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Protestants, Si!

Reformation, No!

OCTOBER 31, 2017, MARKED the 500th anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the event known as the Protestant Reformation. Legend suggests, though history might debate its veracity, that on this date the Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenburg. Many Protestants with a historic sensibility, even if they are not Lutheran, look back on Luther's reaction to Catholic authority as something ordained by God to reform the Catholic Church. A Presbyterian pastor friend of mine posted on his Facebook page an announcement that over the next weekend his congregation "welcomes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther to our pulpit in honor of the 500th anniversary of his 95 Theses. His sermon will be from John 3:16." There is a bit of an apology involved in this invitation: "Many of Luther's sermons are rather polemical, with lots of jabs at the Pope and other Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. I chose this one because it clearly and beautifully sets forth the doctrine of justification by faith alone without all the polemical barbs."

It is clear from my friend's announcement that drinking Luther straight (even in sermons) is a bit of a difficult thing in our more ecumenical age, since so much of his purported rediscovery of the Gospel of Grace was communicated in a format that, to modern ears, often sounds rather graceless. Readers can consult the "Luther Insult Generator" online to get as large a sampling of barbs as they can handle by reading the barb on screen and then clicking on the "Insult Me Again!" button. (1) A nice example from Against the Roman Papacy, An Institution of the Devil (wherein the titled work is itself an insult): "I was frightened and thought I was dreaming, it was such a thunderclap, such a great horrid fart did you let go here! You certainly pressed with great might to let out such a thunderous fart--it is a wonder that it did not tear your hole and belly apart!"

To focus on the harshness or crassness of Luther is somewhat beside the point in ecumenical discussions, however, since late medieval debate had standards of politeness in language that would not necessarily be foreign to today's cable news shows or even the polemics of Pope Francis. Like Luther, who was extremely focused on grace and yet found his tongue running to insults, The Pope Francis Little Book of Insults shows that our modern "pope of mercy" has a talent for abuse that can tend toward the philosophical but also toward the potty: "self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian" and "fomenter of coprophagia" flow out of the contemporary papal mouth one after the other. (2) (I confess to a bit of trepidation when I see "Specialist of the Logos!" listed at the site, but remind myself that I am merely "Editor of Logos," exclamation point not included.)

Aside from the throwing-stones-from-glass-houses problem, attacking Luther personally doesn't work because most Protestants don't consider him a saint or imitable except insofar as they think that he "rediscovered" the original Pauline understanding of justification by faith and rejected an overweening papacy and a Catholic Church that had lost sight of scriptural faith. As the late French convert priest Louis Bouyer observed, "Luther is not looked on as a model in every detail of his life and teaching, but only in the manner in which, at a certain period of his life, he resolved a particular problem." (3) For Protestants, a proper understanding of justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls. Given that Luther wrote so much over such a long period of time, what Protestants make of his insights regarding that doctrine can vary greatly. Modern historical scholarship has found that Luther's own understanding of the workings of grace, faith, and love prior to 1530 were much more Catholic than were his later, more radicalized writings. A school of Finnish Lutheran scholars working over the last few decades has focused on the early Luther and found that the essence of his doctrine was not the stereotyped version of forensic justification of the individual so famously depicted by Luther as a pile of excrement covered by snow. Instead, for the early Luther, justification was nothing less than the divine presence of Christ in the soul through faith. And where Christ is, divine love is present. Many have noted that such an understanding has a feel that is much more Catholic and distinctly Eastern than anything traditionally regarded as Protestant. It is only after 1535 that Luther will strictly hive off faith from hope and love when he discusses salvation by faith. (4)

Coming at the same time as the rethinking of Luther's own theological history, New Testament scholars including E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright, who embraced what is known as the "New Perspective on Paul," have mounted a challenge to Protestant thinking on justification from the side of what St. Paul actually meant. For such scholars, the interpretation of Paul and justification taken by the later Luther and his heirs was actually a mistake. Roughly speaking, when Paul speaks in his letters about obedience to the Law being unimportant for salvation, he is not speaking about obedience to the moral law, but obedience to the particular aspects of the Torah that mark out Israel as a particular people. Rather than works of charity, it is works of kosher that Paul is saying do not matter for salvation. Of course, this sounds more Catholic than traditionally Protestant, which is why many traditional Protestants have reacted so strongly to it. The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls does not seem to be traditionally Protestant after all.

