A Prodigal Protestant, Part II
American mainstream Protestantism can be just as worldly as the sale of medieval Catholic indulgences.
I imagine Catholics and Protestants can agree that Martin Luther was an enormously consequential figure, as many of their contemporary theological thinkers and writers have expounded on. Even secular publications took note this October 31—the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation—of the monumental impact of Luther’s declarations.
There’s one thread in this vigorous and robust discussion of what Luther had actually intended in his theses and what being Lutheran might mean now that I find quite compelling, and has shaped a great deal of my thinking on the Reformation. In one of my all-time favorite articles from First Things—an interreligious, nonpartisan research and educational organization whose pages have been graced with some of the modern era’s most profound Christian thinkers—Gilbert Meilaender, a Lutheran, writes the following:
“…those in the Lutheran communion of the church catholic need to learn…to acknowledge the important contributions a magisterium [church authority] can sometimes make to the life of the Church…those in the Roman communion of that same church catholic must be reminded that the believer’s encounter with the risen Lord is not always mediated through the voice of that magisterium and that the Church is also well served when its people…examine the Scriptures daily ‘to see if these things [are] so.’”
Essentially, Protestants can acknowledge the significant role the Roman Catholic Church plays in its more institutional functions while Roman Catholics can acknowledge that faith can be furthered outside those institutional functions. I reproduce this quote almost in its entirety because I find this piece such a powerful vision for the reconciliation of yearning for catholic orthodoxy, appropriate respect for ecclesiastical authority, and fulfilling personal faith. It gives me hope that there is a way for two faith traditions that often seem themselves at odds to rediscover some of their shared first truths.
With this idea in mind, I am not convinced that Catholics’ and Protestants’ (often, quite considerable) intellectual efforts are always best spent discrediting each other. To be sure, real and meaningful contributions to the church arise out of rigorous examination and discourse. This can often entail challenging self-examination, as Meilaender continues with a quote from Soren Kirkegaard, a 19th century Danish theologian: “Taken by itself, as the whole of Christianity, the Lutheran corrective produces the most subtle type of worldliness and paganism.”
In other words, while Lutheranism (and Protestantism at large) were necessary corrective forces for a Roman Catholic Church caught up in the buying and selling of grace, as a separate Christianity, Protestantism can easily fall victim to the same kind of worldliness.
I can see that Kirkegaard’s thinking here might have some critical concerns for American mainstream Protestantism today. It is not hard to wonder whether Sunday worship services that look more like rock concerts with sound stages and equipment to rival actual concert venues might reflect a worldliness that mistakenly conflates musical worship (which is certainly an important part of historic Christian liturgy) with entertainment. Mega-churches are run almost like mega-corporations, preachers can be celebrities, and being a “Christian” can be easily compartmentalized as the “religious” bucket of your life alongside your social life, studies, relationships, and more. There are Christians who only are Christians on Christmas and Easter, and Christians who attend every service but do not know Christ.
Perhaps it is the case that this kind of Christianity, which courses throughout much of the country, is in need of another Reformation, one that might actually be more aptly coined a Return to more orthodox, traditional, and historic Christian liturgy and practices firmly rooted in Scripture. I don’t necessarily see orthodoxy as the oppressive and rigid systems of rules and dogma that secular society often thinks it is. Rather, I see Christian orthodoxy as an orientation of my entire being towards Christ, and not just certain parts of me, and I believe I am coming to the conclusion that this does not necessitate converting to Catholicism.
When I came to college and confronted for the first time the magnitude of the Christian gospel, I realized I could not compartmentalize Christianity anymore. As C.S. Lewis so beautifully wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” My identity in Christ cannot be one part of me out of many, but my entire form. My hope is that all those who are earnestly seeking Christ in such a way would call themselves Christians before they call themselves Catholics or Protestants.
Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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