Protestantism is a condition which seems to snowball upon itself--that is, it occurs and then multiplies. It seems to me that, once cut off from papal authority, the thus-disenfranchised fragment must necessarily doom itself to further divide, weakening itself both doctrinally and in terms of fellowship. Once the original schism occurs--a condition of heresy, literally 'choosing for oneself'--the boundaries of Catholicism are so violated that such heresy must be self-perpetuating in nature. For, if the first schismatic can declare 'I choose this for myself', so can his theological progeny; from one come two sects, from those two, five, and so on. This is why the Reformation did not stop with the formation of the Lutheran church; the Lutheran declaration of self-determination caused, ipso facto, a self-replicating error that necessitated further division within itself. This is not to say all protestant factions are the descendants of Lutheranism; but the same error persists in all protestant thought--that is, that one may choose for oneself what he believes without consulting a higher authority, id est, that one's personal interpretation of scripture gives him absolute authority to reject the established hierarchy. In this way sacred tradition is thrown to the wayside, and decentralized authority leads to further and further division. It is like clay crumbling after an initial fracture.

Christ declared Saint Peter to be the master of his church on earth, and the apostolic succession has been, according to the Church, unbroken since that time. The function of centralized authority within the Church has both benefits and flaws. The principal felicity of a central, authoritative head is that deference to him creates a state of external unity; that is, conflict may be dealt with within the Church rather than on an exterior front. One of the great failings of Vatican II was that it broke down the long-standing tradition of Catholic unity in the public eye; forty years ago, one did not dissent the doctrine of the church in public fora. This inversion of dissent is markedly absent from Protestant assemblies because, as opposed to the stability of a tiered internal hierarchy, each protestant church is essentially an isolated body, autonomous to an extent, only loosely connected to a greater assembly--exempli gratia, a Lutheran Synod or the Southern Baptist Convention. Ergo, if a serious theological dispute arises, schism occurs with a great degree of inevitability; internalized conflict is not possible, therefore the dispute is carried outward, straining the already-compromised foundations of protestant ecclesiasticism.

One may say, then, that by its very nature the Protestant error must perpetuate itself. This condition of instability is irremediable within the constraints of protestant thought, id est, it is not possible for a protestant body to elevate a Pope-like visible head, for the existence of the Holy See is without doubt one of the points of the Christian Church most objectionable to the breakaway sects. Therefore, without hope of internalization, what else may be done to prevent further schism within Protestantism? Protestant congregations, because they have no claim to infallibility, cannot by their nature hold the threat of excommunication as a method of discipline (though indeed one may be familiar with Puritan excommunication, which, like Vatican I practice, carried with it the threat of salus extra ecclesiam non est; the Catholic Church itself has removed the teeth from excommunication by denying the ancient tenet above stated), and therefore are left with no remaining method to prevent the wanton disintegration of their assemblies.

One may argue that the abovementioned defenses against schism all rely on fear and domination; say, rather, that they rely on a knowledge of authority and respect for that authority within obedient Christians. Again, without a visible head, a protestant assembly cannot put forth indisputable ex cathedra statements; any panel, by the nature of its democracy, creates a climate amenable to dissent by the presence of debate within that panel; that is, when the sect does not present a unified front to its believers, how can it present a unified face to the rest of the world? What is there to prevent further error, further schism? And yet the protestant cannot elevate a head, because he has neither the theology nor the authority to do so, by his own faction and by the further authority of the Church, for who can pretend to the Throne of Peter but Peter himself?

Therefore the principal problem with Protestant thought is that it is lacking in stability. Without the guidance of an antipope who may at least codify doctrine by intellectual, if not spiritual authority, and without the capacity to create one, and also without the capacity or the authority to levy spiritual penalties on its adherents, what law can the protestant put forth that is not immediately subject to negation by his own adherents? Indeed, one may say that the vast diversity of Protestantism springs forth from the selfsame rejection of spiritual authority, even to say a rejection of obedience that is most certainly detrimental to any spirituality. This rejection of authority is based on the assumption that, as men are corruptible, it is improper to adhere to the spiritual authority of such men, and therefore one may go only to the Bible for spiritual instruction. The error in this reasoning is, of course, that the Bible is a text subject to much interpretation, and the variegation of such interpretation is without doubt a cause of much distress to those in the protestant factions who, fighting the nature of their vocations, desire cohesion rather than self-willed apoptosis.

One may therefore consider whether the self-perpetuating state of congregational decay and reformation endemic to protestant thought is necessarily detrimental to christianity as a whole, that is, christianity outside the Church. One may note that the 'large' protestant denominations have not diminished over time like radioactive isotopes decaying to lead; indeed, their numbers are steady, even growing. Although new sects are being formed every day, the vast majority of them remain Christian in character, leading one to surmise that there is no deep spiritual malaise associated with this continual state of deterioration. And yet, is this factionization healthy?

