What Hath Protestantism Wrought?

As we approach the celebration of the Savior’s birth, it is good to remember not only what a great gift He is to the world, but how the Church He established provided a firm basis for Christian life and belief. A Savior who came and did not also give us sure means of knowing Him would have pretty much left the world “in sin and error pining”— which is to say in the condition it had been in for most of human history. Our efforts here are dedicated to defending and promoting that most Catholic of notions: that we have been given a Church designed to gather us together in this life and to lead all into Paradise who truly desire it. Like all Catholic efforts, we depend on the generosity of others to enable us to take part in this great work. You know how tight resources are at the present moment. Please, take a moment and make your contribution to the work of The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal



Two recent books share a theme that might be called, “What hath Protestantism wrought?” Professor Brad Gregory of Notre Dame University, in The Unintended Reformation, tracks down the numerous historical developments by which Protestantism, initially intended to reform the Church, gradually resulted in thousands of “denominations” sending contradictory messages, but fenced off from mutual conflict and influence by relativistic and tolerant secularistic mechanisms. Devin Rose, in If Protestantism Is True, recaps a train of exhaustive personal theological investigations that led him unexpectedly into the arms of Catholicism.

The seemingly inspired idea of the first Protestant “reformers,” in view of the perceived corruption and mismanagement of Church authorities and the papacy, was simply to go back to the Scriptures for guidance. Martin Luther, for example, by the summer of 1519, had become convinced that the true and unassailable foundation for Christian faith and practice could be found only in the scriptures. Sola scriptura.

But which scriptures? Devin Rose began his search with the presupposition that the Protestant Bible of sixty-six books was the sole infallible authority. But could he be sure that the seven extra books – Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees – in the Catholic Bible are not authoritative? Furthermore, whichever scriptures he accepted, none state that they are to be taken as the final authority. In fact, the sixty-six books included in the Protestant Bible had originally been deemed “canonical” on the authority of the Catholic Church – a suspect source, in the minds of reformers.

But even granted that the Protestant Bible is authoritative, which reformer should one follow? Like Devin Rose, Brad Gregory found innumerable disagreements among the main reformers, as they attempted to lay the foundation for Christian restoration:

Luther and Melanchthon disagreed with Zwingli and the latter’s reforming allies about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. . . .Whereas Zwingli wrote, “I know for certain that God teaches me, because I have experienced it,” Luther countered, “Beware of Zwingli and avoid his books as the hellish poison of Satan. . . .” Numerous anti-Roman Christians sufficiently disagreed with Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, John Calvin, and every other Lutheran or Reformed Protestant leader about God’s truth to refuse to worship or have fellowship with them.

Also, the Bible needs to be interpreted correctly. Standard principles of interpretation, according to Gregory, fell by the wayside, as the various reformers, sure of their inspiration, felt no longer bound to tradition:

The magisterial reformers rejected patristic theological claims and interpretations of scripture, just as they rejected medieval exegesis, papal decrees, canon law, conciliar decrees, and ecclesiastical practices, precisely wherever any of these contradicted their own interpretations of the Bible. . . .They disagreed about the meaning and prioritization of biblical texts, and the relationship of those texts to doctrines regarding the sacraments, worship, grace, the church and so forth.  They disagreed about the broad interpretative principles that ought to guide the understanding of scripture, such as the relationship between the Old and New Testaments or the permissibility of religious practices not explicitly prohibited or enjoined in the Bible.

Not surprisingly, the spread of different interpretations by Protestant denominations over centuries has been troubling to many contemporaries searching for the fullest expression of Christian truth. Devin Rose comments:

The Protestant spectrum now covers a wide swath of contradictory beliefs: infant versus believer baptism, Christ present in some way in the Eucharist or symbolically only, the indissolubility of marriage or the acceptability of divorce, the condemning of abortion as murder or the accepting of abortion as permissible, the ordination of women or of men only, the Trinity as one God in three Persons or as one God with three purposes. There are differences on predestination and free will, whether salvation can be lost, whether same-sex “marriage” is valid, and so on. . . . Marriage was once considered an indissoluble bond by all Christians, but like with contraception, sterilization, and abortion, most Protestant communities have now reversed their teachings on the impossibility of divorce and remarriage, allowing their members to remarry so long as they have gotten a civil divorce from their former spouse.

