Protestant Principle, Catholic Substance

A. J. Conyers

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 67 (November 1996): 15-17.

The intramural dialogue over what Mark Noll has called "the scandal of the evangelical mind" worries that intellectually serious people have passed evangelicals by while we were allured by the sensations of revivalism, seduced by a materialistic market-driven culture, overtaken by the "disaster of fundamentalism" in the face of challenges from modern science and technology, and robbed of our universities through negligence and the inertia of secularized education. At last we have lost the thread of an intellectual tradition that leads all the way back to the Reformation itself-a Reformation led, as Jaroslav Pelikan once reminded us, by a "cadre of intellectuals."

The discussion stalls, at this point, for want of a painfully obvious question-an outsider's question really, but one that we evangelicals ought to consider if only for the purpose of dismissing it: Is there something in Protestant thought itself that, doing the work of a computer virus, finally renders impotent even the best of the Protestant intellectual tradition?

For instance, the Protestant conviction that Scripture should be a more or less unmediated guide to the believer naturally raises objections to an academic theological guild, which smacks of intellectual elitism. The offense of academia sometimes lies in the fact that it bothers itself with small things. Scholars make distinctions where others do not see any distinctions. They show parallels that are not readily apparent, and become apparent to the larger populace only after a steady effort to make the thing known. Such enterprises seem, at first blush, antithetical to the democratizing spirit of Protestant Christianity.

Specialists, however, serve others, not themselves. That is true in every field. Theology along with biblical studies is for everyone, but it is done well by those who have worked at it enough to make it their specialty. That doesn't mean that it is for the specialist, any more than Ford automobiles are for engineers, or that the Chrysler building is for architects. But it is a work done by a few in the Church for the sake of all-a perfectly sound New Testament concept, and in the end soundly democratic as well.

In The Christian Intellectual, Jaroslav Pelikan underscored this dilemma by saying that the most formidable obstacle to the renewal of Christian intellectual life is "a curious alliance between the secular suspicion of an elite that has been characteristic of much of American life and a distorted interpretation of the Reformation doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers." Just as America symbolizes a repudiation of old European aristocracy, "so Protestantism is represented as a repudiation of the hierarchical structures and traditions of medieval Catholicism." The result, Pelikan wrote, is a leveling that "regards the emphasis on scholarly merit and intellectual competence as dangerous and that therefore prefers the schooling of the many to the educating of the few."

It is of course not true that small matters in every area of life have become intolerable to the populist tastes of evangelicals. It is specifically the "airy" quality of intellectual concepts that offend evangelicals, as well as most moderns. In the late middle ages, Western people began to lose confidence in universals. This is explained as the philosophical change from realism to nominalism, from a belief in universals as real to a belief in the fundamental reality of unrelated particulars. But it was more than a philosophical shift, reflecting the reliance upon facts, things that occur to the senses. Intelligible reality was thought more and more an expedient, an arbitrary classification of things that conveniently arranged and made sense of the facts. But what was real was the existence of sensible facts, and the intelligible things were mere categories and names of things.

With the emergence in the modern era of the natural sciences, learning as a whole became imitative of the natural sciences: and this is no wonder, since the natural sciences brought spectacular results. It was easy to believe that the method of these sciences was not merely successful in its own realm, but that it held the key to knowledge itself, to human learning of any kind. Science in this modern sense moves from concrete facts to theoretical principles. The latter are subject to change, and the former exact from modern science the most ardent loyalty.

The Protestant movement bought into this, albeit in a very limited and special sense. It appealed to something that was sensible: the Bible. And it tended to allow a certain forgetfulness: namely, that the word of God refers to God-and that God cannot be taken as merely another fact in the universe of facts. We use the word "fact" today almost as a synonym for what is true. Actually, its root meaning (from Latin factum) is that of a thing done or a deed. From the perspective of an earlier way of thinking, a fact is "accidental" in the scholastic sense, and therefore something that participates in the truth, but is subordinate to essential truths. The older way thought it important that facts have no permanence; but essential truths-though unseen-never cease to be. The modern style of thinking actually reversed the sense of an ordered reality by allowing "facts" the priority and such things as principles, values, and virtues became hardly real at all.

At this point, the sword placed in the Reformers' hands became the weapon used to decapitate late medieval Scholasticism. Perhaps one of the inadvertent losses of the Protestant Reformation resulted from its zeal to separate itself from the "Sophists," as Reformers tended to call the Scholastics. Struggling to give revelation its proper place, they also lost (not at first, and never altogether, but at length) fifteen hundred years of Catholic intellectual tradition, a tradition that bothered itself with the iotas, and whether or not Mary should be referred to as the God-bearer (the Theotokos), and what precisely is the Pelagian error and what is not, and whether the two natures of Christ conflict with the unity of his person, and so on. Protestants also lost, in the bargain, a memory that these questions had really arisen from pastoral concerns, and were not merely the speculative preoccupations of scholars.

