Biola’s Fred Sanders offers an excellent, thoughful response - let me call it a “rebuke” - to my piece on the End of Protestantism . Sanders understands my targets: “the kind of small-minded Protestant whose heroes are Luther and Calvin, and who has no other heroes in the 1500 years prior to them . . . . the kind of knee-jerk Protestant who is locked into permanent reaction against whatever Roman Catholics do or say, and who enjoys setting up Roman strawmen (Vatican I, Catholic Encyclopedia vintage, if possible) to knock down . . . . the kind of unimaginative Protestant who mocks patristic Bible interpretation . . . . the kind of amnesiac Protestant who leaps from ‘Bible Times’ to the Reformation, thinking he has skipped over nothing but bad guys in doing so.”
Exactly so. He understand, and he agrees: He too finds all this “deplorable.”
But Sanders didn’t like the article “at all” - not because he is the kind of Protestant I attack, but because he thinks that the article is incoherent and because of the effects that he fears my rhetoric will have on the very sort of Protestant that I want to shock into recognition and reformation.
I am grateful for the rebuke, and I will take it to heart. Still, I have a few responses, starting with some clarifications.
Sanders suggests that my essay calls “for everybody to bail out of the Protestant ship,” but that’s only true if “Protestant” means what I meant in my article - the kind of knee-jerk protester that Sanders also finds deplorable. It seems we both want that ship to sink. Later, he claims that this “new, private” use of the word Protestant is “inconsistent with the rhetorical pitch of the argument,” but it’s not: Throughout the piece, I’m targeting out one feature of Protestantism. The same goes for his complaint that I trade on a bogus etymology for the word; bogus or not, the etymology captures how some Protestants enact their Protestantism. (Whether it would have been better for me to use a word other than “Protestant” is a fair question; it seemed to me that the word gave the piece a rhetorical edge it would have otherwise lacked, and I wanted edge.)
Further clarifications: I should have been more specific about the English Evangelicals I referred to were not Anglican Evangelicals but non-Anglican Evangelicals, who are often very deliberately not-Anglican. And I should have been clearer that when I spoke of “unplumbed depths of Scripture, never dreamt of by Luther and Calvin,” I had in might not only patristic interpretation but also the fact that Scripture has depths that no one has yet plumbed; which is to say, great as they are, Luther and Calvin - not to mention Origen and Augustine - have not said all there is to say about Scripture. I didn’t, as Sanders claimed, “dichotomize” the Reformers exegesis to patristic; the dichotomy is between patristic interpretation and the desiccated exegesis of the Reformers’ supposed heirs.
Which leads to a broader point: Sanders reads something into the essay that’s not there when he claims that it involves “a massive act of catastrophic silencing” that creates a “new dark ages” between the Reformation and the present. No. The essay is not about historical theology; I didn’t mention confessional Protestants among the heroes of the Reformational Catholic because heirs of the Reformation already take them as heroes. In any event, the main point was not historical at all. The article (schematically) describes two contemporary forms of Protestantism. Or, more precisely, it offers a sketch of one form or feature of contemporary Protestantism, and contrasts to that a Catholic Protestantism that presently exists only in pockets and is mainly an item of hope.
Those are lesser issues. The bigger questions, I think, are two: First, do “Protestants” as I described them exist? and, second, What should be done about it?
As for the first question, Sanders admits that “Protestantism” as I describe it is a reality. His vignettes from the classroom have a double edge. On the one hand, they display the attractive, confident form of Protestantism - I might come close to calling it “Reformational Catholicism” - that is being taught at Biola these days (and not only at Biola). Sanders is an old hand at pointing out how Evangelicals can tap into the riches of the whole Christian tradition (see his superb The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything ). On the other hand, the very same vignettes demonstrate that these kids come from churches characterized by what I called “Protestantism.” They come from places where Protestants didn’t read Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Dante; which means such places exist.
What to do about it? Sanders thinks that my article has a “squint, a stoop, a cramp, a kink in the hose” because “you don’t beat the man of ressentiment by resenting him harder.” I get the point. But then I wonder, What is one to do about trends in the church that we regard as “deplorable”? Should we deplore them? Can we deplore without running the risk of a squint, a stoop, and a cramp?
Sanders thinks that what’s needed is an effort to find a “trailhead to the great heritage cannot be picked up in their own church.” I agree, and if my article obscured the trailheads, it was a mistake, because my aim was to show that Protestants can embrace the whole as heirs of the Reformation , that we can remain Protestants while avoiding the “deplorable” errors of Protestantism.