If you haven’t read Bouyer, you will be at a bit of disadvantage. Same if you don’t know anything about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
In part I of this post, I review Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, perhaps the most solid Roman Catholic criticism of Protestantism in print. In Part II, I respond to Bouyer’s criticism with an exploration of what evangelicals mean by a missional understanding of being the church of Jesus, as exemplified by Mars Hill Church in Seattle. And in Part III, I assess the prospects for unity considering the value of both these models.
I just finished reading Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, which may be the most devastating critique of Protestantism I’ve ever read. It’s astonishingly powerful and cogent, and everyone who cares about evangelicalism needs to read it and wrestle with Bouyer’s observations and arguments.
As a former Protestant, Bouyer took the route of showing the heart and soul of the “Protestant impulses” at work in Luther’s view of grace, Calvin’s view of sovereignty, Barth’s view of the Word and the Reformation Solas in general. He then gives the Catholic response to each of them, which amounts to endorsing all of the Protestant distinctives within a Catholic theological understanding.
Bouyer was intentionally structuring his book in such a way that the beginnings of harmony between Protestantism and Catholicism would simply be a matter of listening more carefully to one another, instead of believing that there was nothing in common between the two sides of the reformation.
A bit past halfway into the book, however, Bouyer brings down the other side of his critique with a devastating explanation of Protestantism’s own self destructive tendencies. He begins to show how Protestantism is the worst enemy of its own theological contributions and eventually becomes, in various forms, the greatest force working against those things it purports to care about the most.
The book is a bit dated and spends more time on Barth than many evangelicals will care to read. There’s almost no reference to American evangelicalism, and it’s a good thing, since all of Bouyer’s major points and many of his predictions are more than proven in what has happened since the book was written.
Of course, at the heart of Bouyer’s critique is a set of assumptions about the church. Near the end of the book, Bouyer says that the “question of the church” has not yet been asked. The “question of the church” is, of course, whether what Protestantism has created is, in any form, actually the church that Jesus is building.
And it’s bringing Jesus into this discussion that interests me. Jesus did say “I will build my church.” If what Protestants and evangelicals have been doing isn’t the church Jesus said he was building, then all other criticisms are of little consequence in comparison.
Catholics believe that Christ’s building of his church has been a continuous, organic process beginning with Jesus and the apostles, continuing until today. Protestants also believe that the church is organic, but that is is built by the work of the Holy Spirit as the Gospel is proclaimed, believed and practiced in ministry and community. In other words, missionally, not institutionally.
Catholics see the church as one project, always in unity. Protestants see the church as more entrepreneurial, with God creating the church wherever people respond to him, whether within or outside of existing denominations.
Bouyer repeatedly holds up Calvin for criticism in his attempt to reinvent Christianity by starting over with a church built by godly men with open Bibles and the right theology. I tend to agree with much of what Bouyer says about Calvin’s influence on Protestantism: a legacy of more and more churches, all starting over with a dominant person at the helm, all attempting to force one version of theology on everyone, all defending and attacking other Protestants for not seeing and doing it their way. All, of course, certain that they are the one group finally reading the Bible correct. Then, in remarkably little time, there are splits and divisions, multiplying the entire process.
Protestantism becomes more and more individualistic, with its various forms becoming increasingly subjective, inward, private and autonomous. Eventually, in its liberal forms, it believes less and less and sees little value in anything of outward or a communal nature. It is the individual’s experience of God, substantiated by an individual reading of the Bible and translated into a fragile experiment of individual churches constantly finding reasons to separate from other churches.
And the answer to all of this, according to Bouyer, is Roman Catholicism, where unity, community, tradition and objective grace are all preserved in one church founded and built by Jesus.
Bouyer’s answer is not for Protestants to reject what they believe, but to understand that the best of what they have always believed about grace, forgiveness, sovereignty and authority has always existed in Roman Catholicism, but the prejudices of both Protestants and Catholics have caused both sides to believe their theological interests were completely incompatible.
Bouyer believes that only within the context of Catholicism can the distinctives of Protestantism actual become the sources of spiritual and corporate vitality that they promise to be. He urges Catholics to understand the solas of the Reformation and to learn how to speak of them positively within the Catholic context.
