Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism- Part 1

I recently finished going back through Louis Bouyer's "The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism", this time taking down some notes, and thought I would put some of what came out of that exercise here.

"The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism" is one of those fascinating books that comes at a subject one knows well but with insights and angles one had not considered. It is, moreover, a book with something to offend everybody. Bouyer's basic thesis is this: Protestantism was a movement of reform and renewal in the sixteenth century that recovered, emphasised and embodied several authentic and positive principles inherent in Christianity which had been in recent centuries marginalised or neglected. At the same time, it connected and confounded these positive principles with certain negative principles deriving from the nominalist philosophy of the late Middle Ages. These negative principles undermine, both theologically and historically, the full flowering of the positive principles; however the continued affirmation and embodiment of the positive principles within the movement means that there is a permanent and vital Christian core to the movement whose presence is not as pronounced in other Christian traditions. Bouyer states:

The main error of Protestantism lies in this; that it has come to associate inseparably, but quite artificially, the positive statements of the Reformation with certain negations, so that these have come to seem equally characteristic of its nature.

The negative, 'heretical' aspect of the Reformation neither follows from its positive principles nor is a necessary consequence of their development or vindication but appears simply as a survival, within Protestantism, of what was most defective and corrupt in Catholic thought at the close of the Middle Ages.

The first part of that thesis is likely to offend a large number of Catholics who regard the Reformation as an unmitigated disaster, think things would have been better if it had never happened, and look warily at anybody who would suggest that Protestantism might not be all bad or that Catholicism as it is lived and practiced in their particular neck of the historical and cultural woods is in any way deficient (they ought to know better but, for good or ill, most Catholics are human).

The second part is likely to offend almost all Protestants, who regard the Reformation as an unmitigated triumph, literally cannot imagine Christianity without it, and who regard warily anyone who would suggest that Catholicism might not be all bad or that Protestantism (or my brand of it, anyway) is in any way deficient (I guess most Protestants are also human).

Bouyer doesn't exactly say "A plague on both your houses!" but he does open up the possibility of a more honest mutual critique and assessment.

What I'm going to offer here is a kind of precis of my notes from the book (hopefully more readable than my actual notes), with some of my own ideas springboarding off these here and there. For my part, I am fascinated by some of the ideas here (though I don't necessarily agree with everything wholesale). Indeed, much of this is, for me, news rather than simply information; i.e. something told to you that demands a response. The responsibility of having lived in both camps and thus having the opportunity and duty of bringing in those elements of authentic Christianity from Protestantism which are inherent but less prominent in Catholicism is one that I continue to think about and, by God's grace, try to fulfill.

Positive Principles of Protestantism

1. Sola gratia

'Grace alone' is THE fundamental principle at the heart of Protestantism. The Reformers believed that, and Bouyer agrees with them. It is also the source of, and is intimately related to, sola fide, which is why in almost every case when you hear an apologetic defending sola fide, it actually ends up defending sola gratia. I'll come to sola fide later though.

Sola gratia undermines any attempt by man to contribute to his own salvation. It rejects any possibility of pulling oneself up by one's moral bootstraps, in the popular phrase, or any salvific action independent of God. In this sense, it rejects synergism, understood as God and man contributing parts to salvation independently. It lies at the core of Protestant conviction and is the beating heart of authentic Protestant spirituality. Bouyer quotes at some length both from the Reformers, from modern Lutheran theologians and from Protestant hymns to demonstrate its centrality, both for Protestant theology and at the popular level in worship.

Is sola gratia really an authentically Christian principle, and where did it find itself in Luther's day? The answer to the first question is clearly yes. It rings throughout the pages of the New Testament. Nor, come to that, is it particularly absent from the Old Testament. It had been affirmed and described clearly and at length by St Augustine, great foe of Pelagius and touchstone of Western theology (not to mention founder of the Order to which Luther belonged), in the fifth century. It had been upheld at the Council of Orange and would later be upheld without reservation at the Council of Trent. It had, however, as sometimes happens (even in Protestantism) fallen by the wayside in the actual practice of the Faith and in popular piety. In this sense, Luther's recapturing of it was a genuine recovery.

