Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How Protestants Think

Bible Thumper
Protestantism makes sense -- not perfect sense, but good enough for most people -- if you start out with one assumption:

God gave us a Bible, not a Church.

Once you get your mind around that, you can understand Protestants. And you can understand why trying to talk to one is so frustrating.

There may be 41,000 Protestant denominations or only 20,000. It matters to us only slightly less than it matters to them. The Bible is the oracle of all divine teaching, not a church. Don't like what your pastor says? Move on down the road to the next "church."

Don't like what your denomination teaches? Quit it entirely and join one that is more agreeable in its teachings. Or one that doesn't teach much of anything except whatever is floating up from the bottom of the zeitgeist. (The Methodists ran some truly bizarre television ads three or four years ago with the theme "Open minds, open hearts.")

The Bible is infinitely mutable.

  • You're saved by baptism. 
  • No, you're saved by believing in your heart and confessing with your lips that Jesus is Lord. (That's when you say "The Sinner's Prayer" and become "saved.")
  • Once you're saved, you can't lose your salvation no matter what. 
  • No, that's wrong; you can lose your salvation. 
  • God's sovereign will has already predestined every person who is going to Heaven, and every person who is going to Hell, and there's not a damned thing -- literally -- you can do about it. 
  • No, we can choose to cooperate with grace or not. 
  • Homosexuality is an abomination. 
  • No, homosexuality is merely approved or disapproved by one's culture without having anything to do with sin. It is a preference. (Like enjoying oysters, young Antoninus.)
  • St. Paul wrote that he does not permit a woman to teach in the congregation.
  • St. Paul just meant it would seem weird in those days -- now we have priestesses, and lesbian ones at that!

So much for perspicacity of scripture. Without guidance, every man is his own Pope, infallibly interpreting Holy Writ.

But set all that aside for a moment. The Bible-believing Protestant is like a man who spends his life in a room papered with pages of the Bible. He believes he knows all he needs to know, and turns away people who try to get him out of the room and show him the big wide world outside. "I don't need any guide!" he hisses, then gestures wildly about his room. 

 The Catholic may safely study the Bible, because he has a guide in the Church. As Scott Hahn -- an ex-Presbyterian minister turned Catholic -- points out in Consuming the Word (one of the too-many books the Bear is reading at the moment):

  • Jesus never wrote a word we know of, unless it was in the dirt on one occasion
  • Over half his apostles never left a scrap of writing behind, as far as we know
  • the Church was up and running before the canon of Scripture was established (by the Church, so that was handy)
  • Jesus came to establish a Church, not write a book

It makes the Bear's heart glow with love for scripture to think that he can study it all he wants, and will never be led astray by his own ideas or interpretations. The Church has gone before, with her saints and doctors and councils and popes. The traditional fourfold sense of scripture is seldom invoked by Protestants, but is the joy of Catholics. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (118):

    The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
    The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.

Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 33). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference.

We are fortunate to have both sources of revelation: the Church and our Bible.

Bonus Trivia: The Spartacus allusion called to mind the talented infidel Peter Ustinov, who was the only actor to win an Oscar in a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Update: For a good conservative Catholic introduction to how the Church views the Bible, the Bear recommends Fr. William Most's Free From All Error. During the Bear's brief career as a theology grad student it was a good antidote to the dreck I was being force-fed in the classroom.


  1. I think that your description of the man in the Bible-papered room, who refuses to experience “the big wide world outside”, is perhaps as close as one can get to a perfect evocation of the situation of the “sola Scriptura” Protestant vis-à-vis that of the Catholic.

    While there are no perfect analogies for sacred realities - which are sui generis - we might imagine, for the sake of understanding, a beautiful country that we all want to see and experience intimately. We have a superb Travel Guide that familiarizes us with the essential history and many of the attributes of this wonderful land, and helps us to find our way around in it; indeed it would be daunting to step off the boat or plane without it. However, that guide cannot - and is not intended to - take the place of the experience of walking upon the beaches, mountains and meadows of that country, meeting and speaking with its diverse inhabitants, being enriched by their memories and their music, joining them in their places of worship.

    If a friend came back from visiting, say, Quebec, and told you about happening upon a beautiful village there, where he had met people who gave him a vibrant and enriching perspective on life in Quebec, you wouldn't deride him for having visited a village not mentioned in his Travel Guide. You would understand that the Travel Guide, while uniquely valuable in helping one to know Quebec, is not the entirety of the reality of the place.

    Bells & smells. Chant & chasuble. Catacombs and cathedrals. The witness of the lives of Saints down through the history. The embrace of the mother in whose womb Jesus stirred. How sad for any Christian to deprive himself of these things, and how unspeakably sad for any Christian to – as some do – regard them with scorn.

    1. Beautiful said, as always, Jane. You are more than welcome to take over as a guest blogger on any topic that you wish! (Of course, I may presume too much, being a disreputable ancient bear and all.)

      Protestantism is a strange mixture of logic, sometimes horrible logic, as in the case of double predestination, and emotion. What is lacking is that connection between mind and emotions that only the Church can provide: experience.

