I have been writing for some time about my interest in non-Protestant Christianity, in particular Catholicism. Though I come from a Protestant background, which deeply informs my thinking in numerous ways, some of my critiques of Protestantism have probably been rather harsh. This may be natural (though not necessarily right) as I am doing a lot of comparing, and in doing so, finding some serious flaws (as I see them) in Protestantism; naturally there is some emotion on my part. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Protestantism has been very good to me; I am where I am today because of the great Protestant foundation laid by those who raised me up from a child in the faith. And the Protestant believers I know and love are examples of authentic faith, many of whom are merely where they are because of the accidents of history, and most really are not “protesting” Catholicism.
I am where I am today because my Protestant upbringing taught me a love for God and His story of salvation, a high view of scripture, and the centrality of Christ in all of history. It would be wrong to fall into the “us/them” trap. I don’t want to get caught up in a kind of “Catholic good/Protestant bad” way of thinking, even as I have found Catholicism more attractive than Protestantism. In fact, there are several key characteristics of Protestantism that I think make the “Protestant project” a valuable contributor to Christianity, at least in my life. Those characteristics include emphases on scripture, faith, a personal relationship with Jesus, evangelism, and apologetics.
Emphasis on scripture: Protestantism is, of course, famous for putting the Bible into everyone’s hands, and into the vernacular. Modern Protestantism places a high value on regular, personal Bible study. My own experience (Baptist) also placed an emphasis on Bible verse memorization and always bringing one’s Bible to church. There are some Protestant myths that linger, such as the Catholic Church tried to keep the Bible out of people’s hands which is untrue, or that the Catholic Church tried to keep the Bible out of the vernacular, which is also false (e.g., there were 13 official Church approved German translations of the Bible, or parts of the Bible, before Luther’s rather poor and manipulative translation appeared). But on the whole, the stereotype that Protestants read (daily, personal study) the Bible and Catholics do not may not be that far off the mark from what I can tell. Though I think this may be changing, I do think the Protestants, in some way at least, have got this one right.
The fact is Protestants love their Bibles. This is good, and we all should love our Bibles. It is a good thing to have your own Bible and wear it out. It is even better to learn the original languages (at least Greek) and study one of those versions. Catholics could learn a thing or two from Protestants in this regard. However, and this is the big HOWEVER, one thing Catholics have learned from Protestants is that getting a Bible into everyone’s hands has been the first step (though not the only step) in promoting a spirit of disunity within the Body of Christ. Disunity, which is a spirit of antichrist, is one of the unfavorable hallmarks of Protestantism. That you or I read our own Bibles does not guarantee we will find the truth. More often than not we will tend to read those passages we like the most and understand them in light of what our own traditions and prejudices have taught us. In this sense Protestantism, by getting the Bible into everyone’s hands, but without the structures in place to protect apostolic doctrine from becoming distorted has, if not made every man a pope, at least put a pope in every pulpit. And, if Protestants are honest, then the fact remains that most Christians, Protestant or Catholic, don’t come up with new interpretations themselves, but rely on the teachings of those “smarter” than them. In other words, Protestants rely on their traditional dogmas and Catholics on theirs, regardless of who reads their Bibles every day or brings their Bibles to church.
There should be a balance. Rather than seeing the Bible only as my “ammunition” against heresy (remember we can force the Bible to say just about anything, including lie upon lie), I should welcome the Bible as a means of personal edification as well as a resource in my quest to love my neighbor. But the Bible is a book of the Truth as well, and we should seek the Truth. But is it not possible to seek the Truth, Bible in hand, and still know that Love is more important, and that disunity is, in fact, a kind of death? Yes! Protestants should not take a step back from their love of the Bible, but should see the perceived division between Bible and Tradition as a false distinction. They should bring with them their love of the Bible as they re-engage, even re-enter, the visible, historical, apostolic, yeah-even-hierarchical Church—it is that historical Church that gave the Protestant’s the Bible after all. Catholics should passionately love their Bibles, dusting them off, picking them up without fear, devouring them unabashedly. And both Catholics and Protestants should study their Bibles as they work out their salvation in fear and trembling, and in unity.
Emphasis on faith: Protestantism is famous for its great rally cry Sola Fide (faith alone). Faith was a big deal to the apostles. There have been different ways of defining faith. One way is: “Faith is a supernatural gift of God, which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.” (Penny Catechism). Another way is simply to say faith is belief. Both Protestants and Catholics understand the importance of belief. Perhaps Protestants put more emphasis on the existential nature of authentic Christian belief. And yet, Catholics seem to have a clearer understanding (in general) of the value of suffering (from what I can tell), which is the divine pathway to an existential, authentic faith. Protestants don’t have the “upper hand” in terms of faith, just a different way of describing it. Still, Protestants place a big emphasis on one’s personal faith in Christ over and above mere lip service or church going, and this is good.