Encountering such disparate interpretations, we might be reminded of 1 Corinthians 14:8, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” The World Christian Encyclopedia claims there are over 33,000 Christian denominations. The hard choice, often faced by thoughtful Protestants, is between the Church and the “churches.”

According to Devin Rose, the ultimate and inevitable consequence of basing one’s religion on a book, even an inspired and sacred book like the Bible, was a plethora of contradictory interpretations, between which no trustworthy criterion of choice existed for the would-be believer. Rose followed through on his contrary-to-fact conditional proposition, “if Protestantism is true,” and found. . .the Church.

Brad Gregory goes even further, tracing the current hegemony of secularism to the incessant and intractable disagreements among Protestants, and between Catholics and Protestants. Finding no other way to harmonize the dissension, Holland led the way in the Western world to “freedom of religion.” Dutch magistrates:

broke with more than a millennium of Christianity. . .in making the faith “a private matter of individual preference.” Freedom of religion protected society from religion and so has secularized society and religion. . .
Amid such secularization, “American Christians are divided about every significant, disputed moral and political issue, from divorce and abortion to health care and the environment.”

How then do we deal with the pressing “Life Questions”? We have turned, says Gregory, to empirical sciences and materialistic scientism as the default source of truth – trusting sciences like physics, which after eighty years still has no idea about how to combine quantum theory with relativity theory; or sciences like evolutionary psychology, which offers us a gamut of contradictory behaviors allegedly produced by biological evolution: humans as fiercely competitive or empathetically cooperative; essentially monogamous or polygamous; genocidal or peaceful; caring for the poor or ignoring them.

Nevertheless, we adhere to science as the final arbiter, religiously. Lord have mercy.



Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • על-אדם

    Hurrah for Dr. Kainz! A great post covering two important books.

    Protestantism’s appeal was always to the willful side of humanity. And as it found its humus in the human desire to have ones’ own way, it could not help but split interminably. Historically, however this has been its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness, since it could adapt to fill niches through the popping up of individual leaders who founded their own Christianities as needed. Thus fast spreading sects like Asuza-street Pentecostalism came to be. These new forms of individualistic, unorthodox Protestantism have aggressively sought adherents from both mainstream Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. They have done considerable damage to the Roman Catholic faithful especially in Latin America and China as was noted in the recent Bishops’ synod.

    In time, they too will fade and stumble, much as mainstream Protestantism has done (e.g., Wittenberg, Germany now has more Roman Catholics in it than Lutherans). But in the meantime, how many will they lead astray?

  • Manfred

    I am disappointed in your column, Howard. If you are going to discuss the Reformation on a truly Catholic site, then you must mention the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent which refuted all the Reformers arguments and excommunicated the “reformers”. Catholics today have to be told that prior to 1960 the Catholic Church was Divinely guided and It possessed a MIND. It was Paul VI who removed almost all the safeguards instituted by Pope SAINT Pius X in the early 20th century, including the Oath against Modernism which up until 1965 every Catholic priest had to take every year, the “Devil’s Advocate” office which was designed to argue against the cause of a candidate for canonization (how convenient that Paul VI is now being considered for sainthood!), and excommunication which Paul VI effectively permanently removed. Mainline Protestantism hit the bottom of the slippery slope and has effectively disappeared as any force in the U.S. Evangelicanism is all that remains and that, as well as mainline Catholicism,are fading as well as George Marlin’s two recent studies on this site of voting patterns in the 2012 Presidential election made abundantly clear.

