Acton Institute Powerblog

Some Problems with Protestantism

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Following up on our discussion of the Pew survey on the American religious landscape, I have a few thoughts as to what plagues American Protestantism, particularly of the evangelical variety, and it has to do precisely with the “catholicity” of Protestantism.

To the extent that people are leaving Protestantism, or are searching for another denomination within the broadly Protestant camp, I think there are at least two connected precipitating causes. (A caveat: there are many, many individual and anecdotal exceptions to the generalizations I will make below, and I think they serve to highlight rather than to undermine this basic picture.)

The first is the lack of historical connection to tradition (with a lower case “t”) among American Protestants. Whether by intention or ignorance, the relation of Protestantism to the broader church’s history is sorely under-recognized.

Part of this phenomena is the anti-creedalism, anti-confessionalism of many evangelicals, such that when something like the Apostle’s Creed is even part of a worship service, the church is confessed to be not one, holy, “catholic,” and apostolic but rather “Christian” (or at best “catholic” with a footnote).

Part of it is simple intellectual laziness (i.e. not having the methodological and academic rigor to take up questions of the origins of the Protestant Reformation in its context). The claims of the reformers to represent the authentic “catholic” Christianity of the church’s tradition, focused especially on their grounding in the patristics, must be dealt with responsibly, even if in the final judgment some find these claims to be untenable. More often than not, the claims to the catholicity of the Reformation are ignored rather than engaged.

The second cause is a lack of connection with worldwide Christianity. The “catholicity” of the Church has not only to do with our connection to the past tradition, but also to contemporary believers who live all over the world. If the Pew survey is bad news for American Christianity (and evangelical Protestantism in particular), then the good news is that the church is not limited to North America and that Christianity is growing both by number and by vigor in the global south and east.

Part of the emergent impulse is I think an inchoate and instinctual response to these realities. Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if at the height of American evangelicalism’s political influence its spiritual core was failing? We need to be concerned about “whitewashed tomb” syndrome, so focused on the external influence of the church on culture, politics, and society that we abandon the church’s primary spiritual calling.

In addition to an increased historical awareness of the roots of the Reformation, one fruitful avenue to explore in making these connections is in the pursuit of a theology of obedience, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom, a theology more along the lines of Tertullian, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer than of the political and cultural Christendom that has so recently dominated the church in Western civilization.

A sampling of some books worthy of consideration that are indirect popular responses to these problems I identify:

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • I agree that Protestantism is failing, but not exactly for the reasons you give. Yes, there is a lack of historical connection to tradition, but it is a lack of historical connection to Protestant tradition (not so much tradition, but rather, theology/doctrine). The problem is not a lack of universal connection to all varieties of “Christianity” but an intentional ignorance of doctrine and the history of theology, specifically the Reformation.

    The problem with being anti-creedal and anti-confessional is not that the term catholic is properly defined to avoid leading people to falsely conclude it is refering to Roman Catholicism, but that the confessions that Protestants greatly labored over in the past (WCF, Heidelberg, etc) are seen as dead documents of history, rather than the greatest summaries of the Christian faith.

    I agree that intellectual laziness abounds amongst most evangelicals, but that is not to say that there is not a remnant who continues to uphold Reformed theology and prove its “catholicity” and its roots beyond just the patristics, but to the founding documents of Christianity, the Bible.

    “Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if at the height of American evangelicalism’s political influence its spiritual core was failing?”
    It wouldn’t be ironic, it would be explanatory. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and the evangelical lust for power proves they do not understand Christ’s command to seek ye first the kingdom of God.

    “We need to be concerned about “whitewashed tomb” syndrome, so focused on the external influence of the church on culture, politics, and society that we abandon the church’s primary spiritual calling.”


    Thankfully, there is a resurgence amongst young evangelicals towards historic Reformed Protestantism.
    “Young, Restless, Reformed”

    Here are some more resources to consider as well:

    “Is the Reformation Over?” A review of Mark Noll’s book

    “The Gift of Salvation Show”

    “Attempts to Reverse the Reformation”

    “Berean Beacon”

    “Roman Catholicism @”

    “James White”

  • karl

    Lies, lies, and more lies.

    You display an amazing ignorance the meaning of catholicity, and the true facts concerning the origin and nature of the “reformation”.

    You also do not seem to know the meaning of the term “patristics”.

    However, in true protestant spirit, and in imitation of lucifer, the original usurper, you try to appropriate the title of catholicity to yourselves.

    It does not take a rocket scientist to know that the “reformation” was nothing more than a rebellion.

    History clearly attests to the fact that, not a single protestant sect can trace its origins to a time earlier than the 16th century.

  • marc

    “History clearly attests to the fact that, not a single protestant sect can trace its origins to a time earlier than the 16th century.”

    Hmm. That’s odd. I’m a protestant, and I trace the origins of my “sect” all the way back to Abraham.

  • Bad Okra

    Hmmm, that is very odd marc. I see NO protestant sect at all traced to Abraham in the Bible.  The protestant DID come out of the 16th century Roman catholic church simply to break out of Roman church rule to have more freedom to read the bible for ourselves and be free of many other roman church rulings. The problem IS those newly developed protestant churches never finished breaking off enough but they wouldve if they accepted fully their root of Judism from Abraham like the first chruch of “The Way” in the book of Acts.  Protestantism has practiced too much separist theology from the Remnant that Jesus the Messiah completed the faith of.  Follow the word ” Remnant” thru out the Bible and see how prophecy unfolds and know that the true church age has nothing to do with protesting roman catholics in protestantism and everything about the ancient Remnant completed in faith thru His Grace after the Cross and resurection,..that Christ is going to collect as HIS Bride.  You wont be able to follow the word “protestism” at all back to Abraham.

    • “Nevertheless, they cease not to assail our doctrine, and to accuse and defame it in what terms they may, in order to render it either hated or suspected. They call it new, and of recent birth; they carp at it as doubtful and uncertain; they bid us tell by what miracles it has been confirmed; they ask if it be fair to receive it against the consent of so many holy Fathers and the most ancient custom; they urge us to confess either that it is schismatical in giving battle to the Church, or that the Church must have been without life during the many centuries in which nothing of the kind was heard. Lastly, they say there is little need of argument, for its quality may be known by its fruits, namely, the large number of sects, the many seditious disturbances, and the great licentiousness which it has produced. No doubt, it is a very easy matter for them, in presence of an ignorant and credulous multitude, to insult over an undefended cause; but were an opportunity of mutual discussion afforded, that acrimony which they now pour out upon us in frothy torrents, with as much license as impunity, would assuredly boil dry.

      1. First, in calling it new, they are exceedingly injurious to God, whose sacred word deserved not to be charged with novelty. To them, indeed, I very little doubt it is new, as Christ is new, and the Gospel new; but those who are acquainted with the old saying of Paul, that Christ Jesus “died for our sins, and rose again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25), will not detect any novelty in us. That it long lay buried and unknown is the guilty consequence of man’s impiety; but now when, by the kindness of God, it is restored to us, it ought to resume its antiquity just as the returning citizen resumes his rights.” …