However, and this is the big HOWEVER, if a Protestant really loves his Bible and reads it carefully, he we find two things: a) Only one place in all of scripture speaks of “faith alone”, and in that passage (James 2:24) it is explicitly condemned, and b) Faith is only one of many requirements, or touchstones, of salvation (remember faith, hope, and love? Which one is the greatest?). I fear there will be many devout Protestants who will say “Lord, Lord…but we have faith” and Christ will say “I never knew you.” This is rather frightening, though I cannot judge the heart of anyone. Of course the same holds true for Catholics. The fact is faith is tricky. We look all the time for evidences of faith, in particular to our feelings, but we really only know if we have faith through testing and suffering (again James writes of this in his epistle). One can be a “member in good standing” of any church in terms of externals and not have genuine faith. Thanks be to God that we are saved by grace.
Still, Protestants are right to emphasize faith, for it is important. In a world of many “spiritual” options, believing in the risen Christ, and staking one’s very life (personally, existentially) on that truth, is what animated the apostles and those who became witnesses (martyrs) for the faith. It is too easy to grow comfortable in the routines of our various “Christianities”. It is easy to grow complacent, really just trusting that the faith of others will be our salvation too. One has got to own it personally. Will Catholics who think they will be saved merely because they are Catholic, be saved? Could this be a false hope?
Emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus: In Protestant evangelism the first question frequently asked is, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to the “right hand of the Father” and from there rules his kingdom. The Holy Spirit was sent, most dramatically on Pentecost, but continually as well, to establish and maintain Christ’s Church—his body—and to work on the hearts and minds of individuals, bringing them into communion with God. In the midst of this the Protestant sees an intimate, personal, friendship-like relationship with Jesus as a natural extension or implication of his existential faith. Jesus becomes the king who is my friend, the lord who is my buddy. Of course, seeking the personal is a good thing, but what we do with that is something else.
No doubt we Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus: he is a person, we are persons, we have a relationship at some level. HOWEVER, the nature of that relationship is more difficult to define. Jesus is Lord. He is the king, my savior, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Every knee shall bow, including mine. Where we get the idea that Jesus is our friend, even our buddy, I don’t know. This is not to say that Jesus is not a friend to us, but is it not true that we conjure an emotional idea of “friend” within our minds, complete with warm feelings and attendant emotions, such that we bring Jesus into our lives, as it were, and thus change who he is? Are not those “Jesus as friend,” “Jesus as buddy” images something that we invent in order to make those feelings of a “personal relationship” more palpable? If so, then to use an old-fashioned term, this is blasphemy.
Protestants have made personal passion (perhaps emotionalism) an important aspect of faith. One way of doing this is to emphasize the personal relationship with Jesus angle. Catholics, because they might not typically appear to be “on fire” for Christ in the same way Protestants define passion (for that matter, neither are most Protestants), or speak of a “personal relationship” with Jesus, can look “dead” to some Protestants. What Protestants often do not realize is that Catholics receive Christ, physically and spiritually, in the Eucharist. Rather than conjuring psychological warm fuzzies, Christ, according to Holy Scripture, is really present at the Catholic Mass. Although Protestants mostly disagree with this doctrine (even though it is clearly and fundamentally biblical), there is no denying this belief shapes Catholic understanding, leading perhaps to a less effusive and a more reverential relationship with Christ (e.g. more bowing and less raising of hands). Perhaps Catholics should get more “on fire” (and I do see that happening), but they do have a personal relationship with Jesus—and it’s a good one, perhaps even more authentic and more biblical than that of Protestants. So… “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” The Catholic answers: “Absolutely! But do you?”
Emphasis on evangelism: I love the tendency of Protestants to enthusiastically share their faith. Of course evangelism can be done wrong, even terribly so. But sharing the good news of salvation in a loving and generous manner is a blessing to the world, and Protestants have had the evangelism fire burning for a little while now. In contrast, Catholics can look more quiet and uninterested in evangelism, at least in the U.S. I’m sure there are numerous historical and sociological reasons for this. When I was a kid growing up in a Baptist church I heard the joke that Baptists were going to Heaven first, because it says somewhere in the Bible that the dead in Christ will rise first (or some such thing). Clearly this was a Pentecostal joke, but the Baptist church I was part of was more staid and conservative than many other, more upbeat evangelical or charismatic kinds of churches. And yet, compared to what I have seen of some Catholics (though not so much in the church we attend now), even those Baptists seemed to have more fire in the belly at times. Perhaps it’s not really true and I’m just conditioned to see things this way—and now that my eyes are open to see Catholics everywhere, I also see Catholic evangelism everywhere.
No doubt Protestants have been into evangelization and missions. Perhaps this comes from fighting with each other and against Catholics for converts. Perhaps it also comes from the common belief that a church growing in terms of shear numbers is a healthy, God-blessed church (the “church growth” gospel). And certainly it comes from the belief that all a person has to do is say some little prayer to ask Jesus into their hearts and they are saved. And naturally, anyone who sees the wonderful truth of the Gospel wants others to know this same truth. Regardless, Protestants have placed a big emphasis on being “on fire for God” and, therefore, sharing Jesus with the world. At least that the impression they try to give, and what they tend to believe about themselves. I do find it sad to hear of Christians from differing “churches” fighting over potential converts like the way businesses fight over customers.