  • Stanley Anderson

    At the end of the article Howard Kainz writes, “We have turned, says Gregory, to empirical sciences and materialistic scientism as the default source of truth.”

    I have long wondered if perhaps it isn’t to some degree, the exact reverse — i.e., it seems curiously “timely” that the Reformation with its subsequent rejection to various degrees of the Real Presence in the Eucharist and eventually to become only a “memorial” was followed closely by the “Age of Enlightenment” where science turned to its current materialistic outlook to focus on objects of study for the sake of the objects themselves as opposed to their being a manifestation of God’s glory. Though it is only a conjecture on my part, I suggest that the modern materialistic scientific view that rejects anything but what we “see” before us is a direct result of the Reformation’s rejection of many sacramental views, the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ foremost among them. I like to say that modern scientific materialism is the Protestant version of the Medieval world view.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Manfred: Brad Gregory’s book is an exhaustive scholarly opus, with about 140 pages of endnotes. He does consider the Council of Trent at length, and the Council’s attempt to restore orthodoxy — which was also the aim of St. Pius X, and, I think, Paul VI (who took a beating for Humanae vitae). Paul VI was facing some powerful forces, as I discussed in my Oct. 8, 2011 column on “The Spirit of Vatican II.” Maybe Paul VI wasn’t a saint, but I don’t see him as a bete noir.

  • Manfred

    @Howard. Thank you for your reply. One of the main criticisms of Catholics today is that they have no knowledge of Church history or what the Church teaches. The 25% of Catholics who attend Mass hear none of this from the pulpit for the simple reason we gently refer to as the hermeneutic of rupture-a new religion was begun in the 1960s. If Mr. Gregory’s book “does consider the Council of Trent at length,” then I think it was incumbent upon you to mention this in your review. My only purpose in commenting on this site,believe it or not, is to give other readers what I received, i.e., a classical Catholic education with an emphasis in Church history and APOLOGETICS, a critical subject which the Church admitted it dropped (as well as the Council of Trent) as they got in the way of Ecumenism and Freedom of Religion. Catholics deserve more than they have been given over the last fifty years.

  • Frank

    I left the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in the early 80’s. I was baptized and grew up in that church. As a young adult finally out on my own, I was fed up with the internal schism between the camps headed by John Tietjen and J.A.O. Preuss that began in the mid 70’s and lasted a good ten years. I do know the strife was still going on when I left. Sides were taken, churches did split, friends became adversaries. People acted like the devil for what they saw was their noble heavenly cause. I found my way into the Episcopal Church only to leave it when Episcopal Bishop John Spong writes a treatise that the resurrection never happened. For 18 years, I gave the Catholic Church a good hard look while my wonderful loving wife was patient with me. I became a new Catholic last year through RCIA. I am finally home and finally at peace. I agree with Manfred here. Too many cradle Catholics have no idea of the wonderful gift they have in this Church. On the flip side of the coin, however, is the Church must do a better job teaching the history and how Catholic theology developed over the last two thousand years. When we take the time to ponder that we are a part of the continuum of history that began with Christ’s word in Matthew 16, we should be brought to our knees in awe.

  • Randall

    I grew up Protestant and we bounced around from church to church. I entered the Catholic Church nearly 7 years ago. Over those years I’ve consistently and patiently given reasons for my conversion to my Protestant family. I’ve provided some of the same reasons that Mr Kainz cites from his review above. None of my relatives have “crossed the Tiber” yet and maybe never will, but hopefully I’ve opened their minds a little bit to the Church. I should add that much of my family is very anti-Catholic and that’s how I was raised.

  • athanasius

    Regarding the laity’s need for more knowledge of the faith and Church History, I heartily agree. As a CCD teacher, I am amazed at the lack of knowledge among many of my students. Most tell me that they never talk about religion at home, and very few attend mass. Since I only see them once every other week, and they don’t get a grade, it is hard for me to really teach them the depths of what they need to know.

