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Book Review: Unlearning Protestantism by Gerald W. Schlabach
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Book Review: Unlearning Protestantism by Gerald W. Schlabach

Review of Unlearning Protestantism: Sustaining Christian Community in an Unstable Age, by Gerald W. Schlabach (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010)

Unlearning Catholicism?

When I grabbed the book Unlearning Protestantism by Gerald W. Schlabach I immediately had my defenses up from just the title (I am after all a Warrior Child of Machen). However, my fears were somewhat calmed by the first two sentences of the introduction, “This book is not about encouraging people to abandon Protestant churches. It is not a pamphlet to persuade Protestants to become Roman Catholic” (9). Even though Schlabach’s examples and stories throughout the book all come from the Roman Church he does succeed in his promise of not making this book a polemic for Protestants to “return” to the Holy See of Rome. Instead what this book argues is that since Protestant churches have as their foundational principle the act of protesting, these churches really need to learn stability.

Schlabach begins the book in chapter one by stating the “Protestant Principle” as summarized by Paul Tillich, “because all human institutions fall short of God’s standard, they are always subject to ‘prophetic’ critique and reform” (24). This is fleshed out more fully later as, “…the permanent impulse to reform does run deep within the historic Protestant movement, while the fundamental need to reform has consistently justified its very existence. …while the Protestant Principle of permanent vulnerability to critique may not be sufficient for authentic Protestantism, it is necessary and even essential” (32, emphasis original). Schlabach sees this principle as something more destructive, the Protestant Dilemma: “however right and proper are the corrective reflexes it names, once we elevate impulses to ‘protest’ into identity markers for entire Christian communities, those impulses tend to undermine the very bonds of Christian community” (33).

Using many “real life examples” Unlearning Protestantism advocates for church members to exercise “loyal dissent” or fidelity within the church against the “Protestant Principle.” A crass definition of what Schlabach means by this fidelity is, “the virtue that keeps us together even when we are pissed off at other” (45). For Catholics the result is that they have to stick together because if they didn’t, they would become Protestants, and that just can’t happen (45)! There is a point, however, in what Schlabach is saying. Protestants might be a little too quick to throw in the towel and to divide the church causing disunity instead of the unity that Christ commands should characterize his bride. We aren’t very good at allowing “loyal dissent” amongst the membership, let alone the leadership, of our churches. Stability in our day and age is not a characteristic of Protestant Christians when moving to the church down the street can be done easier than getting a new cell phone carrier. In fact, many Protestants have probably been with their cell phone carrier longer than their current church!

There is in Unlearning Protestantism a wakeup call for the unity of the church. But this is not something that Protestants themselves haven’t noticed. Just here on the campus of Westminster Seminary California there is a grassroots effort to unite churches of the Reformation in the RED Churches Movement in fulfillment of W. Robert Godfrey’s “A Reformed Dream.” Schlabach does call Protestant churches to at least think about how we can “renarrate our identities” in such a way that we have “healthier relationships” as well as “healthier communities” (111). Point well taken, and I think most Protestants would agree (as long as everybody else conforms to us!).

There is a problem with Unlearning Protestantism and that comes in large part, I believe, to the Anabaptist/Mennonite Protestantism from which Schlabach is reacting. Schlabach does portray the magisterial Reformers of Luther and Calvin in a positive light on a few brief pages, but he doesn’t address the real reason why there are Protestant churches—fidelity to the gospel and to the ancient church. The word “gospel” is used throughout the book (not nearly as much as “community”) but it is never defined exactly what the gospel is for Schlabach. From the contexts I am pretty sure it does not mean “justification by grace alone, though faith alone, because of Christ alone.” It is our definition of the gospel, our fidelity to Scripture alone, as well as our connection with the church fathers that causes us to “protest” against the Roman church—who, we believe, has fallen away from Biblical and historic Christianity.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room that Schlabach never addresses is the results of the Council of Trent. In fact, Trent only receives a passing mention: 

In any case, Luther could appeal to the view of many other readers, or at least to their desperate hope for reform, as it had been growing among conscientious Christians throughout Europe for centuries. Precipitated by the Protestant Reformation, but gathering up centuries of authentic impulses for reform, that hope would belatedly bear fruit two decades later when another pope consolidated the Catholic Reformation by calling the Council of Trent. At one level, then, what divided Catholic and Protestant Reformers was only the question of how thoroughgoing was the need for reform and how to proceed.