On the other hand, Protestants like I have been, can be very blind to what’s been going on in Catholicism. I have been surprised to find a missions and evangelization focus in Catholicism unparalleled in Protestantism. The thing is, it just looks very different. Much of it is quiet, service oriented activities. And its been going on for centuries longer than Protestants have even existed, has been more fully global, has produced far more martyrs, led more to Christ and, in my growing understanding, preaches a more complete and biblical Gospel. Still, at least in the U.S., perhaps Catholics could do more to emulate their Protestant brethren by adding a more public passion to their evangelization. Perhaps this current Year of Faith and the New Evangelization will bring that about.
Emphasis on knowing what one believes: There has always been a strong apologetics bent within Protestantism, for it has a natural connection with evangelism. It also arises from the nature of protesting, which is at the historical heart of Protestantism. Sadly, Protestantism thrives on disunity, boasting in its distinctions, differentiating one church from another, thus producing reams of apologetics in defense of each stronghold of faith. Apologetics also leads to its own kind of creeds and statements of faith, which in turn lead to simplified explanations and sayings that sum up one’s beliefs. Protestants are great at this. Many can quote a verse or throw out a pithy saying at the drop of a hat in order to defend a particular position. Those who can’t still tend to be able to simply describe their basic beliefs and why they are a Christian. In short, Protestants, for better or worse, can be very good at defending their faith.
No doubt it is important to know what one believes. Perhaps this is a strange statement, for how does one truly believe anything that one does not know? But then there is mystery; can one really “know” God? I know there are many times when what we truly believe comes out and surprises us a bit, but even then, if we just think a bit, we should not be surprised. The real question is whether what one believes is true. And here is the rub; Protestants and Catholics do not believe all the same things, and only one can be right in many of these differences. Most Protestants deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and they deny most or all of the Sacraments as Means of Grace. Are they right? I have come to believe the Protestants are wrong (but am I right?). By implication, therefore, I would have to say Protestants may know what they believe, but in some areas they believe falsehoods and lies (though good manners says I shouldn’t say that out loud). Also, I am dealing here with stereotypes. The truth is, most average, ordinary Protestants, like most all Christians, like most Catholics are not particularly knowledgeable of their faith, or of scripture, or of what others believe. Rather, they tend toward an socio-emotional experience of God grounded in vague ideas of salvation, limited understanding of doctrine, and supported by the plausibility structures of their sub-culture.
That’s the downside I suppose, but the Protestantism in which I grew up taught me, at least in word if not always in deed, that one should know one’s faith, that every Christian must know the what and the why of their beliefs. There are many Christians who are comfortable in their ignorance, shuffling along in the faith of their childhood and never really engaging in the tenants of their tradition. Unfortunately, this may be far more true for Catholics than Protestants, for Protestants must, at some level at least, know where they stand in opposition to other faith claims. This is critical, especially for those who emphasize the other characteristics listed above.
Our cherished self-image
Finally I want to say that we all have our cherished self-images. That is, we hold views of ourselves that we protect, not only from others, but also from ourselves. We do not want the true truth of who we are to be manifest. Of course this has to do with how we hide our sinfulness from the world, but it also has to do with how we want the world to see us, and how we want to see ourselves. This cherished self-image plays a role in how we define ourselves as Christians. There are many Catholics and Protestants who cannot imagine changing their “version” of Christianity because of what it would mean for their cherished self-image. But Christ cuts through all that. The Holy Spirit works on our hearts and makes us more willing to be vulnerable to God and to others. We are saved by the grace of God, not by what church we attend—at least not in an ultimate sense. But our cherished self-image has a strong hold on us, and we can let it rule us if we are not careful. In fact, it will become our god rather than God Himself.
When we compared Catholics and Protestants we can easily fall into promoting stereotypes that may or may not be true. And there are plenty of champions for the various stereotypes But none of us are stereotypes. We are all unique individuals, and we all are on our own journeys through life and faith. This is also true with the various “camps” within Christianity. There are a lot of stereotypes leveled at Protestants and Catholics by each other. Part of having a cherished self-image is to allow (or consider) oneself to be unique by promoting the stereotypes of others. Protestants do this to Catholics, and Catholics do this to Protestants. Ironically there are a lot of stereotypes embraced by members of each “camp” because of those cherished self-images. If we are to find unity, then we must work hard at setting aside our cherished self-images and risk scripture, risk faith, risk our personal relationship with Jesus, risk evangelism, and risk apologetics. We must put it all on the line knowing the grace of God transcends all of us. We must come to embrace what grace calls us to, that is, to risk love. And if God is good and trustworthy, then we have nothing to fear.