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The Unsolved Problem of Protestantism

Posted by on Aug 31, 2010 in books, definition | 32 comments

The Unsolved Problem of Protestantism

If you followed the link in my previous post “Disregard 1 Corinthians 11-14“, and read the quotes, you probably noticed that the author quoted Emil Brunner’s book The Misunderstanding of the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953). I thought you might enjoy some excerpt from the Brunner’s preface:

What is the Church? This question poses the unsolved problem of Protestantism. From the days of the Reformation to our own time, it has never been clear how the Church, in the sense of spiritual life and faith – the fellowship of Jesus Christ – is related to the institutions conventionally called churches.

For the Roman Catholic church this problem does not appear to exist at all. Rome presents to the world the face of a church which is certain of itself. But this is only so in appearance; in reality Rome too has no ready answer to the question how the phenomenon visible in the New Testament as the Ecclesia is to be related to the papal church as the latter has developed in the course of centuries; and the uneasiness of those who cannot satisfy themselves with the neat formula that the one has evolved into the other is the less easily appeased the longer it lasts.

In the last 50 or 100 years New Testament research has unremittingly and successfully addressed itself to the task of elucidating for us what was known as the Ecclesia in primitive Christianity – so very different from what is to-day called the Church both in the Roman and Protestant camps. It is, however, a well-known fact that dogmatists and Church leaders often pay small attention to the results of New Testament research, and are only too ready to bridge the gulf between then and now by a handy formula such as that of development, or by appealing to the distinction between the visible and invisible Church, and thus to give a false solution to this grace and distressing problem. But while many theologians and Church leaders are able to quieten their consciences by such formulae, others are so much the more painfully aware of the disparity between the Christian fellowship of the apostolic age and our own “churches,” and cannot escape the impression that there may perhaps be something wrong with what we now call the Church.

For this book has sprung from just this desire to discover the reason why since the Reformation epoch a real solution to the problem of the Church has not been found. The reader will feel, I hope, that behind it lies not merely the impulse to know, but a desire, at least equally strong, to bring into being the true fellowship of Christ. (pg 5-6)

I’m sure that Brunner found many who disagreed with him. There were also probably many who ignored him and carried on with church as usual. I’m also certain that there are many who agree with Brunner, and who desire to study the image of the church as we see it in Scripture. I hope that all of us desire that our study of the church leads to living as the church in a manner that honors God and glorifies Jesus Christ in the Spirit… and that seems to be Brunners concern as well.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 8-31-2010

    “But this is only so in appearance; in reality Rome too has no ready answer to the question how the phenomenon visible in the New Testament as the Ecclesia is to be related to the papal church as the latter has developed in the course of centuries; and the uneasiness of those who cannot satisfy themselves with the neat formula that the one has evolved into the other is the less easily appeased the longer it lasts.”

    I disagree with his premise that Rome does not have a ready answer to the question. Rome does indeed have a ready answer, but it is one that Protestants reject, hence the term “Protest”-ants. Catholics are quite certain of what the Church is. We are quite certain of who is in Church. Where the waters become muddied is when we attempt to say who is outside the Church.

    Another thing that I don’t agree with is when he speaks of the view that Catholics have with regard to the church of today being very different from the New Testament church. We don’t expect the church of today to resemble the church as it appeared to the Apostles, yet the faith in the Lord Jesus is unchanged even today. The externals may appear different, but what the Church is in her essence is the same. It has simply had 2000 years to develop. The idea that the church today must look like the church of the 1st century is one that has always baffled me. If the church is a living body which the scriptures would indicate, why would we expect it to be a thing of stasis? Why would it NOT grow and develop? All living organisms do, and Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed which starts as the smallest of seeds and grows into a tree in which birds build their nests. The mustard seed is the same organism in its essence as that tree just at a different stage of development. Or even look at human beings. Alan and I do not look the same as we did when were in 3rd grade together in Mrs. Joiner’s classroom at Laurel Elementary. I dare say if we saw each other on the street we wouldn’t recognize each other since we haven’t seen each other since I moved with my family to Louisiana in 1977, but we are the same person in our most fundamental sense.

    So while I think it is good to study the history of the church, I think it is impossible to recreate the first century church today. We are too far removed from the cultural milieu of that age to be able to do it. Yet, I do feel a connection with those Christians of Jerusalem and Antioch and Ephesus and Sardis, etc, and that connection is the Word of God, the Lord Jesus who in his essence is the same per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

  2. 9-1-2010


    If the Lord Jesus is “in his essence […] the same per omnia saecula saeculorum,” then why is his body changing? Just a thought.


    is he saying that the church is “the fellowship of Jesus Christ”?