Bouyer sees two possible problems deriving from the centrality of sola gratia in the Protestant movement, which he deals with in turn. The first is the thorny problem of grace and free will. How can God "create in [us] to will and to acomplish" without absolving us from "working out [our] salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12-13)? In fact, Bouyer demonstrates, the problem is not as thorny as one thinks, as long as one is not a priori committed to a philosophy that sees the two as necessarily mutually exclusive. Garrigou-Lagrange writes, "In the work of salvation, all is from God, including our own co-operation, in the sense that we cannot distinguish a part as exclusively ours that does not come from the author of all good." God, in other words, as Lord and Creator of all, is also Lord and Creator of our freedom. How then do we explain sin and evil? Well, if we understand sin as something positive, an actual thing that we now have as fallen human beings, then this is indeed a problem. However, if we understand it as a lack, a privation, a negation, as Thomas Aquinas did, the problem ceases to exist. As Augustine points out, "Free will is a sufficient cause for evil, but for good it can do nothing unless aided by the Almighty Good."

The second potential problem Bouyer addresses is the possibility that, since Protestantism focusses so centrally on sola gratia (in contrast to Christianity up to that point where the Trinity or Christology had been central), this will warp the rest of its theology in the same way putting a bicycle wheel hub immediately next to the tyre, with some spokes shorter and some longer, will undermine its nature as a wheel and probably make it impossible to run. There have been even Protestant theologians who have proposed this as a real possibility- Schweitzer, for example, with his emphasis on union with Christ in conscious opposition to Luther's emphasis on justification by grace through faith. But in fact, Bouyer demonstrates that this problem is also ephemeral, quoting at length from Luther's commentary on Galatians where Luther uses sola gratia as a safeguard ensuring the integrity of his Christology (in this case the doctrine of Christ's full divinity). Thus, the centrality of sola gratia in the Reformers and in the Protestant movement, though unprecedented in Christian theology up to that point, is in fact an authentically Christian development.

2. Soli Deo Gloria

Luther had made God the sole cause of all, and man's salvation the principal effect. But the peril of sola fide (which is really just the human side of sola gratia) is the possibility of leaving out faith's Object- "justification by faith, independently of beliefs" in Eugene Menegoz's phrase, as exemplified in twentieth century liberal Protestantism. With soli Deo gloria or, put differently, the doctrine of the full sovereignty of God, Calvin sought, among other things, to head off that pass.

At the heart of Calvinism is a high idea of God, and the Calvinist will not settle for less. Everything redounds to God's glory. And God can in no way depend on a creature; He is by His nature totally sufficient in Himself. Calvin, in fact, is a man drunk on God, a quality that shines through in the greatest parts of his writing and is reflected in the most faithful of his successors. Well do I remember the way my conception of God was challenged and enlargened the first time I read A.W. Tozer's "The Knowledge of the Holy". One even finds strong echoes of this aspect of Calvin in a populist like Louie Giglio.

Bouyer puts forward the idea that Calvin's was a fundamentally mystical insight, one that he later attempted to systematise. A surprising assertion, but one that makes more sense the more one thinks about it. Why is it so shocking? Principally, says Bouyer, because most Protestants are "incredibly ill-informed about Catholic mysticism while Catholics know only the externals of Calvinism." To demonstrate his point, he examines some of these externals.

Calvinist churches are blank. This is striking and, often, offensive to Christians from more liturgical and sacramental traditions. They seem barren and empty and, thus, unworthy of God. There is nothing to lift the mind or heart to contemplate the Almighty and His works. But what is the significance of this barrenness? In fact, it has clear counterparts within earlier Christian history. The austerity of Calvinist churches derives from the same impulse that sent the first monks out into the desert- the desire to cut away all intermediaries and aids so that, in barrenness and silence, the soul might encounter God Himself.

In the void and in nakedness, if the soul does not reach out to God, it runs no risk of illusion and deception. It will not think that it advances or has found Him when it is only amusing itself, merely losing itself among trifles that have nothing in common with Him. Conversely, for the soul that truly seeks Him, at however great a distance, this virile austerity may have the most invigorating effect.

This is largely why Calvin's chief objection to Catholicism, likewise inherited by his successors (quite clearly in Tozer, Karl Barth and, a bit closer to home, in Ray Galea), is that of idolatry, of putting the creature in the place of the Creator and of arrogating to it that which belongs to the Creator alone. The impulse described above may be seen as, in part, a reaction to the decadence of the Renaissance Church, in the same way the early hermits and monks were reacting to the diluting of Christian devotion and practice after the legalisation of Christianity under the Roman emperors or, to take another example, the way the early Franciscans were reacting to the worldly thirteenth century Church. It is, however, a quintessentially Christian reaction, as evidenced by its consistent expression throughout Christian history. Nor, Bouyer points out, was it confined to Calvin. It is no coincidence that St John of the Cross, pre-eminent mystical theologian, arose and wrote at the same time as Calvin. Both men had the same preoccupation with God's transcendence, both saw idolatry as the chief evil to be guarded against (especially in its most religious forms) and both even use many of the same Scriptural texts to support their ideas.

