How to be and think like a Protestant

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Introduction

In the internet circles I frequent, one hears more and more about people converting to Roman Catholicism (or to Eastern Orthodoxy or to another comparable communion) out of some Protestant tradition or other. Indeed, there are very apologetic many resources available on the internet for those interested in (say) the Roman Catholic Church. There are websites like Catholic Answers, blogs like Called to Communion, and YouTube pages like Pints with Aquinas. But I do not think that there are very many resources from Protestant perspectives comparable in influence or popularity. 

(One possible exception is Cameron Bertuzzi’s Capturing Christianity channel, but it is not dedicated specifically to Protestant theology or apologetics. On the other hand, Dr. Gavin Ortlund’s Truth Unites channel is promising, although not yet as big. Dr. Jordan Cooper’s Just and Sinner channel is a bit bigger, but still without the reach of Pints with Aquinas.)

I am not so sure that the case for converting to Catholicism (or to any of the other ecclesial communions mentioned earlier) is objectively as strong as many people take it to be. But it is true that many Protestants find it convincing. I think that is because Protestants tend to think in a fundamentally Roman Catholic way, even if they do not always believe the same things Catholics do. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the various forms of Protestantism arose from within the Roman Catholic intellectual paradigm and developed certain aspects of it. But there will always be a temptation to “come home to Rome,” so to speak, unless Protestants learn not to think like Roman Catholics anymore. One could consider this a part of continuing the project of reforming the ecclesia semper reformanda.

Now, I should make it clear that I don’t think there is anything wrong with being Catholic. I have a number of Catholic friends. They are beloved by God, and I consider them brothers and sisters. I simply don’t believe that the Catholic way of thinking about things is entirely right. But how is a Protestant supposed to think? This is obviously not an easy question to answer, and Protestants are going to disagree about it. In what follows, I am going to make my own proposals. Others are free to disagree with them. My goal is only to show how to be a Protestant Christian who does not think like a Roman Catholic and who does not constantly feel the “tug” of Roman Catholic arguments. I think that, if a person learns to think in a certain way, then the case for Roman Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy or other such communions) will not seem as strong.

So, how to be and think like a Protestant? I think there are a few central ideas: the power of Gospel as the proclamation of salvation; Christian faith as personal fellowship with God; and the fallibility of human beings.

The power of the Gospel as the proclamation of salvation

One of the most controversial aspects of traditional Protestant theology is the notion of the “perspicuity of Scripture” (claritas scripturae). The Westminster Confession of Faith I, 7 defines it as follows:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The idea is not to say that Scripture is so clear in every respect that there can be no reasonable disagreement about its interpretation. Rather, the Westminster divines only meant to say that Scripture is sufficiently clear as regards “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation,” so that even an unlearned person can, by approaching the text in the right way, come to a sufficient understanding of them. Not all Scripture is perfectly clear in this way, but the communication of what is necessary for salvation is so clear.

Some people find this idea doubtful. They will point out that even Protestants disagree among themselves as to which things are necessary for salvation. And if Protestants can’t agree on which things are necessary for salvation, how can they say that Scripture is clear?

I think that the Westminster Confession is on the right track, but it can be corrected. It is right when it says that Scripture’s teaching with regard to salvation is clear enough for anyone to understand it. But it gives the wrong impression when it says that Scripture clearly teaches “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation.” This makes it sound as if our salvation is a matter of fulfilling certain conditions, which Scripture presumably manages to communicate with sufficient clarity. Because Scripture does not seem to be perfectly clear on that matter, Roman Catholics will point out the necessity of having an infallible teaching office (the magisterium of the Church) to interpret Scripture authoritatively. Where Scripture on its own fails, the teaching office of the Church comes in, so that the conditions of salvation can be reliably relayed to all people.

I think this is where the mistake lies. In my opinion, Protestants should not think that Scripture (or the Church, for that matter) is concerned with communicating the conditions to be fulfilled for salvation. Rather, Scripture and the Church are both concerned with the proclamation of the reality of our salvation in Christ. There are no conditions to be fulfilled for our salvation. Our salvation is already a reality in Christ, who has acted on our behalf. Scripture and the Church relay this fact to us and invite us to participate in it, to enjoy its benefits.

How can our salvation already be a reality? It is easy to understand from the point of view of the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, which was so powerfully explicated in the works of the Reformed theologian Thomas F. Torrance. What is this doctrine? It states that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and human beings (1 Tim 2:5). But this mediation goes both ways. Jesus not only brings the things of God to human beings, such as forgiveness of sins and healing and divine teaching, but He also brings to God the things owed to Him by human beings, such as trust, obedience, and even vicarious repentance on behalf of sinful humanity (cf. Mark 1:1-15). Everything that is necessary for the salvation of human beings was already accomplished by Christ in His work as mediator. There is no condition left for a human being to fulfill in order to be saved. There is only the invitation to enjoy the friendship of God on the basis of Christ’s finished work.

