Orthodox Protestantism

[Chapter 3(a) of Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Dacre Press, 1947), pp.20-28]

[20] We have seen enough already to realise that the external schisms in the West were the manifestation of an internal disease or division that had been going on for a long time. The sign of this is that the very proclamation of vital truths by the Reformers could only be made in fragmentary and one-sided ways.

We shall endeavour in this section of our Report to present a general description of Protestantism, such as Protestants themselves may recognise to be truthful and fair-minded; and we shall endeavour to do no less when we come to consider Liberalism and post-Tridentine Papalism. Our difficulty is that neither in the Reformation period nor since, have Protestants ever been able to agree on a positive statement of their common convictions. We must, however, make the attempt to describe the main characteristics of orthodox Protestantism, while reserving liberal Protestantism (as has been said) for separate treatment.

We are aware that it will be possible to find exceptions to all the general statements that we make. But it does not follow that such statements are disproved by the exceptions that can be cited: for whenever fragmentation has taken place, it is natural that movements should arise to re-assert those aspects of truth which have been neglected. There can, however, never be a full recovery of the proportion of truth, until the roots of the dissociation have been fully revealed.


(i) First, and chief, there has been the emphasis on the Gospel of the living God, and His direct and personal action in man’s salvation–as against every form of ‘religion of works’, every idea that we are saved by religious practices or humanitarian endeavour; and against the notion that, as commonly in the popular religion of the later Middle Ages, God comes in mainly as the Judge of men at the last day. This emphasis, which begins with Luther, consists in a ‘theology of crisis’, by which we mean, not primarily the psychological crisis of the individual’s conversion, but rather the krisis or judgment of God’s invasive action in coming into the world, in the person of Christ, to save sinners, and in continuing so to act now.

(ii) This leads to the appeal to the authority of the Bible, as the [20/21] primary witness to God’s saving work in Christ–as against every idea that saving faith in God can be based on the natural arguments for God’s existence, and against any notion that Church doctrine can supersede the Bible, or that the New Testament teaching about Christ is rudimentary and imperfect when compared with the Nicene formularies; and, third, as against any type of piety that uses sacramental means of grace in such a way as to leave the Bible practically out of account. This is not to say that Protestants have always, or generally, interpreted the Bible rightly: indeed, we shall presently show how grievous was their distortion of the Biblical idea of man, for it would be quite wrong to suppose that the defects of Protestantism are chiefly ecclesiological, concerned only with the doctrine of the Church, the Sacraments and Church Order. Nevertheless the appeal to the Bible has been the strength of Protestantism; and the witness of orthodox Protestants to its authority, and their study and exposition of it, have been of the greatest importance for Christendom as a whole.

(iii) Then there has been the Protestant insistence on the necessity of faith on man’s part, and on the truth of his Justification through Faith: that is, through personal response to the living God–as against every idea that man can be saved by ‘works’ of his own, and against the identification of faith solely with correct belief that the things revealed by God are true. The essential point is that nothing can take the place of the personal response of man to God.

Here we may note that Protestants have been, and are, suspicious of the emphasis laid by Catholics on the doctrine of our incorporation into Christ as members of His Body, by means of the Sacraments, fearing that this may involve an evasion of personal response. On this point, therefore, it is necessary to say two things: first, that the New Testament emphasises both the reality of our incorporation into Christ and the Divine indwelling in us (‘I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’. ‘Abide in Me and I in you’), and also the crisis-doctrine of our Lord’s eschatological coming (‘Watch ye, for ye know not what hour your Lord cometh’. ‘We shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ’). Second, it needs to be said that Catholic religion shows its awareness of the peril of evading personal response, most of all in its insistence on the Sacrament of Penance; for while this, like every other means of grace, can be twisted into misuse, it remains in Catholic practice as a central point where the believer is confronted with the duty of making his personal answer to our Lord. We may note also that in Protestantism there has been misinterpretation of the Biblical truth of Justification by Faith (see below, pages 22, note, and 22-26). Nevertheless, its witness to the need of the personal response of faith has been and is permanently fruitful.

[22] (iv) Another great positive truth that Protestantism set itself to recover was the active participation of the laity in the life and government of the Church. It found a central place in worship for sacred song in the language of the people. Further, by the Lutheran doctrine of Beruf (calling), it taught the true vocation of the Christian layman to his secular employment; and Calvinism developed this still more in its exaltation of industry, thrift and sobriety–an idea which still survives, even in this industrial age, in the Englishman’s sense of the sacredness and dignity of work. Yet again, the ‘Church meeting’, in which the Christian community met together ‘in the spirit’, provided some realisation of the authentic conception of the local ecclesia.

