Protestant Implications for Doctrine and Unity

In this article, I'd like to break from my normal genre and speak directly to our Protestant friends for a moment. Not about any particular point of dogma, but about the concept of dogma itself, and how this relates to the question of Christian unity. What, for a Protestant, is dogma? How do you Protestants define it? For a Catholic, a dogma is a teaching that has been revealed by God and must be believed with the assent of faith that is due to God, who cannot lie and whose teaching is sure - and what falls into this category is defined by the Church's Magisterium. But for a Protestant, what is dogma? And how does it relate to the concept of Christian unity?

Let us start from a point of agreement. You Protestants, like us Catholics, assert that the Church is one. Our Lord prays in John 17 "that they all may be one, even as we are one," referring to Himself and God the Father. Moreover, this oneness Christ prays for is not a oneness that is not yet realized; in other words, we do not pray for oneness as if it is an attribute the Church does not already possess. The Scriptures are clear that the Church, in its very nature, is one. This is why St. Paul says, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6). The oneness of the Church is one of its essential characteristics, what Catholics call one its marks.

Here we agree; Protestants, like Catholics, teach that the Church is, right now, one. How could anyone say otherwise when St. Paul and Christ have declared it so? Thus, we see language about unity of doctrine and the oneness of the Church even in Protestant hymns. For example, consider the well-known classic Anglican hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers." In the third verse of the famous hymn, we see these words:

"Like a mighty army moves the church of God; brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod. We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity."

This classic hymn of traditional Protestantism proudly proclaims "we are not divided" and lauds Protestant Christianity as "one in hope and doctrine", an example of how even Protestantism professes the oneness of the Church.

Now, it is not the purpose of this essay to point out that the concept of worldwide Protestantism united in hope and doctrine goes beyond exaggeration and hyperbole. Even you Protestants admit that there is no formal unity in the gaggle of Protestant denominations. But yet you admit that the Church is one. How to solve this dilemma?

I suppose, if I were Protestant, the only solution to reconcile the contradiction between the formal disunity of Protestant congregations and the unity that the Scriptures teach would be to assert that the unity the Church possesses is not the sort of formal, physical unity the Catholic Church believes in. The unity the Church possesses must be a different sort of unity, some kind of invisible unity that can subsist despite formal, physical disunion - a sort of "unity in disunity", as one Protestant explained it to me.

But to have any meaning, to be anything other than a mere notion, this unity must have some objective signification. In the Catholic Church, the unity is manifested in a unity of worship, unity of doctrine, and apostolic succession. These signs of unity are guaranteed and protected by the Holy Spirit, who is the soul of the Church and by whom the Church participates in the very unity of the Trinity. They are also external signs that are tangible and objectively verifiable.

So, if Protestant unity is to be anything other than purely subjective, what sort of objective criteria of unity can you propose to give substance to the claim that Christians are "one"?

Because there is such diversity of opinion in Protestant sects about who Christ is and how He is to be worshiped, the most that can be said about unity of worship is a vague conception that "we all worship the same God." This ambiguous formula is useless, however, because since not all Protestants are Trinitarians (and not all Trinitarians are homoousians), the phrase "we all worship the same God" means nothing more specific than "we all believe in the Christian God", which is so vague as to be practically useless. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses use the same phraseology, and it is hard to argue that they should be excluded from this vague Protestant "unity" while Unitarians, Modalists ("Oneness" Christians) and Sabellians should be included.

Furthermore, unity based on apostolic succession is repudiated by Protestantism, so this cannot be a sign of unity, either.

Most of you Protestants, therefore, will rally around unity of dogma, asserting that "we all basically believe the same thing", and while acknowledging your manifold differences, will say, "Well, we agree on the essential dogmas, and that it was is most important." This collective sort of agreement on "essential dogmas" across denominational lines is the hook of unity upon which Protestantism will hang its hat.

I have to say, this is not an implausible argument outright. After all, many Catholics disagree on accidental or prudential matters and still remain in the unity of the Church, because as long as we can all agree on the dogmas of the faith and remain in communion with Rome, then it can be said that we have unity. So, Protestants claim that their disagreements among themselves are of the same nature: accidental to the essence of Christianity, about non-important matters that do not effect salvation. Examples often cited are whether or not one should speak in tongues, whether women should have leadership roles within the Church, whether healing still occur, and so on. "So you see," they will say, "we may have denominations that disagree on these issues, but we all agree on the fundamentals. Herein we find the unity of the Church."

