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, 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.