7 Reasons Protestants are Pro Ecclesia

Pro Ecclesia means “for the church” and Protestants are people who “protest.” That’s a strange combination: how can Protestants (negative) be for the Church (positive)?

It all began innocently enough. A German Bible doctor  and priest penned something like a medieval letter to the editor when he posted a list of ninety-five arguments on the public bulletin board (the door of the chapel in the center of town). This priest-scholar believed these were worthy of debate by church leaders and published them out of a love for the Church and an established tradition of seeking its reformation.

However, that priest, named Dr. Martin Luther, was eventually excommunicated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy for refusing to recant his views which he first articulated when he posted those concerns, called theses, on October 31, 1517.

It is remarkable that such a small action (which was essentially nothing more than a blog post or an op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer) set in motion what would eventually become the Protestant Reformation. Since then, that historic event (or events, as many historians acknowledge a number of reformations) has come to define a movement of Christian belief known as Protestantism.

Yet, as a Catholic reform movement defined in part by objecting to certain things–especially religious traditions and practices which have little or nothing to do with the Bible–we must not be understood merely as an opposition movement, or as people who only stand against.

I think there is a need to reemphasize that while the label or term “Protestant” has historically negative connotations, it does not summarize the whole scope of Protestant belief. We need to freshly articulate he positive grounds or foundations for protestant faith and practice.

Besides this, because of the many traditions within Protestantism, it is important to lay out the major convictions held by those who find themselves still “protesting” certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church as a way of understanding what binds us is greater than what divides. Here then are seven “pros” or positive beliefs that all Protestants share.

1. We Are Pro-Scripture

One historic debate which rages between protestants and their Western (“Roman”) Catholic cousins is the role of Scripture and tradition. Put another way, where is the final authority found? Is it found in the teaching magisterium of the church, or is it found in God’s Holy Word?

Protestants are decidedly “pro-Scripture.” We believe that the traditions of the church are to be corrected by the Word of God, and not the other way around. The church (St. Paul writes) is “built upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles…” (see Ephesians 2:20). This is another way of saying that the Church is built upon the Scriptures of the Bible.

Contrary to the belief of many, the Scriptures were largely if not completely written by the latter half of the first century. With the destruction of the temple taking place in 70AD, it is remarkable, and important, that no single book in the New Testament mentions this cataclysmic event as having happened. There are prophecies in the Gospel that anticipate the Roman incursion into Jerusalem, but they look to it as a future, not a past, event.

In fact, the earliest writings of the New Testament scriptures are circulated as early as 49-50 AD, which puts them, using events of our recent past, on the order of a history of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or a biography of Richard Nixon or Gerald R. Ford. What’s more, these early writings didn’t acquire the status of authoritative Christian documents sometime in the fourth century at the Council of Nicea (as many popular critics of the Bible argue). On the contrary, we have substantial evidence to indicate that these documents carried, from the outset, the weight and authority of Scripture, equivalent in fact to the honor early Christians (most of whom were Jewish) held for the Torah.

At the same time, almost every New Testament book deals with problems or controversies in the early Church; it has been said that if there wasn’t a problem in a church, then it wouldn’t need an epistle from one of the apostles! The Scriptures were written as polemical documents. They have an apologetic, and an argumentative character. They’re all in some way defending attacking, some view or belief or doctrine.

So to say that somehow we need an infallible teaching “magisterium” to address current crises in the church (which is one way to describe the Roman Catholic position that asserts tradition and the magisterium as having authority over the Bible) is to deny one of the very purposes that the Bible was given: to address such controversies and crises.

Reading 1 Corinthians recently, I was reminded that while Paul hated the notion of there being divisions within the church (1 Corinthians 1:10, 13), he nevertheless realized or recognized that God permitted them as such to demonstrate who had “the Lord’s approval” (see 1 Corinthians 10).

The messy, diverse, and often contentious divisions within “Christendom” are sad, it is true; but it is also true that they are present as part of the design of the system. While we are to pray that we may be “one” as part of our testimony or witness to those who are outside the church (see Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17), and strive to show love for one another as proof we are His disciples (John 13), these aspirations have never meant or required a monolithic uniformity.

In fact, it is an illusion, and a poor argument which ought to be debunked, when someone points to the “uniformity” of the Roman Catholic Church as proof of its authenticity (in contrast to the so-called “splintered character “of the Protestant church).

The reality is that we are in many ways divided brethren, and our divisions over the character and place of the Scriptures lead Protestants to teach, and believe, and celebrate this beautiful truth: the Scriptures, generally, and the Gospel, in particular, gives birth to the Church, and so we are pro-Scripture.

2. We Are Pro-Christ

Flowing out of this first “positive belief” is the second “pro” view held by Protestants: we are pro-Christ, or pro-Jesus. Followers of the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth were first called “Christians” at Antioch, and this was most likely a derisive title at the outset. It is as if it was said of the first believers: “Those are the Christians–the one who follow that dead Rabbi they say is now alive–they’re like little Christs!”

