Project Canterbury

The Catholic Faith and the Religious Situation

New York: The Churchmen's Alliance, 1921.

4. Characteristic Positions of Modern Protestantism
Lucius Waterman, D.D.,

Tilton, N.H.

I. The Definition of the word "Protestant": non-Roman? or non-Catholic?

I am asked to speak of some Characteristics of Modern Protestantism. There are embarrassments in dealing with the subject, for Protestantism is a phenomenon difficult to define and almost impossible to describe. Perhaps no two persons would give exactly the same definition of Protestantism, but definitions really reduce to two classes, according as "Protestant" is taken to be the opposite of "Romanist", or the opposite of "Catholic". The former view is, of course, the view taken by those who in the eighteenth century fastened the title "Protestant Episcopal" upon us as the legal name of our American Catholic Church. In that view an enumeration of the world's Protestant forces would have to include the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchates, the great Church of Russia in its agony of persecution, the Western "Old Catholics", and all the branches of the Anglican Communion. But perhaps it may be said that Protestants have the best right to be heard as to the definition of their own title, and certainly, to the generality of Protestants, "Protestant" and "Catholic" stand opposed. Most Protestants do not call themselves "Catholics". Most Catholics do not like to call themselves "Protestants". I accept in this lecture the popular definition. I use "Protestant" as meaning "non-Catholic". I use the word "Protestantism" to stand for a great religious force which is at work in the world to-day, which is opposed to Catholicism, which is known to itself and to its critics as "Protestantism", which certainly needs a distinctive name, and for which there is no other convenient and recognized name. It will be understood, then, that when I speak, to-night, of the Protestant religion, I am speaking of a religion which deserves from us much respect and sympathy for many noble lives, many great thinkers, and many beneficent good works, but which is not ours.

II. Protestantism, a Movement.

I have said that Protestantism, difficult to define, is almost impossible to describe. Protestantism might seem to be of the same celestial family with the God Proteus, of the Greek mythology, who could change himself into any form he liked. For Protestantism is not merely a great fact, but al great movement, and movements are elusive things. You! note what is entirely and characteristically true of the movement in one place, and someone cries to you that what you have been saying is not true at all—at some entirely different point in the movement. For movements move, and pass through many changes, and it may be added, movements move to an inevitable end. The Mississippi River runs from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. At this very moment some of the water is in Minnesota, and some is flowing between Missouri and Illinois, and some is stagnating perhaps in some pool where it was left from an overflow, and some is passing New Orleans. But one thing is sure; most of that water will reach the Gulf at last. The Protestant movement in modern history is such a stream. The movement is not a simultaneous movement. It goes on much moral rapidly in some Churches than in other Churches. It has gone, for instance, much farther in the United States than in England or in Scotland. Things which are said quite truly of American Congregationalists and Presbyterians, and things to which many Congregationalists and Presbyterians point with pride, are regarded as a shocking scandal in England and vehemently and incautiously denied, though even in England Protestant Churches have entered upon what thaw great Protestant, Charles Spurgeon, used to call "The Down grade Movement". No! This great movement is not Simultaneous, and it is not homogeneous. Few things that one can say of Protestants are true of all Protestants, and nothing that one can say of Protestants is true of all Protestants alike. When I say that Protestantism leads to this or that, I shall be liable to be sharply criticized by many Protestants, if they ever read what I have written, these good men saying, "We are totally misrepresented. Protestantism has never led us to such results at all." Such are the difficulties that meet one who attempts to criticize a great, myriad-minded movement of thought. I can only say that I have labored and prayed to present here nothing but facts fairly stated, and nothing but facts that are (1) fairly representative of the direction in which Protestantism is moving, and (2) indicative of the end toward which it goes.

III. The Fundamental Difference between Protestantism and Catholicism.

There is one great common bond between Protestantism and Catholicism. It would be a sin against truth not to state it. It would be a sin against love, which is a greater matter than even truth, to underrate it. The saints of both systems—and both systems have saints—have a burning zeal for the service of God and a burning zeal for the service of men. Both systems are meant to promote these ends. Each system is to its followers the best way that they have been able to see to find God, and help the world. That finding God and helping the world are the two best ends in life, both parties are agreed. They differ as to what God offers us as ways and means of reaching the great end. In trying to set forth some present characteristics of the Protestant Movement, I must speak somewhat of its history, but first of all I must state What seems to me to be the fundamental and essential difference between modern Protestantism and that Catholicism which is of all time. To put it all in a single phrase, Protestantism is a religion of inspiration; Catholicism is a re-of revelation. Perhaps I may express it better by say that Protestantism is a religion of a single revelation, Protestantism says that a man must find his way to God by his own best thoughts. They are what God has en him, and God has not given him, and could not give anything else. A hundred years ago almost all Protestants would have said that the Bible was a book of infallible religious teaching and included much of revelation. Movement has moved on far since those days, and the majority of Protestant thinkers now take the line that no inspiration could ever make a man, even the writers of Holy Scripture, to be an infallible teacher, and that God cannot, the laws of the universe as He has made them, make Revelation of His truth to the creature, man. Catholicism the other hand, that we really have a revelation. God has made known a portion of his own thought as an illuminating message and a healing medicine. He has made this message known so that men can really know. A man must submit himself, says Catholicism, to this divine message, with its accompaniment of a few special directions, and of a few particular supernatural gifts, called Sacraments, and if the man finds that anything which has seemed to him before to be a part of his own best thoughts appears now to be in conflict with this gift of the thoughts of God, the man must, of course, thankfully submit his mind to be corrected by God's revelation of the truth.

