Historically, two doctrines more-or-less defined Protestant theology: sola fide and sola Scriptura. The first of these is the belief that salvation is “by faith alone,” apart from any sort of good works. The saved person might do good works, but good works have nothing to do with their being saved. The second, sola Scriptura, is the belief that “Scripture alone” is sufficient for belief, and that Christian doctrine can be derived exclusively from the Bible. Sources outside the Bible might help you understand Christianity, but a teaching not found in Scripture is a false teaching. (Protestant theologians vary in their understanding of this second point on issues like whether the Church’s interpretation of Scripture is binding, or even important.)
But do Protestants today even believe in these doctrines? A fascinating pair of Pew surveys, marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, decided to find out by surveying large numbers of Protestants in the U.S. and in eight different Western European countries. The results were fascinating.
The European Findings
The general findings in Europe are bleak:
- Europe is losing its Christian identity. In the Netherlands, for example, 20% of the population is (mostly-lax) Catholic and 18% of the population is (mostly-devout) Protestant, but they’re dwarfed by the 48% of the country that’s religiously unaffiliated.
- Christians aren’t living Christianity. Amongst those who do profess a religious affiliation, few say religion is very important in their lives (12% median for Protestants, 13% for Catholics), or that they pray daily (14% Protestants, 12% Catholics) or that they attend church weekly (8% Protestants, 14% Catholics).
- Those who are living as Christians have frequently adopted an odd medley of Catholic and Protestant theology. “Protestants in every country surveyed except Norway are more likely to say that both elements are necessary for salvation than to take the traditionally Protestant sola fide position. For example, nearly three times as many German Protestants say faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven (61%) as say faith alone is the way to heaven (21%).” Weirder still, “in countries that have substantial shares of both Catholic and Protestant populations, only in the Netherlands are Catholics (66%) more likely than Protestants (47%) to say salvation comes from faith and good works. In Germany, Switzerland and the UK, Protestants are just as likely as Catholics – if not more likely – to espouse this traditional Catholic belief.”
Sola fide was held by the early Protestants to be “the article by which the church stands or falls.” By that standard, European Protestantism has fallen.
The American Findings
The American version of the study didn’t have an eye towards the religiously-unaffiliated, or the laxity of religious practice within Christianity (other studies have done that, and find a similar, if slower, downward trajectory to what we find in Western Europe). Instead, Pew just wanted to know if Catholics and Protestants even knew their own faith, or why we aren’t all in one Church.
The short answer is no. Only 70% of respondents knew that the period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church is called “the Reformation” and not “the Great Crusade” or “the French Revolution.” 10% thought that St. Thomas Aquinas started the Protestant Reformation. And only 27% of Protestants realized that Protestants (historically) hold to sola fide and Catholics don’t. So most Protestants are not, it would seem, deeply invested in Reformation history, or tracing their theological lineage. But what are their theological beliefs now? As the left side of this chart shows, it looks nothing like what the Reformers taught:
Like their European counterparts, most American Protestants deny sola fide (that salvation is through faith alone). Most deny sola Scriptura. These two tenets, long considered a basic litmus test for Protestantism, are now held by only 30% of American Protestants. Another surprising stat: 30% of Protestants (including a whopping 47% of Black Protestants) believe in Purgatory.
The Christianity that American Protestants practice typically isn’t “chemically-pure Protestantism.” It’s a blend of Protestant ideas, Catholic ideas, and probably a good deal of other ideas from secular society.
Doctrine and the Problem of Authority
Catholicism has clarity and structure. If you want to know what the Catholic Church teaches, you can look it up, and generally find out pretty quickly. True, not all Catholics live it, not all Catholics even understand or believe it, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s still something that can be called “the” Catholic stance on the question.
When we Catholics look at Protestantism, we’re often expecting to find something like the Catholic Church. Since there’s an “-ism,” we expect a common ideology or set of values or something that binds the various and sundry Protestants together as a coherent whole. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard (or been asked) about “the Protestant view” on some doctrine on which there were innumerable “Protestant” views. In almost every case, there’s not such thing as the Protestant view. There’s only a Protestant view, and every other Protestant is free to accept or reject that view.
Or to put it another way, you can be a bad Catholic (in the sense of refusing to believe what the Church believes), but it’s not clear how you can be a bad Protestant. Overwhelmingly, most Protestants today don’t believe what their great-grandparents believed on big issues like sola fide or sola Scriptura. Does that make them bad Protestants? If so, does this mean that they and their ancestors are bad Christians, for rejecting what their Catholic ancestors taught?
Once Protestantism accepted the idea that you could accept Christianity while rejecting the Church, a trajectory was set that brought us to this place. After all, if 16th-century Christians like Luther can reject key Christian doctrines (like transubstantiation, Holy Orders, papal primacy, etc.) and still consider themselves Christian, why can’t 21st-century Protestants reject key Protestant doctrines (like sola fide and sola Scriptura) and still consider themselves Protestant?
Add to this that there’s no pope in Protestantism, no Magisterium, no binding Church authority of any kind. Anglicans can’t police Methodists can’t police Presbyterians, and nobody is under any particular moral obligation to one of these rather than the other. For the most part, church authority exists only inasmuch as individual Protestants want it to exist.
I think that there are several things to take away from this, even as Catholics:
- Stop assuming that if a person is a Protestant, they necessarily hold to x belief. No coherent belief binds Protestantism together. Instead, ask them what they believe. You may be in for a surprise.
- Recognize the draw, and challenge, of authority. Whether they realize it or not, many Protestants have been going through life with a religion-made-for-one, their own personal blend of Catholicism, various Protestant denominations, and whatever they’ve experienced, seen on TV, etc. On the one hand, there’s something extremely attractive about an external, visible religious authority with a coherent set of beliefs and practices that have stood up to the test of time for 2000 years. On the other hand, there’s something terrifying about that specter, and the amount of control it requires relinquishing.
- Recognize that the problem may be not strictly theological. Some people aren’t Catholic because their careful examination of the theological data hasn’t convinced them. But these people are a fleetingly small minority. Most people just haven’t thought deeply about the question, or haven’t been invited to a Catholic church, or have only had TV and stereotypes to go off of.
- See your role. You may not be a theologian, able to reach that first (fleetingly-small) group of people I mentioned int he last point, but you can do something about this second group. Form authentic friendships with people you wish were Catholic, share interesting Catholic books or talks or just ideas, draw them deeper into an exploration of Scripture and of early Christian writings. Heck, you might even grow deeper in your faith in the meantime.