If Paul says that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets in Ephesians 2:20 (as we have already seen) then notice he further clarifies: “…Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone.”

The word “cornerstone” is an interesting one. Scholars point out that it could have reference either to one of two ideas. The first idea of “cornerstone” refers to the block or stone which rests at the foundation of a building. It has the role of  keeping the whole building, and all subsequent stones, in alignment as the building is built. But it could also have reference to the “capstone” or the stone which is placed at the center of an arch–sometimes called in English a “keystone.” In this way, it is the last stone to be placed in the structure, and as the keystone, has the effect of locking into place, and stabilizing, all the other stones. Understood in this second sense, the “cornerstone” could also be seen as the stone to which all the other stones point and toward which they move.

As with many Bible puzzles, the answer is often “yes” to both. The stone Paul refers to in Ephesians 2 could mean either one, and both ideas shed helpful light on the role that Jesus is to play in the church.

Now there are those things which “no one wants to be against” (like moms, baseball, and apple pie, for example) and while Jesus has his detractors, still to this day, most people, and certainly almost all professing Christians will say that Jesus is, or ought to be, the most important Person in the Church. It is, after all, Christ who died on the cross for our sins, Christians believe. It is Christ who rose again from the dead for our justification (Romans 4:25). It is Christ who is coming again to judge the living and the dead, as it says in the Apostle’s Creed.

But if everything is green, nothing is green. Likewise, if everyone is “pro-Christ” then no one is. What Protestants mean, then, by saying we are “pro-Christ” bears pointing out.

He is the Head of the Church

First, being pro-Christ means that He is the head of the Church; He, and not any other human authority, holds sway. Our particular church puts it this way: “there is only one lawgiver in Zion, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Human authority is not hereby abolished, but it is derivative, and secondary, and subservient to Him. Human authority tests all matters by His Revealed Word. Human authority in the church is representative of Christ–as long as it is representative of Christ! St. Peter’s faithful confession of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel is what issues forth from our Lord the famous, “upon this Rock will I build my church”–Peter as confessing Peter. And thank God it is not Peter, the man, for in his next breath, he  is called a satan or enemy by Jesus for attempting to block our Lord’s path to Jerusalem: “Get thee behind me Satan! for you do not have in mind the things of God but of men.”

We Believe in a Triune God

Second, pro-Christ means we believe in the Trinity, or believe in the Triune God. This was taught by Our Lord Himself, and is essential to our understanding of the Person of Christ, who exists, since the Incarnation in “two distinct natures and One Person forever.”

The persons of the Trinity are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These three are “one God, equal in power and glory,” which is the testimony of the Scriptures. Who Jesus is and what he accomplished cannot be separated from God the Father, and Who He is; nor can it be separated from God the Holy Spirit, and who He is.

To give an example, God the Father spoke words of blessing upon Christ on the famous Mount of Transfiguration in the Gospels. Peter’s response was to build three tents or tabernacles for the three men who appear in that transcendent vision: Moses, Jesus, and Elijah. But for all his good intentions, Peter was about to commit idolatry, and the Father replies: “this is my Beloved Son; hear him!” Not that Moses and Elijah should not be heard, but they should not be heard above or apart from God’s Final Prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, the Rabbi from Galilee.

Christ and His work is thus linked to the Father’s plan of salvation. To connect with the first point (“pro-Scriptures”), we read the Scriptures, which is the story of God, in the light of Christ’s coming. St. Augustine famously said, “The old is in the new revealed; and the new is in the old concealed.” Jesus Himself on the road to Emmaus taught those two men how all the Scriptures (Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms) “testify of Me.” And this is the Father’s instruction.

Another example relates to Jesus’ words “you must be born again” in John 3. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit of God, the Third Person of the Trinity, working supernaturally in a person’s life and heart a heavenly transformation that only God is capable of. When Jesus spoke these now famous words in John 3:16, he did so echoing the prophet Ezekiel, who saw a day in which God would pour out His Spirit upon His people and take from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 37), and so Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3 that he must be born of “water and the Spirit” or, perhaps a better way to translate that phrase, “water, that is to say, the Spirit.” Christ and his work is thus linked to the Holy Spirit.

We Value the Sacraments

A third implication of being pro-Christ relates to the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Let me explain.

First, these are the only two sacraments that Christ Himself appointed. By holding zealously to these two (and these two alone) we show ourselves to be pro-Christ. Second, Jesus said “as often as you do this, do this in remembrance of me,” and Paul asks, “The cup we bless, is it not the participation in the blood of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10). These verses show that when the sacraments are observed, Christ is present in a real, though spiritual way. By observing them rightly, reverently, and regularly, we show ourselves to be “pro-Christ.”

In summary, then, the second thing that Protestants are “pro” about is Christ. By being pro-Christ we mean we are Trinitarian believers who have been saved by the plan of the Father, accomplished by the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we worship Jesus as God the Son, the only King and Head of the Church, and truly though spiritually participate in His Body and Blood through the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

(to be continued)