…Centuries later the disagreement that continues to divide Protestants from Catholics remains at one level over largely the same issue: it is not so much over whether the church has needed or sometimes needs reform, but whether the need for reform has been so fundamental that Protestants should continue to disclaim Catholic structures for sustaining the global life of the church together (27-28, emphasis added).

Sure there were moral issues in the church that were addressed by Protestants and there was a reformation in the Roman church over these moral infidelities which the Council of Trent in part codified. If that was all the Reformation was about then surely Schlabach is right and Protestants shouldn’t “continue to disclaim Catholic structures.”

However, that is not the case. What the Protestant Reformation was about, at its most fundamental level, was a recovery of the very core of Christianity: the gospel of Jesus Christ. What Schlabach fails to mention is that the Council of Trent anathematized all those in the Protestant Reformation who held to the five solas and the Biblical understanding of justification. Once Rome made this Tridentine doctrine official they broke away and lost their fidelity to the historic Christian church. In fact, in this case the “Catholic structures” betrayed the church and made her a false church.

One of the foundational events that Schlabach returns to time and time again—and even devotes one of his six chapters to—is the Second Vatican Council. The declarations made at Vatican II are a driving force of pretty much everything that Unlearning Protestantism says. As Schlabach recounts this church council it is amazing how close the work of Vatican II was to the work of the Protestant Reformation in its motto ad fontes – “to the sources!” 

If the deeply Catholic impulse to seek change through continuity was basic to the Second Vatican Council, the name for the theological method that came to fruition at the council was ressourcement, a French word used theologically to refer to a “return to the sources.” Ressourcement differs subtly from the restorationism that is one impulse within Protestantism because it seeks to recover a broader and deeper tradition, not jump back over a tradition that it considers to be deeply flawed or even “fallen” (137, emphasis added).

Schlabach is not unaware of the similarities, but he is wrong in asserting that the Protest Reformation simply “jumped” over the tradition of the Roman church. No, the Reformation used many theologians and ideas from the medieval church, coupled with the ancient church, and a recovery of the original Biblical languages to form the basis of their claim that the Roman church had corrupted the gospel. Because the Protestants were so energized by the Renaissance recovery of ancient texts they actually recovered the “deeper tradition” that was made narrow and shallow by centuries of “Catholic structures.”

Throughout the book there is a call for “community” and it is the author’s contention that Protestant communities are not really true communities because they are so fragmented and characterized by the “Protestant Dilemma.” However, because Schlabach’s “Protestant” frame of reference is the Anabaptist tradition and other mainline denominations he has no connection with the confessional side of Protestantism. There are actually Protestants who are part of a “community” that spans many different denominations and traditions because we hold to confessional standards. Our identities aren’t in the name on the marquee, but in our Confessions. Schlabach keeps in high esteem “loyal dissent” as a way for disagreements to be worked out within the church, but yet, “‘for the notion of “dissent” to be intelligible at all,’ it needs to take place within ‘some normative set of beliefs and practices constituting the self-understanding of a given community.’ ‘…disagreement can only be meaningful when it takes place within a framework of agreement…’” (162). This “normative set of beliefs” and “framework of agreement” is exactly what our Creeds and Confessions provide! We don’t need an institutional church’s Magisterial Tradition to provide these norms. This year is the 450th anniversary of the writing of The Belgic Confession—this alone has been a “framework of agreement” for many more generations than any of our denominations. Sure there are many Protestant denominations who have no desire to be confessional, and they truly do have a “Protestant Dilemma.”

Ultimately, Schlabach’s call for stability and fidelity in the church is a very valid call. In looking at the institutions operating in the global church today the Roman church most definitely appears to be the most “stable” church—even with “loyal dissenters” in her midst. However, I think Schlabach misses the mark quite a bit when he neglects to interact with the gospel-centeredness of the Protestant Reformation, its return (fidelity) to the historic Christian faith, and the confessional “church communities” that are a direct result. Given his selective history of the Reformation and his misrepresentation of vast swaths of Protestantism, Schlabach makes the “Protestant Dilemma” an easy target. A serious look at these issues would, I pray, cause those in the Roman church to think about Unlearning Catholicism.

Reviewed by Mark Vander Pol, MDiv