The week of October 31, the traditional time to remember the Reformation, is also the annual moment when I like to reflect on why I am a Protestant.
As the years go by, being a Protestant becomes easier and easier for me. Pope Francis is, after all, the gift that keeps on giving. What with his apparent desire to turn the Roman Catholic Church into a standard form of liberal Protestantism (but with a bit more color), his program is less than compelling to anyone who, to borrow a phrase from Newman, is deep in history. While we may never know the truth about his recent alleged denial of Christ’s divinity, the fact that the story was plausible witnesses to the lack of theological understanding that has characterized his pontificate from the start. Not since the glory days of the Renaissance has the Catholic Church had a pope who makes orthodox Protestantism so attractive.
Of course, Protestantism has its own problems. The myriad magisteria of multitudes of parachurch ministries offer tin-pot spheres of influence for a plethora of popelets. And doctrinal orthodoxy is at a premium: A narrow focus on scriptural authority has led to a neglect of the catholic creedal dimensions of the faith. Classical theism and Trinitarianism are fighting a rearguard action even within some confessional institutions and churches. A dominant biblicism and a guild of theologians unschooled in historical theology has left us vulnerable to a soft Socinianism, which flourishes in the soil of sloppy thinking characterizing much of contemporary Christianity. And the economic realities of competition for a shrinking pool of consumers means that Protestant institutions—seminaries and even churches—are constantly tempted to market their marginal denominational differences as if they are of the essence of the faith.
Yet for all the chaos, many Protestant churches continue quietly and modestly thriving. Beyond the stage of the Big Eva boys, anonymous pastors and congregations go about the business of the church. In the congregation where I worship, the minister faithfully preaches the word and administers the sacraments throughout the year. The elders and deacons care for the souls and the material needs of the people. And the congregants open their houses for hospitality, care for each other, share in each other’s lives.
They reflect the basic truths of the Protestant Reformation: Called into being by the Word, the church proclaims that Word and reflects God’s character to the world through humble acts of hospitality, friendship, and kindness. And courage, too—courage that is not demonstrated by signing some online petition about homosexuality or pontificating in an online echo-chamber but by faithful witness to the truth in a hostile workplace. That is where Protestant Christianity is often at its finest.
Yet Reformation Day also brings the temptation of nostalgia. As Roman Catholic integralists can indulge in fantasies of a recreation of some mythical medieval synthesis, so Protestants can be tempted to think that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries provide a Nirvana to which we ought return. There are two problems with this. First, today’s Protestant problems have been there from the start: an egotistical leadership, Socinians in the camp, a difficult and contested relationship to history. Such troubles are obvious.
But the second problem with Christian nostalgia is that it often looks to the wrong eras for guidance in the present. The real analogs to today are not found in the High Middle Ages or the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Reformation Protestantism occurred within the cultural context of Christendom. For all of the important differences between Luther and Leo X, Calvin and Trent, Catholics and Protestants shared a common assumption that some form of Christianity would provide the dominant culture.
But that is not our world today. In modern society, few have time for Christianity of any flavor. The basic Christian context of our Reformation forefathers is long gone and, if not completely forgotten, utterly despised. We must look to an earlier time for help: Specifically, to the second and third centuries.
As in the second century, Christianity is now regarded not simply as absurd, but also as immoral. We may not be accused of cannibalism and incest, but our sexual ethic and understanding of selfhood are seen as hateful and ignorant. And perhaps for the first time since the third- and fourth-century persecutions of Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian, the terms of civic loyalty and of faithful church membership are becoming mutually exclusive.
As ancient Roman Christians had to sacrifice to the emperor or risk being punished as subversive of civil society, so modern Western Christians are beginning to face that choice. Affirm gay marriage or have your business boycotted. Let your children choose their own gender or have them taken away from you. Maybe we are not quite there yet, but we are too close for comfort and complacency. Anyone who thinks the Trump presidency is anything other than a brief period of slowdown on those issues is fooling himself.
For me, Reformation Day is a good time to reflect on my reasons for being Protestant. It is a time, as a catholic, to give thanks for those who, from the Apostles onward, have faithfully transmitted the faith from generation to generation. But it is also a time to realize that the world of the Reformers has gone, that we live now in times where the challenges, though not unprecedented, are not only those of the sixteenth century.
Newman declared that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. But that depends upon what bit of history it is in which you are deep. More to the point today: To be deep in history is to realize that we Christians need more than the late Middle Ages or the Reformation to guide and encourage us in a world which is closing in on us with startling speed.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Calderwood School of Arts and Humanities at Grove City College, Pa., and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.