Calvin also, by the by, was first to propose the concept of separation of Church and State. This seems ironic given what Geneva was like in practice, but Calvin understood that, if the soli Deo gloria is taken seriously, civil society must also acknowledge God, even if it is separated from the Church as an institution. All things ought to further the sanctification of justified men so that "in all things God may be glorified." Bouyer, interestingly, compares this aspect of Calvin's thought with St Ignatius of Loyola who was also very concerned for God's glory (ad majorem Dei gloriam) and used authoritarian means which flowed from that conviction. The Puritan state of New England and the Jesuit state of Paraguay were not so dissimilar.

3. Personal Religion

One principle that Bouyer elucidates that does not fit neatly into the solas (unless one places it under sola fide, which is not an exact fit but may well do) is the concept and practice of personal religion. This is the idea that, as Dean Inge says, "One cannot be religious by proxy." Faith, to be real, must involve the active participation, the conscious engagement, of him who holds it. Nominalism, in the sense of people who are religious through habit and nothing else, is anathema to Protestantism. Faith stimulates and engages the individual personality; if it does not, it is not faith.

The first expressions of this conviction may be seen in Luther's De libertate Christiana and De captivitate Babylonica. The former seeks to free the Christian from a legalistic/ ascetical system which he believes has become "a hindrance rather than a support" for the spiritual life. In the latter, Luther seeks to separate the soul from " the complexities of an ecclesiastical organ that would stifle it, once the means of grace were either misdirected or made ends in themselves." Luther wants to recall the Christian to a radical and direct dependence on Christ. It may be argued that in fact Luther sets the Christian up as a king in a desert, deprived of the supports necessary for living the Christian life, but this is not his main aim or desire.

The Protestant conviction that faith must be active and engaged explains the natural Protestant ambivalence towards any number of Christian practices that might appear to violate it, such as infant baptism, confession and set prayers, among others. It also explains the Protestant love of conversion stories and the penchant (taken to new heights in revivalist movements like Methodism) for proposing these as a standard for all Christians.

Some have argued that this element in Protestantism is at heart the religious aspect of sixteenth century humanism: the turn towards the individual, which has caused much harm in the centuries since and continues to do so in our own time. But is this in fact the case? Bouyer argues that it is not; that this aspect of Protestantism is the true heir of a thread woven throughout the Old Testament, coming to fruition in the New. Particularly in the prophets, God condemns the desire of the individual to hide behind the group, to cover his infidelity to the essence of the covenant with pedantically followed rituals (rituals given by God- a fact that, if anything, makes the trespass worse). That message rings throughout all the prophetic writings and reaches its apogee in Christ ("Say not, "We have Abraham for our father" for I tell you God can make sons for Abraham from these very stones.") Here, therefore, Protestantism has recovered an authentic Gospel principle.

And here again, curiously enough, concord may be found between unexpected bedfellows. The distrust of outward show that does not reflect inner spiritual reality is characteristic, more than in any other Christian group, of the Desert Fathers, whose realism and honesty in such matters can border on the discomfiting. For example, in one account, Abba Makarios refuses money from a visitor. "Why should I accept your money," he says, "I have everything I need." "In that case," says his visitor, "give it to the poor." "Absolutely not," says the Abba, "for if I did that, I should be proud for having done a good deed and my soul would be in a worse state than if I accepted the money for myself."
Likewise, it is notable that St Ignatius of Loyola wrote his Spiritual Exercises with the express purpose of "rous[ing] the individual to the most personal 'realisation' of his beliefs as a Christian." Again we find curious points of convergence between Protestants and their nemeses the Jesuits.

4. Sola Scriptura

Two great dangers within Protestantism throughout its history have been the opposite errors of illuminism and fundamentalism. The first of these does not accept any objective criterion of revelation and so can and does admit individual inspiration that is inherently unverifiable (this was true of the early Anabaptists and is presently true of some Pentecostals). The second restricts all communication between God and man to the Bible, thus making Christianity into a Religion of the Book (thus, in practice, not unlike Islam). Neither of these extremes, however, derive from Luther (indeed, fundamentalism of this sort was largely unknown in Christianity before the nineteenth century).