I think that few Protestants will quarrel with my statement that their system teaches a man to follow his own best thoughts, and teaches him further that he has nothing else to follow. If they mention the Bible, it will be only in the sense of the good Baptist lady who said to me, more than forty years ago, "I believe that everything in the Bible is inspired which is inspired to me!" But our Protestant friends so little understand our claim to the possession of infallible guidance, that I must take time to express our difference in another way. This time, I will put the Catholic claim first.

The Catholic Church remembers—that is our great word—that our Blessed Lord, in the forty days between His Resurrection and His Ascension, gave to His Apostles certain instructions and directions, "speaking the things concerning the Kingdom of God." What those things were, the Church was not told in any book of the New Testament. Of course, not. The Church remembered what those things really were, and needed no reminder. In fact, the Catholic Church remembers, and has never ceased to testify, that in that teaching-time our Lord delivered a faith unto the saints,—what S. Paul speaks of as "the Gospel",—and delivered it once for all. The Catholic Church remembers what that delivered faith included, and the Church knows that what was included in that faith was true. It is not a part of the old, original Catholic claim that the Church can make any fresh revelation of her own at any time, add any new articles to this "faith," re-write this "Gospel." S. Paul anathematizes any such attempt, and the great Council of Chalcedon echoes him. We claim only that the Holy Spirit, guiding God's people into all the truth, enabled the Church, in the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, to see truly and decide justly as to whether certain new religious teachings were, or were not, antagonistic to the ancient faith. The Church pronounced that these opinions were inconsistent with the remembered faith. It was not a judgment as to whether new views of certain great subjects were true or false as a matter of philosophic theology, but whether they were consistent with a remembered revelation. What our Lord gave to His Church to keep safe, He enabled His Church to keep safe. That is the claim of the Catholic Church, and of every faithful Catholic. Yet here honesty as to Catholic faults and fairness as to Protestant faults require of me an important admission. The modern Protestant position looks to us Catholics like a wilful refusal of light. But we need to remember that the mistakes of noble men have always a noble origin. We need to face the fact that the Protestant fault in the Reformation-movement arose out of a Catholic fault. The Mediaeval Church had greatly abused the principle of authority in Religion. It had not been content to remember the infallible teachings of our Lord, and demand men's allegiance to the once-for-all delivered faith. The Mediaeval Church had yielded to the temptation to regard its own judgments as infallible, and demand submission to everything in the way of either theology or Church order which the ruling authorities of the Church might agree to impose. The Mediaeval Church departed from the lines of a true Catholicism by adding "necessary things" of its own devising—such necessary things, for example, as the Theory of Transubstantiation, of the Papal Supremacy,— to the "necessary things" of our Lord Himself. By setting up in this way a false "authority" it poisoned the minds of men with a morbid suspicion and dislike of the whole idea of Church authority. Because the Mediaeval Church did use its authority to impose upon men things which clearly our Lord did not impose, therefore it came to be a fundamental position of the Protestant mind that to receive anything on the authority of the Church is to set up another authority in place of the authority of Jesus Christ. The Church as we know it has repented of that sin, and stands now on a truly Catholic foundation. But the revolt of Protestantism was in its beginning a revolt against something un-Catholic. The complaint of Protestantism said, "The Church has tried to compel us by its authority to believe things which come not with God's authority, and are not true. We will never submit our minds to the authority of the Church again." The Protestant complaint was just. The bitter sense of having been imposed upon and tyrannized over by the Church, which Protestantism has brought down the centuries from the Reformation-period as one of its most treasured traditions, is in a measure just. We ought to acknowledge that much. We may still insist that in casting off the false "authority" they should not have cast away the true. They did cast away the true "authority" with the false, and then, suffering the Nemesis of their unhappy mistake, they set up that same evil of a false "authority," the making by groups of men of "creeds" that were only their own "creeds," all over again. They set up precisely that antithesis from which they had tried so desperately to break away, the imposing of the opinions of men instead of the facts of God.

