Letter to Danijela on Protestants
Ne 18 června 2023
Dear Danijela and Miljenko,
you have asked me during the John’s birthday dinner about the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism and I have apparently completely misunderstood your question and bored you with my lecture on the history of the Czech protestantism. I am sorry about that. Let me remedy this misunderstanding by writing this blog-post/letter.
First of all, and most important is what we are not different in. We all believe in the same God, Creator of the Heaven and Earth, and all that good stuff agreed upon by the first ecumenical councils while they were still ecumenical (i.e., including or at least attempting to include all Christians, Greek or Latin). Existence of God, triune nature of God, Lord Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully Man, and all that good stuff. While most protestant churches are unfortunately rather lax in reciting the Credo during their Sunday services, and if they do it is usually Apostles’ Creed, we completely believe in the older Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (the one recited during the Catholic mass) and other ones from that era (Athanasian Creed and Chalcedonian Definition).
There are plenty of issues were the popular opinion believes there is a huge gap between Catholics and Protestants, but it is not: for example, although whole Reformation started (among other things) with the discussion about Grace and Salvation, after couple of centuries even the joint commission of Catholics and Lutherans (and other Protestant groups later signed upon it as well) was able to agree on “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (1999), where they agreed that difference in the most fundamental issues about salvation (and that we all need one) are more about stresses and importance we put on various things, rather than in the thing itself.
There is unfortunately often a difference between what is the official position of each church and what one can hear in the local parish on Sunday during the sermon (and I heard from my Catholic friends, how often they have hard time to listen during the sermon to what they believe is pure heresy).
There is also even more unfortunate tendency starting with the Reformation/Counter-Reformation struggles of the sixteenth century to emphasize differences which are not that crucial. It is the same as with any other conflict: I can see it in divorcing couples how something which was completely silly before is suddenly absolutely fundamental (all the way to proverbial way how to push toothpaste from a tube or toilet paper roll orientation) and “How can I live with him/her when he/she does THIS?” In the same manner many things which were all the way until the Reformation matter of open (and yes sometimes rather passionate) discussion like what to think about the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books of the Bible, relation between the Scripture and tradition, attitude towards the Virgin Mary, or the Sacrament of Confession, solidified and changed into crucial tests whether you are one of US or one of THEM, a friend or a foe. Both sides in these (and many other) issues shifted towards the extremes and when anybody suggests that things are not that simple, he is immediately branded as a heretic, one of Them, or at least not serious enough about their faith.
Do I say that there is no difference whatsoever and that all conflicts are just matters of misunderstanding? Actually, no, I do believe that there are differences. Yes, differences a way less important than those big questions of salvation, nature of God etc., but with no less (or perhaps even more) impact on our everyday life.
I would like to talk now about two things:
- what’s called by Protestants ”The Universal Priesthood of All Believers”, and
- (related) nature of the Church
I would use a picture of what I believe under the first point. I am from Czechia and large part of our architecture and even landscape was re-created after almost total destruction of the seventeenth century in the Baroque style. I haven’t seen many Baroque churches here in Dalmatia, but just next to the place where our churches meets for their Sunday services stands St. Nicholas Church, often considered one of the best Baroque-style buildings north of Alps.
Architect of the church made it to impress and to present to its visitors whole infinite breadth and depth of God and Faith. Baroque style and for example Baroque polyphonic music (think Johan Sebastian Bach) are an incredibly complicated and widely-spread to huge number of streams. That is how I often see Catholic faith. Incredibly wide tree of branches carrying many aspects of God’s revelation and Faith. There is whole area of the Catholic Art and many people spent their whole life discovering just that, there are Catholic charitable workers and social activists, who spend their whole life investigating this dimension of the faith, there are many others. And it is like when you are present in St. Nicholas church or listening to Bach: the whole thing is beyond impressive and awe inspiring, but sometimes one has to work really hard to hear the cantus firmus (the main musical theme of the polyphonic music), sometimes I am afraid that some people lost view of the forest for the individual trees, and it is easy to get lost in all those subparts of the Faith.
Protestant faith is for me like Bauhaus or modern song. It is an effort to make things as simple as possible and yet complete. Just one line is enough, if it is the right line, and it is that effort to find that one line which makes modern art and Protestant faith interesting. Jokingly, it is that discussion between Dutch bear drinker (they have hundreds if not thousands of different types of beer) and the Czech one: “We don’t need hundreds of types of beer, when we have the right one.” Yes, there are Protestant artists (actually, not that many of them at least in the older times), of course there are Protestant social workers and political activists (you mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. yourself and there are many others, for example I like William Wilberforce, who was the leading abolitionist working towards ending slavery in the British Empire and consequently worldwide). But for all of them the Protestant message was always clear: yes, these are awesome things and the world around us should recognize Christians by their love (John 13:35), then exactly these acts of love are probably the best tools of evangelization and turning world’s attention to Christ. However, it should never be more important than the basic relationship between individual Christian and His God, about the Salvation and God’s work on the Earth. Cantus firmus should never be silenced or lost in the cacophony of other sounds.
