Clarifications on the nature of Protestantism

As an addendum to my previous post, I would like to further define the essential nature of Protestantism, so that it is clear how even though high church Anglicans may claim that their adherence to some elements of tradition and ritual separate them from other Reformed Christians (e.g.; those who practise sola scriptura and abhor the use of imagery in churches), and thus would consider themselves Catholic, their very inner logic does indeed remain thoroughly Protestant. This essential quality has to do with authority, and is the doctrine (and practise) of private judgement. I will again refer to Blessed John Henry Newman to outline my point:

            ‘The only general persuasive in matters of conduct is authority; that is, when truth is in question, a judgement which we consider superior to our own. If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error; you may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have…the doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the objects, without, to say the least, violating the letter of revelation.’

– An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine – 1845 edition (1974), Pelican, p. 177.

            The doctrine of private judgement, which is present in and essential to all Protestant churches, did in Newman’s time, and does now, lead either to an interminable splitting into factions based on doctrinal disagreement (as seen in the tens of thousands of denominations now spread across the globe) or in a broad-church mentality that tolerates a wide degree of difference for the sake of appearing to have some sort of structural unity (i.e.; Anglicanism). Only the Catholic Church is truly one and universal, because it has an infallible guarantee that ensures any development of doctrine is consistent with what has gone before (thus allowing legitimate growth), and determines the limits of that growth to preserve doctrinal consistency and unity.

The best analogy that comes to mind is that of a seed that then grows into a tree (a metaphor that, I would argue, has rather a good precedent! C.f.; Mark 4:30-32). The root of the tree is Christ Himself, and then the deposit of faith delivered by Him to the Apostles, which they then preached and transmitted, developing the message according to the circumstances they found themselves in. The trunk is the further development and clarification of these teachings by the early Church fathers in the first five centuries (a period that Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans can all agree on as authoritative). Whilst the roots and the trunk comprise those written and oral traditions of the early Church, in any good tree, planted in good soil, branches will begin to reach out.

I would propose that in the case of the Orthodox, the branches stretched out to a great extent, producing a great bounty of foliage and flowers on them over the years, but then at some point stopped growing – the tree became petrified. Since their definitive break from communion with Rome, they have not been able to call any ecumenical councils, and thus have not been able to define any further developments in doctrine – they exist within a rich body of tradition, ninety-nine percent in agreement with Catholicism (though with differences of emphasis here and there), but cannot develop that tradition. It is no longer a living body, and confronted with cultural change, can only retreat back into the past. This is not completely a bad thing – it is a beautiful and venerable tree, but it cannot reach out new branches into the world.

Anglicanism on the other hand, is like a wild and confusing hybrid of plants – initially, many branches were hacked off, trimming it down to the trunk of those early years of Christian history, but with young saplings drawn from the ground of Geneva and Wittenberg grafted onto its surface. Over the course of its history, some genuine branches have tried to sprout forth, but became mangled with its Reformed cousins, and were stunted in their growth. In recent years, this tree has become a little too close to the other trees of the world, and has been pollinated by them, leading to great new branches sprouting out – some that look fairly similar to the branches of that first tree before the trimming, but some that look quite dissimilar to anything seen on this species of tree before. If one could imagine a great English Oak, with branches of Ash, Scot’s Pine and Redwood poking out of its side, you get some idea of what I mean; it would be what a tree would look like if it could choose what to grow on itself without consideration of its own nature, i.e.; if a tree subscribed to the doctrine of private judgement.

It will come as no surprise after all this, that I consider the Catholic Church to be the true ‘tree’ – a living organism, putting out new branches slowly over time, adjusting to its environment and conditions, but always consistent with that first seed that was planted many years ago. With respect to consistency, this is why, despite their rejection of papal infallibility, the Eastern Orthodox churches are still considered by the Catholic Church to have valid orders and thus valid sacraments – although they have cut themselves off from that principle which would allow them to grow, they still remain faithful to the great body of Christian doctrine and traditions, and they unequivocally reject private judgement. This is where Anglicans differ, and why they cannot be considered anything else than Protestant in their essential nature, however glorious the vestments may be.

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2 thoughts on “Clarifications on the nature of Protestantism

  1. Pingback: George Herbert and the spirit of Anglicanism | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Pingback: The Real Via Media | Journey Towards Easter

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