The dogmatic spirit in Protestantism, lost and restored

Cardinal Newman claimed that the dogmatic spirit is a key feature of Christianity, and I have come to see that this is very true.  Some other relitions seem to get along fine without dogma, but Christianity without detailed doctrinal support quickly reduces to sentiment, and sentiment not even deeply felt.  In his latest essay, Alan Roebuck traces the decline of doctrinal precision in the Protestant churches and its ruinous effects.

Until recently, at least in the United States, “Evangelical” basically meant “non-liberal Protestant.”…But in recent years much of Evangelicalism has gone off the rails. Although many Evangelicals still practice traditional Protestantism, and almost all Evangelicals still use the language of their theologically conservative ancestors, the movement is characterized overall by a refusal to adhere to, or even to identify, most of the body of traditional Protestant teaching. Crucial doctrines such as the Trinity of God, the Resurrection, the Atonement, justification by faith alone and the Second Coming are still generally taught. But the details of the systematic theology that makes Christianity a coherent system and makes sense of all the Bible says (and that builds the individual’s faith) are not taught, the excuse generally being that “doctrine is divisive.”
A personal example may help clarify. In the late 1990’s I began attending and eventually joined a large Presbyterian church in the Los Angeles area. Although the church was not known to be liberal, and was considerably more conservative than the liberal United Methodist Church I had recently left, I cannot recall the pastors or teachers ever teaching any of the distinctive Presbyterian
doctrines…And at no point during the six-week new members’ class were we instructed in Christian doctrine. The closest we came was when the senior pastor led us in the “Sinner’s Prayer,” a common Evangelical ritual which involves asking people to pray along with the leader as he recites a far-too-brief summary of the basic gospel message of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves and our need to have faith in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. Although the Sinner’s Prayer does contain important Christian truths, it is practically worthless if not followed up with a regular parish life of proper instruction in Christianity. At this church, and the other three Evangelical churches with which I was seriously involved, the leaders acted as if Christian clichés were enough to save lost sinners.
…the basic problem with fundamentalism is not being too conservative. The problem, which is the same with Liberalism and Evangelicalism, is that many of these Christians have denied the faith and cut themselves off from the theological wisdom of the ages.
Indeed, the essence of theological liberalism is the desire to make Christianity agree with the spirit of the age. Classical theological liberalism changed Christianity to agree with Enlightenment-style rationalism. “Seeker-sensitive” Evangelicals make Christianity agree with contemporary marketing theory. And “Emergent”Evangelicals make Christianity agree with postmodern relativism. In this, they are all liberals.
The cure to watered-down Protestantism is, Roebuck believes, Confessional Protestantism, that is Protestantism that takes its statement of doctrine seriously.
What then is the antidote for Protestant infidelity? As mentioned above, there is a fourth type of Protestantism. This type is not widely known, but it is usually called“confessional” or “creedal.” A confessional Protestant church requires clergy and laity alike to know and affirm agreement with at least one of the comprehensive Protestant confessions or catechisms such as the Westminster Confession of Faith for Presbyterians, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordtfor the Reformed, the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans, the London Baptist Confession for Reformed Baptists or the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion for Anglicans/Episcopalians. Each of these creeds has authority only by virtue of being a faithful summary of what the Bible teaches, the Bible being the supreme (and only inerrant) authority on every subject about which it speaks.
If I were going to be a Protestant, I think I would be a Calvinist.  Calvinism is serious.  It’s not trying to be appealing; it’s trying to be true.

6 Responses

  1. Well, the only problem is, Calvinist is not a denomination…. I think it is more of a theological inclination that runs across many different denominations. Funny you mention it, though… A year or so ago I heard or read a story about Calvinist pastors who were talking about how they had to tone it down if not go totally incognito when they were applying for positions or taking over new churches. Turns out Calvinism is not all that popular with the lay-folk, I gather.

