A Tale of Two Protestantisms

In our supervisory meeting yesterday, Oliver O’Donovan went off on another of his delightful and delightfully illuminating tangents, a tangent that helped make remarkable sense of my own conflicted experience in the Reformed tradition–first in a quite narrow and parochial Southern Presbyterian context, then in a “Federal Vision” context that aspired to a more “catholic” perspective, but seemed unable or unwilling to follow through, retreating always to the comforting black-and-white dualities of the Reformed tradition they knew and loved, and finally in an Anglican context that, though historically rooted in the Reformed tradition, is despised by most who wear that badge today, and seems more than content to distance itself from it.   

The problem is, suggests O’Donovan, that there were actually two quite distinct Reformed traditions from quite early on, and the difference can be seen, as plain as day, in the contrast between the Scots Confession and the Thirty-Nine Articles.  The Scots Confession holds as an article of faith the existence of an anti-Church, alongside the true Church, an anti-Church presided over by an anti-Christ, the Pope–this notion later became enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, to the considerable embarrassment of 19th- and 20th- century adherents of it.  Ch. 18 of the Scots Confession opens this way: 

“Since Satan has labored from the beginning to adorn his pestilent synagogue with the title of the kirk of God, and has incited cruel murderers to persecute, trouble, and molest the true kirk and its members, as Cain did to Abel, Ishmael to Isaac, Esau to Jacob, and the whole priesthood of the Jews to Christ Jesus himself and his apostles after him. So it is essential that the true kirk be distinguished from the filthy synagogues by clear and perfect notes lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace, to our own condemnation, the one for the other.”  

In other words, it is possible for portions of the visible Church to become not merely rotten branches, but in fact, “synagogues of Satan”–part of an anti-Church that must be utterly repudiated and purged out.  For the Scots, this was precisely what the Roman Church had become, and so one of the first things the Scottish Reformation did was to suspend all Masses in Scotland.  Only once the anti-Church had been put out of business could a true Church with a true Eucharist be put in its place.  A bad church was no church, a bad priest no priest, a bad Eucharist no Eucharist.  In short, Donatism.

This contrasts sharply with what was going on in England.  In England, the Mass was seen as riddled with corruptions, and in need of great reforms, but no one thought of simply stopping all the Masses–after all, the Mass was the Eucharistic service–just a really bad one.  So the liturgy was reformed in stages, rather than being abolished and replaced.  And no one thought of telling the laity to stop attending the services their parish priest was conducting, even if he was still a papist–of course not!  He was still their priest, and this was still a Eucharist, and they were to go partake in faith and receive grace, even if he was going to receive damnation.  A bad church was still a church, a bad priest was still a priest, a bad Eucharist was still a Euchrist.  This understanding, inherited from Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings, is articulated forcefully in Art. 26 of the Thirty-Nine Articles:

“Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometime the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments; yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing the word of God and in the receiving of the sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.”

The one Protestantism saw little need of historical continuity; for the other, it was clear that the Church reformed must be the same entity as the Church needing-to-be-reformed.  The one Protestantism thought that to be a true Christian, you had to deny that Catholics were Christians; the other thought this was absurd, since they professed the faith, Scripture, and the creeds, and practiced baptism and the eucharist.  The one was characterized by an ethos that was always on guard against the marks of a “synagogue of Satan”–any part of the Church might cease to be so, and we must be constantly vigilant, and ready to withdraw ourselves from it if it did; the other was characterized by an ethos which considered purity necessary for the well-being of the Church, to be sure, but not its being, and which thus sought to take differences of opinion and corruptions of practice in stride, as matters that must be resolved for the health of the Church, but upon which its very life did not depend.  

No wonder that these two Protestantisms found themselves unable to live side-by-side for long.  The English and the Scotch churches struggled with growing tensions, until these exploded in the chaos of the 1640s (of course, then the impulses of English Puritanism, which shared the Scotch assumptions, also boiled to the surface).  And this was not, says O’Donovan, merely a British phenomenon.  The same two strains can be found in the Dutch Reformed churches–indeed, the more moderate strain was at first more dominant, until Beza exerted his influence to move the Dutch churches toward a stricter kind of Calvinism, which finally won the day at the Synod of Dordt.  This landmark conference O’Donovan sees as the decisive rout for the moderate (more authentically Protestant, one might add) Reformed viewpoint–and as, needless to say, about much much more than just predestination, which is all we think of the Synod of Dordt as.  Since then, the moderate Dutch Reformed were in many ways driven underground, the Anglicans steadily detached themselves from a Reformed identity they wanted no part of, and the Donatist mentality seized hold of the subsequent heirs of the Reformed tradition, and remains deeply entrenched today in America.


Oversimplified?  I have no doubt–it was an off-the-cuff ramble.  But it sure makes a lot of sense of a lot of vexing questions.