Protestant or Reformational Catholic?

I've said before that there are two ways to think of the word "Protestant."  One is "Protest against" - as in we are in continual protest against Roman Catholicism; whatever they do, we Protestants must do something different and eventual unity is out of the question since Roman Catholicism as such is seen as corrupt-by-definition.  On this view a Protestant is by definition a "non-Catholic" ("Catholic" is assumed by these folks always to mean "Roman Catholic" instead of the original meaning: "universal").

The other way to think of the word Protestant is "pro-testament" (pro= "for" in Latin) - as in giving a testimony for something, in this case the Good News of Christ Jesus.  On this view one might even be Protestant and Catholic at the same time, since we are no longer talking about denominational affiliation (or lack thereof) but giving testimony for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

First Things recently ran a good piece called The End of Protestantism  ("end" in the sense of "purpose" and also "end point") in which being Protestant (in the first sense mentioned above, "not-catholic") is contrasted with being a Reformational Catholic.  A Reformational Catholic is truly "reformed" because he embraces the major teachings of the Reformers (salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone; a rejection of universal papal authority; the embrace of married priests & vernacular liturgy; rejection or prayers to saints, etc.) while also embracing the universal (or "catholic") Christian tradition, the ecumenical creeds, the liturgical and sacramental piety, and the whole communion of saints.  A Reformational Catholic can also allow that Roman Catholicism is not corrupt "by definition" and that the Roman Church is capable of change, and has in fact changed a great deal since the Medieval Period and has brought on board many of the very reforms sought by the original Protestant Reformers (and may indeed accept more of those reforms - such as married clergy - in the future).

Upon reading this description of 'Reformational catholicism' (at least some) Anglicans might be scratching their heads and exclaiming "That is what we've been saying for centuries!" and now it seems others are catching up to ideas that the Protestant Reformers themselves actually held.  Indeed the Book of Discipline describes United Methodist theology as catholic and reformed and evangelical all at the same time, and I am proud to be what this essay calls a "Reformational Catholic."  I have long since found the idea that we should not do something in church because "that is too Catholic" ridiculous since Roman Catholics also believe in prayer, reading the Bible, preaching the cross, and worshiping the Trinity.  Taken to its logical extreme this "don't do anything catholic" approach would have us all convert to Islam or something very near to it.  As a bit of a "high-church Methodist," I have at times run into this "don't do it if it's Catholic" attitude serving in Louisiana, though not as frequently as I might have expected.

It must also be pointed out that any 'Protestantism' that defines itself based on what some other group is doing ("We are the people who are not Catholic") has no positive substantial identity of its own but only a derivative identity that relies for its very existence upon Roman Catholicism.  In other words, if "Protestant" simply means "not Catholic" then you can never know what a Protestant is until you find out what a Catholic is first.  Yet surely no church that is dependent for its very existence upon some other (and supposedly false) church can truly claim to be the one holy church founded by Jesus Christ that is united to him in eternity; surely Jesus did not have to set up a false church first before he could establish the true one.  This is why it makes no sense to define a church's whole ecclesial identity as a contrast to what some other church is doing (Protestant as "protest against" whatever Rome happens to be doing).

Instead there must have been a substantial identity for the early church long before the Medieval corruptions crept in that created a need for Reform.  Church as bearer of the apostolic message (Protestant as giving testimony for the Gospel) is a substantial identity all its own.  Since it is not by definition contrary to whatever Roman Catholics are doing, then there always remains the possibility of future reunion with the Roman Church in keeping with Jesus' own desire that his followers should all be one (John 17), if in fact such Protestants/Reformational Catholics were to find that the Roman Catholics were also clearly bearers of the same apostolic message.

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Blogger James W Lung said...

I can remember reading Wesley's 39(n=?) Articles of Religion and coming to the conclusion that an appropriate subtitle might be: "Why we are not Catholic"?

If we apply the Rule of St. Vincent to what is affirmed by both Rome and the East, I believe the question becomes: "Why am I not a Catholic"?

When one studies the teachings of Rome with openness to the truth conveyed, most obstacles fall. For example, years ago I was having lunch with a third year M.Div student from a U.M. seminary who eventually was ordained an Anglican. I was somewhat taken aback when he crossed himself during our blessing of the meal.

At one point in our conversation I mentioned "praying to Saints" as a problem. He responded: "What do you suppose they're doing up in Heaven?"

As I've pondered the question, I suppose it is possible they are praying for the Church. What's so bad about asking them to intercede for us?

As Evangelicals and Catholics Together demonstrates, we have much more in common than we think.

8:34 AM, December 27, 2013  
Blogger Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I heard someone else say one time that they read the Articles of Religion and thought "These are thoroughly evangelical and no one could pledge (as our clergy do) to uphold these teachings unless he was evangelical."

I think you are both right. Our Articles are indeed catholic in that they hold forth the classic teachings of the ancient church (Trinity, incarnation, Sacramental piety, Scriptural authority) and they are thoroughly evangelical in that they emphasize the importance of Biblical authority and personal faith in Christ as the key to justification and salvation.

This is the great beauty of Reformational Catholicism as it is found not only among Methodists but also among Lutherans and Anglicans as well. The problem is that today (as in previous times) that balance is threatened by some evangelicals who would rather not bother about the "catholicity" of our faith (so they downplay the sacraments and ignore the liturgy and the creeds and so on - therefore cutting off God's people from critical means of grace) in order to copy whatever the Non-Denominational mega-church across town is doing AND that balance is threatened by others who explicitly define themselves as "Not Evangelical" and who downplay the importance of Biblical authority, personal conversion & adherence to Christ and the disciplined pursuit of holiness (therefore cutting people off from following Christ at all!).

I believe the only future for historic Protestantism (what is here called Reformational Catholicism) is to re-ground ourselves in our own traditions that have their roots all the way back to the ancient Church. For Methodists this will mean recovery of that great balance that we affirm in our Book of Discipline: that we are catholic and evangelical and reformed. We believe that God is working through the sacraments and liturgy to offer grace AND that a personal and living faith in Christ is required to accept that grace. We believe that the Holy Spirit works in new and powerful ways in the life of individual believers (as we have learned from the charismatic movement as well as from Early Methodism) AND that we must walk in continuity with what the Spirit has taught the church across the ages (which is why we cannot reinvent Christian doctrine or ethical teachings [not even on sexuality issues] to suit the itching ears of the present generation).

9:59 AM, December 31, 2013  

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