    I’m not sure I agree with the overall tone of the first half of A.R. essay. Sure, lots of churchianity is sentimental and sophomoric. But, come on, are you telling me Roman Catholicism is better? Judging by measures of Bible-knowledge of its adults and retention of its youth, Protestantism across the board crushes Catholicism.

  2. A very valuable, clarifying article – thanks for the link.

  3. Thank you Bonald for publicizing my essay.

    Justin,

    There are several officially Calvinistic denominations, chiefly those bearing the label “Presbyterian” or “Reformed,” although we must issue the standard disclaimer that there are liberal churches with these names that are not Calvinistic. Their systems do vary somewhat, so it is formally correct to say that “Calvinism” is not one thing, but there is a significant core of common doctrine and practice.

    It’s true that many clergy in other churches have Calvinistic tendencies. That’s because Calvinism is the most serious and rigorous Protestant doctrinal system and therefore it attracts the interest and allegiance of many people who are dissatisfied with standard-brand Protestantism. It’s also because some other denominations (e.g, Anglicanism) have a tradition of having a Calvinistic faction.

    And since Calvinism seriously violates the spirit of the age, it always arouses controversy. There seem to be more Protestants who openly oppose Calvinism than any other Protestant system.

    You said “But, come on, are you telling me Roman Catholicism is better?” Bonald may be saying it, but I certainly am not. Read the postscript to my essay, where I reject conversion to Rome as a cure for Protestant infidelity.

  4. If by Calvinism one means TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints.) then it is possible for a Catholic to hold a position very close to these doctrines.

    The teaching of the Later Augustinians (notably Berti and Cardinal Norris) and of the New Thomists (from Bañez to Garrigou-Lagrange), with their stress on Divine Predilection and Efficacious Grace appears indistinguishable from Calvinism, to all but expert theologians.

    From Trent, to the Congregatio de auxiliis, to the anti-Jansenist bulls, notably Cum Occasione and Unigenitus, the Magisterium has studiously refrained from giving a positive teaching on the great issues of predestination, grace and free will, contenting itself with condemning errors that fall outside the limits of legitimate theological opinion.

  5. And then there are Protestant denominations that, in their very foundations, are avoidant of creedal formulations. Here, I am thinking particularly of American Baptists, but the example could no doubt be multiplied. Of course, to assert as a matter of collective authority, that “We accept no humanly devised confession or creed as binding” is itself effectively a creedal statement, an irony that seems to be largely missed by those propounding it.

  6. Bl John Henry Newman draws a very interesting distinction between principles, held with a real assent and genuine conviction and those beliefs to which assent is merely notional

    Thus, he takes the case of a man who starts with “the Protestant dogma, cherished in the depths of his nature, that a priesthood was a corruption of the simplicity of the Gospel. First, then, he would protest against the sacrifice of the Mass; next he gave up baptismal regeneration, and the sacramental principle; then he asked himself whether dogmas were not a restraint on Christian liberty as well as sacraments; then came the question, what after all was the use of teachers of religion? Why should anyone stand between him and his Maker? After a time it struck him, that this obvious question had to be answered by the Apostles, as well as by the Anglican clergy; so he came to the conclusion that the true and only revelation of God to man is that which is written on the heart. This did for a time, and he remained a Deist. But then it occurred to him, that this inward moral law was there within the breast, whether there was a God or not, and that it was a roundabout way of enforcing that law, to say that it came from God, and simply unnecessary, considering it carried with it its own sacred and sovereign authority, as our feelings instinctively testified; and when he turned to look at the physical world around him, he really did not see what scientific proof there was there of the Being of God at all, and it seemed to him as if all things would go on quite as well as at present, without that hypothesis as with it; so he dropped it, and became a purus, putus Atheist.”

    Here, “He was true to that one conviction from first to last; and on looking back on the past, would perhaps insist upon this, and say he had really been consistent all through, when others made much of his great changes in religious opinion.”

    I believe that many apparent changes in religious belief can be explained in just this way. Much that passed for conviction was, in reality, little more that credence or profession.

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