As it happens, 2017 is not only the 500th anniversary of Luther's putative beginning of the Reformation, but it is also the twentieth anniversary of my coming into full communion with the Catholic Church after spending my first twenty-three years of life in the Evangelical and Reformed worlds. While many people were shocked when I would say it, the question of justification and sanctification was really not as difficult a question for me as were other questions. I had come to doubt the later Luther's formulations and the traditional Protestant picture of justification for some time. Paul's letters seemed to me, without having read Sanders, Dunn, or Wright, to be much different from what was typically asserted in the Protestant world. Besides, even if Protestants could come up with absolute agreement on the topic of justification, there were so many other issues. My own approach to the Catholic Church was from the standpoint of a Protestant who recognized that there was no such thing as "the Reformation." There were instead, as Yale historian Carlos Eire and others have pointed out, multiple Reformation movements happening within the Catholic Church in the century before Luther and the century after--and at least four different "Reformations" among the Protestant movement of the sixteenth century: Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, and Zwinglian. What I perceived as a Protestant was that what happened after Luther was not really a reformation of the Church, but a cutting off of a great many Christians from the fullness of the Catholic Church; a subsequent splintering of Catholic tradition into different camps, each holding onto one part of it to the exclusion of others; and an inability of Christians to ever come to agreement on doctrine or move as a body. The late Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) famously observed that the Reformation was "tragic but necessary." I found that I agreed with him on the former but not the latter. (And perhaps he didn't finally agree with himself; he entered the Orthodox Church of America in 1998--a body not known for adherence to any of the Reformation solas.)

Though my parents and many of my friends did not feel it this way, my own reception into full communion with the Catholic Church did not seem to me to be a rejection of my childhood faith or what my parents had taught me to believe. Instead, I experienced a completion of the Christian faith that had been taught to me by my family and poured into me--I had learned to believe--objectively when the Rev. Roger Kramer baptized me on August 8, 1978. Conversion from a "false religion" to a "true," Newman observed:
... consists in addition and increase chiefly, not in destruction.
True religion is the summit and perfection of false religions; it
combines in one whatever there is of good and true separately
remaining in each. And in like manner the Catholic Creed is for the
most part the combination of separate truths, which heretics have
divided among themselves, and err in dividing. So that, in matter of
fact, if a religious mind were educated in and sincerely attached to
some form of heathenism or heresy, and then were brought under the
light of truth, it would be drawn off from error into the truth, not
by losing what it had, but by gaining what it had not, not by being
unclothed, but by being "clothed upon," "that mortality may be
swallowed up of life." That same principle of faith which attaches it
at first to the wrong doctrine would attach it to the truth; and that
portion of its original doctrine, which was to be cast off as
absolutely false, would not be directly rejected, but indirectly, in
the reception of the truth which is its opposite. True conversion is
ever of a positive, not a negative character. (5)

While I had to reject certain Protestant doctrines when becoming a Catholic, I had in many ways already moved away from most of them mentally and spiritually. And those doctrines I had rejected were largely the negative ones anyway: faith alone justifying without hope, love, and their corresponding obedience; Scripture alone as the guide to faith without Tradition and a Church that can declare what is authentic teaching or not; the goodness of marriage without the greater goodness of those who have committed to service of the Church in celibacy; Christ alone as mediator without his saints who have been made fully part of his body. The list goes on.

At a certain point in my own discernment of the truth of Catholic claims, I heard a lecture titled "Adding Cross to Crown" by Protestant historian Mark Noll, in which the Calvinist (Noll is an Orthodox Presbyterian elder) talked about adding the "Lutheran leaven" of a serious theology of the cross to the somewhat triumphal talk of Calvinists. I found that his lecture was persuasive, but perhaps not in the direction he intended. What I wondered was why it was better to be Calvinist with a Lutheran leaven rather than to simply be Catholic and take what I found manifestly true in both traditions. And what I found true and positive in various forms of Protestantism I found to be present in Catholic tradition as well, but balanced by other truths. "The Catholic Church," wrote Chesterton, "is the trysting-place of all the truths in the world." (6)