This was never Luther's intention. Yet he felt the need to slay the monster of "human reason" that had for some become an idol. His words, therefore, as those of the other Reformers, great and small, were those one articulates in battle. "But faith slaughters reason," he said, "and kills the beast that the whole world and all the creatures cannot kill." Luther used reason and learning: a fact not lost on his contemporaries. But once Scholasticism-gone-mad had been reined in, those words would have a different ring. In an exposition of Galatians 3:6, Luther said that when faith killed reason in Abraham, it "sacrificed God's bitterest and most harmful enemy. . . . Thus devout people, by their faith, kill a beast that is greater than the world; and so they offer a highly pleasing sacrifice and worship to God."

Even the worst fundamentalist would be happy to give Luther the scholar an airing against the arrogance of modern scholarship. Yet modern Protestant churches suffer but little from Aristotelian logic nowadays, and university faculties do not suffer at the hands of the likes of John Scotus Erigena, or even a Peter Abelard. They perhaps stand more in danger from a class of intellectual "wreckers" who might even find some comfort in Luther's tilting against the dragon of Reason. Some see Protestantism as a triumph of Augustinian Christianity; and indeed it is rightly seen that way especially as regards the doctrine of salvation. Yet we find that Luther never troubled with the Trinity quite in the same way Augustine did, nor did Calvin trouble himself with the meaning of history as did the author of the Civitas Dei, and in reality treated history, especially the history of the Church, as a propagandist and not as a scholar.

Thus we look at the Protestant Reformation in one of two possible ways. One, I believe, does no real honor to the Reformers or to the movement of Protestant churches ever since. The other takes seriously the principle of Ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda (the Church reformed, but always to be reformed).

First, we can see the Protestant movement, along with its evangelical continuation, as a rediscovery of a truth that was so valuable to the understanding of the Gospel and the nature of salvation and the Church that it must be defended at all costs against every competing idea. Lest we fall back into the Pelagianism and near-idolatry of the Roman church of the Middle Ages (these words would be too mild for some folk), then we must stand firmly the ground marked sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, and so on.

Or, second, we can see the Reformation as a correction made in the nick of time, at great cost to those who remained with the Western Church and those who left. It was a necessary correction in the course of the Church of Christ; when it had lost its North Star, the Reformation violently seized the helm and helped set it back on course. The intellectual tradition of the Sophists (alike criticized by the loyal Erasmus and the exiled Luther), along with other elements of church tradition, had drifted so far that it no longer convincingly centered on that which was revealed. The Church no longer heard so distinctly and convincingly the Word of God at the heart of her tradition.

Now considerable time has passed. And the time comes to correct the correction. (Otherwise what is the meaning of reformata sed semper reformanda?) The zeal with which the Reformers elevated Scripture caused them for a time to mute the voices of that weighty preaching with which the church of antiquity had come to understand the meaning of Scripture. Not that Luther or Calvin neglected these ancient treasures, but others did, and those following in their train followed not the gentle new tack of the Reformers, but rather set eyes on the horizon and followed it. The councils, the creeds, the grand theologians, the apologists, and the philosophers-all could now be abandoned.

This was never the intention of the Reformers whom Pelikan called a "cadre of intellectuals." But the turn had been made, the rudder seized with such zeal and urgency that the course correction was taken by many in future generations to be the "course." Rather than following the gentle curve to deeper waters, some set course straight as an arrow to the horizon.

Perhaps now is the time, now that Protestants are noticing that something is seriously missing, to reach back and affirm a truly "catholic" tradition: one that did not deny philosophy but used it to the glory of God and for the sake of the Church. Post-Kantian cynicism about truth is an escape only for a church that has abandoned revelation as well as reason. Once the impossibility of reason has been granted, the black hole that is formed by that concession soon pulls revelation in after it.

In some ways already a reattachment of Protestant thinking to an earlier and broader tradition is going on, and in many places around the world. Pressed by the moral demands of our age, a number of institutes, public advocacy groups, and ad hoc interdenominational committees have taken steps to reach across the divide by going back to the sources. Those interests can also be seen in the programs of a number of newly established seminaries and divinity schools, as well as beachheads at older established institutions. There has been, of late, open derision directed against those "tradition-impaired" seminaries (as Thomas Oden has called them) that are still chasing the caprices of theological novelty or getting caught up with the whirling dervishes of ever more rarefied political interest groups.

Now is the time for evangelicals to declare themselves in a very intentional way for the recovery of intellectual aims that are unapologetically catholic-not as a way of losing their distinctiveness, but as a way of recovering the task that made the separation necessary in the first place: the safeguarding of a truly catholic vision of the world and its redemption.

A. J. Conyers is Professor of Theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.