Repost: Fixing Protestantism

Here’s another of my essays (slightly edited) originally published at Intellectual Conservative but now missing due to hackers. In it, I give a brief survey of how most of Protestantism has strayed from the faith established by Christ and the Apostles and reaffirmed by the Reformers, and prescribe a cure of confessionalism: Churches pledging allegiance to a specific and detailed articulation of Protestant Christianity as contained in the historic Protestant creeds such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Augsburg confession. In a postscript, I observe that the problem with Protestantism is not uniquely Protestant; it is part of the contemporary malaise of the West.

Fixing Protestantism

The Protestant world is divided broadly into three groups: Liberal, Evangelical and Fundamentalist. But there is a fourth group, rarely identified, which holds the key to understanding the mess Protestantism has made and how it could regain its integrity. Let’s begin by defining these groups.

Although theological liberalism is a temptation even older than Christianity, liberal Protestantism as an organized movement originated in the 19th Century, largely as a response to the increasing successes of science. Theological liberals believed that materialistic natural science gave the correct description of reality and that miracles were therefore impossible. But instead of having integrity and rejecting Christianity, liberal Protestants redefined the faith by denying that the miracles described in the Bible really happened and by redefining the meanings of biblical texts that refer to the supernatural. Liberal Protestants, in short, defined a new, watered down Christianity that agreed with Enlightenment-style rationalism.

To be sure, contemporary liberal Protestantism is no longer unambiguously rationalistic. Theological liberalism trumpets the alleged split between “head” (rationalistic thinking that the supernatural is not real) and “heart” (an emotional attachment to Jesus), and different liberal Christians characterize the divide differently. Some liberals will even concede that the supernatural may exist in some sense. But liberalism is characterized by an abhorrence of “fundamentalism,” i.e., traditional Christianity, and an arrogation to itself of the right to redefine the faith.

Evangelicalism is more difficult to characterize. Originally “Evangelicals” were Lutherans, and the Lutheran Church in Germany is still called the “Evangelical Church.” Over time, in English-speaking nations, the word came to denote Protestants who emphasize the evangel, the gospel message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Proclaiming the need for individuals to repent and have faith in Christ as the sole means of salvation is what traditionally defined Evangelicalism. Until recently, at least in the United States, “Evangelical” basically meant “non-liberal Protestant.”

But in recent years much of Evangelicalism has gone off the rails. Although some Evangelicals still practice traditional Protestantism, and almost all Evangelicals still use the language of their theologically conservative ancestors, the movement is characterized overall by a refusal to adhere to, or even to identify, most of the body of traditional Protestant teaching. Crucial doctrines such as the Trinity of God, the Resurrection, the Atonement, justification by faith alone and the Second Coming are still generally taught. But the details of the systematic theology that makes Christianity a coherent system and makes sense of all the Bible says (and that builds the individual’s faith) are not taught, the excuse generally being that “doctrine is divisive.”

At many Evangelical churches (probably a majority) potential new members are not formally required to study, let alone affirm publically, Christian doctrine. The main requirement for membership at these churches is, aside from baptism, that the potential new member have had a conversion experience. In the terminology of contemporary Evangelicalism, this would be that he has “made Jesus his personal Lord and Savior,” or “received Christ,” or “invited Jesus into his heart.” But this is not the biblical definition of becoming a Christian through repentance from sins and faith in Christ. And most of these churches do not attempt to inculcate a full biblical worldview in their parishioners. Most Evangelical churches have an extremely brief statement of faith that members are not formally required to know or express full agreement with, and few Evangelical churches attempt to catechize (systematically instruct in the faith) either children or new members.

A personal example may help clarify. In the late 1990’s I began attending and eventually joined a large Presbyterian church in the Los Angeles area. Although the church was not known to be liberal, and was considerably more conservative than the liberal United Methodist Church I had recently left, I cannot recall the pastors or teachers ever teaching any of the distinctive Presbyterian doctrines. Although they occasionally mentioned the Westminster Confession of Faith, the “gold standard” of Presbyterianism since it was promulgated in 1648, the leaders of my church never referred to the Confession as an authoritative standard we ought to believe. They apparently assumed that we all agreed on basic Christian doctrine and that their main teaching job was to exhort and encourage us to do a better job of Christian living.