(v) Finally, Protestantism has laid very great emphasis on the importance of Preaching. The positive truth which it has upheld has consisted above all in this, that the function of the preacher has been recognised to be, not merely to convey right instruction to the mind about the things of God, but also to become an agent through whom is spoken that living word of God to which the hearer must respond by faith. The defect of this right emphasis is that Preaching has not been seen in its right relation to Worship. Largely owing to a one-sided assertion of the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone,1 there has been a one-sided exaltation of preaching as the primary and essential function of the Christian minister, and a treatment of the sermon as the focal point and culmination of the Church service.

It would certainly be true to say that in Protestantism there have appeared some notable revivals of the prophetic spirit. But it is certainly not true, as has sometimes been suggested, that Protestant ministers are ex officio prophets, as Catholic ministers are ex officio priests. The opposition which has often been set up between the functions of Prophecy and Priesthood, supported by a false exegesis of the Old Testament, is to be regarded as a typical instance of the opposition of complementary aspects of truth which has followed from loss of the wholeness of the Christian Tradition.


The right renewal of the emphasis on ‘Grace’ in Protestantism was, however, purchased at a heavy price. What was sacrificed for it was the Biblical doctrine that man was made ‘in the Image of God’, and that this ‘Image’, though defaced by sin, substantially remains in fallen man, and is effectually restored by Baptism into Christ. The foundation thesis of specifically Protestant theology deriving from a [22/23] distorted Augustinianism, was, and is, a catastrophic pessimism concerning the results of the Fall, formulated in the doctrine of man’s ‘total depravity’, and the complete destruction of the imago Dei in human nature. Man’s rational nature, his capacity for culture, for a certain achievement of natural justice and civilisation, his very humanity, contain no trace of the lost ‘Image of God’.2 His nature contains in itself no ‘point of contact’ to which the redeeming action of God can address itself without violence, no capacity of its own for receiving salvation. All is of the sovereign, freely-electing grace of God alone; and therefore the so-called ‘good works’ done before Justification are themselves sinful, as proceeding from a radically sinful nature, and are in themselves as justly meritorious of eternal damnation as so-called ‘evil works’ done in the same state. Upon this conception is erected the thesis of the arbitrary predestination of ‘the elect’ to salvation by the sovereign will of God, and the doctrine of ‘Justification by Faith alone‘. Even in the ‘justified’ the Image of God is not effectively restored by ‘imputed righteousness’. The doctrine of a judgment of individual men by God therefore becomes irrational and tyrannous, and the Christian conception of God is altered. We think it quite essential that this question should be faced in the discussion of the problem of re-union, the more so as it is commonly ignored when appeal is made to ‘the principles of the Reformation’.

When Luther discarded the scholastic Natural Theology, he was developing and further extending the antithesis which had long been prepared in mediaeval thought between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’. When St Thomas said Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit, he was already envisaging as a possibility this separation of nature and grace, though he himself, in accordance with the earlier tradition, rejected it. Later mediaeval Churchmen almost or quite affirmed the separation; and the next step, which Luther took, was to affirm the reality of ‘grace’ by denying that of ‘nature’. He rejected the scholastic Natural Theology and doctrine of Natural Law, because it seemed to him that these were based on Aristotle, Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite, and not on the Gospel. He discerned (as do the Eastern Orthodox also) that Western theology had become unduly rationalistic in its endeavour to express the things of the Spirit in universally valid and rational terms. But that which was true at this point became perverted in four chief ways:

First, the fear lest metaphysics should displace Biblical truth led to a distrust of philosophical thinking altogether. Among large sections [23/24] of orthodox Protestants, a dislike of rational thought, for fear of rationalism, has become traditional. That, however, is an instance of one-sidedness: the discipline of rational thinking can never be shirked without disaster.

Secondly, the Natural Theology which Luther rejected was based not only on the Greek philosophical tradition, but also on the Old Testament, with its teaching about the Creation of the world, and about man’s creaturely relation to God and his place in God’s created order. Indeed, the Bible in both Testaments interprets God’s work of Messianic Redemption as a renewal of His original Creation, and as a second creative act: the doctrine of Justification by Faith stands in St Paul in a cosmic setting, and in relation to the Divine government of the world. Hence Luther, in neglecting the doctrine of man as made in God’s Image, and in affirming the ‘total depravity’ of man as the ground of the ‘bondage of the will’, was isolating Redemption from its proper setting; and this failure to provide a theology of the created order has remained as a permanent characteristic of orthodox Protestantism.

Thirdly, the neglect of the doctrine of Creation has led to a loss, in large measure, of the sacramental principle which is involved in the Incarnation; to a false identification of the ‘spiritual’ with the ‘nonmaterial’; and to an exaltation of ‘inwardness’, which are contrary to the Old Testament as well as to the New. The Old Testament regards with the greatest interest the natural life of the Israelite, so that in Leviticus (xix), for instance, we get a series of miscellaneous regulations about sacrifices, about the harvest, and the command to love one’s neighbour as oneself–punctuated with the refrain, ‘I am the Lord’, while at the beginning stands, ‘Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’. This conception of the sanctification of the whole national life of Israel was taken up in the sacramentalism of the Church, in which all sorts of common things are brought to be blessed.

