There is No Such Thing as Protestantism

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From the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois. Photo by Robert Lawton.

Death is still segregated in American society. You may be surrounded by diversity in your school or your workplace, but when you die, you stick with your own. There are black and white funeral homes, Jewish funeral homes, Irish and Italian funeral homes, etc. It may not be like that all over the country, but it is certainly that way in the three states that I have lived in. And the biggest divide amongst the funeral homes is not racial or ethnic or even inter-faith but inter-Christian. There are Catholic funeral homes and there are Protestant funeral homes. Which means, though you may define yourself however you want–call yourself an Evangelical, or a Lutheran, or a Reformed Calvinist, or a Baptist, or a Quaker, or even an Anglo-Catholic–but at the end of the day, you will die a Protestant. That is your only option, and for America, that is considered good enough.

Generic Protestantism

It is considered good enough because America is a Protestant nation. This is more deeply true for us than it has ever been true that Sweden is Lutheran or that England is Anglican. I daresay it may be more true than it is that Ireland is Catholic or that Greece is Orthodox. For Americans, Protestantism is in our bones. It is in our DNA. Jefferson and Adams and Washington were not exactly Christians, but they were most certainly Protestants. We live and breathe Protestantism. By that, I mean that we are so completely attuned to the idea that Christianity is something we choose how to live for ourselves, based on our personal criteria about what seems right, that we never question that assumption. That is simply what Christianity is: personal, free, and uninhibited by tradition. This is not the classical or historical definition of Protestantism, but it is the one that American Protestants have adopted over time. Even those Americans who choose highly traditional forms of Christianity like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are operating out of a kind of Protestantism. The tradition we choose for ourselves is no tradition at all, and yet we affirm our right to choose it all the same.

And we are never more Protestant then when we are using the word Protestant as a substitute for the word generic. This is where the idea of the Protestant funeral home becomes particularly absurd. What is it that makes a funeral home Protestant? They do not seem to have statements of belief, nor any particular practices in caring for the dead that make them any different from their Catholic counterparts. What makes them Protestant is that they exist to serve those who have subscribed to any variety of Christian faith, no matter how passionate or nominal, so long as it is not Roman Catholic. They exist to affirm your right to choose your own Christianity by blending all forms of Christianity together into a thin soup of platitudes.

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Choose Your Own Adventure

There are so many layers of irony to the American Protestant experience that it is difficult to peal them all back at once. The American Protestant chooses his Christianity because he believes that Christianity can only be chosen, yet he inherits that belief as a kind of tradition from those who came before him and he believes it almost subconsciously, without really questioning where it came from. He believes it every bit as blindly as the uneducated Roman Catholic who thinks that holy water and saint medals are magic and that you will only be able to sell your house if you bury a statue of Saint Joseph in the back yard. Nevertheless, the more strongly the American Protestant believes that each person must choose his own Christianity, the more generic his options become. Try going to a “Protestant” service some time at a campground or a private school function, anywhere in which all Protestants are supposed to be Protestant together. Suddenly, there is no difference at all between Methodists and Mennonites, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Baptists. We shave off the hard edges for the sake of momentary unity. We give up our distinctions and distinctiveness for the sake of upholding what we have in common. And once all manner of diversity of thought and practice has been sanitized away, all we are left with in common is our choice to be Protestant in the first place. We are unified by our disunity that we have freely chosen for ourselves together. (Try saying that three times fast.)

Autonomous Prime

But the greatest irony of all is that there never really was a thing called Protestantism to begin with. To be sure, there are many Protestantisms. There are many Christian traditions that have evolved separately from one another since the Reformation. And there are things that these traditions hold in common with one another, though the areas of overlap vary drastically depending on which two groups of Reformation Christians you are trying to compare. But the differences are real and they are important. I have a great deal in common with my Baptist friends and neighbors, indeed much more than I have in common with those who do not profess the Christian faith at all. But my Baptist friends and neighbors, regardless of which Baptist confession they affirm, believe that Baptism is something we do for God, not something that God does for us, and so it can only be validly entered into by an adult or at least by a child past a certain age of maturity. On the other hand, I believe that Baptism is God’s work, not ours, that it is the application of His promise of salvation, and that to refuse to baptize infants is not only wrong but a grave sin that denies the children in question real grace. That is not a small difference. That is, quite literally, everything. But in the American conception of Protestantism, the heart of our faith is not unity in essentials but unity for unity’s sake. To point out the truth that Baptists and Anglicans are not yet unified in Christ is to be intolerant of our individual right to have Christianity our own way. It is to commit the cardinal sin of American Protestantism, to suggest that truth is more important than autonomy.

