A Dialectic of Crisis: The Protestant Identity in Light of the Protestant Principle

Paul Tillich, in The Protestant Era, took the Reformation insight of justification by faith and embedded it, as a principle of criticism, into the sociological fabric of the universe: ‘Protestantism as a principle is eternal and a permanent criterion of everything temporal’, (The Essential Tillich, ed. F. Forrester Church, p. 69). Put another way, this means that nothing has a claim on the absolute, and anything that claims to have such a claim ought to be protested against and resisted – this may be one way of expressing the rallying cry of ‘Semper Reformanda’. The classic example of this was the Protestant critique of the office of the Papacy, who could claim to speak truth; in fact, it was Truth with a capital T. This Truth can’t ever be reached by man: it can only come to man:


‘You cannot reach God by the work of right thinking or by a sacrifice of the intellect or by a submission to strane authorities, such as the doctrines of the church and the Bible. You cannot, and you are not even asked to try it. Neither works of piety nor works of morality nor works of the intellect establish unity with God. They follow from this unity, but they do not make it. They even prevent it if you try to reach it through them.’ (ibid, p. 72)


Now, in order for Protestantism to have a distinct identity, something like Tillich’s principle has to be basically correct insofar as what he identifies as the Protestant Principle is what made Protestantism radical, and a Protestantism that isn’t radical isn’t a Protestantism at all.  Here lies the rub, however. If this principle is taken to its logical end, then all that is left is to historicize everything. No tradition, no orthodoxy, no church – it all goes. There is no ‘deposit of faith’, no absolute body of teachings or doctrine, no substance underlying change, and even God himself may be identified as a narrative or as a part of history. This end can be resisted, however, only by drawing on tradition (certain wings of evangelicalism, such as Reformed catholic theology, might be identified here), which is thoroughly un-protestant as it’s been defined here. So there is a dilemma – on one horn, Protestants can historicize and criticize everything, and on the other Protestants can retreat to tradition. The former is absurd and the latter is un-protestant. The crisis here is sharpened if we look at the consequences of each of these options: should Protestantism retreat to tradition, then it ceases to be Protestant. If Protestantism is consistent, then Protestantism ceases to be ‘a thing’, as it were. The Protestant Principle, in one way or another, spells the end of Protestantism.  


This is a far from cheerful diagnosis. If true, then various Protestant retrieval and ressourcement theologies are, in effect, doing pointless work, despite their best intentions. The crisis latent within Protestantism may be avoided or eluded or held at arms length – perhaps by marshalling tradition, or by appealing to Scripture or the magisterium. But like all specters, it returns to haunt. If, however, as Tillich expressed it, the Protestant Principle is ‘not subject to the changes of history’, if it is a sort of timeless, eternal criterion, one wonders if this principle itself should be criticized on its own grounds. Is the Protestant Principle in the same family as logical positivism, which undercut its own feet by its own criterion? Is there any good reason to take the Protestant Principle as seriously as it demands? There doesn’t appear to be a reason that doesn’t end in a vicious circularity.


What positive conclusion can be taken from this? One wonders if this isn’t all indicative of problems deep within the nature of Protestantism. If, after a 500-year experiment, it would seem as though there has been ample time for Protestantism to get its act together, and since there appears to be a good deal of evidence to the contrary, might it just be time to end the experiment? Maybe, maybe not. Thomas Torrance, in his own thinking on the doctrine of justification, took a line not too dissimilar from Tillich, with one significant difference: the principle of criticism, for Torrance, wasn’t an a-historical principle but a living Word, a Word which called into question all systems, all principles, and all traditions. Perhaps it is a testament to the place that this Word has in Protestantism that the Protestant Principle could even be taken seriously; is the Protestant Principle itself, then, a tradition which binds the Word? To paraphrase Torrance: the lesson here may just be that the Protestant Principle doesn’t call for the end of Protestantism, but a return to the hearing of the Word in its own self-utterance.


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