His hope for unity is of a vital Protestantism that finds itself welcomed back in its true home, and a renewal of Catholicism by those very things Protestants believed they must leave the church to believe.
Several things came to mind as I completed this book.
Certainly, Bouyer’s observations are highly accurate, and one need not be a Roman Catholic to see the truth of much of what he says.
Still, I found myself remembering a review I once read of a young evangelical’s scholarly work on Sola Scriptura. A Roman Catholic reviewer leveled all his criticism in one repeated sentence: “He writes as if he doesn’t believe there is one sacramental teaching authority.”
The entire interaction with the book was, in other words, “He doesn’t presuppose the Roman Catholic Church and all it asserts.” That’s hardly a home run in the critical evaluation ball game. It’s a patently obvious truism.
The fact that a particular point of view allows a critic to see the flaws of a subject with analytical depth and critical cogency does not validate the place where the critic is standing. The adulterer may have a wonderful view of the truth about his partner’s crumbling marriage, but that does not alleviate the problems with his own position.
Yankees’ fans are constantly telling the rest of us about what it means to be a real baseball team, but this season the mammoth Yankee machine is faltering while some of the lowest payrolls in baseball sit at the top of their divisions.
Few of us in the evangelical camp would quarrel with Bouyer that the results of the Reformation have, from several points of view, been unsatisfactory and are exactly as contradictory as he describes. And those of us who are post-evangelical would say in regard to Roman Catholicism that it has kept much that is valuable, that it has conserved much we too easily threw away and has much to teach us.
Further, the call for unity based upon a humble learning from one another in the absence of prejudices is a noble and worthwhile invitation. I am sure many evangelicals would eagerly await the opportunity to have such a dialog.
But the fact is that, from the evangelical and Protestant point of view, the presupposition that the answer to all things is “return to the Roman Catholic Church” is simply unsatisfactory.
And perhaps the best way to make that point is with an illustration.
For my purposes, I’ll ask you to think of an outstanding example of recent evangelical evangelism and church growth. For instance, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
Readers of this web site probably know the Mars Hill story, but some of our Roman Catholic readers will not. In his book Confessions of a Reformission Reverend,” Driscoll recounts his own conversion, his beginnings as a youth evangelist, his burden to see a particular kind of church in Seattle, the process of that church’s beginnings and early growth, and the result now as the church, almost two decades old, moves toward ten thousand attenders and a multi-site model. Mars Hill is a model for young evangelical church planters in the Acts 29 Network and it has influenced church planting all over the world.
This church’s story is the story of how evangelicals see Jesus: He is the focus of the mission of God, and that mission takes those who are called to share the Gospel to the pagan music culture in Seattle, incarnates the Gospel, preaches, loves, counsels, cries, battles and prays until a church is born. That church is full of those evangelized for the first time. It is full of thousands of young men and women with open Bibles begging to hear the word of the Lord. It is a church with creativity and innovation at every corner. A church that starts churches. And a church that takes the Lord’s Supper every week.
Mars Hill is a church changing the landscape of a city, and it is an example of what evangelicals believe Jesus is all about: message, method, ministry- all of it is about Jesus. It is at the point of birthing daughter churches that one can look closely at Mars Hill and see what they believe about Jesus. It is an example of a living theology of mission, and it isn’t a chapter in a book. It is real life.
Now if I have read him correctly, Bouyer would say two things:
First, that Catholics should take a good look at Mars Hill and see what Protestants are all about. They should listen to their message of salvation, God’s sovereignty and the authority of the Bible and understand what positive results these emphases bring about.
Second, that Mark Driscoll should go to the local bishop and say, “We’re coming over. Now you tell me what to do next?”
Let me be clear that I have no idea what the RCC is doing in Seattle, but I’m going to make a shot in the dark and say that what Driscoll’s church is doing as a missional, evangelistic congregation not only ISN’T going on anywhere in the RCC in Seattle, I seriously doubt that anyone in the RCC hierarchy in Seattle would have a clue how to take what is going on at Mars Hill and make it Catholic.