  3. 9-1-2010


    I knew you would disagree with that. I almost left out the part about the Roman Catholic Church, but I decided, “Why not let Brian get in on the fun too.”


    In the book, Brunner shies away from using the term “church” because of the modern connotations. He tends to use “fellowship” or “community”. But, yes, he says that the “Ecclesia” (another one of his favorite terms) is the fellowship of/with Jesus Christ.


  4. 9-1-2010


    Thanks for letting me play. One other thing, the idea of an invisible church is foreign to us whacko Papists. 🙂

    Maël (beautiful name, by the way),

    By essence I mean that what the Church fundamentally is has not changed in 2000 years. The externals (or as St. Thomas Aquinas would say, the accidents) can change but they will not alter the fundamental reality of the Church as Body of Christ and vehicle of grace for the world.

  5. 9-1-2010


    Shouldn’t the accidents be a representation of the essence? Why would the accidents today be so much different than the accidents of the first century, even more different than cultural differences? I think more has changed than the accidents.


  6. 9-1-2010

    Why would the accidents of a mustard seed be much different for a mustard seed and a full grown tree? Why would the accidents of a human being who is an adult be much different from the accidents of a fully grown man? Either way, the essence of a the thing is the same. I do not thing that the essence of the church has changed. It is still the community of believers united in Christ and his body which is called to carry on his mission to evangelize the world. That has not changed.

  7. 9-1-2010

    Whoops. That should have said the accidents of a zygote be much different than a full grown man. I knew I should have proofed before I sent.

  8. 9-1-2010


    Helpful analogies, but analogies always break down. For example, if the seed grows into an oak tree instead of a mustard plant, then we know that something went wrong.

    By the way, I agree with your statement that the church is “the community of believers united in Christ and his body which is called to carry on his mission to evangelize the world. That has not changed.” The next time you go to mass, ask the people around you what the church is. I’d love to know if this is the kind of answer you get. I don’t think it would be the kind of answer that most Protestants would give.


  9. 9-1-2010


    If the seed is programmed to be a mustard tree then it will be a mustard tree. I trust that is what will happen. I realize these are only analogies and that analogies can break down, but analogies are helpful in getting the point across. Even the Lord Jesus was not above using them.

    I will ask those sitting around me the next time I go to Mass. As a matter of fact I will ask a good friend of mine tonight just to gauge a response. I would venture to guess that the answers will vary from “it’s the building where we gather for Mass” to “it’s the mystical Body of Christ” to (sadly) “I don’t know. I am just here because I don’t want to go to hell.” Individual Catholics can be lazy when it comes to the faith and many look for the easiest road to take despite Jesus telling us to “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” It can be discouraging and and quite a daunting task when teaching classes like I do. Suffice it to say, the Catholic Church defines herself most fundamentally in the way I posted, the community of believers united in Christ and his body which is called to carry on his mission to evangelize the world.

  10. 9-1-2010


    So, according to what you think people will say about “church,” you believe that the church (“the community of believers”) actually thinks that the church is something else (“the building” or “the mystical Body of Christ” or “I don’t know”). Doesn’t that indicate a problem?


  11. 9-1-2010


    Well, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ which gathers in the building. 🙂 I think those would be the first answers I get. But on a more serious note, yes there is a problem with catechesis in general in Catholicism and much of that has to do with the general changes that have occurred since the Second Vatican Council.

    I’ll give you a specific example: prior to the council in the early to mid 1960s there were any number of devotions which involved lay people in the Church. Some specific ones that come to mind are the Altar Society, the Lay Orders of Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carmelites, the Knights of Columbus, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. These groups were geared to further the mission of the Church through fellowship, works of charity, and prayer, and each group had it’s own charism so that say the Lay Dominicans (which I am partial to and am discerning membership) are characterized by prayer, study, and preaching the gospel in daily life. These groups met on a regular basis, and on Sunday all of the groups gathered together for Holy Mass which is the “wedding feast of the Lamb” to participate in the Eucharist. The priest presided over that celebration which is ancient and at the time was entirely in Latin. The readings from scripture would be read prior to the sermon in the language of the people, and the sermon would be in the vernacular as well, but while Mass was a grand opportunity for some catechesis, it was largely a chance for people to celebrate the faith which we shared together already and to participate in the sacrificial banquet whereby we are sacramentally united with Christ and one another.