Protestants generally think of us as making claim, which the Roman Church does make, that the Catholic Church has an office as a revealer of truth, and not merely as a faithful rememberer of a revelation once made. But even when we have made clear our more modest position, Protestantism will have none of it. Protestantism will not allow that the Church has any continuous, unchanging memory, what I may call a "corporate memory," of its own past, even of such a fact as our Lord's rising from the dead. Protestantism holds that the only means we have of finding any facts of early Christian history is to study the New Testament writings, with their manifold allusions to things which were then matters of common knowledge, and try to piece these allusions together, and so find out what it was that the Church then knew so familiarly. And Protestantism in these days generally adds that the writers of the New Testament books may in some cases need to be sharply corrected by modern scholars, as having gravely misunderstood the religious teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Once again, then, I will try to put this fundamental difference of Catholic and Protestant into a single phrase, which shall be this: All the best and wisest scholars are also the humblest, but the Catholic Church teaches her wise and humble scholars to thank God upon their knees for what they know, and the Protestant Churches teach their best men (the men who are wise enough to be humble) to apologize to their brethren for what they think. There are arrogant Protestant scholars who sometimes state opinions quite too confidently. "AH scholars are agreed" is one of their favorite phrases, and a particularly provoking phrase, for there are very few points on which all scholars do agree, and in regard to such points nobody cares to use such a phrase at all. But when you examine a Protestant theologian as to the grounds of his belief, you will generally find that in the field of religious enquiry he regards absolutely certain knowledge as a gift which God has not given to the creature, man.

IV. The Movement Moving: Some Features of the History of Protestantism. Protestant Infallibility.

But right here it is most important to note that this teaching, that Christians cannot "know anything for certain, is a new growth in Protestantism. The Protestantism of three centuries and a half ago had no such modesty of uncertainty. What has made the change? I must ask you to study with me some features of the history of this Protestant Movement, before we survey its characteristics of the present time. Protestantism is the Prodigal Son of the Christian family. Let me not be misunderstood. I do not mean, in this, to say anything of my Protestant brethren that shall offend. Be it remembered that the Prodigal of the parable was greatly beloved by his father, greatly welcomed by his father, greatly honored and feasted at the family table. Let me, then, press one single point of resemblance to that so attractive character. Protestantism said, "Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me," and left the father's house. My point is that it went out rich. It took its full share of the family property. It took the Church's ancient Creeds, the Church's Priesthood, the Church's Sacraments, the Church's Scriptures, a large portion of the Church's theology. It did not accept the Church's valuation of some of these things. It began almost at once to throw them away,—in fact, to "waste its substance," according to our view of things. But I say again, "It went out rich." The characteristic difference between Protestantism and Catholicism, at the moment when the cleavage began between the two systems, lay not in their respective possessions, but in their different ways of looking at their possessions. Both systems held, for instance, that they possessed a treasure of absolutely certain truth. Catholicism found it in the Catholic Faith, delivered as a fundamental tradition by our Lord himself, and preserved, in the form of the Catholic Creeds, by the Church's infallible memory and understanding. Protestantism, filled with angry disappointment because of the human failures of the Church, which certainly were many and grievous, refused any longer to accept the Church as an infallible authority for anything even for a faithful memory of the delivered faith. It still held the Catholic Creeds to be true statements, and certainly important, but it rested its whole weight of certainty upon the Bible. The Bible was the Word of God and infallible. Certainty was there. Of course, it was perfectly obvious that men did not agree as to what the Bible meant, even as to points which were regarded as of fundamental importance by disputants on both sides. Where, then, was certainty, after all? The Protestantism of the 16th century came quickly to another step. The promise that the Holy Spirit should guide our Lord's followers into all necessary truth was not fulfilled, said Protestantism, to the visible Church, which was manifestly fallible and corrupt. It must be that it was fulfilled to each faithful believer. If a man were a true Christian, the Spirit would guide him to a right understanding of the written Word. With that idea in mind Protestant Churches felt sure of their ground. They made up lists of doctrines which they considered particularly important, and called such lists of their own devising by the old, Catholic name of "Creeds." They developed a habit of insisting that Churches which did not agree with their particular lists of things specially important were not Churches at all. In fact, each Protestant believer who felt certain ideas to be particularly important felt obliged also to deny the very name of Christian to any other believer who did not in those points agree with him.

V. The Later History of Protestantism: The Movement from Certainty to Uncertainty.

You will feel, perhaps, that this is ancient history which I am giving you, a by-gone story which has nothing to do with to-day. It is very old history, I acknowledge, thoroughly by-gone history, an out-moded form of thought. But it has something to do with to-day, and indeed a great deal to do with to-day. For see what happened in God's providence to this self-satisfied Protestantism of long ago! First, there came an extraordinary growth of human learning, including that new habit of observing facts, collecting facts, verifying facts, arguing from facts, which we call "Science." And this growth of human learning had large, wide-reaching results. For one thing, it taught men increased respect for one another's minds. It forced men to see that other men might differ greatly from them in religion, and yet be great thinkers. It showed that other men might differ from them about religion, and yet be great helpers of the world. It taught men a new respect for the human mind as an instrument of study and discovery, and yet, in the very same great impulse, a deepening sense of the worthlessness of argument about things unknown as compared with observation,—in short, the worthlessness of opinions as compared with facts. It taught men to feel that when two serious students differed as to such an unverifiable notion as what particular meaning a third man had when he wrote certain words centuries ago, it was ridiculous for either disputant to claim for his own understanding an infallible certainty. In such an atmosphere the notion of the infallibility of the individual Christian believer shrivelled up and fell away. It is only among deeply uneducated people that it still survives. Naturally, then, as self-confidence diminished, as respect for other men's knowledge grew, as the difference between knowing things and only having opinions about things impressed itself more and more, the Protestant Churches came more and more to diminish the number of the things in which they required men to agree. Indeed, they not only diminished the number of things which they imposed as necessary. They withdrew some of the ideas which once they had written into their so-called "creeds," and threw them over as rubbish. Such has been the faith of the theological system known as Calvinism. Three hundred years ago it was part of the essential "creed" of almost all English-speaking Protestants, as well as of a large share of Continental Protestants. To-day, it is by most Protestants disowned and scorned, and by none required.

