Friday, August 13, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Nominally Protestant, Leaning Catholic

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Faith alone. Scripture alone. 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic declaration of these biblical truths — truths fundamental to Protestantism and, more importantly, to a clear and consistent understanding of what God has spoken to mankind in his word.

Tom: This piece ran in Christianity Today earlier this year, Immanuel Can, in which Sarah Zylstra argues (based on the findings of a Pew Research poll) that many of the estimated 560 million Protestants around the world today no longer believe justification with God depends on faith alone or that scripture is the only final authority for Christian faith and practice. They are nominally Protestant, but leaning Catholic.

If true, that would seem a little discouraging.

Definitions and Ambiguities

Immanuel Can: I’m not sure. The first problem is knowing what is meant by “Christian” or even by “Protestant”. Liberal definitions usually take for granted that if a particular person regards himself (or herself) as under one of these two labels, then he must be assumed to be correct about that. But that’s a bit like thinking that everybody who goes into a sports team’s stadium — perhaps dressed in team colors — must be on the team.

Tom: Agreed. Another problem is polling. Even when we know what questions people are answering, we don’t really know how they understand the questions.

With regard to the issue of sola fide, for instance, it looks like respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven.” Now, if we’re being technical, and if we’re talking about 10 seconds after a profession of salvation, the obvious answer is no, it’s faith alone that saves. But respondents don’t always put a technical construction on the words of survey-takers, and pollsters rarely provide a way to clarify ambiguities. So let’s say that ten years have passed since I claimed to trust Christ for my salvation and my life has not changed in any way, to some people this question becomes a little murkier. That’s not because they believe works save, but because they know that faith that doesn’t produce works is questionable at best.

So a person might say “yes” to that statement and be quite orthodox provided he or she understands that good deeds accompany salvation rather than contributing to it.

IC: That’s a relevant example — and, of course, not the only one.

In sum, when looking at these polls, we’re not sure whom they mean by “Christian” (or “Protestant”, or “evangelical”, or whatever), and we’re not sure that the respondents understood the questions in the way we would, or in the way the writers are happy to assume they did. So we would be unwise to jump to belief in what the article claims without knowing these things first.

All the Religious Guidance Christians Need

Tom: A third problem: Zylstra is using the poll to argue that Protestants have moved from Luther’s original position on these matters, when I’m not sure the poll statement accurately represents Luther’s position.

For instance, for the purpose of their poll Pew defined sola scriptura this way: “The Bible provides all religious guidance Christians need.” But Luther was not exactly dealing with the question of guidance, was he? He was concerned about final authority. It seems to me his argument was not that all saved individuals are innately capable of discerning precisely what the Holy Spirit is saying without any assistance from their brothers and sisters in Christ. The real-world evidence would seem to be that much of the time they are not.

IC: Right. His real contribution was on the issue of whether or not scripture and faith alone (sola) were authoritative to the individual conscience, once their interpretation was clear. But there’s no indication he expected every person to become his or her own exclusive arbiter of truth.

And to take it one step further, even if he had done so, not all of Luther’s ideas were good. We know some were errors on his part, and some were just the follies of a fallible man (like his retaining of clergy, or his anti-Semitism). So they aren’t the touchstone of Protestant truth anyway: they were, at most, just a first-but-incomplete step in what turned out to be a generally better direction. But Luther was wrong about some things. That’s clear.

The Authority of the Word

Tom: I think what Luther was arguing was that whether or not any particular Christian correctly understands them, the final authority for faith and practice resides in the scriptures, not in the Pope or in the historic formulations of theologians or in the current practice and interpretations of Catholicism. Put another way, sola scriptura is really not a statement about the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual human heart; it’s a statement about the authority and sufficiency of the Word itself.

As to the matter of guidance, that’s a different thing, and I would argue the suggestion that any individual believer can be complete or mature on the basis of his own reading of the word of God without the input of other Christians is foreign to the New Testament. We have been placed in a spiritual Body for a reason, have we not?

IC: Well, yes indeed. One of the things we’re there for is to help each other to understand. Another is to serve as counterbalances for the imbalances that all particular people have. A third would be corporate worship. Another would be that we would have a community to serve … and so on. But in regard to interpretation, having to justify scripturally our interpretations in the presence of a knowledgeable community of involved others is essential to weeding out false teaching and to discovering the practical applications of good teaching. “Individual alone” was not one of Luther’s solas.

Tom: Correct. All to say, a poll that doesn’t accurately state Luther’s position isn’t much use as evidence respondents are departing from it.

The Road to Somewhere

And not to belabor this, but there’s a fourth issue here with respect to polling “Protestants” about what they believe, and that is that even saved people come in all levels of experience and spiritual maturity. We’re all on the road to somewhere in our thinking, and nobody can say for sure where until he arrives. So a man can be a genuine believer in Jesus Christ but not fully clear on all the theological details of his salvation. Apollos seems to have been that way at one point until Priscilla and Aquila took him aside.

So when you go out and conduct a single poll of thousands of self-described Protestants, at any given moment you are capturing data on some number of brand-new Protestants, ignorant Protestants, immature Protestants and poorly-taught Protestants. That’s normal; it’s not something to panic about. These people are somewhere in the process of learning about what the Bible teaches. The fact that some significant number of Protestants seem to have incomplete knowledge about the mechanics of salvation or the sufficiency of scripture doesn’t necessarily mean Protestants are reverting to Catholicism en masse.

