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.

Mary, Queen not of the Scots but the Universe?

That at least is the claim by Roman Catholics, who last week celebrated the Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

As was the custom in Israel, Mary was predestined to be the Queen Mother of Jesus. Since Jesus was to be King of all creation, his mother Mary — in dependence on Jesus — was to be his Queen. Since Jesus took his earthly flesh from his mother Mary, it was only fitting that her flesh, too, should have been preserved from the stain of original sin.

Mary was acting in her role of Queen Mother when, at the wedding feast at Cana, she turned to her Son for help — and then when she instructed the steward, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Protestants don’t think so, at least the Scot James Orr took a different view on the wholesomeness of queen mothers in the Old Testament:

It stands to reason that among a people whose rulers are polygamists the mother of the new king or chief at once becomes a person of great consequence. The records of the Books of Kings prove it. The gebhirah, or queen mother, occupied a position of high social and political importance; she took rank almost with the king. When Bath-sheba, the mother of Solomon, desired “to speak unto him for Adonijah,” her son “rose up to meet her, and bowed himself unto her, and sat down on his throne, and caused a throne to be set for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right hand” (1 Ki 2:19). And again, in 2 Ki 24:15, it is expressly stated that Nebuchadnezzar carried away the king’s mother into captivity; Jeremiah calls her gebhirah (29:2). The king was Jehoiachin (Jeconiah, Jer 29:2), and his mother’s name was Nehushta (2 Ki 24:8). This was the royal pair whose impending doom the prophet was told to forecast (Jer 13:18). Here again the queen mother is mentioned with the king, thus emphasizing her exalted position. Now we understand why Asa removed Maacah his (grand?)mother from being queen (queen mother), as we are told in 1 Ki 15:13 (compare 2 Ch 15:16). She had used her powerful influence to further the cause of idolatry. In this connection Athaliah’s coup d’etat may be briefly mentioned. After the violent death of her son Ahaziah (2 Ki 9:27), she usurped the royal power and reigned for some time in her own name (2 Ki 11:3; compare 2 Ch 22:12). This was, of course, a revolutionary undertaking, being a radical departure from the usual traditions.

Not the best model for Mary.

And then we have the perspective of Judaism. In addition to Michal and Bathsheba, perhaps not the best of precedents, we have Ataliah:

The daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (or else of Omri), wife of Jehoram of Judah, and sole reigning queen of Judah. Like her husband, she murdered all familial rivals upon her accession to the throne. Only her grandson Joash escaped her clutches thanks to his aunt Jehosheva (Ataliah’s daughter). Ataliah fostered the idolatrous worship of Baal-Melqart, and her reign was odious to the Judahites. She received condign punishment when her son-in-law, the stalwart high priest Jehoiada, proclaimed her grandson Joash as king in a coronation ceremony in the Temple. The despairing Ataliah tore her clothes and protested the act of treason, then was promptly led off and summarily executed at the horse gate of the royal palace. In the aftermath of Ataliah’s demise, the temple of Baal was destroyed and its priest Mattan slain.

But if you can look at queen mothers in the Old Testament as the institutional model for Mary’s status in the Christian faith, you might have no trouble believing the New York Times about slavery in America.

Good to Know Reformed Protestantism is not Tribal

A couple more reflections on the Poway shooting put into perspective the kind of ties that people have to Protestants with Reformed convictions. If you were completely on the outside of Reformed and Presbyterian circles, if you were an evangelical who was leaving born-again Protestantism for something progressive, you might imagine writing what Christian Stroop did for Playboy:

The pattern of evangelical homeschoolers committing racially motivated, violent crimes raises questions about how homeschooling and white evangelical subculture may be contributing factors in the radicalization of young people. Earnest’s branch of the Reformed tradition, as religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll described in detail for Religion News Service, has its origins in the defense of slavery and still valorizes overtly white supremacist theologians such as R.L. Dabney.

Some Orthodox Presbyterians are adherents of Christian Reconstructionism, an extreme right-wing version of Calvinist ideology that, as described by legislative policy analyst with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, Kathryn Brightbill, “teaches that God’s plan for civil society is to implement Old Testament political law, including the stoning parts.” If we are determined to find solutions to America’s epidemic of gun violence and hate crimes, we must put aside taboos around criticizing Christians and take these considerations seriously. Brightbill is one of two experts on U.S. homeschooling, both of whom were homeschooled in evangelical subculture and who are now a part of the increasingly visible “ex-vangelical” movement, that I asked to weigh in on the issue.