Now this process of simplification and reduction of Protestant "creeds" was, so far forth, a coming nearer to Catholicism. Down to the middle of the 19th century this process of retrenchment in required beliefs had left Protestants, with exceptions still insignificant, holding most of the truths of the Catholic Faith. Almost all Protestants held the truths summarized in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, except for a certain dilution of the faith touching the Church and the Sacraments, and they were giving up the un-Catholic additions to the ancient faith, by which they had burdened men's souls. Seventy-five years ago, Protestantism was nearer to Catholicism than it has been at any other time in its history. It held most of the truths of the faith. It had ceased to insist on human opinions. That would have been a happy time for trying to bring about a Concordat between the two systems. But these last seventy-five years have brought to Protestantism another sweeping change of atmosphere, a change of mental habit, a change of essential character, which are nothing less than tremendous. I cannot take time to tell the story of the change. I must content myself with saying briefly that the critical study of the Scriptures, both of the Old Testament and the New, has made great advances, and that the result has been to shake the belief of Protestants in the infallibility of the Bible so powerfully that now in the Protestant world confidence in the infallibility of the Bible is following hard after the vanished confidence in the infallibility of every truly saved man.

But here it may be said truly that the changed view of Holy Scripture has affected Catholics as well as Protestants, and has affected both parties profoundly. Certainly, but it has not affected them alike. Catholics feel the presence of the human element in Holy Scripture much more deeply than they felt it fifty years ago. Catholics are ready to acknowledge the presence of human errors in Scripture books with a smiling readiness which they did not feel fifty years ago. But the Catholic Church has never set forth any particular theory of inspiration, and therefore is not now obliged to withdraw, or apologize for, any such theory. Furthermore, Catholics never rested their Church on the authority of the Bible. They rested the Bible on the authority of the Church. How did we Catholics get our Bible? It comes to us as a part of that great memory of the Church of which I have spoken. The Church remembers the Faith as given by our Lord in the great Forty Days. The Church remembers the Bible as given to her keeping in two different ways,—the old Testament books by inheritance from the elder Church, with our Lord's attestation, the New Testament books as having been attested to her by the voices of her own prophets as somehow a gift from God, and as containing religious teachings that could be depended upon. We have learned that God does not care 'to save men who bring His messages of religious truth from making mistakes about utterly unimportant matters. We still accept the religious teaching as both important and true.

But with the Protestant the case is altogether different. Catholics have learned that God was willing that His Word ministered through men should contain errors about small things. Protestants find no security that a writer, even of the New Testament, may not be mistaken even as to some very great things.

The Nicene Creed speaks of the Holy Ghost as a Divine Person Who, in some special manner, "spoke by the prophets." S. Peter says that "holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." We Catholics point to that supernatural guidance as the reason why the New Testament writers do not disagree, as modern religious teachers disagree. The Protestant thinker says that all good men of every age have in them a spirit which is from God. He says further that all good, earnest seekers after truth are moved by the Holy Ghost, all which is true. But he does not distinguish the New Testament writers as having not only been moved, but spoken as they were moved, by the Spirit of God. It follows that the typical modern Protestant does not see why any religious opinion of S. Paul or S. John should be taken as a guide of his personal thinking, any more than the religious opinions of his own favorite preacher of to-day. In fact, our average Protestant thinks that, after centuries of evolution, his modern preacher ought to be, and may very well be supposed to be, a much safer guide to-day than any Apostle of the Church's feeble first beginnings. That is the solemn difference between the situation of seventy-five years ago and the situation of to-day. Seventy-five years ago, almost all Protestants were sure of most of the fundamentals of religion. They were illogical about it. They had no just grounds on which to rest their certainty. But they had what they thought to be good ground, and on that ground they stood squarely. Now Protestants have no security that any particular thing which is said in the Bible is .true. There is error in it, they say. Then there may be error anywhere in it. My friend's phrase has become typical,—"I hold everything in the Bible to be inspired which is inspired to me!" You believe what you like. You believe nothing which you do not like. All certainty in religion is gone.