But Protestantism in general has missed this. Its right emphasis on the doctrine of the Beruf thus became secularised because it was not sacramentalised. Protestantism has to a very large extent concentrated attention on things religious, on conversion, and on piety, as if it were man’s religion only that had been redeemed, and not the whole man in the created order to which he belongs. Sometimes, as in Puritanism, there has been a Manichaean dissociation of the bodily and the spiritual. In Lutheranism especially, there has been a readiness to let the affairs of government be managed by the Prince–originally the Christian Prince, but later the secularised world-power–while the Christians concerned themselves with piety.

Fourthly, the notion of ‘total depravity’ led to a ‘retreat from [24/25] history’, because it implied that there could be nothing significant for salvation in the human history that lies between Calvary and the individual soul today. We are left with the soul of man confronted directly with Calvary as the one significant moment in history. This attempt to contract out of history has been responsible for much of the deadlock between Protestants and Catholics on the question of Church order.

The first of the two radical errors of Luther is, then, the dissociation of Justification from the doctrine of Creation: the second is that of Justification from Sanctification.

The monks, said Luther, thought that they could save themselves by ascetical practices, by religious good works, by becoming good men. But Christ came into the world to save sinners, and to save them out of the midst of their sin; and this can be expressed even in such a statement as the following: ‘our fellowship with God rests for us on the basis not of holiness but of sin’ (Nygren). Luther’s intention was to give all the glory to God alone. But a truth that is expressed out of proportion with other truths sometimes becomes strangely changed into its direct opposite. A man is saved by faith alone: so long as he is in this attitude of faith, all is well. Must he not then set himself to seek to maintain and recover the experience of his conversion, and maintain the faith-relationship with God? But where this is sought outside the frame-work of the sacramental life, and apart from the objectivity of the Eucharistic action, the endeavour to renew the faith-relationship will always tend to drop back into subjectivism and the cultivating of religious feelings. Hence, multitudes today go to Church in the hope of recovering some glimpse of their conversion-experience, and if they get no such glimpse they are sadly cast down. Hence also the vogue of religious psychology, and the underlying question, ‘how far is it possible to pull the right psychological strings?’

But this is not to have faith in God. We are reminded of Cranmer’s Homily on Justjfication, the burden of which is that we must not erect faith itself into a good work whereby we may be justified; and this is in line with the regular Catholic teaching which concentrates on the objectivity of that which is sacramentally given, and urges the Christian to persevere through all sorts of temptations, aridity and loss of consolation, building up by faith and amid darkness the unseen growth of the soul. It is in these times above all that the work of grace is done and spiritual growth takes place. But with certain partial exceptions, Protestantism has produced very little ascetical or mystical theology. The contrast here with counter-Reformation piety is remarkable. Again, since attention is largely concentrated on ‘feeling’ and ‘experience’ (which, it is held, become unreal if reduced to [25/26] a system), there has been a tendency to let the spiritual life go by default, and turn to activism and good works.


Less really important, though more obvious, are the differences between Protestant and Catholic in regard to the doctrine of the Church and to Authority. There was, at the time of the Reformation, every excuse for a violent treatment of the doctrine of the Church by Protestant theologians. The Middle Ages had blurred the distinction between the visible Church and the Kingdom of God, had neglected the theology of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, and had too often forgotten the dependence of the Church upon the Gospel of God. In different ways both Luther and Calvin sought to rediscover the roots of Biblical theology, from which the nature of the Church is derived; but in different ways they were blinded in their search by misleading presuppositions.

Luther believed that the Church, which is always invisible in one aspect yet always visible in another, is constituted by the presence of the means of grace: wherever there is a congregation of faithful men in which the word of God is preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered, there the Church is present. Constituted neither by the correctness of its ministerial order, nor by the piety or righteousness of its members, it is constituted only by the marks of the Gospel, namely the Word and the Sacraments.3 But something is missing. For Lutheranism, intent upon the right relation of the Church to the Word-proclaimed, loses sight of the historical continuity of the Church with the Word-made-Flesh. The indifference of Lutheranism to the principle of succession in Church order is bound up with the loss of the conception of the Church as a continuous historical society, whose essence is, despite the imperfections of its members, the glorified Humanity of our Lord.