There are thus two aspects to the Gospel, the proclamation of salvation, as it is preached in Scripture and (as it should be preached) in the Church. First Peter summarizes the point very well: “Christ suffered once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet 3:18). On the one hand, there is the complete sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, as a result of which God no longer holds our sins against us in a definitive way (2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:20; 1 Tim 2:5-6; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 John 2:2). On the other hand, there is the open invitation to all people to enjoy the friendship of God in the Holy Spirit through His Son, Jesus Christ (Matt 11:28; 2 Cor 5:20; 1 John 1:3). Salvation in the sense of salvation from sins is proclaimed as a fait accompli on the basis of the work of Christ; salvation in the sense of salvation to a new life is proclaimed as an invitation to fellowship with God.

The idea of the perspicuity of Scripture is very controverted. But it seems to me that there is a sense in which we can speak rightly about the perspicuity of the Gospel. Who can deny that, from God walking in the garden of Eden during the cool part of the day (Gen 3:8) to the descent of God with human beings in the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:1-4), Scripture everywhere proclaims that God pursues friendship with human beings? That is clearly the narrative of Scripture. The Gospel, on the other hand, declares the availability of this fellowship through Christ and invites all people to it. Whatever other issues Christians may disagree about, it seems to me obvious that everyone agrees on this. And if the “perspicuity” of Scripture is a matter of its communicating an idea so clearly that anyone can understand it, surely this idea counts as perspicuous.

But if someone wants to complain about the use of the word “perspicuous” here, then I won’t insist on it. Maybe it would be better to speak of the power or efficacy of the Gospel. The Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16). When people hear what Christ has done for them and how He makes it possible for them to enjoy a life with God, they respond in faith and brought into this sphere of friendship with the Creator and Redeemer. And the Gospel can accomplish this effect whether it is preached with tremendous theological precision or else if it is preached very simply and without ornamentation. It produces Christians in all generations of the Church, even if they come from very different backgrounds or understand things very differently.

This, then, is the first point for a Protestant to understand. Scripture and the Church are not concerned with communicating the conditions to be fulfilled so that human beings can be saved. Rather, they are concerned with proclaiming the Gospel, defined as the proclamation of the reality of our salvation in Jesus Christ and an invitation to participate in this reality. The Gospel so understood is powerful and efficacious, even if we reject the more traditional notion of the perspicuity of Scripture.

Christian life as personal fellowship with God

Without a doubt, being a Christian means having faith. But there are two senses of the word “faith.” On the one hand, faith can be understood as a relation a person. It is a matter of entrusting oneself over to another person. On the other hand, faith can be understood both as a collection of dogmatic and doctrinal sentences, the so-called fides quae creditur, as well as one’s intellectual assent to these sentences.

Christian faith involves both senses of the word faith. There is the fact that one believes in Christ, that one entrusts oneself to Christ and clings to Him, and there are the various things one believes about Christ: that He is the Son of God; that He died for our sins; that He was raised from the dead; and so on. There is faith as “believing-in,” and there is faith as “believing-that.” But the way in which these two sense of faith are related should be carefully considered.

It is a very traditional and “catholic” way of thinking that believing-that is more fundamental than believing-in. Thus, for example, the so-called Athanasian Creed says: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith.” What is this faith? At first, it sounds like a form of personal relation: “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” But not long after this, the Creed goes on to make a number of complex theological statements regarding the consubstantiality and shared divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Believing-in immediately morphs into believing-that. Faith as personal relation is transformed into faith as assent to a proposition. And faith as assent is made, from the beginning, a condition of salvation.

In my own opinion, I think a Protestant should reject the idea that “believing-that” is more fundamental or prior to “believing-in.” There are a few reasons why, but the most important is that a person can have the one without the other. It is possible to have enjoy a relationship with a person without having very specific beliefs about the ontological constitution of that person. Children enjoy the company of their families and of their friends, but they do not have a philosophical understanding of the metaphysics of human beings. Indeed, there are a number of different views in philosophical anthropology: physicalism, idealism, dualism, hylemorphism, and so on. They cannot all be right. And yet the opinion one takes does not prevent one from enjoying meaning relationships with others! One can even have no opinions whatsoever, remaining perfectly agnostic on the question, but this does not prevent one from having friends or spending time with family.

The Gospel, as I suggested above, is the proclamation of salvation in two senses. On the one hand, it announces our salvation from sin and its consequences because of the mediating work of Christ. On the other hand, it invites us to enjoy salvation to a life with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Although the faith that this Gospel produces is going to possess aspects of “believing-that,” what it really tries to create within a person is “believing-in” — an act of commitment and self-abandonment to God in Christ. What God wishes is a personal relation with the human being. But because it is possible to enjoy a personal relation in the absence of more precise ontological convictions of the sort prescribed by the so-called Athanasian Creed, it is therefore obvious that believing-in is more fundamental and important than believing-that.

Let me clear up a possible misunderstanding. This does not mean that the Athanasian Creed is false in its teaching about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am not calling for Protestants to abandon Nicene-Constantinopolitan theology. God forbid! I am only asking Protestants to give up the idea that assenting to the ideas of Nicene-Constantinoplitan theology is a condition of salvation or somehow necessary for the enjoyment of God’s friendship. That is the idea that must go.