Never mind that Stroop is against heteronormativity even while writing for a publication that put hetero into heteronormativity:

[Exvangelicals] are former insiders who testify to what they see as the traumatizing effects of living under evangelicalism’s patriarchal, heteronormative, and racist norms. As Stroop wrote for Playboy last June: “When Christian nationalists are in power and perpetrating horrors, we should oppose their dominionism not with a different reading of the Bible, but with a robust defense of pluralism and secularism.”

In contrast, if you were in a denomination that has fraternal relations with the communion in which the shooter is a member, you could imagine writing what Kevin DeYoung did:

All of us in the Reformed world were shocked and saddened to learn that the alleged Ponway Synagogue shooter was “one of us,” a theologically minded young man who belonged to an OPC congregation. Without a doubt, this is an occasion to reflect on whether any of us have been soft on anti-Semitic hatred or if any of our churches are breeding grounds for murderous angst.

And yet, by all accounts, the parents and the pastor have said the right things and seem to be the sort of people that manifestly did not create a killer. If there is any causal link it is with the radicalization that happens in apocalyptic communities on message board sites like 8chan. Just because the shooter may have stolen evangelical language or Reformed theology to make his point does not mean the Christian faith is to blame any more than Jesus was to be blamed when his disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in order to defend his honor (Luke 8:51-55). The key is that Jesus rebuked them, and so must we when we see people under our care twist our teachings or when we witness their zeal turning to violence.

In our age of political polarization, we often hear accusations—on both sides—that Tragedy A was the result of a “culture of hate” or that Horrible Atrocity B was the product of “good people saying nothing.” I suppose those arguments can be true, but as a rule they are almost always so nebulous as to be unprovable and so universal as to be non-falsifiable. If millions of people in the same “culture” never act out in violent ways and a very, very, very small number do, how effective is the culture anyway?

Again, I’m not suggesting that families or religious communities or broader societal factors never play a role—and sometimes it can be shown that they play a significant role—but as a stand-alone argument, we should shy away from “the culture” as a causal explanation for much of anything. It’s unfortunate that some of the same academics who look for finely tuned, always qualified nuances in making arguments about the past are quick to make sweeping causal claims when it comes to analyzing the present.

DeYoung failed to add the unfortunate side to ministers and church members from Reformed backgrounds who also make sweeping causal claims. On the upside, that may mean that Reformed Protestantism has less binding power than political conviction or racial/ethnic identity. That could be a reason for thanks.

The Reformation Didn’t Work Out So Well

Like the Counter-Reformation did?

Give Casey Chalk credit. He used his conversion from Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicism to land a writing gig that takes him regularly to The American Conservative, Crisis, and other outlets. (He hasn’t posted at Called to Communion for two years.) Was this the career for which Jason Stellman was hoping? What some converts don’t seem to understand, which Chalk does, is that debating theology is not nearly as appealing as talking about Western civilization and societal decay. The conservative intellectual world is populated with lots of Roman Catholics who are eager to hear about the defense of the West. Chalk made that connection.

But.

The problem is that the history that converts tell, which typically sees all the flaws of modernity as bi-products of the Reformation, ignores how poorly the church to which they converted is faring.

Here’s what Chalk recently wrote about Geneva (the city):

a visit to Geneva makes the legacy of Calvin and his cohorts painfully clear. There is the disturbing diversity of beliefs and traditions that stem from the Reformation (made illuminatingly clear in an ever-expanding ecclesial family tree available in the gift shop for ten Swiss francs!). One may also visit the International Monument to the Reformation in a nearby park, where, included with Calvin and other early Reformation figures, there is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan butcher who committed genocide against a fiercely independent Irish people who refused to abandon their Catholic faith. Ironically, few Calvinists (or even practicing Christians) remain in the city that once served as the center for Reformed missionary activity.

At least Chalk concedes that Geneva “was once a spiritually vibrant city.” There may still be hope that Protestants are saved.

The question remains, though, why when Roman Catholics control an institution that may be much more manageable than a city, they have as much trouble as the Reformed church in Geneva did. Two professors at Villanova recently complained to readers of the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall — but we can’t get one in Texas!):

Last fall we were notified by the Villanova administration that new “diversity and inclusion” questions would be added to the course and teaching evaluations that students fill out each semester. In addition to the standard questions about the intellectual worth of the course and the quality of instruction, students are now being asked heavily politicized questions such as whether the instructor has demonstrated “cultural awareness” or created an “environment free of bias based on individual differences or social identities.”

In short, students are being asked to rate professors according to their perceived agreement with progressive political opinion on bias and identity. Students are also invited to “comment on the instructor’s sensitivity to the diversity of the students in the class.” Professors are rated on their “sensitivity” to a student’s “biological sex, disability, gender identity, national origin, political viewpoint, race/ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.” The “etc.” in particular seems like an ominous catchall, as if the sole principle of sound teaching has become “that no student shall be offended.”