Other Protestant friends of mine had some of the same inclinations regarding the weaknesses of their particular traditions and denominations. They were forever coming up with combinations of different Protestant traditions to get something that was whole, full, Catholic. Some of them ended up starting new, nondenominational churches that would combine particular truths and practices in a way that was startling and often attractive to serious Christians, but occasionally rather humorous. Over the years, I have continued to hear or read about all kinds of ecclesial experiments that are trying to get to Catholic fullness, but end up being merely eccentric conglomerations. One friend told me about her own current place of worship, vigorously approving its "New Testament feel." When I asked what the New Testament "felt" like, she told me that it was a particular version of the Anglican liturgy, but done in a coffee shop. I wish now I would have asked her to try the espresso Romano. In a similar vein, an ad for a congregation promised "authentic biblical worship," something achieved by combining one version of the Lutheran Book of Worship and another edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Such places were often very interesting, but they felt to me, like much of Protestantism, to be rather ad hoc confections the long-term shelf life of which was dependent upon the particular charismatic figures who began them.

Such eccentricities, however, were and are for the few. The vast majority of those who rejected their old theological and ecclesial traditions without losing their faith, however, struck me as losing what was indeed precious in them in pursuit of a version of "mere Christianity" that was itself somewhat thin, if based on extensive familiarity with Scripture. The shelf life for that project struck me as equally short. As I started to love Catholic tradition, I started to appreciate more and more what I had been given in the Christian Reformed Church, the Dutch Calvinist denomination in which I had spent most of my life. I began to think that it was only in the Catholic Church that the distinct concerns in that tradition, shorn of the negativity and incompleteness of some of their doctrines, would survive. "In all probability," wrote Chesterton, "all that is best in Protestantism will only survive in Catholicism; and in that sense all Catholics will still be Puritans when all Puritans are Pagans." (7)

Whatever the various Protestant movements of the sixteenth century achieved, it did not seem to me that they achieved a "Reformation" of the Church, but instead a splintering of the truth and the separation of many Christians from the fullness of the body of Christ. Smart contemporary theologians have tried to downplay this splintering by appealing to the different schisms that took place in the Middle Ages. In this vein, one Baptist theologian has argued that the initial movement of the Protestant Reformers was an attempt to recover a "besieged catholicity" that had disappeared in the wake of the Avignon papacy, Lollardy, and a host of other medieval divisions. (8) The difficulty with this argument is that whatever Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others intended, it became very clear that they did not agree with each other, and their competing forms of "catholicity" did not produce unity even among themselves. When I became Catholic I rejected what was known as the Reformation, but maintained and deepened my love of Protestants. The Church's teaching had given me a lens to see not only what was mistaken in the various Protestant traditions, but what was beautiful, good, and worthy of imitation.

For there is a great deal that is worthy of imitation in Protestant lives, practices, and even theology. I do not shy away from the implication that sometimes certain aspects of the Catholic faith are realized or lived out in a way that should rule out Catholic triumphalism from the get-go. Catholic claims about the fullness of faith and the means of salvation are not claims about the reality of the Catholic faith as it is lived out in any particular area. Just because many Protestants often practice their faith in an ecclesial environment that lacks realization of truths that would balance them out does not mean that what they have is defective. As Hans Urs von Balthasar observed, "Catholic truths have such vitality that, on occasion, they can unfold their authentic content even under considerable limitations, like strong plants in poor soil." (9) To take one particular historical example, the esteemed Lutheran Church historian Robert Wilken, who entered the Catholic Church in the 1990s, argued that the Lutheran Pietist movement was perhaps more successful in recovering a number of aspects of medieval Catholic spirituality in Germany, including important parts of the Catholic musical tradition, than were German Catholics themselves. (10) In our own day, Catholics owe a debt of gratitude to Protestant philosophers of religion and indeed Protestant theologians for penetrating work in the philosophy of religion, biblical studies, and a host of areas. Perhaps the most sophisticated (and productive) Catholic theologian in America, Matthew Levering of Mundelein Seminary, regularly takes wisdom from Protestant theologians of a variety of traditions to renew the Catholic theological tradition.

