Recently at Called to Communion David Anders bemoaned the shift in Protestantism’s language about the reformation:
I have noticed that a number of conservative Protestant writers now employ a hermeneutic of development to explain the gap between antiquity and the Reformation. On this view, the ancient church possessed only an incipient, inchoate form of Christianity. Continuity with modern Protestantism is therefore only implicit. Doctrines take shape in history, and become explicit, if at all, only through time and controversy.
I grant that this is not an entirely new approach. Protestant liberalism has always appealed to the concept of development. The more conservative Mercersburg theology of the 19th century also employed the theme. And, of course, the Catholic Church embraces a doctrine of development. What is surprising in recent evangelical appeals to development, however, is the willingness to relativize the core of their own doctrinal orthodoxy. …
“Development” is one of these elements of Catholic tradition that Protestants have appropriated. However, I don’t think of this as an unqualified good. The title of this post (“Why Protestants Need the Antichrist”) is supposed, tongue in cheek, to suggest the problem. In Protestant hands, the theory lacks a clearly identified “center” to evaluate claims of development, and to distinguish them from corruptions.
The spirit of classical Protestant apologetics is far different, and is captured in the name of Ulrich Zwingli’s famous treatise: The Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God (1522). For centuries, the debate between Protestants and Catholics has not been whether or not we could attain doctrinal certainty, but rather what is the proper basis for doctrinal certainty. The virtue of primitivism, however spurious its central premise, is belief in a pristine clarity to which we can appeal.
The modern evangelical purveyors of development, by contrast, seem content to abandon doctrinal certainty. Some years ago, evangelical theologian David Wells foresaw this abandonment of truth. His No Place for Truth (1994) and The Courage to Be Protestant (2008) diagnosed an emerging Evangelical culture in which truth claims and theology are seen as impeding “relevance” and “ministry.” This is clearly the case with Armstrong, whose proposal is for a “missional” rather than doctrinal identity in the Church.
The Catholic view of development is far different. The guiding hand of the Church’s Magisterium distinguishes true from false development. Development is acknowledged, but there is still a clear center. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (CCC 95)
Interestingly, though, it’s not just that Protestants are appropriate Catholic language to talk about church history. Catholics are beginning to appropriate Protestant language to describe their own hopes for the present:
At the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on April 19, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson called for “a new Great Awakening in America,” in which Catholics “play a greater role than ever before.”
Although the struggle will be difficult, we have a “reason for hope” based on past successes, even “in the face of established power structures,” he added.
“Every great religious renewal in America has led to an advance in civil rights,” he said, recalling the contribution of religious efforts to the founding of America, the abolition of slavery and the push for racial equality.
Now, Anderson said, Catholics must come together and make their voices heard in order “to keep open the doors of religious liberty.”
Matthew Cantirino comments at First Things:
It’s not clear what (if anything) will come out of Anderson’s call, but at the very least the rhetoric is interesting, appropriating what was once a heavily Reformist theme but calling for a Catholic continuation of it. Given the withering of mainline Protestantism and the growing incursions of the state into religious affairs, might we be finally approaching the “Catholic moment” Fr. Neuhaus (and others like Tocqueville) imagined would eventually become inevitable in the United States?