… For many decades, Villanova’s mission as a Catholic university has been to initiate students into the life of the mind, encouraging them to seek the good, the true and the beautiful even as they are challenged beyond our walls to pursue justice and the common good in the service of “charity in truth.” The adoption of the new dogma of mandatory “diversity and inclusion” places that entire undertaking in danger. As professors dedicated to liberal education, we consider it essential to challenge our students to subject their ideas as well as the predominant opinions of our time to critical examination—however difficult and uncomfortable this may be. We urge our own university as well as other liberal-arts institutions to reject such ideological policing and recommit themselves to the principles of liberal education.

In which case, Roman Catholicism is no more a fix for modernity than Protestantism. What may matter is what you believe about Jesus. That would require Chalk to go back to Called to Communion. But who wants to read about that?

Sexual Hangups, Reformed or Roman Catholic

Where would you be without “Calvinism” to bail you out? Michael Sean Winters blames Reformed Protestantism for U.S. Roman Catholics’ obsession with sex:

The focus on sexuality as the key indicator of Christian identity has always been one of the odd and remarkable hallmarks of Catholicism in America. Catholic cultures — Italy, Spain, France — are not known for any puritanical dispositions regarding human sexuality. But, in America, the ambient Calvinism of the religious culture combined with the Jansenistic impulses of Irish Catholicism to make a concern for sexual purity an obsession. The three Democrats discussing their faith are right to insist that any fair reading of the Gospels reveals that the Lord Jesus spent far more time urging his disciples to be generous to the poor, welcoming to the stranger, and treat people with dignity than he did discussing any sexual issues.

This is rich coming from a member of a communion which makes a common union (marriage) a sacrament, has authoritative teaching that minutely regulates legitimate sex, requires ordained officers to live celibate lives, and has bishops who need to cover up for priests who do not practice what the church preaches (actually only homilies).

The really rich aspect of Winter’s gripe with Calvinism’s mores is that Rome’s double-mindedness about sex goes way, way back, as Charlotte Allen explains:

In Peter Damian’s definition—a common one during the Middle Ages—the sin of “sodomy” encompassed “four classes of unnatural vice,” each described by him with startling explicitness and deemed more serious than the last, starting with masturbation and culminating with anal intercourse, the worst offense of all. All were forms of male homosexual activity (the other two consisted of the carnal touching of others’ private parts and intercourse between the thighs of someone of one’s own sex). Peter Damian was outraged, particularly because the superiors of clerics who committed such sins were, in effect, giving them a pass: exacting penances for monks and priests found to have committed the first three offenses but expelling from holy orders only those who had engaged in the fourth, anal intercourse.

Some of the offenders, Peter ­Damian said, had even chosen fellow homosexual offenders as their confessors so as to obtain slap-on-the-wrist treatment. “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin.” He reserved his harshest condemnation for bishops who abused their underlings by engaging in homosexual acts with them: “What a vile deed, deserving a flood of bitter tears! If they who approve of these evildoers deserve to die, what condign punishment can be imagined for those who commit these absolutely damnable acts with their spiritual sons?” Damian was not without pity for those sinners, however, begging them to throw themselves onto God’s mercy and reform their ways, but he asked Leo to expel from holy orders those who had committed any of the four categories of sodomy.

Scholars have debated whether homosexual activity among clerics was quite such a widespread “festering disease” during the eleventh century. It is indisputable, however, that the tenth and eleventh centuries were the most scandal-plagued that the Western Church had endured, and that the moral and sexual integrity of the clergy was at the heart of the issue. Hildebrand, the Tuscan Benedictine monk who became Pope Gregory VII in 1073, had to institute the “­Gregorian Reform” movement attacking simony (the buying and selling of holy offices), lay investiture (the control of bishoprics by powerful secular lords), and gross violations of the Western Church’s longtime requirement of priestly celibacy. That rule had been in place since at least the early fourth century, but by the eleventh, priests and even bishops all over Western Europe were living openly with wives and children, often passing down their churches by inheritance to their priest-sons. Some took concubines.

How does that saying go? Those in glass houses dot dot dot

Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.

If Not Imprecatory Psalms, What About the Lord’s Prayer?

