The other day I was on a Catholic blog site and it referenced Protestantism’s greatest doctrinal shortcoming and it was not any of the usual culprits. The priest who wrote this blog said Protestantism’s great weakness was the assurance of salvation.
It was an arrogance I never thought of. In fact it always seemed quite the opposite of arrogance. It was a comfort to know that I, a miserable sinner, did not have to be counted on for my salvation. Catholics largely agree on this point in that Christ and His saving act on the cross garners our salvation, but we Protestants had taken it a step further to that place where we did not participate in any way whatsoever in our salvation. And because we did not participate in the thing, we could go through life assured of this salvation.
Of course this does tie into the justification by grace alone argument in some way, because even though Protestants and Catholics can agree on justification by grace, Protestants lack any developed theology of sanctification that are important to the Catholic understanding of this justification. And without the need for the participatory acts of sanctification, an uniquely Protestant morality is born.
Without doing anything on our own to merit our inclusion into the eternal, Protestantism birthed a world where the realm of God’s grace and God’s law existed in tandem but also in separate spheres. God’s covenant existed in every sphere of human life, but in the realm of that grace which gains for us heaven, we had only to accept God’s acceptance of ourselves. Not so in the other spheres and with that developed this particular morality.
Separated from a religious obligation, Protestants threw the weight of obligation squarely into the world. Read Luther’s Large Catechism and you get the point. Everything seems to be for the sake of good order and for the perseverance of peace and righteousness in the civic realm. After all the spiritual realm was righteous already and we were already “assured” of our place there. This, however, was not the case in the realm of the world to which Protestants would give a new moral code built on a rigorous participation.
Nowhere is the evidence of this new morality more evident than in one word: labor. Luther and Calvin were big on vocation. Very big. Having been freed of earning salvation, the Reformers set the world on a path where the affairs of the world were the place for earning one’s way.
And what were the places in the world that this merit (earning) should occur? We find that in Genesis. Exiled from the Garden, man must work “by the sweat of his brow” and woman must endure “pain in childbirth.” A single word was used for both, though even here obligation is questionable for one type of “labor” brought dignity and the other the joy of family.
All of this was tied in no small way to the abandonment of religious obligation. With no need for monastic discipline with its “excess” merit and bolstered by an understanding of a natural law that brought men and women together to form families and participate in just and hard working societies, Protestants set out to create a world built on human labor that benefited their bodies and societies, but left unaddressed their souls.
We know that world today, though it is disappearing. The liberty born in the nation-states, to which the Protestant Revolution gave rise is destroying it and this brings us to ask if the Protestant morality will have any lasting meaning, whatsoever. If the soul could be released from human effort, then why not the body?
For that, I have no answer. But the question remains. If we are complete persons then should not the body and soul be held together bound by a complete morality? If the answer is yes, then we must ask what that morality should be.