In a more general way, the popular Catholic writer and philosopher Peter Kreeft--like me, an alumnus of Calvin College and product of Dutch Calvinism--has written in a thoroughly ecumenical and bracing way of how Catholics should embrace Protestants and their gifts, but not the Reformation, in his new book, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? (11)

Kreeft does not mince words in describing what Catholics should think about the Reformation: "Apparently, it was not only a heresy but a tragedy. It split the Church. It produced terrible religious wars and was thus largely responsible for the fact that ever since the Reformation, Western civilization has become more anti-Christian." (12) Yet he acknowledges that many Catholics who have become Protestants of an Evangelical persuasion tend to believe more of the Catholic faith than they did as Catholics, even though as Catholics more of the faith was available to them to believe. The answer to this seeming paradox is that while Catholics have often been fully sacramentalized, they have not been evangelized. While Catholics have all the fullness of God dwelling in them through baptism, the power of the Holy Spirit to stand as public witnesses of the Faith poured out on them in confirmation, and the fullness of the presence of the Risen Christ offered to them in the Eucharist, all too often they have not been taught or trained to take that seriously. With all the good soil in the world, Catholic plants are all too often sickly. As numerous converts have noted, the Catholic Church presents a thick layer of mediocrity on the outside. While this mediocrity is in one sense a good thing--the Catholic Church has always been a refuge of sinners and the mediocre in a way that serious Protestant groups have tended not to be--it is a fair question to ask whether there should be quite so much of it. Referring to the Church as "Here Comes Everybody" is fine, but too often we can make the Church seem less like a loving mother than a babysitter who has left the children in front of the TV--albeit leaving on the religion channel.

Kreeft observes that all too often Catholics claim not to have found Christ himself in the Catholic Church and then claim to have found him in Evangelical circles. He describes his "greatest trauma" in his five decades of teaching at Boston College to be the questionnaire he hands out at the beginning of the semester. On that form he asks not only basic biographical information and preferences in books, movies, and sports, but also what religious identification students make. Too often Catholics say, as do Protestants about them, that they are "Catholic, not Christian." Kreeft also asks this: "If you were to die tonight and meet God, and God asked you why He should let you into Heaven, what would you answer Him?" The answers tend toward three categories: the Pelagian answer, meaning an appeal to the person's goodness, compassion, or nonjudgmentalism; the more humble appeal to God's mercy, which though good "does not distinguish itself from Judaism or Islam"; and finally, the correct answer--Jesus Christ. Those who label themselves as Evangelicals almost always give it. "Nearly all Catholic students do not." (13) As Kreeft puts it, while Catholics possess the "fireplace"--indeed the whole house!--it is quite often Evangelicals and other serious children of the Reformation who give witness to the "fire" of faith burning steadily through their fervent, Christ-centered prayer lives, devotion to Scripture, eagerness to welcome others not just for the sake of welcoming them, but for introducing them to Christ himself, and indeed their desire to sing about him. This fervent faith is not absent from the Catholic Church by a long shot, but it is all too rare. Kreeft puts it this way: "Protestants need to learn Lessons Two through Twenty-Two from us, but we need to learn Lesson One from them." (14)

No, I do not think Catholics can applaud the Reformation any more than we can applaud any other events in which people become separated from the Church's communion and teaching authority. We may hear Augustine's words "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam" at the Easter Vigil, but I do not think celebrating the Fall of man is a wise or right idea. Catholics who have "celebrated" the Reformation this year have made a large mistake. But they would not be making a mistake in thanking God that amidst brokenness he has preserved great faith even outside full communion with his Church. Nor would they be making a mistake in learning a great deal from Protestants about how to live out the faith even without the full panoply of common Catholic goods. When more of the mediocrity of Catholic life is transformed and more Catholics say their salvation is based on Jesus Christ, the splintering that was the result, if not the intention, of the original Protestants' actions (with a great deal of blame heaped on the Catholic leaders of the day), will be reversed. Catholics should not be afraid to say no! to the Reformation. Nor should they be afraid to say si! to Evangelical Protestants when it comes to learning or being reminded of Catholic truths again.

Pope Francis has opened up for discussion the question of the admission of women to the diaconate. Such a topic is not new in the Church, for in a number of locales in various places there were "deaconesses," but whether they were ordained in the same way that deacons were was a disputed matter. In our lead article, "The Deaconess: New Sources in Medieval Pastoralia," Samuel Klumpenhouwer introduces several previously untranslated sources in medieval "pastoralia" on this question. Pastoralia was a genre of writing that served as a guide for confessors and preachers and was heavily dependent upon both theology and canon law. Such writings took into account the development of the Church's terminology on the sacraments and reflected a clear consensus on the question at hand that reached its summit in the works of John of Freiburg. The result was that "the theology of ordination espoused in Freiburg's manual was soon placed among the dogmatic decrees of the Council of Trent, and again later among the canons of the 1983 Code of Canon Law."

