Here are my notes for the talk I gave last night at the Grace Agenda.
Protestantism is thought by many to be a cold and austere thing, a tangle of negations, a deracinated approach to Christian faith, something that for two cents will slip into etiolated liberalism. Etiolated is what grass looks like when it grows under a board. Protestantism is thought (slanderously) to be a cerebral affair, with all the warmth of the blood drained out of it. And because enough time has gone by (centuries), we should not be surprised that even some of her sons have accepted this false account, failing to read their biographies and histories properly, and therefore assuming the role of being doctrinaire dullards.
And so I would begin with words from my favorite papist—Chesterton—who said that a courageous man should be willing to attack any error, no matter how ancient. But, he went on to add, there are some errors that are old enough that they should never be patronized. And may I suggest that Protestantism, having built a great civilization over the course of 500 years, should be included in the number of things that ought not to be patronized?
As we address this subject, we also ought to avoid accusing Protestantism of opposite errors, such that if the accusation is heeded in one direction, it creates the opportunity of accusing them of worsening in the other direction. In other words, accuse Protestants of having no “sense of place,” no “real identity,” no commitment to “belonging.” And then, if they do exhibit those traits, you can accuse them of being “sectarian,” “bigoted,” and closed-minded.” It works admirably in the other direction also. If you work on not being sectarian, they can always accuse you of being rootless, floating in mid-air, not knowing who your people are.
But I intend to speak today as a partisan, not a bigot. I love the Lord Jesus, and it is for that reason that I love Protestantism. This might strike some as odd, and others as perverse, and so it is that I wish to set before you the romance of Protestantism. Please bear with me.
Let Us Define Our Terms: Romance
C.S. Lewis once said this: “A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place.” This would indicate a belief that romance is a word that is chary of strict definition—although Lewis can certainly point to examples. In multiple places, for example, Lewis calls Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a “romance.” We are of course not talking about Gothic romances starring Lord Greyeyes, standing alone on the ancient bluffs, as the sea breeze ruffles his hair. We are talking about actual romances.
Following a sketch provided by Deborah Alcock, I want to say that a romance consists of four elements, which are courage, high endurance, generosity, and warm affection. We will come back to this, but for the meantime, compare those elements to Lewis’s standing example of LOTR. All four elements are there, and in abundant measure.
Let Us Define our Terms: Protestantism
As you all know, Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, 500 years ago this year. He was issuing a challenge for debate to all comers, and as it happened, this challenge was a lonely spark in a room full of fumes. The Reformation came to be, and there were more than a few flash burns. To use several of Aristotle’s categories, the material cause of the Reformation was sola fide, or justification by faith alone, and the formal cause was sola Scriptura—Scripture as our only ultimate and infallible authority in spiritual matters.
Just a few years later, in 1521, Luther was condemned by the Edict of Worms.
And just a few years after that—because the Emperor Charles V needed the political support of the Lutheran princes in a political struggle he was having with the pope—an edict of ambiguous toleration was hammered out at the Diet of Speyer in 1526. A studied legal ambiguity like this was all the reformers needed, and the Lutheran churches grew like crazy.
That resulted in the Emperor seeking to revoke the settlement of Speyer, which would have the effect of going back to the condemnation of Worms. That was the one job of the second Diet of Speyer. Two big things came out of this second diet. They did not go back to the Edict of Worms fully, and we got the name Protestant for what we are about.
It is easy to think that Protestants are defined by what they are against. We hear the word protest in Protestant, loud and clear. But it would be better to link it to another way of breaking the word down—think of pro-testimony. This is a confession of what we believe—and to the extent we are against something, it is merely that we are against the renewal of lunatic persecutions.
The first Protestant was therefore John, Elector of Saxony, the first to sign the protest at the second Diet of Speyer. That statement was both protestimony and protest.
The protestimony was this:
“We are resolved, by the grace of God, to maintain the pure and exclusive teaching of His only word, such as is contained in the Biblical books of the Old and New Testaments, without adding anything thereto that may be contrary to it. This Word is the only truth, it is the sure rule of all doctrine and of all life, and can never fail or deceive us.”
The protest was this:
“If you do not yield to our request, we PROTEST by these presents, before God, our only Creator, Preserver, Redeemer, and Saviour, and who will one day be our Judge, as well as before all men and all creatures, that we, for us and for our people, neither consent nor adhere in any manner whatsoever to the proposed decree, in anything that is contrary to God, to His holy Word, to our right conscience, to the salvation of our own souls, and to the last decree of Spires.”
