants) are crumbling into poverty, hunger, and many another thing. If you read Deuteronomy 28:2-13, you’ll see why. I use this when talking with Muslims, and many have gotten angry, but they’re intelligent and like to debate. It pains me to say, most nations racing into atheism once were Catholic strongholds. His peace be on you.

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  2. “Note, as well, that Protestant nations not fallen into apostacy thrive, while those that are now atheist or agnostic (like the so-called mainline Protestants) are crumbling into poverty, hunger, and many another thing. ”

    Well, basically all of Western Europe has left behind any semblance of wide-spread adherence to orthodox Christianity. While that is certainly not a good thing, I would much rather live in the Europe of today than the Europe of the 100years war. Say what you want about Sweden, Switzerland, or Scotland, but I don’t think I would characterize any of them as crumbling into poverty, hunger, or any other thing. Your comment sounds like the prosperity gospel applied to nations.

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  3. Say what you want about Sweden, Switzerland, or Scotland, but I don’t think I would characterize any of them as crumbling into poverty, hunger, or any other thing.

    I guess you haven’t heard about the new Sweden. David Robertson wrote quite a bit about Scotland’s decline before he moved to Oz. I got tired of hearing about all of it so I tuned it out.

    The condition of Europe today seems mostly dependent on the technological advances of the past 500 years and the state-building of its ancestors. I think technology is going to regress now that it has halted. The social conditions are unraveling quickly depending on who you ask. Whether you think it’s a good place to live or not probably depends on your SES and how long you expect to live there.

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  4. Do you really think the Europe today is more violent today than during the wars of religion?

    Depends on how to define “Today.” WWI and WWII were pretty violent. 30 million people died on the Eastern front of WWII alone. As violent as the 30 Years’ War? I don’t know, but those wars spanned roughly a 30 year period. You could ratio the population of the 1600s by the 5-6 million deaths and do the same thing with World Wars I and II.

    The 100 Years’ War described by Tuchman in “A Distant Mirror” was definitely violent, but – correct me if I’m wrong – most people died of starvation and diseases like The Plague (1346-1348). The war was mostly between France and England, right?

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  5. Something like a third of the population of what is now Germany died during the 30yrs war. Starvation was a big part of it, but that starvation was largely a result of mercenary armies more or less razing all of the farmland. Germany+Austrian empire lost about 4% of their population during WWI if memory serves. German-Austria lost about 10% of their population during WWII. The 17th century was way worse than 20th (much less 21st) century.

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  6. sdb,

    I looked at the numbers and the 30 Years’ War conducted under a nominally-Christian culture was definitely more deadly than the 30 Years WWI and WWII War conducted under a nominally-Christian culture which killed a total of 12-15 million Germans out of a population of 68-84 million, depending on how you count them. My numbers agree with yours.

    The materialistic consumerism of the modern West kills only the soul which animates the body, so it’s definitely less deadly.

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  7. @Walt – To be sure, the wealth and concomitant consumerism of the modern era create significant spiritual headwinds (camels, eye of the needle, etc…). Where I balk is with the application of the logic of the prosperity gospel applied to nation-states. Commenter, Red, above wrote, “Note, as well, that Protestant nations not fallen into apostacy thrive, while those that are now atheist or agnostic (like the so-called mainline Protestants) are crumbling into poverty, hunger, and many another thing.” Say what you want, but the nations that have fallen into apostasy are not crumbling into poverty, hunger, etc… It would be more accurate to say that the countries that have fallen into apostasy are thriving materially and that is making it more difficult for people in those countries to recognize their need of a savior. Perhaps the way to spawn a great awakening in our country is to vote for Elizabeth Warren and have her bring our country to its knees economically?

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  8. No idea. The decadence of any culture usually precedes its collapse, whether it’s Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or some other religion. My bet is on Ghengis Khan. In the case of the West, collapse will have a bearing on the whole nation-state system. I think the United States is its lynchpin at this point.

    To your point about camels and eyes, Japan is really rich and the gospel proceeds glacially there. The same appears to be true of the US and teh rest of the West. Should we pray for poverty and violence? haha

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  9. True, but America has been teetering on the verge of collapse a number of times only to draw back into conservatism. We go that route after each war. At one time, anything went and did. Cities were hellholes of drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, male and female and pedophilia. You could walk into any pharmacy t buy heroin, cocaine, or an herbal mix that would abort a baby or stop a woman from becoming pregnant. It was all legal. You could openly buy votes, have a political opponent’s life destroyed or anything that took you fancy. This nation swings back and forth from ultra liberal to conservative and always has, Yet, we’ve always survived because enough moderates took action. Nothing has changed but that government has taken over the role of the church and the church allowed it for political convenience. I’ll tell you bluntly, almost every woman I know who is in Wicca or atheism came out of the church. It’s not that they wanted to leave, but felt driven out. Not by liberalism, but wrong teaching. My ancestors became believers thanks much to messianic Jews who were paid, in a sense, to come to 12 of the American colonies. They believed in us, because we were so close to what they held dear, the teaching of God over man. Don’t worry overly about what men say, but every Word out of the Mouth of God is to be your bread and wine. walk in His beauty, and the church will thrive. Peace to you.

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