VI. Five Characteristics of the Protestant Movement, as one finds it To-day.

I have brought my history of the Protestant Movement to the present time. We have seen that Catholicism stands for certainty in religion,—certainty about some few things,— and Protestantism stands for uncertainty about everything. From this prevailing character of modern Protestantism come some other characteristics which I ask leave to pass in review. There are five of them, and the first to be named is

(1) Indefiniteness.

When a man becomes clearly conscious that he can never know certainly whether anything that he thinks is entirely true, it follows naturally that he will not know quite clearly what he does think. His mind does not work like a magnetic needle that points due north, but like a magnetic needle which has been exposed to disturbing influences from objects brought near to it, so that it quivers unsteadily, and jumps in all directions. Let me give you an illustration. A Protestant theologian may say that he believes in the Divinity of Christ. What does he mean by that statement? No mortal man can tell. Most probably he has very little idea of what he means, himself. I was talking, a few weeks ago, with a Congregationalist minister, one of my valued friends, a man particularly conservative and devout, and I mentioned that the Denomination known as "Congregationalist," and supposed to be Trinitarian, sheltered many ministers who were really Unitarian in belief. "Yes," he said, "the word 'divine' has so many shades of meaning that it is impossible to limit religious fellowship to persons who attach any one particular idea to that word." Speaking for myself as a Catholic I know no greater point of religious difference between seekers after truth than this,—the difference between holding that Christ is God, and holding that Christ is not God. I know no question of religious belief which would seem more readily to admit of a definite answer, nor more imperatively to require a definite answer. Here was a thoughtful man, himself a believer in our Lord's Godhead, who was so little in the habit of thinking definitely that he could not imagine the word "Divine" tying a theologian to any definite belief about the Divine Man. I know well that there are Protestant theologians, especially in Scotland and England, who are very definite still as regards the central things of religion. But my point is that these conservatives represent the past of Protestantism, and not its future. The Protestant habit of mind is more and more habit of feeling after truth, of saying, "I think that the truth of the subject lies probably in such and such a direction." A Congregational minister once said to me of his belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, "I suppose that there is a sort of a three-ness." He thought that "Father," "Son," and "Holy Ghost" were words pointing to some mystery. He did not know what it was. He did hot particularly care. He was quite sure that nobody could tell him, and that he could never, in this world, find it out.

Let me give you one more illustration. A Protestant theologian may say that he holds the doctrine of the Trinity. Who can tell what he means by that phrase? It may not mean the Catholic Doctrine of the Trinity. A graduate of a somewhat conservative Theological Seminary told me that his teacher of Dogmatic Theology, whom he reverenced particularly, thought that "Father," Son," and "Holy Ghost" were names of different aspects of the Godhead. "Thus," this good man would say,—"Thus I myself am at the same time the father of a family, a minister of the Gospel, and the friend and teacher of you young men." That is not a doctrine of "Three Persons in One God," but of "Three Persons in One Person," of a Person being three things at once, in different relations of life. It is also what is known to Catholic theologians as "the Sabellian heresy." To the indefinite mind it is an interesting suggestion for explaining the Doctrine of the Trinity.

I say again that there are Protestant teachers who have a strong and definite theology, but I add that they will have few successors or at best a rapidly diminishing number of successors. The truly representative Protestant teacher of today has not a theology, but a frame of mind. And I must add here my solemn warning,—"You cannot make a covenant with a frame of mind." Our Protestant friends are feeling after truth, but no man can pledge himself to feel tomorrow as he feels to-day. This is a condition which our friends will not object to be charged with. They glory in it. And it is a part of this glorying in indefiniteness that they refuse to be bound by creeds. It is a matter of pride with them that they recognize the futility of such pledges of a future loyalty. They ridicule them as "promises to be unchangeable," "pledges that our minds shall not grow." It is not merely that they are not definitely sure that a particular thing is so to-day. They see (rightly enough) that by next year they may be pretty confident that it is not so. At any rate they will not be bound to any clearly marked and settled thought.

But a far more dangerous characteristic of Protestantism is

(2) Ambiguity.

When men cease to think clearly defined thoughts, they must inevitably cease also to attach definite meaning to words. He who is sure that men cannot think true, will of necessity despair of their being able to speak true. Words and phrases are men's feeble attempts to make pictures of what their minds have seen. A man's words cannot be more definite than his thoughts. Such is the modern Protestant view of the relation of words and thoughts. It is a view that comes out in my friend's remark about the "many shades of meaning" of the word "Divine." The Catholic would suggest a correction. The argument is mainly sound, but it overlooks the fact that words are the instruments of God's thoughts as well as man's. There is One Man in the world who is also God, and He has given us some things that we can know and some forms of words that have a meaning both definite and certain. And we might add that even in the use of ordinary words by ordinary men, men do succeed in using their poor human words definitely enough to make binding agreements with one another. It is quite common for men to make agreements which both sides are expected to understand, in which both sides are expected to agree, and which can be interpreted with authority by a court of law, as to what they really do mean. Words are taken as having ascertainable meanings in the walks of our common life. But there is an increasing tendency among thinkers of the Protestant type to maintain that in religion words can never represent anything more than approximations to the truth, and therefore no forms of words can rightly be limited to any particular meaning. Here a direct issue is joined between Catholics and Protestants. "Fixedness of interpretation is of the essence of creeds." That is the Catholic view. I quote the phrase from the Pastoral Letter of our American Bishops in 1894. But it is now a common Protestant contention that "to impose any particular interpretation upon any clause of the Creed is to add to the Creed." I acknowledge with pain that I have taken this quotation also from an Episcopalian writer, no less a person than Dr. Headlam, now Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford University. "To impose any particular interpretation upon any clause of the Creed is to add to the Creed." Dr. Headlam meant quite particularly that if a Bishop dealing with Clergymen or Ordination Candidates should insist that "born of the Virgin Mary" in the Apostles' Creed meant necessarily "born without human fatherhood," such a Bishop would be adding to the Creed!