Even Psalms that don’t register on the list of imprecatory ones can be a challenge to use if only because of their depiction of the death of God’s enemies. Some advise against their use and this was one of the reasons for not producing, as the OPC and URC did, a complete Psalter:

The psalmist was praying against those who persecuted him. The theocracy, God’s reign in Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, was a shadow of future events (Heb. 10:1). One of those events is the final judgment of God. The destruction of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua was a shadow of the final judgment and not, therefore, normative for how we are to deal with our neighbors who do not believe in Jesus. The imprecations against the wicked in the book of Psalms were also shadows of the final judgment—appropriate for the era of the theocracy, but not for this present age. The gospel era is one of kindness, tolerance, and patience—intended to bring people to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4). This is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). And this is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them, not against them. This is why Paul taught us to pray that God would bless our enemies (Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12). Like the psalmist we leave vengeance to God, but unlike the psalmist we pray that God would bless those who bring pain into our lives. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Psalms and Proverbs, pp. 348–49)

Others, though, notice that Christians still pray for God’s judgment upon his enemies even in the New Testament:

We need to be very conscious of trying—that part of what we’re called to be as the light of the world is people who love our enemies. Paul talks about how loving your enemies will further increase their punishment. So setting love of enemy radically over against judgment is not biblical.

I think it is not illegitimate to use the imprecations of the psalter to pray for judgment on God’s enemies. Every time we pray, “Come quickly Lord Jesus,” we’re praying an imprecation on God’s enemies. When Jesus comes again, there will be judgment for God’s enemies.

In other words, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” which as the Larger Catechism explains involves praying for the “hastening” of the kingdom of glory:

that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever

Not to be missed is the nature of the office that Christ executes as king:

Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, … restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.

In which case, the anti-imprecatory Psalm position implies editing the Lord’s Prayer.

That does not mean that prayers for judgment day are easy to pray. The image of that great separation of the saved and the lost is haunting. At the same time, the thought of the end of the world is never absent from Christian devotion and worship.

On the upside, at least Protestants debate something that Roman Catholics don’t anymore thanks to an effort to manage less than good acts and desires with procedural standards and practices.

Who Sounds Protestant?

Another upgrader to Rome marvels about continuity between the ancient church and contemporary Roman Catholicism (were the church fathers as sexually confused as today?):

I haven’t officially tweeted this yet, but for the last 5-6 months, I’ve been struggling through a very unexpected twist in my Christian life: the Catholic Church. If you knew me before, you would know that this was the farthest thing from my mind for the past 30 years.

I was as anti-Catholic as they come (James White probably had me beat). The problem was, I knew NOTHING about their actually teachings. All I knew came from other anti-Catholic polemicists. Until I started a class on Church History (via a Reformed grad school). I was blown away.

In addition, I started to read the Church Fathers. Not what people say about the Fathers, but their actual letters and writings. This was HUGE in my dealings with the claims of Catholicism. They actually sounded Catholic and not Protestant.

Along with many, many pages of books, debates, and conversion stories, I started to really think that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded 2000+ years ago. Now I am on the path towards full-communion with the Catholic Church. Crazy!

Have people like this never read Paul? What that apostle recommended to Titus does not sound like Roman Catholicism — eh veh:

1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

Notice Paul says God reveals himself by preaching. He never mentions the sacraments in his instructions to a man who is planting a church. Odd. Though the shot at Jewish myths might make you want to check what you are doing with an altar and sacrifice in worship.

He also says overseers (bishops or presbyters) should be married to only one wife. So much for clerical celibacy.

In chapter two, Paul goes on to bang the gong for doctrine — the meat and drink of logocentric Protestants.

Then in chapter three, Paul tells Titus to be subject to the ruling authorities and to teach Christians to do the same. Let’s just say that the papacy has had a little trouble thinking such instruction applied to them. Heck, they still have a Vatican jail and mete out temporal justice.

But the church fathers don’t sound Protestant. Whatehveh.

Putting the Loco in Logocentric

Rod Dreher reflects on the ways that even while denominational brands among Protestants are in free fall (and have been, I might add, since the Second Not-So-Good Awakening), the differences between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox abide:

And yet, some borders still matter — as Berger notes — at the popular level. When you’re a Protestant and you walk into a Catholic church, you know that something very different is going on there, and vice versa (though given the postconciliar Protestantization of Catholic church architecture and interior design, this is much less obvious in some places than in others). Visit an Orthodox church, and the contrast is even more vivid — perhaps surprisingly so for Catholics, who might reasonably have thought that given the strong Marian piety of Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox church was closer to their own faith than it actually is.

The vibe in a Protestant (especially confessional) church would be different in part because services feature, in contrast to the Roman and Eastern churches, the Bible read and preached.

So when you read Paul’s instruction to Timothy, Paul being an apostle and all and an author of an infallible set of books in Scripture, are you thinking of the atmosphere in a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant service?

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Don’t let them fool you. The model for Protestant ministry is as old as the church in Ephesus that Jesus founded by way of Paul.

Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists Apart

The following is an excerpt from my contribution to On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity. Here is how Amazon dot com describes the book:

This book provides a focus for future discussion in one of the most important debates within historical theology within the protestant tradition – the debate about the definition of a category of analysis that operates over five centuries of religious faith and practice and in a globalising religion. In March 2009, TIME magazine listed ‘the new Calvinism’ as being among the ‘ten ideas shaping the world.’ In response to this revitalisation of reformation thought, R. Scott Clark and D. G. Hart have proposed a definition of ‘Reformed’ that excludes many of the theologians who have done most to promote this driver of global religious change. In this book, the Clark-Hart proposal becomes the focus of a debate. Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, and Crawford Gribben suggest a broader and (they argue) more historically responsible definition for ‘Reformed,’ as Hart and Scott respond to their arguments.

Without further delay, one of the points that came to me in the exchange:

In both the case of Clark and myself, present-day concerns about Christian fellowship and communion inform assessments of the past, not the sort of integration of faith and historical learning that usually transpires in Conference of Faith and History circles where ecclesiology and creeds become barriers to scholars hoping to find fraternity warmed by religion. Pan-denominational efforts like Banner of Truth, ACE, or TGC need a Calvinism that includes Baptists, especially after the resurgence of predestinarian theology in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant communion in the United States. If Calvinism is narrow and strictly ecclesial, these parachurch organizations lose a potentially big audience for their enterprise. At the same time, confessional historians reveal their own biases as churchmen who use denominational boundaries to inform their reading of the past. The logic is fairly simple: if the United Reformed Churches do not allow Baptist pastors into the pulpit or behind the Lord’s Table, the history of Reformed Protestantism should reflect a similar understanding. Why exclude Baptists from Reformed ministry today but include them in the history of Reformed Protestantism? A scholarly move that is at odds with ecclesiastical practice makes no sense.

Even Lumping Has Its Limits

The six-hundred-pound gorilla in the historiography of Baptists and Reformed Protestantism is Lutheranism. Here the roles reverse, with predestinarian Baptists rarely including Lutherans in their recovery of historic Protestantism and confessional Reformed historians admiring Lutherans for their self-conscious ecclesial and creedal identity. Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham do not mention Lutherans, which makes sense because seventeenth-century English Protestantism showed no signs of a Lutheran influence. Clark and I, in contrast, regard Lutherans as confessionalists who are clearly not Reformed but who take their confessions, practice, and ministry seriously enough to regard broad evangelicalism and its parachurch aspects as solvents of a Protestant communion’s integrity. Consequently, Clark and I have little trouble recognizing and are willing to live with the reality that Lutherans cannot affirm the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. For Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham, however, Lutherans are a mystery. According to their logic, if the London Confession is down stream from Westminster, then why not also argue that Westminster is an extension of Heidelberg, which leads back to Augsburg, which leaves Baptists an extension of the same theological movement that Martin Luther started? Instead of talking about Reformed Baptists, why not Lutheran Baptists? Furthermore, if parachurch predestinarians who refuse to baptize babies can claim that John Piper can affirm ninety-five percent of the Westminster Standards, one might also wonder how much of the Augsburg Confession the Minneapolis minister would dispute. Chances are that Piper could not affirm roughly four of the twenty-eight articles (on the sacraments and holy days), which makes him by one measure eighty-six percent Lutheran. Yet, Baptists of a predestinarian bent want to be included not among the Lutherans but Reformed Protestants.

One explanation might be that Luther was too earthy. His piety is much more off-putting than the earnest, worn-on-the-sleeve pursuit of holiness that typified the Puritans. Another factor is cultural. In the English-speaking Protestant world, Baptists and Presbyterians share a common history and culture that makes similarities easier to conceive than thinking of German Protestants, who have no stake in the British monarchy, the English ecclesiastical establishment and the dissenters it created, or American independence, as fellow believers. German and English Protestants have distinct histories and that makes Lutheranism seem foreign to most Anglo-American Protestants while Calvinism feels familiar, part of the religious landscape, for English-speaking Protestants.

In the end, though, the question is not historical or cultural but one of authority, namely, who decides whether Baptists are part of Reformed Protestantism? Do historians and parachurch leaders or is the decision the task of church officers? Of course, a royal commission of federal agency charged with categorizing Protestant groups could readily solve the dispute but those days are long behind. So the duty of policing Reformed Protestantism’s boundaries has to fall to non-governmental agencies.

This has bearings on both the Theological Dark Web and the Ecclesiastical Dark Web: Luther is too dark for evangelicals and Baptists, communions are too complicated.