Protestantism: an End to Means
Protestantism began as a reactionary movement to certain abuses of practice that were rampant in the Catholic Church during the early 16th century. In order to combat these abuses, as well as what Protestants believed were Theological corruptions in the Catholic Church, Protestants emphasized a number of doctrines related to authority, grace and worship. Many of the Theological doctrines they emphasized were true in a sense; however, they were incomplete since they tended to exclude the notion that God uses means in order to accomplish His ends. That is not to say all of the first and second generation reformers were completely opposed to the view that God uses means, they were not, but that was the trajectory they established for their spiritual progeny.
Today, Protestants tend to exclude the use of means in their Theology, even more so than the early reformers, though there are some exceptions. In order to appreciate Protestant doctrine, but also point out the deficiencies in their emphasis, let’s examine some of the Protestant doctrines that tend to exclude means, and then give a defense for the Catholic position of the use of means.
1. Authority: One particular issue Protestants have with Catholicism concerns the authority of Sacred Scripture. Protestants often insist that the Bible is the ultimate authority for a Christian and it is sufficient for every doctrine. For a Protestant, if it can’t be substantiated scripturally then it is automatically rejected. Aside from the fact that Protestants must authoritatively demonstrate their canon is complete; the view that every doctrine must have its origin in Sacred Scripture is true (insofar as the Catholic Church affirms the material sufficiency of Scripture). Though their emphasis on Scripture alone is in a sense true, it is incomplete since the correct interpretation of Scripture can only be determined by the means of the magisterium (the teaching authority of the church). After all, what good is an authoritative Bible without an authoritative interpretation of the Bible? Without the means of an authoritative church leadership to interpret Scripture, Christians will split into numerous divisions, as can be seen in Protestantism. Why must the exclusion of an authoritative interpreter lead to division? If one group claims on Biblical grounds that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is essential to the Christian faith, while another group also claims on Biblical grounds that it is not, there will inevitably be a division since the former group thinks the latter group has abandoned an essential part of God’s word. If both groups claim to derive their doctrine from the Bible alone and both are able to make very convincing Biblical arguments for their positions, one cannot objectively know which group has understood God’s word correctly. However, if the means of an authoritative interpreter is used, one can know which group is right and which group has deviated from God’s word. Since God has given Christians the means of the magisterium to uphold the truth (1 Tim. 3:15) and to bind and loose (Matt. 18:18), the Protestant doctrine of Scripture alone, though in a sense true, is inadequate because it excludes God’s use of an authoritative magisterium as the means to understanding the Scriptures.
Another related issue Protestants have with Catholicism concerns the authority of church hierarchy. Some Protestant groups have Bishops, Presbyters and Deacons, some do not have Bishops but have Presbyters and Deacons, while other Protestant groups have only one Presbyter/Pastor and may or may not have deacons. Though there are different views of church hierarchy in Protestantism, all Protestants reject the view that there is one visible head on earth that authoritatively guides the church. Protestants have this view because they believe Christ is the head of the church and if Christ is the head of the church then a visible head on earth is unnecessary. Though it is true that Christ is the head of the church, their view is inadequate because it lacks the means of a visible head of the church on earth to guide Christ’s church. Without a visible head on earth as a means to guide the church one cannot determine which group of church leaders are authoritative in their interpretation of Scripture. If one group of church leaders has one interpretation of Scripture and another group of church leaders has a different interpretation of Scripture that is in conflict with the first group, then it is impossible to objectively determine which group has the correct understanding of God’s word. The Catholic answer to this dilemma is the view that Christ has given His church a visible means by which He rules His church in order that Christians would know which group of church leaders is authoritative. This visible means God has given to his church is the papacy. Those church leaders who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome are authoritative and those church leaders who are not in communion with the Bishop of Rome are not authoritative. If the church leaders who are in communion with the Bishop of Rome cannot agree on a particular interpretation of God’s word, the visible head has been given a charism to authoritatively determine which group has the proper understanding of Scripture. Without this means by which Christ visibly rules His church, Christians will continue to divide into more autonomous groups, as can be seen in Protestantism.
2. Grace: One of the slogans that developed from the reformation is Sola Gratia, the view that salvation is by God’s grace alone. This view is true, but it is incomplete because God ordinarily uses the sacraments as visible means to convey his saving grace to us (it should be noted that there are some Protestants that affirm the view that God uses means to convey His grace). In Acts 2:38 and John 3:5 we learn that God ordinarily uses the means of baptism to convey the grace of regeneration. In Acts 8:14-17 we observe that God ordinarily uses the laying on of hands to convey the grace of confirmation. In John 6:53 we learn that God ordinarily uses the Eucharist to give Christians the grace of spiritual nourishment. In John 20:23 we observe that God ordinarily uses His ministers to convey the grace of reconciliation. The view that God’s grace alone saves is true but the denial of God ordinarily using means to convey His grace is simply inadequate.
3. Worship: Protestants teach that God is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth, which ordinarily, to a Protestant, means God is to be worshiped without any visible means. Indeed it is true that God is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth but this does not mean that God does not want us to use visible means to worship Him. In the New Testament candles are used in worship (Rev. 1:12, 2:5), as well as incense (Rev. 5:8, 8:3-4), liturgical vestments (Rev. 1:13, 4:4, 6:11, 7:9, 15:6, 19:13-14), the sign of the cross (Rev. 7:3, 14:1, 22:4), chalices (Rev. 15:7, 16:1-4,8,10,12,17; 21:9) and many other visible means. The Protestant notion that God is to be worshiped in spirit and in truth is true, but the Protestant understanding of this truth is incomplete since it often lacks visible means which are clearly part of New Testament worship.
There are unquestionably many truths in Protestantism but as we have seen, these truths are often incomplete. May Protestants come back to the Catholic Church where they will find the fullness of the faith and the fullness of the Christ’s church. May God’s Spirit bring this to pass.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.