The Protestant Theory of Religion

Let’s define the Protestant Theory of Religion (PTOR) in a broadly Augustinian way: the idea that man by nature worships (perhaps we could call this the Worship Faculty), and if he doesn’t worship God, he worships something else, with worship being (broadly, of course) defined as a fixation upon that which we love ultimately. Examples abound in the Protestant world: one can worship money, fame, power, sex, whatever. Thus, it’s not our activity as such that is wrong but the object of it, or what our desires (on the broadly Augustinian conception, man is primarily an animal of ‘desire’) and faculties are aligned to. There is always something man is worshiping, always that to which man is fixated upon. We can then lay out the PTOR as such:

‘Man is by nature a creature of desire, who worships.’

(note: this fits in with Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern’ as well)

On this theory, it is a universal condition of humanity that they are worshipping creatures, and thus religious creatures – if their religion is not that of God, it is of something else, fame, fortune, etc – but every man has a religion. This, as Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it, is part of the ‘standard Protestant apologetic’. (Art in Action, p. 85). Is it, however, an accurate description of the human condition? Can we paint every man as someone who worships something?

A first difficulty has to do with confirmation of this theory: upon close inspection, it’s a theory which can be confirmed by anything. Search deep enough, and you’ll find something you worship, even if you’re a modern Western secularist. We’re all worshippers. We all fixate upon some ultimate concern.

A second difficulty is anthropological. Wolterstorff points out that, contrary to the PTOR, many people may not have one ultimate concern but many concerns:

‘Is it not rather the case that many live their lives with a multiplicity of conerns, shifting about from time to time, with no one concern ever being ultimate? Such people care a bit for their families, a bit for their material possessions, a bit for country, a bit for personal esteem, and so forth…if some situation would arise forcing them to choose, then one or more of those conflicting concerns would, for the time being at any rate, be subordinated. But for many, no such agonizing, clarifying conflict ever arises. Their life remains a fractured multiplicty concerns.’ (Art in Action, p. 86)

In a nutshell, some people just aren’t ultimately concerned. Some people just may never have an existential crisis. Sure, you could still say that such people are ultimately concerned and just don’t know it, but this seems like a case of trying to convince someone who isn’t sick that not only are they sick, they need your medicine. That’s the peril of existential apologetics – many people simply don’t have dark nights of the soul.

A third difficulty is biblical: is it in fact the biblical teaching that all men are religious in this way? Is this a universal statement made by the biblical writers? Again, Wolterstorff disagrees:

‘The Bible speaks about the true worshippers of the true God, and describes their unity-in-variety. But it never attempts to locate some ineradicable religious tendency which, though it can be turned in different directions, can never be resisted. It never tries to pinpoint some tendency such that what ultimately differentiates the true worshipper of the true God from all other men is that the former turns that universally shared tendency in a different direction than all the others – namely, in the right direction. It never contends that all those who are not true worshippers of the true God nevertheless have a Religion. It simply regards them as falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways.’ (Art in Action, p. 87)

Wolterstorff then gives a brief exegesis of Romans 1, which for brevity’s sake I will not reproduce here. He concludes, however, that Paul is not teaching that all men have a religious tendency which cannot be resisted but only directed.

This raises some a few questions: If Wolterstorff is right, and I think he (of course) broadly is, what are the implications? Perhaps one implication is that instead thinking of man as primarily a creature of worship (note: man still certainly is a worshiping creature, only not primarily so) perhaps man should be thought of as creature of action. This, of course, is not a novel insight – the Christian idea of vocation has been around for a good long time.

Another question that’s best perhaps phrased in the form of an answer: God is not found at the limit of human life but at the center. This is a huge theme in Bonhoeffer, especially his Ethics and Letters and Papers From Prison. Instead of attempting to identify an existential crisis or God-shaped hole, which may or may not be there or may or may not be viewed as significant, the Christian should simply act in the world. It is in the real world, in the concrete actions of the Christian in the real world, in the center of our existence, not in the deep dark existential moments, where God is. When God is found in the gaps, even deep existential gaps, He disappears when they close.