At no point during the six-week new members’ class were we instructed in Christian doctrine. The closest we came was when the senior pastor led us in the “Sinner’s Prayer,” a common Evangelical ritual which involves asking people to pray along with the leader as he recites a far-too-brief summary of the basic gospel message of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves and our need to have faith in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. Although the Sinner’s Prayer does contain important Christian truths, it is practically worthless if not followed up with a regular parish life of proper instruction in Christianity. At this church, and the other three Evangelical churches with which I was seriously involved, the leaders acted as if Christian clichés were enough to save lost sinners.

As illustrated above, much of Evangelicalism refuses to enforce any definite theological standards. As an entirely predictable result, Evangelicalism is constantly being swept by non-Christian and semi-Christian fads. The most famous and influential Evangelical leaders today are probably Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, creators of the “purpose driven” (also called “seeker-sensitive”) church system. But these pastors developed their system from reading Peter Drucker, who was not a Christian in any meaningful sense but was instead interested in business practices. It was from Drucker that Warren and Hybels learned to create a religious product based on the felt (as opposed to understood) needs and desires of religious consumers. But it should be clear that a consumer-driven Christianity will reject many of the essential elements of the biblical message. Religious “consumers” probably won’t want to hear that they are sinners who cannot save themselves from the wrath of God and who consequently need Jesus as their Savior. When we observe that Warren claims that four hundred thousand protestant pastors worldwide have studied (and presumably at least partially implemented his) system, we see how deeply Evangelicalism has been compromised.

What about fundamentalism? Although the word “fundamentalist” now means—to most people—“too conservative” or, perhaps, “one who believes his religion is actually true,” the original fundamentalists were American Protestants who organized to fight theological liberalism. Although many scholars date the beginning of the fundamentalist movement to the Niagara Bible Conference of 1876, the name “fundamentalism” entered common use with a pamphlet series titled “The Fundamentals” published between 1910 and 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, the precursor of today’s Biola University. Fundamentals was intended to be distributed for free to all Protestant clergy in America and it defended the main points of traditional Protestant theology and attacked various contrary movements including liberalism, higher criticism, and, it must be noted, Roman Catholicism.

Originally, then, a “fundamentalist” was a member of a specific movement to defend Protestant orthodoxy. Over the years, as the original movement became institutionalized, the term has become ill-defined. Although there are still individuals and churches calling themselves “fundamentalist,” the term (when not intended as a crude smear) generally denotes a Christianity that is morally strict, loudly adheres to some of the basic teachings of Protestantism but is not constrained by denominational standards or traditional creeds, and is openly hostile to what it sees as modern perversions of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3)

But the basic problem with fundamentalism is not that it is too conservative. The problem, which is the same with Liberalism and Evangelicalism, is that many of these Christians have denied the faith and cut themselves off from the theological wisdom of the ages. To be more accurate, all theological liberals have denied the faith, and so have many evangelicals and fundamentalists. These movements have denied the faith in different ways but the net result is the same: wide-scale abandonment of authentic Christianity.

Theological liberalism explicitly rejects Christianity’s central message that salvation from God’s wrath against sin comes only through repentance and faith in the atoning work of Christ on the Cross.  In this, they have directly denied the faith. But many fundamentalists and Evangelicals commit a similar error by deliberately separating themselves from mainline, denominational Protestantism.

Many of the original fundamentalists, seeing the mainline Protestant denominations being taken over by the heresy of liberalism, separated themselves from the denominations. This was the origin of the contemporary non-denominational-church movement. Today we see a great number of Protestant churches that are non-denominational or “semi-denominational” (formally tied to a denomination but downplaying their denominational connection and upholding few of their denomination’s official standards.)  These churches have largely cut themselves off from the theological wisdom of their ancestors and from any meaningful accountability to authentic Christian tradition. Individual members or leaders of these churches may spontaneously decide to follow Protestant tradition and to keep themselves accountable, but such instances are rare and not characteristic of Evangelicalism or fundamentalism overall. Cut off from an organic connection to Protestant tradition and from accountability, these churches are (with individual exceptions noted) losing the faith.

Therefore many (probably a solid majority) of today’s non- or semi-denominational churches do not teach detailed Protestant doctrine, that is, the necessity of repentance and faith in Christ and a detailed description of the system of Christianity.  And such churches often do not even teach the contents of Bible itself.  Being a knowledgeable Christian starts with being familiar with what the Bible says, but it must continue with theological and doctrinal instruction so that the believer can understand the meaning of Christianity and be more confident in its truth and relevance for his life. But this does not occur at the typical Evangelical or fundamentalist church.