Protestantism vs. the Reformation

None of this is meant to be an affront to the Reformation or our inheritance of its riches as Anglicans. Indeed, one of the great gifts of Anglicanism is that we are permitted to receive and consider the great lights of all Christian traditions. We need not read only Anglican reformers or Anglican thinkers (though it would do us some good on the whole if more of us would include at least a few early Anglican thinkers in our repertoire). I am grateful to the Reformation for the recovery of the doctrines of grace and sola fide. Moreover, I do not think there is anything wrong with using the term Protestant as a descriptive in certain instances. I have no trouble, for instance, with the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” because Protestant Episcopal is a way of describing our church as being in the historic apostolic succession but not through the Roman hierarchy. I am also aware, though somewhat skeptical, of the claim that Protestant as a term is less about protesting against Rome than it is about protesting in the older sense of the word, which means to confess and bear witness. If that is how you want to use the term, fine. But what are we confessing? Why do we have multiple “denominations” from which we confess if not for the fact that the confessions themselves are divergent? I have heard many people argue that the advent of multiple denominations is merely about giving Christians different flavors of Christianity from which to choose. Nothing could possibly be more American than that.

Reformational Christianity is quite real and quite rich. And we who are inheritors of the Reformation, in our various traditions, are much in need of serious ecumenical work so that we may, as divided Christians, repent of the sin of our divisions and seek together unity in the truth of the Gospel. But Protestantism is an invention. Calling ourselves Protestants as a way of ignoring our differences only serves to hang our faith on something less real and less solid than the cross. Generic Protestantism is a darkened room built to keep us from looking in the mirror and really seeing ourselves or our brothers and sisters in Christ. The sooner we dispense with the fiction that we are already unified through our affirmation of personal choice, the sooner the real quest for Christian unity can actually begin.

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20 Responses to There is No Such Thing as Protestantism

  1. Grant Grissom says:

    Fr. Jonathan,

    As I continue my journey into Anglicanism, the more I see what you are speaking to here. I see the beautiful evangelical baptist tradition of my youth becoming something more and more generic and watered down so it can be marketed to the masses. Protestantism in this nation is becoming church mass produced. The denominations have rich traditions and doctrines that are as diverse as the species in the ocean. Certainly we share a belief in Christ…or we should, but not even that is a given anymore in American Christianity’s efforts to stay relevant in today’s world. We need to acknowledge our differences, but first we need to know what they are. Only then can we truly sit down to talk unity in Christ and the Gospel.

  2. While your point is well-taken, Fr. Jonathan, as an Anglican I won’t shy away from the term “Protestant.” Nor will the following two Anglican bloggers, apparently:

    “Anglicanism can, perhaps uniquely, lay equal claim to the appellations Protestant and Catholic and affirm both without any sense of inconsistency or incoherence. Indeed, strictly speaking, in proper understanding of each term, to truly be one, you must be both.” – “Death Bredon” (The Patristic Anglican)

    “As C.B. Moss pointed out, the opposite of Catholic is not Protestant, but heretic. The opposite of Protestant is not Catholic, but Roman. Anglicanism: ‘Protestant and Reformed according to the principles of the ancient Catholic Church’ (citing John Cosin). As Anglicans, we should proudly proclaim the fullness of our heritage.” — The Rev’d Derrick Hassert, Ph.D. (An Anglican Priest)

    Furthermore, as a third Anglican blogger, Matthew Colvin, wrote in a Facebook discussion today, “The problem comes when Anglicans do and believe things that are Roman (purgatory, prayers to saints, eucharistic adoration, tactile apostolic succession as the sine qua non of valid sacraments) and claim that these things are “Catholic”. They are not Catholic. They are sectarian Roman practices and beliefs, and all of them are contrary to our Anglican formularies.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with all three. To be a Catholic in the Anglican sense is to be a Protestant, and vice versa. Anglican history, both ecclesiastical and legal, is replete with indicia of its “Protestant and Reformed” nature. And too much Roman belief and practice has wormed its way into Anglicanism. We have every right to consider ourselves Catholic Christians, but not at the expense of our Protestant and Reformed heritage.

    • CarterS says:

      Christopher, it is interesting to see you say that the last three of your list (prayers to saints, Eucharistic adoration, and “real” apostolic succession) are not Catholic. Isn’t their presence in the Roman as well as the Eastern Orthodox Churches a strong indication that they are, in fact, Catholic? I am not strongly convinced of these doctrines yet, but am open to them, because frankly they have a long heritage in the Church.