      There is no arguing with a Protestant, because they have their "proof texts" that they sling and cling to. Yet oddly, the one thing in the Bible that is clearly NOT merely symbolic if there is one -- Jesus' discourse on eating his flesh in John -- is dismissed with a wave of the hand. Same thing with Peter being the foundation of the Church. Well, whatever it means, it clearly can't be what the Catholics say!

      Oddly, the keystone to the whole though structure is missing. Nowhere does the Bible say that it is the sole repository of the faith! Now in my darker moments I may have wondered if the Catholic Faith were true, but I have never wondered if the Protestants might be right. If they are, God must have quite a sense of humor, hiding the light of Truth until Martin Luther -- saintly, wise and well-mannered gentleman that he was -- came along and set everyone straight. All those poor souls that existed before modern printing presses put a mystifying number of Bible editions into the hands of infallible readers.

      I'll humbly believe that Jesus meant what he said when he talked about eating his flesh, strange as that is.Interestingly, It is the only discourse in John where Jesus didn't later explain the "hidden meaning" to his Apostles.

      Having been critical, I will say that Protestant publishing is a powerhouse that produces some mighty good Bibles for the well-catechized. Catholic Bibles are annoyingly modernistic for the Bear's taste.

  2. You mentioned Peter Ustinov...oh, how I've imagined being able to make that wonderful man repeat his earthly life - any part of his life, he could pick! - again and again and again, "Groundhog Day" style, until he finally connected the dots he'd been so adept at noticing and admiring in an infuriatingly offhand sort of way. At which point (in my fantasy) he would doff all of his many and varied hats, put his heart squarely on his sleeve, and humbly and joyfully enter Eternity as a Catholic.

    There are several film actors, no longer with us, giant crushes I've never gotten over, whose souls I long to know are safe in Heaven because they seemed, by some alchemy of talent and circumstance, to be advertisements for it. None more than Mr. Ustinov.

    1. He was winsome both on and off the screen, and inimitable. Did you know he was David Niven's batman in WWII? We have some good actors now, but nothing like Mr. Ustinov, who spoke several languages, was a raconteur, and could project weakness, cunning and menace all in the same role.

    2. My man crushes are Morton Downey, Jr. and George Clooney. There. The terrible secret is out. I feel so much better. (As a lawyer the speech Clooney delivers to Mr. Hit and Run at the beginning is one I want to play for my clients.) If some reader happens not to be familiar with the term, nothing untoward is implied by a "man crush." Really.

    3. Yes - what a life Ustinov led, and what a fascinating background he had. He certainly belongs on any list of Ultimate Dinner Party Guests. Somewhere I have an old paperback of his autobiography, “Dear Me”, which is a terrific read but was written when he still had so many years ahead of him that I wonder if there’s a sequel floating around. That’s something I haven’t thought of looking for in ages – books by and about Ustinov.

      Wrt “man crush” and “girl crush”: long before ever encountering those terms I had a chance to think about the phenomenon when an online friend wrote to me that she was worried about her fascination with Angelina Jolie (yes, it’s hard to suppress an eyeroll now, but this was a very long time ago :-). That got me thinking back to my own youthful near-worship of Barbra Streisand (there goes that eyeroll again) and the Beatles’ girlfriends (or wife, in the stratospherically enviable case of Cynthia Lennon). I would pore over pictures of and articles about them by the hour. The thing was, though, that it was about wanting to BE them – those photos in the magazines functioned as a kind of mirror into which we “ordinary” girls would gaze and gaze, immersed in the fantasy of looking like them and living [what we imagined to be] their lives. The term “role model” wasn’t in common usage then either, but it expresses much of what, rightly or wrongly, those women represented. I’m guessing it’s much the same with guys and their sports heroes and movie alter egos. (It’s impossible that scads of men and boys in the '60s didn’t imagine looking like and living like Sean Connery/James Bond :-). Nothing unnatural and untoward about it, and I think I was able to reassure my friend of that.

      I first encountered the term "girl crush" on a royalty fashion blog I sometimes visit, on which the sartorial and grooming choices of various aristocratic and royal ladies are analyzed, critiqued, and enthused over by a large contingent of wannabes :-D

    4. Yes, it is about wanting to look like they do, and deliver great lines at just the perfect moment, such as in the Michael Clayton movie I referenced (more correctly referenced, then failed to cite). I think George Clooney's range is under-appreciated since he is known mainly as a romantic lead. I definitely do not agree with his politics, although he seems to be knowledgeable and sincere about his causes.

      Morton Downey, Jr? I guess the Bear just likes a good comeback story.

      When I was a human kid, sure (this incarnation), Sean Connery was big. I remember I had cards with b&w pics from Dr. No. This must have been before some genius invented collectible cards. James Bond as a role model must be where I learned to enjoy killing people with my bear hands and eating them. (James Bond *does* eat people, doesn't he?)

      Definitely different from a role model. The Bear's role model from his youth was Bohemund of Taranto ever since he read Wine of Satan, a wonderful book, but hard to find now.

      The Beatles was definitely a girl thing.


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