The Future of Protestantism: Further Reflections

A note from the editor: We’ve been running a little low here at EO, but don’t fear. We’ll be back up to speed at some point in the relatively near future. Apologies to Nick Dalbey, who sent in the below article long enough ago that I had to adjust the first sentence to make it time appropriate. -J.F. Arnold

It’s been well over a month since the Future of Protestantism discussion, and Protestantism is alive and well. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion and the articles that have followed in the wake of the event not because everyone is agreed and divisions healed, but because the posterity of Protestantism is secure so long as these discussions continue.

Despite their obvious disagreements, and the backdrop of what Leithart calls protestant tribalism, the Future of Protestantism event illuminated the best kind of unity protestants can hope for: dialectic community. A dialectic community is framed by discussion, not debate; here, participants are friends, and a vision of the Truth is their only prize.

Unlike a debate, discussions don’t have winners and losers; no one is awarded a prize for the best argument; no one advances to the next round in a tournament bracket. All of the interlocutors in a discussion are friends in pursuit of a common goal: Truth. By means of argument, everyone rallies to whoever strikes a clearer path on the journey towards that goal.

As the pursuit of Truth, a good discussion will also inspire the interlocutors to virtue. Participation in a discussion requires rigorous discipline of the intellect and passions; it also requires that you desire the good for your friends as much as you desire it for yourself. It is by the help of your friends that you’ll discover whether your argument is the path toward Truth; and it is only with friends that you’ll ward off loneliness and the temptation to quit.

Disagreement, then, is essential to a dialectic community because it keeps people honest about what they think and, when done in friendship, spurs them on to virtue and to Truth.

John Calvin himself, in a similar vein, argues for this kind of accountability when inquiring into any area of theology.

In his Institutes, Calvin argues that personal virtue should not be separated from knowledge. Especially in theology where God is the subject of our search, Calvin argues that “…our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence.” Knowledge implies a particular kind of relationship between the knower and the known. In contrast to the popular phrase “knowledge is power”, Calvin suggests the opposite. Fear and reverence are a humble access point by which we can recognize God when we see Him. Similarly, these feelings of fear and reverence will naturally arise, as we better understand our sinfulness in light of God’s holiness.

Later, in the same passage, Calvin takes this thought one step further: “…the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God. And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself…It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.”

Piety is the recognition of God as the fountainhead of all goodness, and it is the mark of a pious soul that clings to God out of gratitude and trust. As a result, the reward for the pious mind is not the accolades of winning an argument, or proving itself superior, but the knowledge of God Himself.

Fear, reverence, and piety are the building blocks for the Protestant Church’s way forward in the years to come. Discussions, not debates, I think will be our greatest asset in this endeavor for unity in the midst of disagreements. Arguments will come and go, but for posterity’s sake, it’s not enough to be “right,” we have to be good too. Scripture itself, exhorts us to nothing less:

“Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

In the future, I hope to see Catholic and Orthodox Christians represented in such discussions. Diversity will only serve the dialectic community in its pursuits, and perhaps bring about a glimpse of the kind of unity we will experience in heaven.


Links of FoP Reviews