Revisiting the Protestant Theory of Religion

Some time ago I wrote on what I called the Protestant Theory of Religion. I won’t reiterate that post here, but I got some pretty good feedback. In fact, in the comments, Derek Rishmawy made some interesting-ish observations and posed a couple of challenges. I want to interact with one of them here and perhaps develop a more well-rounded view of the PTOR – with the intent being to open up space more than defend a hard and fast conclusion on my part.

My original summary of the PTOR was this: ‘Man is by nature a creature of desire, who worships.’ I later defended Nicholas Wolterstorff’s viewpoint:

‘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)

These two theses need to be qualified somewhat, because the first can be accepted while also accepting the second, and in my original post, I played them off each other a bit. In other words, the PTOR, that man is a worshiping creature, can be affirmed while also affirming that man isn’t characterized by a religious tendency that can only be directed and not resisted. Put in Tillich-ian terms (kind of), man can be concerned without being ultimately concerned. What I aim to do in this post is to affirm that both can be affirmed, instead of playing them off each other. On to, then, the interaction.

Derek notes:

I don’t think work and action can be cleanly set off…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.

I want to argue that if this is in fact the case (which I think it is), then a kind-of dilemma arises, which I’ll sketch out by appealing to J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth:

The fundamental human task is conceived in rather mundane terms as the responsible exercise on God’s behalf over our earthly environment.

…worship, when rightly understood, is not specific to humans. Rather, all creatures in heaven and on earth are called to worship God. (p. 39-40)

Here the beginnings of the dilemma can be seen. If man’s work is worship, which it surely is, then this is not a vocation unique to man. Thus, worship as what fundamentally characterizes man appears to be a bit shaky, since something cannot fundamentally characterize something if it is not something unique to him. It must be something else that does the characterizing. Middleton is worth quoting at length to see just how he arrives at a picture of worship without man at its center:

…cosmic worship is the theme of Psalm 148. “Praise YHWH from the heavens”, we read in verse 1. And then follows a catalog of heavenly creatures (vv. 1-4) that are all called to worship God, including the heavenly bodies (sun, moon stars) and the very highest creatures, including the waters above the heavens. But not only heavenly creatures are called to worship God. “Praise YHWH from the earth,” we read in verse 7. And then follows a catalog of earthly  creatures (vv. 7-12), including sea monsters, deep oceans, and meteorological phenomena (lightning, hail, snow, wind), followed by mountains, trees, animals and birds, and (finally) humans (vv. 11-12). It is significant that humans are just one of many sets of creatures called to worship God. In fact, humans are mentioned in only two of the eleven verses (vv. 1-4, 6-12) that call on God’s heavenly and earthly creatures to worship him. (p. 40)

Something else, then, must figure in the fundamental characterization of what man is, since worship can’t fit that role. I suggest, following Middleton, that it is man’s work that figures in the fundamental characterization of him:

If mountains worship God by being mountains and stars worship God by being stars, how do humans worship God? By being human, in the full glory of what that means. Humans, the Bible tells us, are cultural beings, defined not by our worship, for worship is what defines creation (all creatures are called to worship). But the human creature is made to worship God in a distinctive way: by interacting with the earth, using our God-given power to transform our earthly environment into a complex world (a sociocultural world) that glorifies our creator.(p. 41)

Contra Derek then (but in a kind of compromise), I want to suggest that only by setting off worship and work can we retain a picture of man in which he is fundamentally characterized in a way that sets him apart from the rest of the created order (mountains and sea monsters). So then: man is a worshiping animal, but rather than fundamentally characterized by worship alone, he is characterized by the distinctive way in which he worships. A compromise, then, from my previous conclusion: ‘Perhaps one implication is that instead thinking of man as primarily a creature of worship…perhaps man should be thought of as creature of action.’  Thus, man is a creature of worship, but fundamentally, a creature of action.


3 thoughts on “Revisiting the Protestant Theory of Religion

  1. PeterJ April 7, 2016 / 6:11 am

    Seems to me that worship is an over-emphasised part of the PTOR even if it does not define human beings. I would certainly question the idea that the religious tendency is to worship. Just an hours contemplation would be worth a year of worship according to Mohammed. Worship may not define human beings but it does seem to define the PTOR. . .

    Idle thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Derek Rishmawy April 7, 2016 / 9:12 am

    Josh, the Middleton quotes are interesting. This is a good post. I’ll have to look into that as you’re right that all of creation is pictured as worshiping the Lord.

    I also think the work as worship dimension needs to be developed more in the sense of having a concrete, earthy, even pedestrian account of the religious life. The “ultimate-concern” point can be nuanced in the sense that while everybody has an “ultimate-concern” or various, existentially-defining concerns (because most of us are polytheists practically), they’re typically small-scale ones. We worship and work for gods of hearth and home, etc.

    I guess part of this might be semantics. One of the points of the Protestant theory of Religion, as I take it, is that even those things we typically think of as “unreligious” are, in fact, religious activities precisely because humans are distinctively made to worship through our broader activities of culture-making.

    The other point is that all of our acts are goal-oriented towards this or that aim. For the Protestant theory of Religion (a la Luther, etc), if anything is not done aimed at the glory of God, then it just is the case that it tends towards an idolatrous one. It’s like it analytic to the concept.

    So, it’s almost like we’re talking about the same phenomenon in different registers or aspects.


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