The fallibility of human beings

The final and perhaps most important point for a Protestant to understand is the inevitable fallibility of human beings. (See my argument here for more details.) Apart from Christ, who is God Incarnate, all human beings can make mistakes in their understanding of things. This does not mean that everything a person believes is false! It only means that we could be mistaken, even about things of which we feel most sure.

Granting this point entails that there never was any “golden age” of the purity and perfection of the Church. Now, the Church is produced by the preaching of the Gospel. The community of the faithful comes into being when they are preached the message in which they believe (Rom 10:14-17). But if people are fallible, then that means that there is no guarantee that their personal appropriation of the message is going to be entirely correct. This doesn’t mean that they always get something wrong or that no one manages to understand correctly at all. The contrary is true. The Gospel produces faith in Christ — understood as “believing-in,” faith as personal relation — even if one does not understand all the details correctly or if the preacher did not communicate perfectly well. But there is no guarantee that any person possesses a perfect and complete understanding of the total significance of what is preached.

This is not so controversial a point as one might think. It is well known that Christian theological understanding has developed over the years since Pentecost. If one had to believe correctly in order to enjoy fellowship with God, then all Christians at all times are in trouble. Who can be sure that he believes correctly? But the Gospel is good news for us even in our condition of inevitable fallibility. On the one hand, all the conditions for our salvation have been fulfilled in Christ. Christ even believes in God perfectly for us. He alone knows the Father (Matt 11:27). He shares that knowledge with us as we cling to Him and learn from Him. But He does not constantly evaluate us or kick us out for misunderstanding things. Rather, He patiently teaches us, so long as we remain close to Him. On the other hand, Christian life is a matter of enjoying the friendship of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, and we do not have to have immaculate knowledge or belief in order to enjoy this friendship. Children do not know their parents very well and can even have false ideas about what they are like. But they still enjoy the relationship of their parents all the same.

Someone might say: If human beings are all of them always fallible, then how can the saving message be reliably transmitted? But this assumes that the saving message must be something easily lost. It is not. Christ has died for our sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring us to God. That is the saving message. You do not need to be infallible to relay that message to others, any more than a wife needs to be infallible in order to tell her husband how her day was at work. Human beings are fallible, that is true, but God compensates for this fallibility by accomplishing our salvation in Christ and making the message about it both powerful and plain as day.

It is also important to recall once more what was said earlier. The Gospel is not the transmission of a set of conditions to be fulfilled for salvation. Rather, it is the proclamation that our salvation was already accomplished for us by Christ. It is the invitation to enjoy the benefits of this reality into which the world has entered. We are fallible, that is true, but that does not change the reality of things. Human beings are also fallible in their scientific knowledge of the earth, but they still live there, and this fallibility does not prevent them from making use of the earth’s materials and working them for their benefit and enjoyment. Over time our knowledge of the earth improves or expands, even if we never arrive at a position of absolute certainty. In my opinion, that is how a Protestant should think about the theological reception of the Gospel message in the history of the Church.

Of course, there are still very many questions that remain to be answered. What about the unity of the Church? What about the unity of the faith? How can Protestantism solve these problems? The fallibility of human beings makes it possible for divisions to arise between Christians. But it also makes it possible that the divisions and the problems that motivated them are not as important as the divided parties make them out to be. People may be mistaken in what they think, and they can also be mistaken in what they think to be important. This does not mean that we renounce the goal of Church unity. But this is something for God to accomplish in us.

Our knowledge of God is imperfect, and so our unity with each other is correspondingly imperfect. We cannot pretend to be infallible in order to resolve the issue, since we are not infallible, and nothing about us suggests to us that we are. We have to face the facts about ourselves, such as we find ourselves: limited and finite, susceptible to error and never certain of the things we believe. If we are the Church, we are not the Church because of anything in us. God does not respond to our merits in making us His Church. We are the Church because God chooses to be our God, and He chooses us to be His people, even though nothing about us recommends us for this end. God does not want to leave us as we are. He wants to lift us up into something better. But this does not happen instantly, nor even quickly in every case. So we must all cling to Christ in the hopes of learning from Him, and this unity will eventually be accomplished in us by His grace.

Conclusion

Now, I am not naïve. I know that there are plenty of Protestants who will find what I say here to be unconvincing at best, or even implausible or downright heretical at worst. But I would ask them to consider whether they are not still thinking like Roman Catholics, rather than thinking like Protestants. What does it mean to think like a Protestant?

It means to insist on the sufficiency of Christ’s work for salvation. That means that Scripture does not propose conditions for us to fulfill, but rather announces to us the reality of that salvation and invites us to participate in it.

It also means to insist on the grace and goodness of God with weak sinners. God does not demand absolute cognitive perfection of us. He wants friendship with us. And He condescends to be friends even with those who are without profound understanding of arcane metaphysical details.

It also means to insist that the glory is God’s alone. He alone is immortal, wise, and perfect. We are always imperfect. Divisions arise because of this fact about us. But we are not God’s Church because we are so wonderful, fulfilling all the requisite conditions for membership in the divine club. We are His Church because He chooses to be with us, to be our God. He will not leave us in division forever, if only we continue to cling to Him.