Calvin, on the other hand, approached the doctrine of the Church from the theology of Election. The invisible Church of the Elect–which had no place in Luther’s system–was Calvin’s starting-point (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, iv, I, 2). But, passing on to the visible Church, Calvin gave high importance to it: he insisted that there is no salvation outside it, and he was rigorous in his exposition of its order and discipline. Whereas to Luther the Church is constituted by the Gospel, and is essentially a society of those who believe, to Calvin the Church is constituted by the Gospel and Law, and is a society of those who believe and obey. Hence correct order and discipline [26/27] are essential marks of the Church, and the Presbyterian polity is held to be obligatory in view of the claim that it is modelled upon New Testament usage. It follows that the Calvinistic Churches have possessed a strong Church sense, and a tone of discipline and continuity, as the history of Presbyterianism in Great Britain shows. But it is important to recognise how great is the difference between the high churchmanship of a Calvinist and that of a Catholic. To the former, Church order is a means of disciplining the elect (and others) in the obedience to the Divine Gospel and Law; to the Catholic, Church order is the expression of the continuity, from the Incarnation, of the Body of Christ wherein the faithful are incorporated. To the former, again, the determining doctrine is Election by God in His transcendent sovereignty; to the latter, sacramental union with Christ Incarnate in His Mystical Body. The difference is profound.

It is further to be noticed that both Lutheranism and Calvinism imply a doctrine of the union of individual souls in the way of salvation prior to their incorporation into the visible Church. Whereas in Catholic Christianity the order is: Christ–the visible Church–the individual Christian, Protestantism (despite its frequent assertion of a high Church doctrine) is unable to avoid the notion that the right order is: Christ–the individual Christian–the Church; as if entry into the Church were a secondary stage that follows and seals a salvation already bestowed upon individuals by virtue of ‘faith alone’. Again and again Protestantism betrays its tendency to put the individual before the Church: indeed, this tendency seems to have its roots in the original Protestant ethos.

Akin to the contrast between Catholic and Protestant conceptions of the Church, is the contrast between the corresponding conceptions of Authority. Here, too, it is easy to understand the violence of the Protestant revolt. The main issue seems to be this: the Church is commissioned to declare with authority through its proper organs the true doctrine, and to point out the thing that is false; but this authority is rightly exercised only when the Church itself embodies the apostolic Tradition in its fulness and balance, and is itself in subjection to the Gospel of God. The Protestant reformers rebelled against a Church which had too long exercised its magisterium without due conformity to these essential conditions; and in the place of the authority of the Church they set the authority of the Scriptures. The resulting distortion has been notorious, for how are the Scriptures to be interpreted? There was the Lutheran method–to interpret the Scriptures in the light of a particular doctrine, and to belittle a Book, such as the Epistle of St James, which is incongruous with that doctrine. Then there was the Calvinistic method–to treat the Scriptures [27/28] as a self-contained Divine volume, and to overlook their interrelation with the Tradition to which they bear witness. There were, further, the many Protestant Confessions, all professing to give an authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures, and all lacking a clear conception as to who possessed the authority to interpret the Scriptures, and why. There was also the frank appeal to the individual’s private judgment, whereby he might interpret the Scriptures as he would. And why not? For in all these ways the Authority of the Church was disappearing, and the notion of such Authority has indeed become virtually eclipsed in modern Protestant Christianity.

Behind these confusions there appears to lie a defective method of appealing to Christian origins. It is not enough to appeal, as the reformers appealed, to ‘the Bible’ or ‘the Gospel’. It is necessary, in appealing to the Bible, to appeal also to the Tradition of the primitive Church as the context in which the Bible had its origin and meaning. And it is necessary, in appealing to the Gospel, to remember that the Gospel involved a series of historical events, an interpretation of those events, and an apostolate commissioned with authority to teach both the history and its true interpretation. It is grievously misleading to appeal to Bible or Gospel without appealing also to the apostolic Church as the witness and keeper of both; and a distorted form of appeal to Christian beginnings underlies the eclipse of the doctrine of the Authority of the Church amongst Protestants. This is not to say that the employment of this doctrine in the history of Catholicism has been free from abuse. Far from it. But the doctrine itself is a part of apostolic Christianity, and its right exercise can only be recovered by a return to the fulness of the apostolic Tradition.

[ Next: Chapter 3b: The Renaissance and Liberalism ]

1. The full Pauline formula is, ‘Justification by the Grace of God, or, by the Blood of Christ, through Faith.’ There is in Baptism, as in other Sacraments, an act of God which cannot be included under the heading of human ‘works’, and this truth has in effect been denied by the insertion of the non-Biblical word ‘alone’.

2. In his controversy with Brunner on these matters (see Natural Theology, Bles, 1946), Barth has little difficulty in showing that his opponent is disregarding fundamental elements in the theology of the Reformation–whatever we may think of Barth’s methods of doing so.

3. For the movement in Lutheran thought away from this emphasis on the Divine action, see C. H. Smyth, in The Parish Communion, p. 294.