The confession was to hold to what God has taught us in His Word, and only that. Any objections to that? And the protest was against those who would persecute the saints of God on the mere authority of mere men.
Remember: The word testis is the Latin word for witness. The prefix pro means for . . . not against.
Four Snapshot Stories
There have been three great eras of martyrdom in the history of the church. The first happened in the ten persecutions before pagan Rome was conquered by the gospel, surrendering in the time of Constantine. The second great era of martyrdom was the Reformation—a veritable nebula of martyrs. The third great era, depending on where in this world you live, is the present era.
At one point, the Inquisition sentenced the entire population of Holland to death. That would number about 3 million souls and the only exceptions were listed by name. The number of martyrs that came out of the Reformation era was simply enormous. In those times of high peril, what we tend to think of as musty doctrine was to them the high mountain air of sweet forgiveness. They would do anything for these truths.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate each of our characteristics of romance.
The residents of Leyden told William the Silent that they would hold out in a siege against the Spanish for one month with bread, and for another month without bread. The siege began at the end of May. It was ended at the beginning of October.
At one point the Spanish offered favorable terms if they would only surrender the city. This is the answer they got.
“You call us eaters of dogs and cats. Very well. So long, then, as in this city you hear a dog bark or a cat mew, you may know we will not yield. And when all else is done, we will eat our left arms and keep our right to fight for our Country, our Faith, and our God. At last, if we have to die, we will set fire to the city and perish in the flames.”
Relief came to them when their reinforcements breached the dykes and were able to sail up to the city.
A young Huguenot woman named Marie Durant, fourteen-years-old, was required to abjure her Huguenot faith. All she had to do was say one word—j’abjure—and she could go free. Because she would not do it, she was placed in a tower by the sea with 30 other Huguenot women where she remained for the next 38 years. She and her fellows scratched a different word entirely on the wall of the prison. It was resistez—resist.
Another Huguenot woman was being led to the stake in France. She had been rich in good deeds, ministering to the poor, and a crowd of them were following her there, weeping. One of the women cried out, “You will never give me alms anymore.” And the martyr—isn’t it glorious that we will not know her name until the resurrection?—said this. She said, “Yes, once more.” And she stooped down, took off her shoes, gave them to the woman, and went to Heaven barefooted.
After the Protestants in France had suffered a crushing defeat at the battle of Moncontour, their leader de Coligny was being carried away wounded on a litter. A trusted councilor of his was also wounded, a man named L’Estrange, and was being carried behind de Coligny on a narrow road. When the road widened, L’Estrange had his litter bearers carry him up alongside de Coligny. The two men looked at each other without speaking, and then L’Estrange looked away, eyes full of tears. But as he looked away, he said, “So is it that God is very sweet.” De Coligny said later this brief word was used to restore his courage.
There are four basic story lines in the Scriptures which lend themselves to romance, to courage, to high endurance, generosity, and warm affection. They are the Underdog story, the Younger Son as Heir story, the Exile and Return story, and the Death and Resurrection story.
We have the David and Goliath story. We have the Isaac and Ishmael story. We have the Nehemiah story. We have the Easter story. All of these are replicated, countless times, in the history of Protestantism. And they are replicated in ways that called for, and obtained, true courage, high endurance, deep generosity, and warm affection.
A solitary monk with a hammer and nail, and some topics he intended to discuss.
The younger son of northern Europe inherited the West, moving West.
It was not for nothing that the second of Luther’s three major treatises in 1520 was entitled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.
And the story of the Reformation was a true resurrection story. Post tenebras lux, after darkness light.
Friends, we have grown wise in our own conceits, and because we have become boring, we are far too easily bored. You have heard it said that interested people are interesting people. This operates on the same principle, only running in the opposite direction. Dullards look around the world of church history and all they see are what dullard eyes can see, which is not very much. We are actually capable of looking at several centuries of high sustained theological adventure, and seeing nothing more than quaint and archaic expressions that we trip over in the King James Version of the Bible.
If someone read Treasure Island, and summarized it as a tale of a boy who “found some things,” I can think of many things to call such a man, but literary critic wouldn’t be one of them. If someone can look at the 16th and 17th centuries, and see only fustian doctrinal arcana, then is most certain that the problem resides 500 years downstream, and not 500 years upstream.
The plea to modern Protestants from our fathers and mothers in the faith is straightforward—come up higher.