How Not to Defend the Reformation: Why Protestants Need the AntichristMar 26th, 2012 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
I’ve noticed a change of late in how Evangelical and Reformed Protestants interact with history, and I don’t think it bodes well for the coherence of Protestant apologetics. In short, some Protestants have left off restoration or recovery as their primary metaphor and replaced it with development or fruition. The logical results of this move, I contend, are either a slide into liberal skepticism or the eventual embrace of the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession.
History has always posed a challenge to Protestant apologists. However you construe the Reformation, there is always a yawing gulf of some sort between the Protestant present and the Catholic past. It demands explanation.
The traditional Protestant response has been that the Reformers recovered a gospel that had been lost. In other words, Primitivism of some sort has played a key role in the Protestant apology.1 The “Restoration” movement of the 19th century represents one of the strongest forms of this doctrine. Leaders like Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) presumed that nearly everything subsequent to the New Testament was ill-formed. Thus, he declared, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me.”2 The most radical version of primitivism is the Mormon view that the entire church was lost in a “Great Apostasy.”
To explain why the Gospel was lost, Protestants have traditionally had recourse to the apocalyptic dimension. The Antichrist, identified with the Papacy, is to blame for the “smothering” of Gospel truth under a cloud of superstition and idolatry. This was the doctrine of Luther, of Calvin, and of the later Reformed tradition. Thus, the Westminster Confession states:
There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God. (WCF XX.6)
For a Protestant, the theory has much to commend it. History would seem to require something of apocalyptic dimensions to explain the utter and complete destruction of “true Christianity” from the earth in the earliest moments of Christian history. Otherwise, the situation for Protestant historians is dire. Newman, of course, said it best:
So much must the Protestant grant that, if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial; by a deluge coming in a night, and utterly soaking, rotting, heaving up, and hurrying off every vestige of what it found in the Church, before cock-crowing: so that ‘when they rose in the morning’ her true seed ‘were all dead corpses’—Nay dead and buried—and without grave-stone.3
Unfortunately for the Protestant historian, invoking the apocalypse is not as fashionable today. Major Protestant denominations have removed the condemnations of [pope as] Antichrist from their doctrinal statements. Historical scholarship has also rendered the theory less tenable. (As Newman noted, there just is no Protestant early Church to which one can appeal.) This calls for a new apologetic. How to account for that yawning gulf?
I have noticed that a number of conservative Protestant writers now employ a hermeneutic of development to explain the gap between antiquity and the Reformation. On this view, the ancient church possessed only an incipient, inchoate form of Christianity. Continuity with modern Protestantism is therefore only implicit. Doctrines take shape in history, and become explicit, if at all, only through time and controversy.
I grant that this is not an entirely new approach. Protestant liberalism has always appealed to the concept of development. The more conservative Mercersburg theology of the 19th century also employed the theme. And, of course, the Catholic Church embraces a doctrine of development. What is surprising in recent evangelical appeals to development, however, is the willingness to relativize the core of their own doctrinal orthodoxy.
One striking example of this comes in the work of Allister Mcgrath. McGrath is a prolific, well-known, and respected evangelical theologian and historian. His book Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification is perhaps the definitive, English-language treatment of that subject. In the book, McGrath deals squarely with the fact that Luther’s understanding of the nature of justification is an utter novelty in the Christian tradition, “a complete theological novum.”4 Oddly enough, McGrath the evangelical makes no apologies for this. Instead, he declares,
That there are no ‘forerunners of the Reformation doctrines of justification’ has little theological significance today, given current thinking on the nature of the development of doctrine.5
McGrath nowhere elaborates on this “current thinking,” so I am at a loss to determine why he thinks utter historical novelty has “little theological significance.” John Henry Newman, by contrast, the author of all “current thinking” on development, went to great pains to evaluate claims of development. Newman elaborated multiple “notes” to distinguish genuine development from corruption. No such elaboration is forthcoming from McGrath.
I find an equally casual, but more explicit, appeal to development in a recent article by Christianity Today senior writer Mark Galli (recently reviewed here by Bryan Cross). Galli contends that the early Church was characterized by “mass confusion,” and a “radical leveling” in which people of different ecclesiastical ranks spoke in God’s name, and offered mutually exclusive interpretations of Christianity. Only over time did something like consensus emerge:
The full sweep of church history suggests that the Holy Spirit has, in fact, led us into all truth through no other way than men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile wrestling with one another about whatever issue is at hand until, in the Spirit’s good time, a consensus emerges.
Galli gives no indication of how to recognize a definitive consensus. Is it by conciliar authority? A majority or plurality of votes? Statistical sampling? In any event, this is a far cry from primitivism. Instead of the pristine purity of the early Church, Galli argues for mass confusion. Applying this logic to current events, Galli suggests that clarity on issues like homosexuality and women’s ordination will only emerge over decades or centuries: development; not recovery.