      I also have a question for the principle of your argument, more than the specific examples. To be Protestant is good in many ways, but why should we enshrine what it means to be Protestant in too many specific doctrines or denials of doctrines? As a loose movement “against Rome,” it really has a very narrow set of things it is against as a whole, and who is to say that the Reformers did not respond too strongly in some instances? If they did, should we not return to those beliefs? For Roman beliefs to “worm” their way in is not necessarily bad. You assume it is bad, but perhaps it is exactly what Protestantism needs. Just a thought.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Christopher,

      I don’t really think we’re in disagreement here. As I said, I don’t really have a problem with the use of the appelation “Protestant” as an adjective that points to a distinct reality, IE we are not Roman Catholic. The word “Reformed” is in some ways even better for this because it modifies “Catholic” rather than replacing it (though we could have a whole separate conversation on just what “Reformed” has come to mean). My only beef here is with the notion of a thing called “Protestantism” that somehow swallows and includes all of us. I don’t believe there ever was such a thing. And yet, in American Christian religiosity, it has more power than any actual Christian tradition ever has.

  3. Stephen says:

    As a Roman Catholic, the thing I find amusing in the world of ‘Protestantism’ is that there are ‘protesters’ who ‘protest’ against the ‘Protestants’ in denominations by the thousands !
    And you can find some of them quoting everyone from Hus to Luther or Zwingli who have just about as much in common theologically as they do to Cardinal Newman.
    Everyone convinced that they are right and 95% of the rest, wrong.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      But that’s just it, there’s no such thing as “the world of Protestantism” because “Protestantism” isn’t a thing. And Roman Catholics are as much a part of the equation as anyone else. Very few Roman Catholics I have encountered actually have any notion of what the differences are between various Christian traditions, unless they happen to be converts. One day, a woman at the pharmacy saw my collar, and that I was picking something up for my son, and asked, “Are you a follower of the Protestant religion?” I was honestly so taken aback I didn’t know what to say.

      • Stephen says:

        I can see where that would take you aback.
        As a Roman Catholic living in an area ( West Virginia) where 98% of all professing Christians are ‘protestant’, I can honestly say that I’ve been taken aback by the questions and reactions I get when I mention that I am Catholic.
        I swear, you would think that some of them had just finished reading a Jack Chick pamphlet and expected my head to start growing horns.

        My take on the term ‘Protestant’ is that it is simply the larger umbrella under which falls any Christian denomination that doesn’t recognize the Holy See as authority.

    • Erik says:

      “My take on the term ‘Protestant’ is that it is simply the larger umbrella under which falls any Christian denomination that doesn’t recognize the Holy See as authority.”

      How would differentiate between Baptists, Traditional Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox? If the distinction is not being in communion with the Bishop of Rome, then you would have to also classify EO as Protestant? I feel confident that by “Christian denomination” you essentially meant ones in the West that are separated from Rome, but my point is that Anglicanism really is a different animal from other Reformed groups. For instance, in Anglicanism you find apostolic succession and many rites of the historic church. As well, like EO, it recognizes the legitimacy of a bishop in Rome just not as a Supreme Pontiff that can speak ex cathedra on dogma. So in many ways it would fall more under however you would classify EO – perhaps you would say schismatic catholic but I like Reformed Catholic :)

  4. I must say that I agree with you about disliking the idea of “general protestant” chaplains, institutional services, etc… I think Anglicans have a great deal in common with Lutherans, Moravians, and some Methodists, and will happily attend services and accept ministry from those traditions. But as a Protestant Episcopalian I have much more in common with the average, American Roman Catholic than I do with the average Southern Baptist. And I do not like the idea that if I am hospitalized I may be ministered to by a Baptist, Congregationalist, Pentecostal, or Seventh Day Adventist because we are both ‘Protestants’. If I am seriously ill, I want Holy Communion and the sacramental rites of anointing and confession according to the Book of Common Prayer. The Lutheran or Methodist rites are acceptable- I’ve experienced both- as long as the Lutheran or Methodist pastor sticks to the UMH or ELW rather than doing his own thing. However, a Baptist or Pentecostal chaplain, if he is true to his tradition, is bound to regard the sort of ministry to the sick I need as idolatrous, and will want to “get me saved”. I would rather have the (Roman) Catholic priest, even though I know he probably won’t actually give the sacraments to someone he’s not in communion with!