And exactly this stress on the Christian’s relationship with God lead Martin Luther (the original one) to discovery that “there is only one Mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ“ (1. Timothy 2:5) “Mediator” is roughly the same as “priest”, somebody who stands between God and men, who prays and pleads with God on their behalf, and in the other direction, who presents and reflects God’s love to the world. There is no division of labour between some kind of professional Christians (i.e., priests) and just observing lay people. We all are called to be priests in our ways of life (1. Peter 2:9), somebody inside of the church, more of us in our daily way of life. As Luther said it, a good shoemaker making good shoes which make people comfortable and thankful glorifies God more than a lazy priest who does a sloppy job in celebrating Eucharist. The whole division between sacred and profane, between Sunday Christianity and workday paganism should be abolished. Firefighter (of course!) or a mother taking care of her children are no less holy and no less servants of God than a priest on Sunday. Yes, Sunday services, God’s worship, and all that is important, but not fundamentally different from so-called laymen everyday work. We all are called to be priests, teachers, prophets and judges: most of us just for our family and friends (teaching our kids, resolving conflicts in the family or among our friends, for example), and only some of us get special training and education for it, and they do it full time and they are pastors of our congregations, but there is no fundamental difference between the one of who studied to be a pastor and the one who trained to be a shoemaker.
And even concerning the Sunday services, our roles may be widely different from the Catholic experience. Although in most Protestant denominations the role of a preacher during the service is somehow similar to the role of a priest in the Catholic Mass, it doesn’t have to be so. Notice that in 1. Corinthians implies multiple “actors” during the service: one preaches the word, one has a prophecy from the Holy Spirit, etc. In John’s congregation not only anybody from believers can preach if invited by the elders of the church (e.g., I preached multiple times), but for example The Lord Supper (the Protestant name for the Eucharist) is served by lay members of the congregation.
This attitude of equality in front of the God is probably also a foundation of the persuasion that “all men were created equal” of the American Declaration of Independence. We all, Protestants, Catholics, or even non-believers, have this notion of equality (and related ideas of democracy and republicanism) so deeply ingrained in all our current thinking, that we cannot imagine that the world used to believe otherwise and that the division into farmers, nobility, and priesthood is natural, unchangeable, and inevitable.
Also, many scholars (theologians, historians, sociologists, economists) believe that this sanctification of everyday work (and relative de-emphasizing importance of priests and monks) is true beginning of the Modern Age and the end of the Middle Ages. Celebrating of professionalism, profane work lead according to these scholars to explosion of science, industry and all that which lead later to Enlightenment, modern industry, science and medicine.
The second topic I would like to think about is nature of the Church. While the previous topic of the universal priesthood of all believers is so incredibly prevalent in all our society, that we don’t see it much anymore, because we have hard time to understand how anybody could think different, even just Protestant understanding of the Church is much more complicated and less homogeneous.
Understanding of the idea of the Church lays in my opinion on the wide scale of spectrum. On the hand is something I would call “Church as an organization” and Catholic concept of the Church (Orthodox are probably even more extreme, but I don’t know enough about them to make some judgements) is pretty close to it, but it is by far not the only understanding of the Church.
On the other hand of the spectrum is for example Luther’s idea of the Church as an event. Church is in his understanding primarily not an organization with its internal structure, its head, but the Church happens. Whenever believers congregate to hear the God’s Word preached there is the Church. And all those buildings are there only so that it doesn’t rain on them, and all those organizations around are just to enable those events. And of course, again, in the spirit of sanctification of profane, such meetings are not only the Sunday services, but also at least to some extent “whenever two or three meet in [Jesus] name”.
Unfortunately, this Luther’s radical idea was lately mostly abandoned by Calvin and most other Protestant thinkers, but the general notion that the organization is just to make Church possible is rather prevalent. When the organization is not in the middle of our thinking about the church, many things could be different. Suddenly it is not that important how that enabling organization is structured, and all discussions about episcopalian, presbyterian, congregational, and other forms of the organization, are interesting, but centred only on the pragmatic discussion how well these forms of organization serve the Church. Truth to be told, there is really only a little written about the structure of the Church in the New Testament, and episcopal organization which later (late second and early third century) developed for pragmatic reasons in the struggle against various heretic movements and which mostly applied the organizational principles of the Roman Empire on the Church (for example the term “diocese” is not originally religious, but these were kind of regional units of the Roman government and the Church used the regional state structure as a template for its own organization). Role of bishops, deacons, presbyters, and other positions in the Church was changing during the first centuries of the life of the Church, and the whole organizational structured finally settled only in the fourth century.
This all would be just an innocent theoretical discussion, and it mostly is right now in the Protestant world (of course that in the past there were wars lead about all these details, because people used anything as an excuse for waging a war against their neighbour), if not for the Catholics (and Orthodox, but their attitude towards ecumenism is generally completely negative, so there is a little hope of deeper relationship there). Something which was (and should stay to be) just a minor organizational issue was almost deified and now we can read such weird things as that the Church is the one only as much it follows the Roman bishop (Declaration “Dominus Iesus”, 2000, chapter 17). And the main result of this almost-deification of the Church and the Roman bishop is used to inflict a deep division in the Body of Christ, and one can hear endless crowd of Catholic speakers talking about ecumenism in the one breath with interreligious dialogue, without regards (or perhaps intentionally) how it is deeply offensive to all non-Catholics, because it puts us on the same level with non-Christians.
And of course this sectarian division is then used to exclude all non-Catholics from participation