There is an interesting variation on this contrast between primitivism and development in another book reviewed by Devin Rose: John Armstrong’s Your Church is Too Small. Like the Reformers, Armstrong appeals to the past. Like Galli, however, Armstrong sees the early Church as characterized by confusion and division, with a weak consensus emerging only over time. Ironically, this is the feature of antiquity he finds appealing.
For Armstrong, doctrinal fluidity and a weak consensus are ideal; too much certainty is a bad thing. In his view, the doctrinal divisions of the Middle Ages and Reformation are unfortunate blemishes on the face of the Church. Armstrong celebrates current developments in world Christianity which, he thinks, portend a post-denominational era in which doctrinal divisions are significantly less important. Fluidity, change, and weak consensus are thus the hallmarks of vibrant Christianity.6
As a Catholic, I am obviously glad that many Protestants have left off blaming the “Papal Antichrist” for the loss of “true Christianity.” I am also glad that Protestant writers have commenced at least selective appropriation of the Catholic tradition. Protestant historian Mark Noll approvingly notes the current intellectual situation for Protestants:
Whenever evangelicals in recent years have been moved to admonish themselves and other evangelicals for weaknesses in ecclesiology, tradition, the intellectual life, sacraments, theology of culture, aesthetics, philosophical theology, or historical consciousness, the result has almost always been selective appreciation for elements of the Catholic tradition. Whatever Protestants may think of individual proposals, methods, or conclusions proceeding from any individual Catholic thinker, the growing evangelical willingness to pay respectful attention to the words and deeds of a whole host of Catholic intellectuals, beginning with Pope John Paul II, makes an important contribution to better intellectual effort.7
“Development” is one of these elements of Catholic tradition that Protestants have appropriated. However, I don’t think of this as an unqualified good. The title of this post (“Why Protestants Need the Antichrist”) is supposed, tongue in cheek, to suggest the problem. In Protestant hands, the theory lacks a clearly identified “center” to evaluate claims of development, and to distinguish them from corruptions.
The spirit of classical Protestant apologetics is far different, and is captured in the name of Ulrich Zwingli’s famous treatise: The Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God (1522). For centuries, the debate between Protestants and Catholics has not been whether or not we could attain doctrinal certainty, but rather what is the proper basis for doctrinal certainty. The virtue of primitivism, however spurious its central premise, is belief in a pristine clarity to which we can appeal.
The modern evangelical purveyors of development, by contrast, seem content to abandon doctrinal certainty. Some years ago, evangelical theologian David Wells foresaw this abandonment of truth. His No Place for Truth (1994) and The Courage to Be Protestant (2008) diagnosed an emerging Evangelical culture in which truth claims and theology are seen as impeding “relevance” and “ministry.” This is clearly the case with Armstrong, whose proposal is for a “missional” rather than doctrinal identity in the Church.
The Catholic view of development is far different. The guiding hand of the Church’s Magisterium distinguishes true from false development. Development is acknowledged, but there is still a clear center. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (CCC 95)
Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) How can we fulfill Christ’s command to believe if we cannot know for certain what to believe? The historic (and primitive) Christian position has always been that we need certainty concerning this belief. The traditional Protestant view was that the pattern of the early Church (as found in Scripture) can provide this certainty.
It seems to me that many Protestants no longer believe this. In a recent article in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, Allister McGrath has acknowledged that both deep-seated and recent Protestant disputes about the meaning of the Sacred Text are “beyond resolution.”8 The question, therefore, becomes, “Do you accept some level of skepticism and doctrinal relativism, or do you appeal to an authority outside the Scriptures to resolve disputes about interpretation?”
We have highlighted one answer in this post: a new found trust in “development” to lead us into all truth. Handbook editor Gerald McDermott has signaled another approach. Speaking to First Things about his new book, he writes:
The book, he says, “registers a major shift in Evangelicalism, from triumphalist disdain for the Great Tradition to self-critical recognition that Evangelical theology is doomed if it does not learn respectfully from that tradition.9
It is a good thing that some Evangelicals are showing more respect for “The Great Tradition.” Likewise, their openness to something like the Catholic doctrine of development suggests possibilities for future dialogue. However, “development” and “tradition” are no more self-interpreting than Scripture. By invoking these concepts, recent Protestant writers have merely broadened the dataset for interpretation. They have done nothing to bring clarity or authority to interpretation. On the contrary, some have actually weakened their own truth claims. For Protestants, there is now much less certainty than when Rome was safely rejected as Antichrist.
- On this topic, see T. Dwight Bozeman’s To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988). [↩]
- Cited in Mark Noll, America’s God: from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), >380. [↩]
- http://www.newmanreader.org/works/development/introduction.html. [↩]
- McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 34,215. [↩]
- Ibid. 217-218. [↩]
- John Armstrong, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 14, 35. [↩]
- Mark Noll, “The Evangelical Mind Today,” First Things (October, 2004). [↩]
- Allister McGrath, “Tradition and the Interpretation of Scripture,” in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, >ed. Gerald McDermott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 83. [↩]
- “While We’re at It,” First Things (March, 2012). [↩]