What is Orthodox Protestantism? A Brief Response to Rod Dreher

What is Orthodox Protestantism? A Brief Response to Rod Dreher

Written by Carl R. Trueman |
Monday, January 9, 2023

Institutional unity is important as a witness to the truth. I for one do think it ridiculous that in the USA alone there are numerous presbyterian denominations who hold substantially the same doctrinal position but exist as separate institutional bodies. Yet even so, the problem of defining Protestant orthodoxy is not simply a Protestant problem.

Taking his cue from my recent article at First Things, Rod Dreher asks a most reasonable question: what is orthodox Protestantism?

The problem with defining the term is that orthodox Protestantism is, in one sense, an abstraction. It correlates with no single institution. Thus, the Roman Catholic is here at an advantage, at least in theory: orthodox Catholicism is what the Roman Catholic Church upholds as true and practices in her worship. The unity of the institution makes the question straightforward. As there is no single orthodox Protestant church, the question is inevitably more challenging.

The way I was using the term in the article was with reference to the points of consensus of the Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, when one compares, say, the Lutheran Book of Concord with the various Reformed confessions, significant points of agreement emerge: on the Trinity, on the Incarnation, on the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ for salvation. We might summarize this as agreement upon the creedal faith of the early church, refracted through the debates over sacraments, salvation, and ecclesiology in the Reformation. Significant points of antithesis do exist within Reformation Protestantism, particularly on the Lord’s Supper as a point of division between Lutherans and Reformed, but aside from this significant issue, there is a high degree of fundamental commonality.

When one looks specifically at the Reformed confessions, the consensus is even stronger. E.F.K. Müller’s collection of Reformed confessional documents, Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformierte Kirche, is fascinating in this regard: the documents are drawn from across Europe and represent the productions of churches in a wide variety of linguistic, political, and cultural contexts. Yet there is substantial unity on all major topics. From the doctrine of God through the Incarnation to grace, justification, the word of God, the church, sacraments, and the afterlife, a clear core of orthodox Protestant teaching is there, despite the diversity of contexts–a diversity arguably much greater than that represented by the bespoke diversities of today, given the lack of information technology, easy and efficient transportation, and pop cultural unity in the sixteenth century (no international Manchester United Supporters’ Club in Luther’s day), things that are now a commonplace in our globalized world.

Catholics will no doubt respond that I am offering a false unity here. I have chosen those texts that reflect the core of Christian belief I myself prefer and, by privileging them as normative, have granted Protestant orthodoxy a coherence that it did not possess then and does not possess now.

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