Authentic Protestantism, argues Bouyer, is found in Calvin's idea of the interior witness of the Holy Spirit in the believer agreeing with the Spirit-inspired words of Scripture; in the twentieth century sola Scriptura, in its positive sense, has found its fullest expression in the rich theology of the Word of God by Karl Barth. For the Reformers, Christianity was a religion of the Word, not a religion of the Book exclusively. Luther writes in De Concilio et Ecclesiae, "The Word of God cannot exist apart from the people of God. Who would preach it or hear it, if not the people of God? And how would the people of God arrive at faith, if the Word of God were not preached to them?" Here, God's Word and His Covenant People exist in a relationship of mutual, though unequal, dependence, underscored by God's grace mediated by the Holy Spirit who, in a sense, dwells in and supports both. The best of Protestantism derives from this positive view of Scripture in the life of the Christian people. Bouyer writes:
In spite of all its possible defects, Protestantism has lived by, and handed down, an authentic life, constantly renewed, precisely in the degree in which it has handed down the Bible and, with this, a living practice of recourse to it, of drawing nourishment from it as from a source of life, of finding in it personal contact with Christ, while interior experience is constantly referred to it as to the highest ideal. [Protestantism is a] discovered and maintained by familiarity with the Bible."
The extent to which Protestant life and practice draws on and is immersed in Scripture is, adds Bouyer, almost impossible for Catholics (or any other outsider) to appreciate. This does not help mutual understanding when it comes to apologetics and polemics.

Is such a high view of Scripture inherently foreign to Catholic faith, however, or is this an accident of history? Bouyer argues for the latter position. If one reads the Fathers, after all, their books and sermons are immersed in Scripture, and it is clear that they assume a substantial knowledge of Scripture from their congregations. Nor did this decline as much as might be thought during the Middle Ages- the sermons of St Bernard of Clairvaux (and, to a lesser degree, Aelfric) are very much along the same lines. St Augustine wrote, "To those books of Scripture alone now known as canonical I have learned to pay the honour and respect of believing firmly that none of their authors made any mistake in what they wrote."- a view that sounds surprisingly close to inerrancy (though the way Augustine approached the interpretation of Scripture was not inerrantist in the modern sense). Likewise, Thomas Aquinas wrote that the Scriptural books alone, in and by themselves, enjoy absolute authority, and that "sacred doctrine makes use of [other] authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books."

Is such a view still current in the Catholic Church? Well, yes, at an official level. One need only read Dei Verbum from Vatican II or read Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth to see that this is so. Certainly no Catholic theologian would raise any doctrinal authority to a level equal with Scripture. But nor can it be denied that, at a popular level, Biblical literacy and piety certainly do not obtain in modern Catholicism anywhere near the extent that they do within Protestantism. Though many Bibles were printed before the Reformation, both in Latin and the various vernacular languages of Europe, it was Protestant Bibles (in Germany and England) that became shapers of culture and language. And though the liturgy has always been and continues to be drenched in Scripture, more than one person to whom I have spoken who has left the Church has deplored the paucity of aids available to help the average Joe in the pew contextualise and internalise what he hears each Sunday.

This, as may be seen, is an anomaly in Christian history and it is, perhaps, part of the tragedy of the Reformation that the movement that could have renewed Biblical piety in the Church should have gone its own way for other reasons. The present state of affairs in Catholicism may then plausibly be blamed on ongoing suspicion by association, in the same way Catholics were ambivalent towards itinerant preaching during the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries because of its association with the Cathars (until, of course, St Dominic came along and demonstrated that there was no reason orthodox Christians couldn't also preach as itinerants). This has decreased in the last century or so, but there is still a substantial gap to be closed.

Still, as before, it is curious to note where the closest convergence between Protestantism and its older Christian counterparts comes; for sola Scriptura, in practice and in spirit, has most in common with the monastic ideal, especially with lectio divina. Indeed, many Protestants already practice a form of lectio divina without knowing it. Moreover, having spent time in a monastery less than a week ago myself, I can testify that the constant presence of Scripture throughout the monastic day (be it in the continual chanting of Psalms or in private Bible reading) echoes and appeals to something deep in the Protestant psyche. Both monks and Protestants find in Scripture the principal support for their relationship with God.

Given the historical regard for and reverence towards Scripture in the Church, and the culture of Biblical piety so characteristic of Protestantism since its beginning, Bouyer concludes, "The supreme authority of Scripture, taken in its positive sense, as gradually drawn out and systematised by Protestants themselves, far from setting the Church and Protestantism in opposition, should be the best possible warrant for their return to understanding and unity." I agree, and I'm not the only one.

These are the four positive principles Bouyer puts forward as the essential core of Protestantism as a movement, principles undeniably Christian with deep roots in gospel soil, shared (at least in principle) with all Christians of all centuries but clearly in the sixteenth century in need of new emphasis and application. In my next post, I will continue my precis of Bouyer's book with my own reflections here and there, this time regarding the negative elements that Protestantism inherited from medieval nominalism.