Msgr. Martin Schlag, who has recently taken over as director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought here at the Center for Catholic Studies, offers us a taste of his new book, The Business Francis Means: Understanding the Pope's Message on the Economy. In "The Challenge to Catholic Social Thought Posed by Pope Francis: His Strong Moral Messages to Business," Schlag acknowledges that "Francis has spoken of building not walls but bridges as part of what it is to be Christian, but aspects of his message seem to be constructing only a wall between the Holy Father and groups of the faithful." Schlag considers Francis's teaching in the context of his background and his goals, offering an interpretation of what is mistaken in the details of Francis's message while unearthing what is new, timely, and prophetic in his comments about business and the economy. He focuses on Francis's attack on consumerism, his calls for an "integral ecology" and true relationships amid the market strife. For Schlag, Francis's "placing the human person at the center of economic dealings is of such universal appeal that it will not fail to produce a stimulating effect on Catholic social thought, and promote the conversation between human reason and the Christian faith that is alive through works of charity."

The Church has already had a longer time to digest the teaching of the "pope emeritus" than that of Pope Francis. And while it would have been hard to tell early on that the dogmatic theologian Joseph Ratzinger would make any mark in Catholic social teaching, the distinguished German theologian Manfred Spieker writes in gratitude and admiration for his turning to that subject in "The Quiet Prophet: Benedict XVI and Catholic Social Teaching," translated by David Lutz. Spieker draws attention to the various contexts in which Pope Benedict himself laid the ground for thinking about a true "integral ecology" in social and medical ethics, always directing attention (though too few have taken note of it) to the place of natural law--the grammar of human nature--in thinking about society. Benedict prophesied concerning ignoring or defying this grammar about
the real danger that human beings could believe that they are able to
make human beings. He had already spoken of this danger after the
deciphering of the human genome in his conversational book God and the
World. If "man no longer originates in the mystery of love, by means
of the process of conception and birth, which remains in the end
mysterious, but is produced industrially, like any other product," he
is made and degraded by other men.

For those who follow the academic world, the concept of "toxic masculinity," often identified with masculinity itself, is a hot one. Though the Church has consistently pondered the "feminine genius" over the last two decades, little in the way of thought about the distinctive gifts of men has been forthcoming. Fr. Christian Raab's "In Search of the Masculine Genius: The Contribution of Walter J. Ong" provides a fascinating look at the thoughts of a legendary twentieth-century scholar on the meaning of female and male, especially in his 1981 book Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness. Raab supplements Ong's data with some updating, but argues that his main points remain persuasive: "Ong reveals masculinity in the natural order as characterized by expendability, agonistic differentiation, and exteriority. These traits can be seen as complementary to feminine traits recognized by both Ong and the magisterium: durability, receptive identification, and interiority."

While certain modern reductions of the sexes associated mind with males and heart with females, a truly Catholic philosophical anthropology always sees heart and mind as the centers of all humans. Weronika Janczuk in "The Place of the Heart in Integral Human Formation" describes the heart, "whose function it is to receive, contain, and predispose one to further receive love, [as] the truest center of personality insofar as it is the center of lived experiences of love," as having a telos of perfect union with the source of love. She examines the different ways in which the heart is built up and, all too often, ruptured in order that the Church can think more clearly about how specifically to form persons to know their interior capacities, their weaknesses, and the necessity of faith and prayer, so that they would flourish now and in the world to come. "With this understanding, formation of the person in context of Catholic education must be oriented to formation that includes the heart: to actualize that capacity in which his or her existential state will be determined, and thus that capacity that will determine full grasp of the self, the world, and God."

David Paul Deavel





(3.) Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, trans. A. V. Littledale (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 2001), 23.

(4.) Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, ed., Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

(5.) John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1909), 200-201.

(6.) G. K. Chesterton, "Why I am a Catholic," in Collected Works, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 132.

(7.) Ibid., 131.

(8.) Timothy George, "What the Reformers Thought They Were Doing," Modern Age 59:4 (Fall 2017): available at

(9.) Hans Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988 [orig. version 1975]), 128.

(10.) See his chapter "Lutheran Pietism and Catholic Piety" in The Catholicity of the Reformation, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).

(11.) Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn From Each Other? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017).

(12.) Ibid., 23.

(13.) Ibid., 34-35.

(14.) Ibid., 33.
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Author:Deavel, David Paul
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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