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15 thoughts on “The Protestant Theory of Religion

  1. Andrew October 23, 2014 / 2:45 pm

    This put me in mind of a paragraph from O’Donovan’s Self, World and Time, contrasting the Augustinian view of faith with that of the Reformation;

    “It was the great work of the Reformation to recover and reassert the priority of faith as the root of action. Formally, this breakthrough was made possible by setting aside the scholastic classification of faith, following the Aristotelian distinction, as an intellectual virtue. For Saint Thomas faith was a “habit of mind” given form in act by love, which is to say, the intellective state preceding the motion of an appetite: “Without first apprehending its object by sense or intellect, the appetite cannot move towards it in hope and love.” Thomas’s conception went back to Augustine’s Enchiridion, where we are told that new believers were taught the creed under the heading of Faith, the Lord’s Prayer under the headings of Hope and Love. Here the priority of faith is clear enough, but faith is removed from the sphere of action; it comes first because it is an act of knowledge, and no more. From which its follows for Augustine that love and hope can only be directed to goods, but faith has “bad objects as well as good”. Faith may join forces with love and hope; but it may make common cause with regret and resentfulness, as in the case of the devils who according to Saint James “believe and tremble” (2:19). Faith, in this exposition, is bare assent, not yet associated with the glad consent of the affections. To which the Reformation replied, correctly, that the proper object of faith is God, in whom truth and life are indivisible. His truth per se quickens and activates. That faith is “formed” through love is not in doubt – that formula goes back to Saint Paul himself (Gal. 5:6) – but that is not because faith is inactive, but because its active power is underdetermined and unworldly until it is given an object to focus upon in love.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen October 23, 2014 / 3:03 pm

      Wow, that’s a great quote. Definitely good to bring in the dynamism of the Reformation with regard to faith as well as God.

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  2. Kevin Davis October 23, 2014 / 9:45 pm

    When God is found in the gaps, even deep existential gaps, He disappears when they close.

    That’s an important insight. By the grace of God and perhaps Merle Haggard, I realized this fairly early in my studies. But like most undergraduates, especially those of us in religion and philosophy, we assumed that the whole world should be in a constant state of existential authenticity! We were just jackasses.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen October 24, 2014 / 8:04 am

      Lol. Well, there’s certainly a place for existential authenticity – the issue is when it becomes the only place where God can be found. Plenty of people do have these kinds of crisis’, and that may very well be a time when God makes Himself known to them.

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      • Kevin Davis October 24, 2014 / 10:33 am

        Plenty of people do have these kinds of crisis’, and that may very well be a time when God makes Himself known to them.

        Yes, and I could count myself in that group — hence, my attraction to Simone Weil, the philosopher-mystic par excellence on existential authenticity. As you indicate, the heresy arises, as with all heresies, when this one part of truth is privileged over another…or put in opposition to another, as when Weil poses the Hebrew God against Jesus (because “Force” in her vocabulary is the precise opposite of God’s eternal self-abnegation). Albeit in milder and less consistent forms, you can find this all over the place in contemporary theology.

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  3. Chris Falter October 27, 2014 / 1:35 pm

    Hmm…I can’t think of any person in the Bible who is not worshiping something or someone. In fact, it seems that the chief conflict in the Bible is between the true God and all the false ones that would lead humanity (that worshiping creature) astray. While the Bible does not *explicitly* state that man is a worshiping creature, it provides much evidence to that effect.

    Also, I’m not sure why this would be a specifically Protestant apologetic. What am I missing?

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  4. whitefrozen October 29, 2014 / 8:52 pm

    ‘Also, I’m not sure why this would be a specifically Protestant apologetic. What am I missing?’

    Well, I think that Protestantism really focuses on the worship-ultimate concern angle to an extent that the other big traditions don’t. Well, Catholocism does to a degree, but given the more virtue-ethics influences, that’s understandable.