  5. David says:

    The first part of your post, where you describe Protestantism as a Christianity which is chosen, is one of the most perceptive things I have read in awhile. I’m not sure why you back away from it at the end and say Protestantism is not a thing in itself. In my experience, it most certainly is — and as you indicate, there is a sense in which all American Christians are Protestants first in this sense, even Roman Catholics.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi David,

      I wasn’t so much backing off of what I said before as I was attempting to talk about it in multiple ways. There is a thing that is being called “Protestantism,” at least in the American experience, that has no actual theological content to it but is rather a reflection of a particular form of individualism and consumerism. That is the sense in which we are a “Protestant” nation. But is there a genuine theological tradition called “Protestantism” in the same way as there are genuine theological traditions called Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, or even Evangelicalism? No, and there never was.

      • David says:

        Got it.

        I think the idea that Protestantism is a separate tradition is very much an American East Coast phenomenon. Living in the Midwest, as I do now, I don’t see much of that. I’m not sure why that is — just an observation.

        I still think the earlier point you made — that all Americans are Protestants in the sense that Christianity is seen as something chosen (or not chosen) — is a tremendous insight. It is very much the “religion” of our nation and not only includes all denominations, but non-Christians and atheists as well.

  6. Stephen says:

    With regard to the Episcopal Church (or the greater Anglican Communion for that matter),
    doesn’t it all come down to whether or not It agrees with and holds to the 16TH CENTURY Protestant Reformation principles as to whether to consider It ‘Protestant’?

    • Grant Grissom says:

      But then that becomes the question of which set of principles? Calvinist? Lutheran? Armenian? Once you get past the break from Rome, there’s a dramatic divergence of theology and doctrine and principle which leads back to Fr. Jonathan’s original point.

      • Stephen says:

        In one sense it does, Grant.
        In another sense, whatever Denomination you choose to use, if the Tenets of that Denomination do not ascribe to the Tenets of the Catholic Faith, then they are indeed ‘protesting’, are they not?
        Whether other Christian Denominations want to recognize it or not, trace back the lineage of ANY ‘protesting’ denomination and you will always end up at the same root.
        ALL of the ‘protestant’ denominations share that as common ground.

        Henry VIII didn’t break from Luther, did he?
        He broke with Rome.

      • Except that there are many churches which never were under Rome. The Armenian Apostolic Church, the Chinese Nestorians, the Thomas Christians of India, the Copts, the Etheopians, and the Eastern Orthodox never allowed the Bishop of Rome to have any authority over them. Henry VIII acted out of selfish motives, but his move to establish the self-governing autonomy of the Church of England was entirely consistent with the rights that national churches had always been granted and which the Pope was usurping.

  7. Grant says:

    To continue your point, Whit, yes Henry acted purely for political motives, but the pontiff at the time was also acting more as a terrestrial head of state than as a spiritual shepherd. Also it’s good to keep in mind that while the English church recognized the Holy See of Rome, English Christianity was always its own animal. For many centuries, they had their own rite and chant (Sarum) before being forced to adopt the Roman Rite. The theological and doctrinal differences were already showing long before the actual break.

    • Stephen says:

      The Churches in communion with Rome are various rites of the Universal Church.
      It’s really the just the Latin Rite and the Pope is the leader of all the churches who acknowledge the Chair of Peter, those Churches lack nothing in their distinct liturgies and traditions.
      Yes, there are some groups from the Eastern Catholic churches that are recognized, and in communion with Rome, but for much of the Eastern Orthodox churches this is not the case, and the issue of apostolic succession is a sticking point on full communion.
      Most of the Eastern Churches that are recognized are self governing but maintain full communion with the Holy See, and act as part of the synod of the Catholic Church.
      The above mentioned Armenian Apostolic Orthodox have an unusual relationship. The Armenian Catholics are in full communion with other Catholic Churches, but are, as a practical matter, still in communion with their parent Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church.
      Apostolic lineage is the key.
      Something (I’m afraid) the Anglican / Episcopal Church no longer has.

  8. Fr Rich says:

    I am very comfortable describing my faith as catholic. It speaks to the rich traditions of worship with a balance on real presence in Word and Eucharist. I am also very comfortable in the term protestant. It speaks to the values of the Word in the vernacular and the empowered leadership role of the laity. Over the years I have stood against the homogenization of faith that declares “we are all the same.” There are differences in faith stances and they matter.

    While working as a military chaplain, I often heard the term “general protestant” to describe the non-Roman Christian community. Eventually leadership had to discourage the use of the term as it was becoming an identified separate faith — to the degree it appeared the military was establishing a religious denomination. One off-base community was advertising for “General Protestant” minister to lead their faith community…a very sad situation if asked.

    Fr. Jonathan, thank you for your insight and faith. Blessings.

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