But let us probe this a bit further. I ask you, what are these essentials that all Protestants agree on? I ask you to reflect on this concept and see how problematic it is. The three big problems with the "we all agree on essentials" concept:

1) Who decides what is an "essential" and what isn't? This argument implies that there is some body of essential doctrines that all Protestants already agree on, which essentially begs the question. So, all Protestants agree on essentials. What are essentials? Those things which all Protestants agree upon. See the problem here?

2) Is anything pertaining to Revelation non-essential? We also ought to ask ourselves, "Can anything that God revealed be considered accidental or non-essential to faith?" By saying, "We agree on essentials," Protestants thereby imply that there are other matters of faith that are non-essential. But if it has been revealed by God, who are we to say, by our own authority, that it is non-essential? Neither Christ nor the Apostles make this distinction.

3) Non-essentials are essential. Following the last point, if we look at what it is exactly that Protestants cannot agree upon, we begin to see that they are no mere accidental issues, but things central to salvation. For example, what are some things that St. Paul says are the most basic doctrines of Christianity? "Wherefore leaving the word of the beginning of Christ, let us go on to things more perfect, not laying again the foundation of penance from dead works, and of faith towards God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and imposition of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment" (Heb. 6:1-2). Here the Apostle says that the doctrines of baptism, the resurrection of the dead, judgment, and faith and works are foundational, elementary teachings. Yet these are some of the most contested teachings in Protestantism! Nothing divides Protestants like arguments about the role of baptism, the relationship between faith and works; whole denominations have split over questions of the last judgment and the role of laying on of hands, whether it is a communication of office as historic Christianity has attested or rather of charisms, as the charismatics and Pentecostals assert. My friend, whatever sort of Protestant you are, I venture to say that there is no doctrine you profess that has not been contested by another Protestant sect, and that most of these doctrines have been quite central to the faith.

Now let us return to the original question: What is a dogma? In practice, dogma has come to mean less and less in the Protestant world, because in an ecclesiology in which the only thing that binds all Christians together is a vague agreement on "essentials", a dogma cannot be that which some authoritative body proclaims as revealed by God, since no such authority exists in Protestantism; rather, dogma must become for you Protestants simply those things which the majority of you agree upon.

Yet because of the principles of private interpretation that Protestantism is built upon, the body of teaching you all agree upon is constantly shrinking. There is no agreement on the issue of homosexual so-called marriage. There are many large churches openly questioning the teaching on hell. Some deny the unique mediation of the Person of Jesus Christ, others the universality of His call to all people to follow Him. Increasingly, the pool of commonly accepted Protestant "essential" doctrines gets smaller and smaller.

This being the case, my Protestant friend, how can you preserve the notion that this invisible Church has any sort of unity? Well, if there is no agreement on the questions of, say, hell, or the sanctity of marriage, these things by definition must not be essential, since you do not all agree upon them? In essence, anything Protestants cannot agree upon is relegated to the realm of a non-essential, though some of these issues are anything but.

The answer to our original question is this: If you are a Protestant, the concept of "dogma" increasingly has no place. You have long ago rejected the idea of authoritative teaching, and simply going "back to the Bible" yields the Babel of confusion we are currently witnessing. Dogma must mean vaguely those teachings that all Protestants agree upon, which is increasingly shrinking as more Protestant churches challenge traditional Christian beliefs in an attempt to stay relevant.

In the end, you have no authoritative dogma because you have no real unity. The concept of an invisible Church united by an amorphous agreement on "essentials" is farcical. It is an imaginary construct invented to explain away the contradiction of maintaining the facade of Protestant Christian "unity" in spite of the practical fact of over twenty-thousand distinct denominations who all disagree on everything.

My Protestant friend, is this the unity Jesus Christ envisioned for the Church when He prayed that we all might be one? Not a "unity in disunity", but a unity that flows from the very unity of the Trinitarian life itself. Is this gaggle the sort of oneness of faith St. Paul boasted about in Ephesians 4? If you can honestly say yes, then words no longer have meaning.

Credo in unam, sanctam, catholicam, apostolicam ecclesiam.