Liberal, Evangelical or fundamentalist, the result is predictable: With authentic Christianity rarely taught, it is rarely believed. And since the parishioners must be taught something that will hold their interest, other doctrines, which often oppose Christianity, are taught. Even if Christianity is not denied outright it is often denied indirectly, even in churches that have orthodox official statements of faith.

This is because authentic Christianity, unlike every other religion, teaches what God, in Christ, has done for us, namely save us from our sins. But most people, including many who call themselves Christians, do not want to hear this. They want to know what they can do to save themselves. “Salvation by faith alone is too strange;” says the religious seeker, “Tell me what I can do to better myself.” And therefore non-Christian religion—a category which includes much that is taught at supposedly Christian churches—teaches what man can do to save or better himself: political action, psychological self-help, practical advice for living, esoteric spiritual practices, moralism (i.e., trying harder to be good), and so on. Jesus is transformed from a Savior Who bore and atoned for our sins on the Cross to a “life coach” who shows us a better way to live.

Make no mistake: Bettering ourselves is beneficial. But it’s not Christianity. Christianity is letting God better us through Christ. Only if we are constantly reminded that Christ has saved us already can our efforts at self-improvement genuinely benefit us. If our pastors and teachers don’t constantly remind us of this essential truth we naturally slip back into thinking that we have to make ourselves acceptable to God, a task that must necessarily fail because even the saved man is naturally sinful. And to think (if only subconsciously) that our salvation is up to us is to deny the faith.

Liberals, then, along with many evangelicals and fundamentalists, change Christianity. The motive of the liberals is easier to define: hostility to the supernatural and to traditional forms of thought and life. As for Evangelicals, many of them do keep the faith but many others, especially those of the “seeker-sensitive” and “emergent” varieties, change it. These Evangelicals generally don’t express outright disbelief. Instead, their motivation is to make Christianity into a “product” more appealing and relevant to “consumers,” i.e., interested non-Christians. But by changing Christianity they become de facto theological liberals.

Indeed, the essence of theological liberalism is the desire to make Christianity agree with the spirit of the age. Classical theological liberalism changed Christianity to agree with Enlightenment-style rationalism. “Seeker-sensitive” Evangelicals make Christianity agree with contemporary marketing theory. And “Emergent” Evangelicals make Christianity agree with postmodern relativism. In this, they are all liberals.

What then is the antidote for Protestant infidelity? As mentioned above, there is a fourth type of Protestantism. This type is not widely known, but it is usually called “confessional” or “creedal[1].” A confessional Protestant church requires clergy and laity alike to know and affirm agreement with at least one of the comprehensive Protestant confessions or catechisms such as the Westminster Confession of Faith for Presbyterians, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt for the Reformed, the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans, the London Baptist Confession for Reformed Baptists or the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion for Anglicans/Episcopalians. Each of these creeds has authority only by virtue of being a faithful summary of what the Bible teaches, the Bible being the supreme (and only inerrant) authority on every subject about which it speaks[2].

[It should be noted that confessional Protestantism also affirms the ecumenical creeds such as the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed, creeds which Protestantism shares with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.]

Here is a sample of the power of the creeds. The most important question that a man can ask is probably “What is the meaning of life?”  The answer is provided by question and answer one of the Westminster Catechism, which read as follows:

Question 1:  What is the chief and highest end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

Man’s second most important question is probably “How can I not be afraid?” The answer is provided by question and answer one of the Heidelberg Catechism, which read as follows:

Question 1:  What is your only comfort in life and death?

Answer:  That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, wherefore by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Keep in mind that in a full presentation of a creed or catechism each answer is accompanied by references to Scripture that validate the answer. A Christian creed is not the opinion of a man or a committee; it is an accurate summary of what God says in Holy Scripture.

Confessional Protestant churches teach the historic faith in all its details. Not content with Christian slogans, these churches present Christianity as a comprehensive system that makes sense of all of life, and they defend the faith intelligently, aggressively and comprehensively. It is the hearing of God’s Word, not the latest religious gimmickry, that fosters the faith in Christ that saves people from their sins[3].

Confessional churches also preserve the historic Christian liturgies (forms of worship) and church discipline. The worship service at a confessional Protestant church preserves the dignity and reverence that has been lost at so many Evangelical churches. And a confessional Protestant church will exert discipline against members who sin conspicuously, with the ultimate goal of restoring them to fellowship with God and man.

