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:
- Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters
- Dennis Ockholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants
- Craigh Hovey, To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church
- Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory
- Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism