We believe that the Reformation recovered biblical teaching after centuries of decline in the late Medieval Roman church but we cannot give an account of how the content of the confessions expresses biblical truth. Contemporary Evangelicals are not really Protestants; for most of them Protestantism is a movement in history.
Protestantism has been in crisis mode since the early nineteenth century. The effects of the Enlightenment began to affect Protestant theology in the eighteenth century, but after Kant knowledge of God became increasingly problematic and Christianity in general began to pall as a result of the philosophical naturalism that settled over Western culture like a blanket snuffing out faith. This trend accelerated after the Darwinian revolution in mid-century and Protestantism was most affected. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the result.
Another Religion Altogether
Protestant liberal theology was a desperate attempt to save as much Christian content as possible from what Walter Lippmann would later term “the acids of modernity.” The liberal project involved restating Christianity within the constraints of modern metaphysics and modern metaphysics was essentially the rejection of the broadly Platonist metaphysics that had formed the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition for well over 2000 years.
As the philosopher Lloyd Gerson has demonstrated with great scholarship in a series of books, the main alternative to Platonism historically has been philosophical naturalism and, in the nineteenth century philosophical naturalism triumphed decisively over Platonism. This was the context in which liberal theology attempted to preserve at least some elements of the Bible and theology. Even though many Christian words such as “sin” and “redemption” were retained, their meaning was dramatically changed. The definitive judgment of the failure of the liberal project was pronounced by J. Gresham Machen in 1923 when he said that liberalism is not Christianity, but another religion altogether.
From the Fundamentalism on though the period of Neo-orthodoxy to the rise of Evangelicalism, the search for a Biblical and orthodox expression of Christianity has been intense. If liberal theology is no answer, what is to be done? If modernity excludes Christian orthodoxy how can we live in the modern world as Christians?
What it Means to be Protestant
Our problem today is that we do not understand the Protestant confessions and so we do not really understand what it means to be Protestants. We believe that the Reformation recovered biblical teaching after centuries of decline in the late Medieval Roman church but we cannot give an account of how the content of the confessions expresses biblical truth. Contemporary Evangelicals are not really Protestants; for most of them Protestantism is a movement in history.
That in turn means that the great Evangelical movement in the Anglo-Saxon, trans-Atlantic world is cut off from its own heritage. Some of us may read Calvin and Owens occasionally, but we do not comprehend them on certain points and much of their depth escapes us. We do not grasp what some have termed “reformed catholicity.” In what sense are we in communion with Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas? We cannot say.