By knowing what Scripture means and by committing to a particular expression of Christianity, members of a confessional church are less likely to be misled by theological fads or outright heresy. This is the cure for what ails Protestantism.

[End of original essay]

As a practical matter, is a large-scale return to confessionalism likely? Of course not. But here at the Orthosphere, our primary goal is to describe how things ought to be, for this is an important way of keeping our spirits up.

We must also acknowledge the elephant in the room: a Catholic or Orthodox would prescribe an entirely different cure for Protestant infidelity. This is not the place for a major theological disputation, so I’ll just say that we Protestants have good reasons for being Protestant, and that Protestants should return to the traditions of the Reformation, not to Rome or Constantinople. Also, the title of this essay is “Fixing Protestantism,” not “Proving Protestantism” or “Fixing Christendom.”

But it should also be noted that Roman Catholicism suffers from essentially the same malady described here: widespread lack of fidelity to the faith of their fathers. (And Orthodoxy is probably in similar straits, at least in the West, but I don’t have much knowledge of the Orthodox scene.) The problems described in the essay are not unique to Protestantism, but stem from the West’s deadly infection with liberalism, with its anti-authoritarianism and nihilism.

[1] Confessional Protestantism has historically been considered part of Evangelicalism but with the evangelical world in disarray, Confessionalism deserves its own category.

[2] This is the true meaning of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

[3] Hebrews 11:6  “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.”  Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”

20 thoughts on “Repost: Fixing Protestantism

  1. I was brought up in a confessional Presbyterian church from birth. Our services consisted of a responsive psalm, 3-5 old school hymns (How Great Thou Art, A Mighty Fortress is Our God etc.), scripture readings that also touched on the more difficult parts of the bible, and a sermon that was thoroughly reformed in doctrine.

    The interesting thing is that after being brought up in a confessing church, contemporary evangelical services seem extremely shallow. One short scripture reading and 26 awful CCM songs do not a strong faith make. There is a whole realm of theological richness that confessing protestants have which helps keep us in the faith. Knowing that Christianity is an intellectual religion with strong arguments behind it helps you when you have to deal with constant leftist influence throughout secular society.

  2. The old divines really knew their stuff. I agree — and I can recall that the conserviative evangelicals in Presbyterianism used to belong to the Westminster Fellowship and defended this stuff.

    My only comment is that the other confessions, such as the Heidelburg, also are useful and worthy. As are the ancient ones.

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  4. Fixing Protestantism, if it could be attempted by encouraging a large scale return to confessionalism, is an undertaking as vast and complicated as rebuilding a moribund civilization. Who would the ‘encouragers’ be? A few voices crying in the wilderness.

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  6. “American religiosity strikes foreigners as superficial and as much a kind of communal psychotherapy as a genuine faith. American religion is Dale Carnegie transposed to a mildly, and unconvincingly, transcendental plane; a lot of American religious services are like meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous without the alcoholics.” -Theodore Dalrymple

    • I was raised in a liberal United Methodist church, rejected theological liberalism, attended a variety of evangelical churches, and then found a congregation of the United Reformed Churches in North America.

      Unfortunately, a couple of years ago, I was forced by circumstances far too personal for me to reveal to leave this congregation, and I have no choice for the time being but to attend just the sort of evangelical church that I warn others about. I’m sorry to be so mysterious, but as I said, the situation is far too personal for me to reveal publicly. The one thing I will say is that it was not as a result of church discipline.

      If I had a choice, I’d be attending a Reformed church.

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  9. Another confessional church is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, founded in the wake of the liberal coup within what is now called the Presbyterian Church (USA). Its straightforward, Biblical worship fills the “religion-shaped hole” in my heart, and stands in strong contrast to the social gospel claptrap I’ve encountered elsewhere.

  10. What about the Presbyterian Church in America?

    I was pretty happily sojouring there until the Holy Spirit dragged me over to Rome. Deo gratias.

    • The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is another confessional church. Here’s a blurb from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (PCA) website:

      The OPC and PCA have fraternal relations. The OPC separated from the northern Presbyterian church in 1936 because of theological liberalism. The PCA separated from the southern Presbyterian church in 1973 because of theological liberalism.

      The OPC and PCA share the same doctrinal standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms). The OPC tends to be more conservative than the PCA, holding to a more “strict subscriptionist” position relative to the Confession and Catechisms. It also tends to be more conservative in its worship.

      I’m so thankful to have an OPC church near me, but if there weren’t one within reasonable driving distance, I’d attend a PCA church.

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