    ‘While the Bible does not *explicitly* state that man is a worshiping creature, it provides much evidence to that effect.’

    Scripture certainly shows that man does worship, and that his worship can be corrupted, bent, what have you – but I think Wolterstorff is dead on when he says:

    ‘It never contends that all those who are not true worshippers of the true God nevertheless have a Religion. It simply regards them as falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways.’

    So it’s not that man doesn’t worship a lot – certainly he does, and certainly some people are worshiping creatures. It’s that Scripture

    ‘…never attempts to locate some ineradicable religious tendency which, though it can be turned in different directions, can never be resisted.’

    That’s my main contention here.

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    • Chris Falter October 31, 2014 / 3:07 pm

      From the systematic theology perspective, you could make a case for the Calvinist tradition having a bigger emphasis on worship. After all, the very first point in the Westminster catechism is “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Whereas the Baltimore Catechism begins with “God made us.”

      On the other hand, which is more worship-focused: the catechism that begins by describing man, or the one that begins by describing God?

      Moreover, viewed from the perspective of rites and practice (rather than dogma), the Catholic and Orthodox churches have at least as much focus on worship as Protestant churches. Have you ever been in front of the altar with Catholics who are adoring the Eucharist? If you haven’t, you should try it some time. You’ll learn a lot that theologians can’t teach.

      In addition, I must politely but firmly insist that the Biblical evidence does not support Wolterstorff. The central conflict in the Bible is between the true God and the false ones (the idols that Israel and unrepentant man worship). The difference between Israel and the other nations is whom they worship:

      “For all the gods of the nations are idols,
      but the Lord made the heavens.”
      Psalm 97:7

      Moreover, when Israel is falling into various sins–injustice, greed, immorality–they are not merely “falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways”; they are worshiping false gods!

      “They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
      and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
      they aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds…
      They worshiped their idols,
      which became a snare to them.”
      Psalm 106:28, 29a, 36

      Notice how their wicked deeds (“falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways”) and their idolatry are intimately related?

      We see this central conflict in Jesus’ ministry as well: the kingdom of God is overcoming the kingdom of demonic forces:

      “[Jesus] said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.”
      Matthew 12:25-29

      In the first century Jewish context, if you are making war against the demonic forces, you are making war against idols. Paul, for example, equates demons with idols:

      “[T]he sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God.”
      I Corinthians 10:20

      To put the emphatic conclusion to the point, let’s see how Paul equates “falling away in a vast multiplicity of different ways” with idolatry:

      “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
      Ephesians 5:5

      “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
      Colossians 3:5

      Sorry this comment has been so long, but I think it’s worth sampling from the various writers and times of Scripture to see the theme of man as worshiper, either of the true God or false ones. I hope that reading this comment will be as edifying for you as it was for me to write it!

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      • whitefrozen October 31, 2014 / 9:04 pm

        ‘On the other hand, which is more worship-focused: the catechism that begins by describing man, or the one that begins by describing God?’

        Interesting question. I’ll have to think on that one.

        ‘In addition, I must politely but firmly insist that the Biblical evidence does not support Wolterstorff. The central conflict in the Bible is between the true God and the false ones (the idols that Israel and unrepentant man worship). The difference between Israel and the other nations is whom they worship’

        I certainly won’t disagree with the majority of your comment – especially the Biblical data. Man is something that worships – the ‘religious’ tendency is a strong one within mankind. The claim, however, isn’t that man doesn’t fall away by virtue of ‘disoriented’ worship (for lack of a better term) – it’s that there isn’t an irresistible, ineradicable tendency to worship something, an idol, an ultimate concern, what have you. None of the biblical points you raise I dispute – I do dispute, however, that they point to an irresistible, ineradicable tendency to worship something. Wolterstorff’s point is an anthropological, not a theological, point. Some people simply aren’t religious in any sense. Allow me to quote him again:

        ‘Clearly, it is part of biblical teaching that all men stand before God. That – if we wish to speak thus – constitutes man’s nature. His religious nature is his vocation. But there is no reason to think that man’s response to his calling – whether the response of obedience or the response of rebellion – always takes the form of satisfying some in-created tendency which is irresistible of fulfillment in a Religion. Neither experience nor Scripture teaches that there is in us any such ‘religious tendency’. Neither teaches that all men inescapably have a religion. The tendency to have a religion – in the straightforward sense of ‘religion’ – is pervasive and strong in mankind. Yet some men are irreligious. In their irreligion – rather than their false religion – lies their rebellion.’ (p. 88)

        So, basically, yes, there is a pervasive, strong tendency to worship in mankind. To put it another way: all idolatry is falling away – but not all falling away is idolatry. I don’t think we can be taking, say, Paul, as making general observations on the structure of human nature. For example. in the Ephesians and Colossians passages, the audience is (one would assume) Christians – surely members of the church would be committing idolatry (in a sense) if they practiced greed, lust, immorality, etc. But I don’t think from those kinds of passages we can move to a general anthropology of irresistible desire that can only be turned in one direction or another. I will readily concede, however, that the point can’t be made as quickly as Wolterstorff attempts to make it without considering the various passages you cite (in all fairness, it’s a book on art, not anthropology).

        Thanks for the thought provoking comment!

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        • Chris Falter November 7, 2014 / 1:35 am

          I suspect much of the difference we’ve discussed has to do with the way the various authors define their terms. Wolterstorff seems to circumscribe the concept of worship to explicitly religious behavior and exclude “secular” concerns. The Biblical authors, on the other hand, consider *any* activity a form of worship, when done in God’s name. Conversely, what Wolterstorff considers to be a quotidian falling away in diverse manners is nothing short of idolatry in the Hebrew prophetic view.

          Your thoughts?

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  5. PB October 31, 2014 / 8:29 am

    Can you shed some light on why multiplicity of concerns is a problem for it?
    Monotheism isn’t the norm. Most people worshiped many gods before medieval times: the god of the ocean on which his ship sails, another for his city’s protection, another of the hearth. Secularism or materialism could be seen as a return to polytheism, except they are material objects and persons rather than invisible deities. Or could one ultimate concern, say, happiness, be seen as the object of worship, which the other things (or deities) serve as aids?

    Liked by 1 person

    • whitefrozen November 1, 2014 / 11:19 am

      I think your comment illustrates part of what Wolterstorff is saying – many people don’t have an Ultimate Concern but many smaller concerns.

      Like

  6. Derek Rishmawy January 6, 2016 / 1:47 pm

    Brother, good work here. A few points by way of response/riffing.

    1. I don’t think work and action can be cleanly set off for a couple of reasons.
    a. Adam is placed in the garden to work it, but also, recent studies have shown that his work is conceived of as priestly. Adam is worker. Adam is also priest. In essence, man’s work is worship.
    b. As teleological, all work is directed towards ultimate ends, and so tends towards some sort of ultimate goal.

    2. I’d really love to see Wolterstorff’s exegesis because I have trouble seeing Romans 1 point to anything other than idolatry or true worship of God. That also seems to be the running theme in the narrative of Scripture. God or something else. I would especially love to see you read or interact with Daniel Strange’s book on the theology of Religions (Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock).

    3. On the worship of gods other than God. You have a point that people often don’t know or sense some one, driving idol beneath all idols and interests, but I don’t think that undermines the point. H. Richard Niebuhr points out that there are differing religious structures ranging from monotheism, to polytheism, to henotheism (one main god plus pantheon). Most ancient idolaters were torn between various sources that they looked to for security in various areas of their lives such as crops, love, weather, etc. So, I think we can still make the case for God or something else if we don’t press too hard for God and Some One Thing, but note the varieties of idolatrous worship-structures people can engage in.

    Thoughts?

    Again, this is really helpful.

    Liked by 2 people

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