On Protestantism

Martin Luther, the Augustinian Friar who changed the Christian West.
Martin Luther, the Augustinian Friar who changed the Christian West.

Churches and Denominations
A ‘Church’ is a body of Christians gathered around a bishop in the Apostolic Succession and faith in a given geographical area. A true Church requires a true bishop, Christians, and a particular territory. ‘Churches’ are simply a multiplicity of these individual, local Churches.

In the course of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, almost all of the Protestants lost the Apostolic Succession. Even in Protestant bodies that have officials called ‘bishops’, such as the United Methodists and Evangelical Lutherans in the United States, there is no historic Succession of bishops but only the name or title. There is no doubt that they contain many good and devout Christians and that they believe much that is good and true. However, since they have abandoned or lost the Apostolic Succession and much else that characterizes the Catholic faith in its fullness, these bodies are not Churches in the full sense, but more properly called ‘denominations.’

Assessing the Protestant World
Within the Protestant world at present the major, long-established traditions are in a process of decline and deep secularization. The state Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, the Reformed or Calvinist bodies of Central and Western Europe, and the ‘mainline’ bodies in North America, have lost members and influence since the 1960s (in North America) or earlier (in Europe). The rise of modern biblical criticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries undermined the chief remaining religious authority within these bodies, which already had jettisoned most respect for ecclesiastical and patristic tradition. As religious purpose and theological self-confidence drain from these bodies and their clergy, they have turned increasingly towards secular goals, such as the amelioration of social and environmental problems, that seem unable to fire the imagination of members. There is no reason to expect this long-tern decline to reverse itself.

Other forms of Protestantism, however, appear to be growing. For the most part the successful movements within twentieth century Protestantism are not such classical traditions as Lutheranism, Calvinism, or Methodism, but the 19th century development often called Fundamentalism and the nineteenth and twentieth century movement of Pentecostalism or Neo-Pentecostalism (the charismatic movement). The chief defining feature of such successful forms of Protestantism seems to be a firm doctrinal commitment or vivid religious experience. That is, those Protestants who actually believe in something, religiously-speaking, tend to do well, whereas those who have essentially been secularized are in decline.

However, the seeds of failure are present even in those forms of Protestantism that are doing well in the late 20th and early twenty-first centuries. For instance, the Southern Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in this period, is theologically committed to the individualistic ideas of personal inspiration in the reading of Scripture and the autonomy of the local congregation. Over time, in the context of a secular culture that is hostile to religious truth and traditional theological perspectives, such an individual and local focus is likely to produce the same secularization found in other Protestant bodies. Likewise, the emphasis on the authority of personal religious experience found among the ‘charismatics’ lends a subjective and individualist cast to their movement that will, in the long run, lead down the familiar Protestant path.

An alternative possibility for these more ‘conservative’ forms of Protestantism lies in a return to apostolic order, formal liturgy, and the faith of the ancient Fathers, Councils, and Creeds. In fact Anglicans in the 1950s and 1960s had considerable success in converting conservative Protestants who were looking for a way back to this central tradition of the Church. Anglican Catholics have a great opportunity to resume this work of bringing such Protestants to the fullness of the Catholic faith. The links at the right are intended both to dispel minunderstandings and advance the conversation.