The Four Marks of the Protestant Church

In the previous essay I said I would say more about the relationship between political and theological philosophy. In that essay I briefly reviewed the history of classical liberalism which began with Thomas Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory. His theory of the free individual led to a sort of liberty from all things that ultimately became the solvent that has continually dissolved our connections to institutions including the nation, the Church, the community, and the family.

That radical sense of individuality which is prior to our relationships to institutions can be easily recognized in classically Protestant sensibilities.

  • Salvation is detached from the community and is understood as a personal relationship between Jesus and me. (The Church has no significant role in the Protestant doctrine of justification; it is only between God and the individual.)
  • The Bible is detached from the community and its authority is viewed as something intrinsic to itself rather than extrinsic to the Body of Christ. This intrinsic authority is defined in terms of scriptures’ relation to God alone, detached from the human community. This is the essence of the doctrine of inerrancy.
  • Jesus Christ himself is detached from the community. He is attached, instead, to the individual, and these individuals-in-Christ come together to form voluntary organizations called churches rather than a community to which we are necessarily bound by the bonds of divine love. For Protestants it is okay to be without a church or to start your own church, or gather together as an informal house church because church is a secondary human relationship that can only be formed after the primary relationship between Jesus Christ and the individual is forged in the Holy Spirit.
  • The result of this detachment of Christ from the community is that the very idea of sacrament as God’s real presence is undermined and the two classic mysteries (the Font and the Table) are reduced to “ordinances” – something the church does because we are ordered to, in memory of past events, and not because of any intrinsic power or change that occurs because of the sacramental act itself. (Lutherans and Episcopalians are exceptions to this in their theology, but in my experience, not so much in their attitudes.)

Although these four detachments may not all be inherent to Protestant theology, they are historically bound to Protestantism more tightly than a Confession of Faith is bound to its Protestant Denomination. It would be extremely difficult to argue that the Protestant doctrines of salvation and scriptural authority could be viewed from a truly conservative (ie, non-individualist) perspective, so claiming that these are not inherent to Protestant theology ignores a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

What is the connection between classically liberal political theory and Protestantism? I have uncovered very few direct links. Rather I suspect it was the spirit of the age, which celebrated the individual and denounced the institution and which imbued both the political philosophers and theologians. Hobbes’ seminal work, Leviathan (1651), was published only five years after the initial publication of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646). Westminster was a direct result of the English Civil War (1642-1648) which was part of the larger European social unrest known as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The same events to which Hobbes (and later, Locke) were responding in their philosophy are the events which the Westminster Divines were responding as they tried to distance British Protestantism from Continental (as well as British) Roman Catholic influences. In interpreting the Bible, Westminster did it from this relatively new anti-monarchial, anti-institutional, pro-individual framework growing out of the Renaissance and leading to the Enlightenment.

The result is that as Protestantism came to North America it embodied this same liberalism that the Founding Fathers embodied. (We might say that Jeffersonian Liberalism is a secular manifestation of American Presbyterianism.) Emphasizing the individual at the expense of religious institutions, Christianity became a highly individualistic religion in which churches were voluntary organizations where individuals were free to come and go, to switch congregations according to their perceived rights of freedom and liberty as well as their perceived spiritual needs, and to stand in judgment over the beliefs of the group rather than stand under the authority of the group.

These sensibilities that grew directly out of Hobbesian political liberalism have dogged the Protestants ever since. Protestant Churches (as well as the Roman Catholic Church in the West, which fell under the spell of these same powerful ideas) have been slowly drifting leftward since religious denominations were created in the New World. Even as individuals have remained deeply religious, their connections to other believers have become more tenuous, resulting in an ever more privatized religious scene and fragmented denominational environment.

The solution is not to retreat into the Westminster Standards because they embody precisely the liberal (ie, individualistic) tendencies that got us into this mess in the first place. Authentic religious conservatism would reject the notion of the individual seeking freedom in God and instead return to the classic Christian understanding of the group and the institutions that embody the group as the source of salvation, revelation, and sustenance. (Take, for instance, that one un-Protestant, maybe even anti-Protestant phrase from the Creed, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” Protestants confess it, and then carefully explain it away by defining it in terms of individual salvation in their sermons: “What they meant to say was …”)

I must confess that I find this solution of returning to an authentic conservatism to be quite distasteful because I am an Enlightenment Liberal. I find much of Orthodoxy to be quite distasteful for precisely these reasons. I rebel at the lack of individual autonomy; I dislike the authoritarian manner in which the hierarchy leads the church. In fact, given the well documented and publicized crisis of leadership in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, it would be accurate to say I despise the authoritarian leadership that currently lords over the faithful.

I am a Jeffersonian liberal (a Libertarian) at heart, but I recognize that even though I prefer liberal autonomy (both in church and state), it’s a modern innovation (only a few hundred years old) which is quite anti-Christian, and I need to simply swallow my disgust and the sour taste that true community leaves in my mouth. As pleasant and fulfilling as self-directed and individuated Christianity is, I must give it up for authentic personal Christianity in which personhood is realized because it is rooted in submission to others and sacramental connectedness to people that God has called into his Body, rather than just with people I like to be with.

But Protestantism makes that move into true community very difficult (almost impossible!) because of that radical sense of individuality that has individuated and isolated the foundation stones of Christianity, such as faith in Christ, the authority of scripture, the nature of the community, and the sacramental character of God’s entrance into this world.

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3 thoughts on “The Four Marks of the Protestant Church

  1. OK, This thinking makes me very uncomfortable I will admit, and I see and partially understand the comment about my view of individuality is very recent in the overall time of the church. So, I will continue to think on these things, and allow this concept to brew in my libertarian mind. Why do you have the ability to do this to me? You have had this effect on me for a lot of years now Bro!

    • This reminds me of the classic Mark Twain quote. (And here I’m thinking of my own response to this line of thought, not yours.)

      “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

  2. Pingback: A Brief History (Pt 2 of 4) | Just Another Jim

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