    Certainly, our priests and bishops could offer more adult education opportunities, but quite frankly, we as individuals bear the primary responsibility for our own education, and as parents we are primarily responsible for teaching our children. We can’t rely on volunteer teachers at CCD teaching for an hour a week.

    As I look back, as a child my mother taught me more about God and the Church than I ever learned in CCD. And through her I attended stations, went to confession, and learned about novenas. Our parish also had a special devotion to Saint Anne. My mother instilled in me a hunger for God and His Church, which I continued to pursue as an adult. Now, as a father, I bring my children to mass, explain the importance of the current liturgical season, say grace before meals, have an advent wreath, etc.

    My point is that we can’t lay this all at the feet of the clergy. People have to be responsible for themselves and their faith formation. We can work within our parishes (and through websites like TCT) to help our brethren, but it takes some movement from them as well.

  • Cameron williams

    I found it discouraging that neither the reviewer nor(apparently) the books reviewed nor any of the commenters mentioned Orthodoxy. Thus a significant chunk of the world’s Christians are simply ignored. And it is just that branch of Christianity that has remained truest to “the faith once delivered to the Saints.”

  • Jay

    My question with all due respect is this: Are Catholics really much more unified in their beliefs than Protestants? Sure, if they actually follow Church doctrines they would, but we all know that isn’t the case. Talk to the average Catholic, are you will see they overwhelmingly support the use of contraception, are torn on gay marriage, women bishops, abortion, etc… and are utterly confused by the Trinity. And with those issues I am only touching the tip of the iceberg.

  • Kim McElroy

    This author reflects what to me is the driving force and appeal of the Roman Catholic church: man’s fundamental fear of personal freedom and flight from his personal responsibility. It is so much more comforting to feel that there is some higher authority who knows best and will tell us what to eat and when, whether to have a child or not, whether we should stay with an abusive partner or get a divorce, than to bear personal responsibility for these tough decisions. The Catholic Church’s need to control every facet of its parishioners’ lives and its parishioners need to be controlled prove nothing more than religion’s co-dependent nature. That Protestants find room for interpretation in the Bible regarding these questions suggests perhaps the rules are not eternal truths clearly spelled out by God as the Pope would have its followers believe, but that they are instead man-made concepts developed for greater mass manipulation and propagation of the faith.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Cameron Williams: The Pope in the encyclical Dominus Jesu does not group the Orthodox church with churches of the Reformation, but refers to it as a “Sister Church,” since it has the Apostolic succession. So it is not too surprising that the two books on Protestantism would omit consideration of Orthodoxy.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Jay: The fact that there are numerous Catholics who “don’t follow Church doctrine” does not imply that the doctrines are not the authentic Christian doctrines.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    You have well-described the road from moral standards to the logical chaos of relativism.
    Nice euphemism, btw. “When to have a child” instead of “whether we should kill her.”

  • Harry Flynn

    I am afraid that the two above authors have arrived late to the party.

    That Protestantism has led to the errors of liberalism, rationalism and secularism….Pope Leo XIII made this observation in the 1800s. In more recent times, sociologist Edward Shils also discusses the Reformation’s effect in his book “Tradition.”

  • Ferdinand Abayomi Oguntoye

    It seem surprising that Protestantism did very little in the past than what “Pentecostalism” is doing in Africa today. The mushrooming of “churches” in Europe, America and in the developed world may have had “some” philosophical “isms” and basis. Given the Catholic Church’s principled stand against “‘sola scriptura” in it’s teaching, economic situation has turned every street corner preacher in Africa hugging a Bible the founder of a Pentecostal Church today. Where is the Catholic Christian world heading with such a development? We face enormous challenges and critical emergencies which concerned Catholics around the globe must respond to. As I am writing only God knows how many such churches had sprouted the last 24 hours as a result of petty disagreement with their charismatic leaders. Parents are helpless and so too are the ordained clergies to face the grim onslaught on our spiritual lives and morality. God have mercy on our souls!