I will spend no time in arguing whether it is, or it is not, honest to profess a Creed while one holds precisely the opinions which that Creed was intended to save men from holding. I will only say that when one is dealing with persons who do as a matter of fact hold this theory of ambiguity, the theory that no creed can justly be held to mean any particular thing rather than the opposite thing, one must recognize that with such persons the subscribing of a creed can never be a safeguard of any belief, nor yet a test of the subscriber's actual opinions.

Let me give you two examples of the working of this new mental habit of "ambiguity." The first may be of interest as showing that this "new" habit is not so very new, after all, for the illustration comes from sixty years ago. I have been told that the great Congregationalist thinker, Dr. Horace Bushnell, once said, "I can subscribe any creed that ever was put forth by any Christian Church." The idea seems to be that all creedal statements were but attempts to express the inexpressible, and therefore any man had a right to read his own aspiring thoughts into any formula that the wit of man could devise.

My second example is taken out of my own experience. A high-minded and generous gentleman, a Congregationalist minister, whom I knew and valued a few years since, stated his view of the Divinity of our Lord in a printed paper in these words, "I recognize in Jesus the divinity that is in all men." That was a frankly Unitarian statement. If one is to search among ancient definitions of "shades of meaning," it would have been called in the 4th century "Anomaean." It would have made such a moderate heretic as Arius feel dissatisfied. But this same thoughtful and most conscientious student once told me that he should have no difficulty in saying the Nicene Creed! I may add that he told me also that when it came to the Apostles' Creed he should feel uncomfortable. Can you see his point? This good and fine man felt that the Nicene Creed was written in the language of theologians, and he had come to regard the phrases of theologians as arrows shot into the air, not to be understood as having any fixed value. The Apostles' Creed struck him as being written in the language of the plain man, the speech of every day. He did not believe those things, and he was not going to say so. Our concern, our painful concern, is that an increasing number of theologians are claiming the privilege of accepting, and saying, not only Protestant Confessions, but our old Catholic Creeds, when their inner thoughts are just opposite in places to the thoughts which those Creeds were framed to express.

A very distinguished Congregational minister, a former Moderator of their Triennial National Council, and I may add, a prominent representative of Congregationalism at the Conference on Faith and Order held at Geneva, last August, has recently been urging the reunion of Congregationalists and Unitarians. Their difference, Dr. Nehemiah Boynton told them, was "solely an intellectual difference." That would seem to mean that to this good man no matters of religious belief are of fundamental importance in the ordering of a man's life. The difference between worshipping the Lord Jesus and not worshipping Him is a mere difference of opinion. There follows from such thinking a third characteristic of our modern Protestantism,

(3) The Substitution of Morality for Religion.

In this age of scientific accuracy men are justly impatient of guess-work. They don't want opinions. They want facts. A member of the Faculty of a great College said once in my hearing, "When I go to Church, I don't want to be instructed. I want to have my feeling for right things stimulated. I should feel insulted, if a preacher tried to instruct me from the pulpit." I think that the more thoughtful Protestant teachers argue in their hearts—perhaps only half-consciously, sometimes,—that, as Almighty God has not given to man any possibility of making sure that anything is true, it must be that the truth is not one of man's essential needs. If a man can never be sure of getting any religious opinions right, why should he bother himself with religious opinions at all? Why should he have any? Why should he hear any? The one important thing is to do right. Let the pulpit occupy itself with justice and mercy, and let truth go.

