Dale M. Coulter has a short and interesting article at the First Thoughts blog entitled: “The Problem of Constructive Protestantism”.
In a follow-up post he titles “The Essence of Protestantism?”, Lutheran blogger Gene Veith notes that “For Niebuhr, the essence of Protestantism is the unmediated relationship between the individual and God’s Word. The issue then becomes how Protestantism can create or even support institutions.”
He goes on to quote a good chunk of Coulter’s piece. The bold is mine:
“For Niebuhr, Protestantism was always a revitalizing movement grounded in the kingdom of God as “the apprehension of God’s primacy, immediacy, and nearness.” It presupposed the divine initiative in the life of every person without the need for mediation. Justification was the Word’s direct address to the soul in which, as Luther put it, “the Word infused its qualities.” Hence the freedom of a Christian was grounded upon the free initiative of God. On this basis, Protestants could question all institutional forms of mediation as falling short of the living Word of God who called such institutions to account, whether they were ecclesiastical or political. They could stand on scripture alone as the Word’s final address to fallen human beings.
Having announced the freedom of the Christian in the immediacy of the kingdom of God, Protestantism emancipated persons from all forms of institutional authority. It went further, however, and placed prophetic criticism in their hands by declaring them all priests who received directly from the living Word. While Niebuhr differentiated this prophetic mode of Protestantism from medieval mysticism, it was in fact the mystics’ conception of an unmediated union with God taken as a doctrinal presupposition. This is the importance of the connection between the early Luther and the Rhineland mystics like Johann Tauler, or between Luther, Calvin, and Bernard of Clairvaux. It could also be viewed in the Radical Reformers insistence on the new birth as a powerful baptism in the Spirit.
The Protestant principle, as Niebuhr conceived it, “was not self-organizing but threatened anarchy in every sphere of life.” Having proclaimed the sole authority of the Word of God to rule the Church and the world, the immediate question was, “how so?”—a question Protestants have been debating ever since. This was another way of declaring the problem of a constructive principle within Protestantism. Niebuhr saw facing this problem as returning to the early Christian attempt to formulate a way to live in a world both under the sovereign rule of God and corrupted and in rebellion against God.
This is very interesting stuff. I recently came across a quotation from Bruce McCormack, a Presbyterian theologian who focuses on modern theology (particularly Karl Bath), that would seem to fit with the Niebuhr quote like hand in glove:
“The Reformers’ forensic understanding of justification … the idea of an immediate divine imputation [of righteousness] renders superfluous the entire Catholic system of the priestly mediation of grace by the Church.” — (Bruce McCormack, What’s at Stake in the Current Debates over Justification, from Husbands and Treier’s “Justification”, pg 82.)
So I wonder: is this the essence of the Reformed faith? Does the idea of the sovereignty of God go hand in hand with this focus on the individual vis a vis the institution of the Church (think of marriage as an institution, or as some Orthodox say: “not an organization with mystery but a mystery with organization”)?
If so, I can see how some might think the same thing about even serious Lutheranism. After all, didn’t Coulter quote Luther saying much the same thing as McCormack? I would argue that confessional Lutheranism is worlds away from this. It is not focused on the personal relationship with God even as it is keen to point out a) the difficult and sacrificial role of the prophetic individual (think Girard a bit here) in the institution of the church, and b) that theology is for proclamation, and hence the preaching of this word to individual sinners must be taken into account.
Lutherans must insist that the Christian faith cannot be based on the individual and his relationship with God. If it were, then in effect there could be no other person who could in real confidence tell you, in your time of despair, that Christ really does forgive and save even you. In other words, they are not only saying to you that “good works are not necessary for salvation” (listen to this podcast by Jordan Cooper on Mark Jone’s book about antinomianism) but that the appropriation of Christian faith does not ultimately depend on you, the naked individual before God.
Rather, it is given. Therefore, we even have pastors – irreplaceable in the church’s structure – who as God’s officially appointed representatives can bring true comfort to even the most authority-minded person:
“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“To even the most authority-minded persons” – yes, that would be Martin Luther, as I argued in my series “The Coming Vindication of Martin Luther”. Luther realized that this kind of thing needed to happen in institutional of Christ’s church, where the means of grace were to be delivered in all of their richness: the regular preaching of the Word and the administration of baptism and the Supper (see here if you are Reformed) – really and truly for forgiveness, life and salvation.
Coulter writes of these “Protestants”:
“Christians must give their answers in each historical moment by faith alone, an act that occurs amidst the tension between life in the invisible communion of the saints and the fact that no visible institution embodies that communion fully. It is to live, most of all, before the Word whose free initiative brings freedom.”
I cannot speak for those in the Reformed camp. As for my house, audacious as it sounds, the church of confessional Lutheranism has always claimed to be a true visible church. I like to put it this way: we don’t need to insist that every other communion out there is not this, but that we only know this one to be fully so.
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