IC: Actually, I’m pretty sure that the only way one can revert to Catholicism is “in Mass”.  ;)

Tom: Uh … yeah. Now what would indicate a mass reversion might be underway is if you poll some people who say they agree with Luther, and then come back in five years and ask them the same question, and find that in between they have decided scripture alone, or faith alone, are no longer enough for them. THEN you’ve got a problem.

IC: Yes, that would do it.

Correlation and Causation

I found this remark from Pew Research curious:

“Analysis of the data shows that for Protestants, knowing that only Protestantism traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone is closely linked with believing that salvation comes through faith alone.”

The implication seems to be that these people reason this way:

P1: Protestants traditionally believe that salvation is by faith alone.
P2: I’m a Protestant.
C: Therefore, I believe that salvation is through faith alone.

My worry is the word “traditionally”. In other words, the insinuation is that their conviction is more a matter of wanting to stay in the tradition than in knowing what they’re talking about. Do you think that’s fair?

Tom: Well, I think it’s a bogus conclusion, if that’s what they’re claiming. It doesn’t follow necessarily. Correlation is not causation. It may be that the general reasoning is more like this:

P1: I believe the Bible teaches that salvation is by faith alone.
P2: Only Protestants seem to consistently accept this truth.
C: Therefore, I will be happier identifying with Protestants rather than people who don’t all believe what I do.

Or the most common formulation may be something else entirely. I don’t think there is any unambiguous evidence in the poll results about how these two things are tied together in Protestant minds, or that all Protestants reason the same way.

IC: Yes, it’s an open question whether people are choosing their theology based on their current tradition or are choosing their tradition based on which one has good theology. This survey would not tell us which way it was, even if the results it lists were being reported with perfect fidelity. So no conclusion about that follows from the data.

Surveys and Reality

But just tell me what you see, Tom. Do you observe that the Protestants you know still seem to have a reasonable hold on the basics of the gospel?

Tom: Some do, some don’t, but I really believe that’s inevitable whenever you try to make an assessment about the spiritual state of an entire group. I’m convinced that sort of evaluation is beyond our pay grade for a couple of reasons: (1) the visible church in this world is a mixture of unbelievers and believers, and (2) the believers too are a mixture of mature and immature, taught and untaught. Elijah, for all that he was a truly godly man and a prophet, once tried to make an assessment of the spiritual state of Israel, and his conclusions were dead wrong. Elijah said, “I alone am left,” and God answered, “I have reserved to myself 7,000.” The poor guy’s ad hoc survey of Israel was off by a factor of 7,000x.

So what matters is not what Pew Research thinks about the Protestants of this world, or how Christianity Today interprets their survey results, but what Jesus Christ thinks about the state of those he knows to be his, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, mature or almost completely ignorant.

IC: Okay, fair enough. Would you say that, at the end of the day, this poll has any particular value for us?

Tom: Absolutely. Justification by faith alone and the ultimate authority of scripture are priceless truths, and we all ought to be thankful to God for Martin Luther’s rediscovery and popularization of them. So if the poll — or, for that matter, CT’s article about it, or even our little discussion about both — ends up causing a single Christian to go back to the Bible to examine the basis for his or her beliefs, I’d say there’s great value there.

IC: Right on. I agree with that, for sure.


  1. You are missing a very obvious point here, namely that basically every reader of scripture does their own interpretation. The Pope does nothing else and so do many scholars. With Protestantism you simply have several million Popes interpreting scripture and who can tell who has the best one? Of course people have recognized this as a problem, not only for scripture but for any type of significant text in any type of field and the correct interpretation is therefore traditionally assumed to be provided by the "experts." Therefore to blame the Pope for his office and responsibilities is somewhat disingenuous, since this type of thing goes on everywhere in every field including in Protestantism. E.g., over here you yourselves are definitely claiming the mantle of (self-appointed) expert or Pope, no difference, except perhaps for the trimmings. Personally, I see this to be almost necessary that the experts guide us and are advantageously listened to. I certainly could guide you in my field of expertise if that was needed and advantageous. Now, it is also clear that there are many experts where some are good ones and many are self-appointed poor ones, so that one must choose wisely. I have no problem placing my trust and confidence in the person of the Pope in religious matters but would have a problem doing this with engineering. Similarly I do have a problem placing my confidence regarding biblical interpretation in Protestant doctrines promulgated by self-appointed experts like Martin Luther, e.g.. Note that the delegating of interpretation of information to the experts will always be a flawed process, probably sometimes to the point of outright fraud, in order to gain and maintain advantages for the group or societal segment claiming to be the resource and reservoir for a particular field of knowledge. Obviously there is a whole spectrum of how people deal with this problem that is based on their personal ability, outlook, knowledge, inclination, gullibility, etc. and therefore results in some pretty bad aberrations especially concerning difficult or non-verifiable fields and topics like religion.

  2. E.g., over here you yourselves are definitely claiming the mantle of (self-appointed) expert or Pope, no difference, except perhaps for the trimmings.

    I like to think we're suggesting what we believe the scripture teaches, in the hope that our readers will look to the Bible itself for confirmation.

    I certainly hope nobody reading here confuses us with the "last word" on anything.

    1. Indeed.

      I would have hoped that my chosen pseudonym made my position on that sort of issue absolutely clear. If it didn't, let me put it any matter you can find wherein the explicit word of God and I happen to differ, I guarantee you that I am the one in the wrong.

      End of story.