Of course, there will always be men who are essentially thinkers. They must think. They believe that seeking truth perpetually is one of the ennobling pursuits of life, no matter how much one may stumble and fall, as one presses forward along the climbing way. They must think, and they must think about God. But these are the minority. For the average man Protestantism teaches duty as a general thing, and lets doctrine go. Catholicism teaches, on the other hand, that Almighty God has given men something in the way of truth that they can be sure of, and goes on to argue that inasmuch as God has taken pains to give his people a gift of certain truth, it must be that they need to receive that gift, and use it. God would not have given it to them, if there was not some great use and value in it. Our Lord speaks of His Father as having hidden some things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes. This great mass of the world's people who are, comparatively speaking, babes rather than philosophers,—for them the Catholic Church holds a treasure of truth in trust. And the Catholic Church goes on to claim that you cannot have true religion, which includes worship of God and fellowship with God, unless God stoops to make Himself known to men and to give Himself to men. I must not stop to argue which is right. I only say that it is a patent fact that Protestant pulpits as a rule teach duty, and do not teach doctrine. And if any Protestant brother complains that I spoke of substituting morality for religion, I say to him that I hear from every side in Protestant circles a gasping cry that somehow the Churches do lack religion. "Worship, a lost Art" is a phrase with which Protestantism is familiar. I make hold to say that the neglect of assured doctrinal teaching in any Church leads inevitably to the decay of religion itself. And the decay is there before men's eyes. Protestantism acknowledges that it is harder and harder for it to get men to go to Church. It keeps asking over and over, "Why don't men go to Church? "And the simple answer is, "Men do not go to church, because they have not been taught religion."

But even a deeper failure of Modern Protestantism is that which I shall name as its fourth characteristic,—

(4) Its Failure to Offer Remedies for Sin.

Some of my Protestant friends would want to cry out against me, if they heard me say such a thing as that; but it would be because they did not understand what it was that I had in mind. I am not speaking now of the forgiveness of sins, but of salvation out of the habit of sin. As to forgiveness, Protestants are much divided. The older school still clings to the idea of atonement by a sacrificial death. The newer school teaches that God is bound by His own love to forgive all sins of all men, and that no machinery of atonement is required. I pass that subject by, to point out that Protestantism offers men no means of grace to help them to escape out of the habit of sinning. It tries to bring them to be on God's side by conversion. It tells them that having chosen God's side they ought now to live on God's side. What can it do to help them? It sets before them the help of prayer, the help of Bible study, the help of Church attendance, the help of fellowship of Christian men and women. But it offers no Sacrament of Absolution, to set them free from their own failures, no Sacrament of Life, to empower them and strengthen them for their new course, no Sacrament of the Seven Gifts of the Indwelling Spirit of God. It naturally follows that in the preaching of Protestant Churches there is a defect of the teaching that Christian life should be a life of growth. Doubtless many Protestants feel deeply that all life must be a growing thing. Doubtless from many Protestant pulpits men are urged to watch over themselves to see that they do grow in grace. But in the Protestant pulpit taken broadly, I think that it is a plain fact that there is a defect of insistence upon this divine fact of life, that life must grow. At any rate, there is what must seem to us Catholics a tragical defect of helps to grow. There is a great deal of admirable moral teaching. Men are told that they ought to do what is right, shown finely what is finely right, in many lines, but when it comes to the solemn question, "What shall we do, when we fail?" I think that Protestantism has generally no answer but the answer of the old Pelagian heresy,—"If a man really wants to do right, he can do right. All that you have to do is to make up your mind to do the right thing, and go on and do it." "Means of Grace" are to Protestantism things unknown, undreamed of.

But the hope of glory! Ah! That our Modern Protestantism has in large measure. The fifth characteristic, the last which I shall name, is—

(5) Its Habit of Regarding Death as a Sacrament of Life.

I think that you will not at once understand that heading. Let me state it in another way. Protestantism leads men to look for salvation through getting rid of their bodies. Further to clear up what I mean, I must talk a little theology. Catholicism teaches men that their hope of everlasting life, and so of everlasting happiness, is in receiving a gift of new life from above, in fact, a share in the very life of Jesus, the God-Man. We Catholics are taught that we receive that life in our Baptism, that when we lose our hold on that gift, we are restored by our Absolutions, that we gain fresh power and enlargement of that life in our Communions. Our Christian life, we are told, consists in learning to live in the power of our Lord's life, and not in our own. Protestantism teaches men, on the other hand, that their hope of life is in the education, the training, the discipline, the purging, if need be, of the life that is their own. Catholicism teaches men to bring everlasting life down from God, and make it their own. Protestantism teaches men to lift up their own life, and make it everlasting. What, then, will happen, when we die? The Catholic is taught that nothing but a perfect life can enter Heaven. But the life in which he has been living for years is the perfect life of the Son of God. As a Christian he has been trying to purge himself of all the forces of life that were his own, and live only in those of the Crucified and Glorified Lord. His hope is that God will give him now a larger purging, in fact, a complete purging, till only the life of Jesus is left. He cannot think that that complete purgation can be accomplished all at once, but in that purgation is his hope. "Ye are dead," is his motto, "Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." The Protestant comes to die, and if he be a religious man at all, he must feel that he is not ready for the Presence of God. Perhaps he has been faithfully struggling to make himself a good servant of God for years. Perhaps he is conscious that he has never given much attention to God in all his life. But he has been a good citizen, a good husband and father, a good friend and neighbor. He is sure that God, the All-Loving, will not cast him away. What can he think? He remembers the funeral services that he has attended, the things that choirs have sung, the things that preachers of funeral sermons have said. He has been taught that the death of all good, respectable people admits them to a state of perfect happiness. If he is in the least thoughtful, he must realize that a perfect happiness cannot be except in a perfect life. I will give Protestantism the credit of still emphasizing that idea. But now the man knows himself painfully imperfect. He is shut up to one conclusion,—the passage through death must be a passage from imperfection to perfection. The soul has an affinity for God, and when it is parted from the hampering flesh, it will be straightway assimilated to God. I do not mean to say that this has been taught by any Protestant teacher in so many words. I do not suppose that it has been thought out. But the atmosphere of Protestantism is filled with an undefined feeling about death, a less than conscious attitude toward death, such as I have tried to indicate. And I hold that the harm of it is great. We Catholics have been accused of teaching "salvation by sacraments," and of having a magical notion of sacraments. But at least we constantly insist that sacraments (except in the case of the unconscious infant) bring no help and no value to any person that does not meet them with a right disposition of the soul, with faith and repentance and a solemn purpose of surrender to the will of God. And our whole conception of sacraments is that they are gifts of power given to be turned to use, and depending on the using. We have dreamed of such a thing as a sacrament that could transform an imperfect life into a perfect life in a moment of time, and without any corresponding efforts of the receiver. Such a view of the effect of the parting of soul and body is magical indeed. Mors, Janua vitae, is a fine old Latin saying. "Death is the Gate of Life." As it was meant, it is profoundly true. Death is the gate of life to every soul that passes through that gateway fortified and enriched with the indwelling Life of God. But I know no more poisonous teaching current in the world today than that which allows men to think of death as a doorway to which the man may approach who has not the Life of God, and passing through, find life,—just his own life, transfigured,—on the other side.