It is in fact detrimental to Christianity as a whole to have such diversity of creed floating about to promote error, heresy and rejection of religion in general. Without the cohesion of a centralized body, christianity has no power; the house divided cannot stand; it must inevitably fall into ruin, as demonstrated by the state of western spirituality at this time. With the loss of authority necessary to the efflorescence of Protestantism, Christianity is cheapened; it loses its imperial splendor, its commanding authority, and becomes an embarrassed patriarch surrounded by his embarrassing progeny. The constant squabble outside the Church, while not merely bringing shame on her central religion, pervades to the Church herself; dissent in the Catholic Church is beginning to become as decentralized as in the protestant arenae, a sign of the pervasive error central to protestant thought seeping into the people of the Catholic faith. It is in such measure that Protestant schismaticism is not only detrimental to the dividing faction but to their progenitor, the Church, as well.

One may argue that the Reformation was the fault of the Church and none other. In the causative sense, this is true; corruption within the church (for the church is only an aggregate of humans, and humans are flawed) did give cause to the reformation. However, the reformation did not occur without a human element, and it is in that human element that the dividing error occurred--the presumption that, rather than dealing with problems within the church in that selfsame body, the assembly could simply divide from it; therefore it is incorrect to say that the reformation was the fault of the church. An internal reformation was most assuredly needed, and, in fact, the reformation sparked the very beneficent counter-reformation, mending some of the internal problems that had cropped up within the church. However, would it not have been for the greater glory if the problems within the church had been dealt with from within? Perhaps it would have been less expedient; perhaps it would have been more difficult; and yet, unity would have been maintained. In that very error, the heresy of I Reject This Authority, the ground of Protestantism and the pervading flaw within its design is planted.

What could be more glorious than unification? Would it not be glorious if the Episcopal church could be reunited with its Catholic origins, the Baptist with its Congregationalist and the Congregationalist with its Puritan and the Puritan with its Anglican and therefore return to the Catholic root, or the Lutherans again with their Catholic progenitors, again becoming an universal religion, encompassing all, presenting a united front against heathenism, dealing with theological and traditional discord within its own authoritative body, commanding love and respect instead of fear and readiness to schism? In such a situation, Christianity would be again powerful; Paganism and Eastern Religion would be once again held at bay in ways a divided christianity cannot accomplish. Is this not glorious? Is this not worth working for? Is it not time, then, to gently put the error central to Protestantism to rest?

Paul Tillich, in The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948), proposed a principle which unifies all the various sects of the historical "Protestantism":

The central principle of Protestantism is the doctrine of justification by grace alone, which means that no individual and no human group can claim a divine dignity for its moral achievements, for its sacramental power, for its sanctity, or for its doctrine. If, consciously or unconsciously, they make such a claim, Protestantism requires that they be challenged by the prophetic protest, which gives God alone absoluteness and sanctity and denies every claim of human pride. . . . It implies that there cannot be a sacred system, ecclesiastical or political; that there cannot be a sacred hierarchy with absolute authority; and that there cannot be a truth in human minds which is divine truth in itself.

The Protestant Principle means that only God is absolute; everything else (scripture, church, theology, views of God) is subject to criticism because it is not God. As such, the Protestant Principle predates the Reformation and has its roots in the monotheism of Western Biblical religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all reject "paganism": idolatry and polytheism. There is but one God: one ultimate reality and creator of the universe. "I am the LORD thy God ... thou shalt have no other gods before me." Exodus 20:2-3. As the Prophets continually reminded the people of Israel, God is not a mere idol, demanding ritual and sacrifice: God wants his people to act with righteousness and humility, justice and compassion.

It is true that the Protestant Principle has a certain nihilistic quality inasmuch as it undermines the authority of church, dogma and tradition. For any person who considers himself a "Christian", however, at least a little rebellion, protest and nihilism is indisputably part of the Gospel message. The words and deeds of Jesus Christ allow for no other conclusion. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;" said Jesus, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34. Jesus declared: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". Mark 2:27. Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple, declaring they had made a house of prayer into a den of thieves. Mark 11: 15 - 17; Matthew 21: 12 - 13; Luke 19: 45 - 46; John 2: 13 - 22.

Against this background, the Roman church is the historical innovation: created when Christianity became the state religion of a secular empire. The Roman Catholic Church–with its cult of the saints and purportedly infallible Church magisterium– is a syncretic blend of monotheism with the polytheistic culture and institutions of the nations which populated the Roman Empire.

Prot"es*tant*ism (?), n. [Cf. F. protestantisme.]

The quality or state of being protestant, especially against the Roman Catholic Church; the principles or religion of the Protestants.

 

© Webster 1913.

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