(I am not talking about adding Hispanic churches or Protestant “converts.” I am talking about evangelism in the most pagan corner of our country, with thousands of baptisms and disciples from those non-Christians.)
Here’s what Mars Hill is doing.
Driscoll preaches for an hour at a time. Everything Bouyer caricatured about Protestant preaching is on display, and I’d urge anyone- Catholic or not- to go see what you think is going on. (And I say that as someone who doesn’t believe in preaching that long.)
The worship style of the church is unapologetically culturally relevant/appropriate, particularly in the use of the arts and technology.
There’s nothing more than a vestige of liturgy in sight and unlikely to be much. Where Bouyer sees Protestantism as spare, he’d have a good example here. The services are simple and direct.
What’s done in ministry and worship done minimally, in the language of the culture and with evangelism of that culture in mind.
The church is ruled by a group of elders who direct the church’s vision. Yes, Driscoll is a dominant personality, but contrary to Bouyer’s contention that Protestantism is personality driven Mars Hill appears to be able to generate other leaders and pastors without loss of leadership energy.
Massive efforts are made toward specialized ministries to children, men, women, students and so forth. The congregation is active in ministry, and this is a characteristic of most exemplary evangelical churches.
Members of Mars Hill go through some of the most rigorous teaching anywhere in evangelicalism, just to be members. In fact, high membership standards are becoming more and more important in evangelicalism.
The church is passionate about missions and church planting, and is constantly developing strategies and resources for that passion. The church is actively training church planters and missionaries and networking with thousands of pastors and church planters who want to learn how to bring the Gospel to their culture in the same way as Mars Hill.
Of course, the church’s leaders are trained in-house, are married and are unapologetically evangelical and Protestant. Mars Hill has plenty of “attitude” that some find annoying, but this is a movement that’s confident God is at work, and they have good reason to be so.
You see, from the standpoint of a Mars Hill Church, it would be rather easy to write a book and say “Where’s the mission of Jesus for Seattle in _________ (insert name of criticizing denomination.)”
I am well aware of the missionary legacy and sacrifices in Christian and Catholic history, but I think it needs to be said that just as you can stand on Catholicism and judge the average group of Protestants as liturgically barren and theologically shallow, one could stand on the example of a church like Mars Hill and ask if someone like Bouyer has any idea how the missional life of a church expresses its understanding of Jesus? And if we use that test, would he seriously encourage Mark Driscoll to turn himself in to the local Bishop?
The apologetic efforts I overhear on the internet from both sides makes it appear that the entire Catholic-Protestant discussion is a theological debate. I’m prepared to say that, depending on where one is standing, such a debate is not pointless, but quite likely endless.
The point I would like to make is that if we only think in these “either/or” terms, we are going to lose some very important things.
If the RCC became like Mars Hill, we would lose a lot of Christian identity and tradition that I don’t want to lose.
If Mars Hill became like the RCC, then I think it would be a missional disaster for Seattle and thousands of churches who are emulating Mars Hill’s success.
If, in the aftermath of the reformation, we each find that we are holding on to some of what the other side has neglected, devalued or abandoned, then Bouyer is right that we have every reason to come together and learn from one another.
But where there is a core value of infallibility and an assertion that nothing that has happened since the Reformation ought to be repented of for the cause of unity, then I cannot see that unity will ever be possible short of a miracle of the Holy Spirit. And frankly, I cannot see the purpose of God in a unity that erases Mars Hill and replaces it with the current missional mindset of the RCC (or most other denominations, frankly.)
We all have much that we need to repent of and much that we need to offer to other Christians in the spirit of the wholeness of the One Gospel.
But when we look at one another, we are given a choice if we want the light to extend only to the other person, or to shine upon us as well.
Bouyer laments the fact that Protestants constantly open the Bible and start the church over. I understand how, from his place in Roman Catholicism, that appears unnecessary. But if the Reformation taught us one thing, it was that it is the work of the Spirit of Jesus to bring us back to the Gospels again and again. In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus calls his church to what can only be called “reformation.” We do not reinvent the church, but we do rediscover what it means to be the church in our place and time.