VII. The End. The Movement has Moved from Certainty to Uncertainty. It Must Move on from Uncertainty to Unbelief.

To what end is Protestantism moving? It has moved, I have said, from Certainty to Uncertainty. And now at last the Protestant man is beginning to know that he does not know. He has been uncertain, increasingly doubtful about his belief, for two generations. Now he is fully conscious that there is nothing in religion that he can really know. But when you have no reason to know a thing you cannot believe it. This is a point which I must press upon you. I ask your best attention to it. Belief is accepting a thing as true on the authority of someone else who says that it is true. You may believe a thing on very insufficient authority. But to believe a thing is to take it for true on authority somehow, on the strength of some testimony that you think worthy of belief. Believing is accepting a thing on testimony which seems to entitle you to be sure. When you know that you have no reason to be sure of a thing, you may persuade yourself to think it, but you cannot believe. But what happens when men have believed something for years on the authority of a witness, and then find out gradually that that witness is not worthy of credit? Why perhaps they will go on believing his story for a good while, because they have been in the habit of accepting it, and nobody reminds them that it was because of that authority that they first came to believe. That happens in religion. When men have lost old foundations of belief out of their minds, they will, as a general thing, go on for a good while believing whatever they have formed a habit of believing in their youth. An age-long tradition of believing certain things gathers momentum in any community, and momentum is a force that cannot be annihilated when it meets an obstacle. It has somehow continuing effect. What any group of religious men have long believed they will go on believing for a while, even after their grounds for believing those same things are entirely gone. But in the long run reason will assert itself against such an irrational tradition. When the foundations on which beliefs once rested are gone out of men's minds, men will, I say again, go on believing as they did before—for a while. But as they grow to be conscious that they know nothing, and have no grounds for knowing, in the next generation, or in a few generations at the most, belief will disappear. It is an end inevitable. Unbelief must come.

I have compared the Protestant movement to a stream. It is a stream of tendency. When it started with the rejection of the authority of the Catholic Church as a witness to the Catholic Faith, it started on a line which led by logical consequence to the denial of all authority. It set up a notion of individual infallibility of every true Christian, and that notion is gone. The defenders of that idea are historical curiosities. The idea of an infallible Bible is fast going. One can predict its total disappearance out of the Protestant world, as confidently as an astronomer can predict a total eclipse of the sun. I add another confident prediction. The end to which Protestantism leads, the end toward which it is fast going, is the entire extinction from what men may still call "religion," of anything that can be described as "belief."

This will seem to some Protestant friends of mine, if they shall ever see what I have written here, a hard saying. They will look at the great company of noble souls who are to-day enlisted in the service of Religion under the banner of Protestantism, and they will say, "A movement led by such prophets will never be suffered by Almighty God to go down to such an end." In reply to that protest I have just two words to say. The first is that when a movement takes a wrong course, prophets cannot stay it from going on to the inevitable result. Judaism had prophets, but Judaism took the wrong turn, and had to be set aside from making history. The second is that there are no real endings in God's world. Men's endings are God's beginnings. I hold the Protestant Movement to be a movement of noble forces following a wrong direction. I am sure that the movement will have to be set aside and left behind in God's making of history, but those "noble forces" of which I spoke will have their recognized place in God's great History of the World. "Protestantism," the scheme, will die. But the work of its saints and sages and martyrs will live. Schemes may end, but great souls and their gifts to God will find their place in a work which lives on forever.

Project Canterbury