Theology

The Meaning of Protestant Theology

Theology, at least biblically speaking, isn’t about a set of beliefs or propositions. Theologically, the Bible is about encounter – the encounter and experience of God in the world. The notion of theology as a set of propositional beliefs, while having antecedents in the biblical past and Christian historical development, is really a post-reformation creation by Protestants and Catholics as they defined their theologies in contradistinction to each other: think of the myriad of confessions and statements of faith, as well as the Council of Trent, with formalized and put boundaries on what Christians believed. However, this was never the essence of either Luther or Catholicism.

Biblically speaking, the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible—is the story of encounters with God through the myriad of characters who populate the text and story. Adam and Eve encounter God in the Garden of Eden. The patriarchs encounter God in their life journey and progression; two of the most notable of these stories are Abraham’s dining with God (later edited and interpreted to be angels) and Jacob’s wrestling with God (also later edited and interpreted to be angels). The encounter with God continues, perhaps most famously with Moses and the Burning Bush and at Sinai. Later, direct encounters with God occur in the Temple.

The New Testament continues this notion of encountering God with the enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus of Christ. Christ incarnate, God among us, Emmanuel, is the direct encounter with the living God on earth. Even Paul’s conversion is one of encounter, he is adamant in his letters that he encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. No where do we find theology as a set of propositions to believe—in fact, another element of later Protestant propositional theology is influenced by Enlightenment theories of science with its logical systematic theories of determinism.[i]

Protestant theology is deeply scriptural. While Protestants, confessionally, sans Anabaptists and those influenced by the Anabaptist tradition, also adhere to sacramentalism (in a “lower” sense), the Protestant emphasis on encounter isn’t in the sacraments in the same way as it is in Catholic (and Orthodox) theology. Protestants take the Augustinian notion of inwardness to encounter God in themselves, in their lives, inside of them.

This notion of inward encounter is drawn from Christian tradition, mainly the monastic tradition and the spirituality of Augustine. (Luther was, after all, an Augustinian monk.) Luther, building off of psychological theophany in the Latin theological tradition, maintained that the encounters with God in the Old Testament were not physical or literal but interior; the patriarchs and the prophets encountered God interiorly rather than externally, the Bible uses metaphorical language to communicate these encounters. Thus, inward rebirth becomes the goal in Luther’s theology which is subsequently inherited by all strands of Protestantism.

While Luther, as well as Calvin, maintained the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, their emphasis shifted away from the outward signs of inward encounter offered by Catholic sacramental theology and turned toward a more interior theology of encounter through engagement with scriptures, primarily the New Testament Gospel. The movement toward Protestantism as a “bookish” religion is based on Luther’s articulation that the primarily and universal encounter with God through Christ is scriptural rather than sacramental.

One, therefore, can encounter God daily in holy writ. And there is nothing more important than this. And within holy writ, one should encounter God as He was fully revealed in the person of Christ—thus the prioritization of the New Testament Gospel and Pauline epistles in Protestant theology. The encounter with God through scripture offers the inward rebirth of the heart through an individual spirituality independent of the sacramental system of Catholicism.

This is not a novelty. Again, this is deeply and firmly rooted in Christian (Catholic) tradition as hitherto mention. The monastic tradition and Augustinian spirituality emphasize the need for interior encounter. While the monastic and Augustinian spiritual traditions did so through meditation and prayer, the Lutheran/Protestant innovation was in how the interior encounter could occur simply through reading holy writ.

The meaning of Protestant theology, then, is the encounter with God primarily through scripture. The sacraments get demoted, in a sense, in Protestant theology insofar that while you can encounter God through baptism and eucharist (the universal sacraments in the major Protestant traditions), these encounters are secondary to the encounter of God through scriptural reading and meditation. Eventually, the theology of inward encounter expanded into spiritual restoration in the pietistic movements of the eighteenth century which became the basis for much of modern evangelicalism. Hence the emphasis on a “born again” encounter/experience. In contrast to the Catholic primacy of encountering God through external things that impacts the interior life, the Protestant primacy of encounter is almost entirely interior and a result of encountering God as revealed in the scriptures.

[i] See Theodore Bozeman’s Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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