Matthias said...

Thank you for this GABit has given me food for thought. I have as a proddy always had the impression that those of us who hold to the Biblical inerrancy of the Scriptures have more in common with Catholics ,than with liberal protestants .I think it interesting that Wycliffe-the Morning star of the Reformation- stayed within the Medieval English church and preached from the Scriptures for repentance ,rather than do what Hus and Waldo did and form new churches.
Out of interest and talking about things reformation,i notice that the Lutheran World federation has asked forgiveness from Mennonite World Council over the Luteran persecution of the AnaBaptists in the 16th Century.Here is the link
Deo Solitaire Gloria

GAB said...

Thanks for the link, Matthias. I missed that bit of news. Very interesting.

This in particular caught my eye: "Michael Martin...noted revisions to Lutheran liturgical resources that reflect greater understanding of Anabaptists." It would be interesting to know what those changes were.

Matthias said...

Note also that there is hoped to be similar reconciliations with the Catholic Church and the Reformed. I have to say that whilst the anabaptists were brunt as heretics by the RCC,the
the Lutherans and Reformed usually drowned them because of the AnaBaptists emphasis upon adult immersion,and they were treated as rebels not as heretics.
I thought your comment about the Protestant -Methodist specifically- use of conversion stories as being the standard by which to measure one's faith ,was spot on. I do not know about your experience in Proddy evangelicalism but I can recall people who usre to get up in the Sunday nite Gospel service and give their testimony-yes one chap had been a criminal but God spoke to him and he changed his life around. However a mate of mine got up one Sundya night and talked about how he had been saved from a life of sin and degradation -except that he was 15,and was the son of the church organist who was a very loving father ,and I knew that Doug's life was the usual adolescent problems that i too was then experiencing. My father as church secretary asked that there be no more testimonies as he felt ,as did others,that this one was not appropriate and in fact he felt that htere should be no need for them-it would be seen in people's lives.

Matt said...

Glenn, if you're converting back to Protestantism, this time I'm absolutely not coming with you. One conversion is enough for a lifetime, methinks. :)

I know we've discussed this before, but I do still think that it is not enough to show that there is a certain Christian core to Protestantism (that isn't in dispute). What also needs to be demonstrated is that elements of that same core were missing from the Church proper. I'm not sure I see that.

My real concern with the argument Bouyer is putting forward here is that he seems to be holding up the Protestant reformation one of the inspired authentic reformations that have occurred through the life of the Church -- but one that just happened to go a little bit wrong.

In actual fact, Luther was vicious, violent, hateful, and obstinate. He hated the Eucharist, as well as the whole corpus of tradition and authority that constitutes the visible church. By way of example, look at the history of sola scriptura. Sola scriptura wasn't born of an overstated reverence for the revealed Word, it was born of the fact that Luther's theology could be disproved if the writings of the fathers, the teachings of the Popes, the traditions of the Church, or the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils, were accepted as authoritative. It was all that was left after the Church tried to disprove his writings, and he adopted as the standard response repudiating the authority of the thing used against him. In fact, even the Bible contradicted his teachings, which is why his sola scriptura didn't seem to extend to James. Or Revelations. Or the Dueterocanonical books.

Luther's problem wasn't a misapplication of nominalist philosophy, it was Satanic influence. Let's not beat around the bush here.

GAB said...

Nobody said anything was missing. Neglected would be a better word, though you might think that too strong also.

Bear in mind this is part 1- this is only the first half of Bouyer's thesis. These are things that were right about the Reformation and the Protestant movement as a whole, from then till the present. What was/is wrong with it is yet to come.

Specifically re sola Scriptura, all that you say is true and I'm coming to that. What is also true is that Protestantism as a subculture does foster biblical devotion in its adherents and has more than its market share of biblical scholarship. We know this well from our own experience. There's more going on there than an arbitrary historical extension of Luther's falling back on Scripture because he had denied every other authority.

Also, Bouyer's argument is not that nominalism was misapplied but that it was applied. He sees the Protestant errors deriving naturally from the marriage of nominalism with Christian theology, which the Church eventually got over and condemned but Protestantism perpetuated. I'm coming to that too. :)

Matthias said...

I think Matt needs to read luther's TABLE TALK,which i am currently reading ,and the impression i have is that luther does not hate the Eucharist. H e certainly scolded himself for his attitudes . He judged the papacy with an iron will ,but as one dear Nun a FCJ said" in the last two hundred years,we have been blessed with really good popes. That could not be said for those at and after the reformation".
Luther's s attitude to the Jews was appalling and could perhaps be one of the reasons why the Nazis were accepted