    With the liturgical changes which occurred after the council, the entire Mass was simplified and translated into the vernacular and unfortunately became the only time the majority of the community came together for fellowship any fellowship. Well, if you have never been to Mass, it is not really geared for that, as it is a highly ritualized order of worship focused specifically on the Blessed Trinity. But since it is now in the vernacular, people have tended to let their experience of Church be simply the hour a week they spend at Mass. The other lay communities are still there, but participation is much less than before. Probably the largest is the Knights of Columbus which is a male only lay group. These lay groups still are focused on prayer, fellowship, and acts of charity, but they have become somewhat neglected since opportunities for prayer in community have been supplanted by the vernacular Mass. It is really a shame.

    That is not to say that Holy Mass is unimportant. It is the source of grace for all other ministries in the Catholic Church, but those other ministries have been more neglected since people can now go to Mass and pray and have a “perceived” fellowship. Ironically is it exactly the opposite of what the council fathers envisioned when they reformed the liturgy. And after saying all of that, I do see a problem, but I don’t see the problem as something necessarily intrinsic to the Church itself rather it is a problem of society in general. Frankly put, we are lazy and our priorities are screwed up. People need to hear the authentic gospel preached. They need to rediscover opportunities for fellowship outside of Holy Mass. It is slowly but surely happening with me and a few friends of mine who are organizing a scripture study, but we have a long way to go. I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here by recreating the Church. I think we simply need to rediscover those opportunities for fellowship which have been neglected.


  12. 9-1-2010


    These developments sure have complicated the church more than what I read about in the New Testament.


  13. 9-1-2010


    And despite her varied and complex form, she is still the community of believers united in Christ and his body which is called to carry on his mission to evangelize the world. Amazing, huh?


  14. 9-1-2010

    P.S. You just can’t stuff the mustard tree back into the seed.

  15. 9-1-2010


    I understand. And, I’m sure that we’ll disagree about this, but when I look at the RCC today, I don’t see anything resembling the seed or the new tree that first started to grow.


  16. 9-1-2010

    Brian and Alan, Let’s get this out from the beginning-I am definitely not as educated as either of you so I am entering this discussion with a little apprehension. However a few questions have entered my mind while I read Brian’s first entry, and after reading all the responses I wondered why none of these questions were brought up.

    “Another thing that I don’t agree with is when he speaks of the view that Catholics have with regard to the church of today being very different from the New Testament church. We don’t expect the church of today to resemble the church as it appeared to the Apostles, yet the faith in the Lord Jesus is unchanged even today. The externals may appear different, but what the Church is in her essence is the same. It has simply had 2000 years to develop. The idea that the church today must look like the church of the 1st century is one that has always baffled me. If the church is a living body which the scriptures would indicate, why would we expect it to be a thing of stasis? Why would it NOT grow and develop?”

    My question is this-Do we not check the growth and development against scripture? If a body grows a tumor we cut it out because it doesn’t fit the genetic pattern of the original. What if the Church decides that the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper is not really necessary in the modern church? Or perhaps baptism isn’t necessary? Or perhaps we should have a silent laity? Or charge people indulgences for forgiveness of sins? Do we simply say if the people in authority who are in apostolic sucession establish it, then that must be Christ and we must go along with it. Didn’t the established Jewish authorities use this same argument against Christ in questioning him in his time and didn’t Christ refer to scripture to challenge the Pharisees? Could the Pharisees simply have said, “The Jewish religion is growing like a tree-thus we added to the torah and scriptures”? Jesus himself challenged their additions to the Law of Moses when he addressed their thoughts on divorce, and also when he said in Matt. 15:6, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of tradition.”

    I don’t know that anyone is saying we need to copy the early church- to not drive cars, to wear togas, to move to Greece- but rather people are looking at scriptural principals and saying, Wow-the early church used to be more familial. Maybe that had something to do with how they met. Leadership didn’t seem to be as dominant as what it appears today. Maybe Paul’s command to the Corinthians to meet a certain way when they gathered developed a community that leaders were a part of rather than over. Maybe God had a purpose in all this that goes beyond the first century. Maybe some of the ways we meet today are actually detrimental to the growth of the tree and its beauty.

    The question we always must ask ourselves is, “Are we following the Spirit, or are traditions leading us, be they house church, Protestantism, or Catholicism.”

  17. 9-2-2010


    Yep. There are alot of traditions out there. We all have them. Some are good. Some are bad. Some help. Some hinder. We like some. We don’t like some. Our opinion doesn’t really matter though… 😉


  18. 9-2-2010


    You don’t remotely resemble yourself when you were a zygote, but it was still you. I think the analogy is a good one.

    How much do you really know of Catholicism? What I see is a mature and organized body of believers united in Christ in all things, and that has been my experience since becoming Catholic 22 years ago.


    I will have to read your post more thoroughly, but my first thought would be that the scriptures are a product of the Church and not vice versa.


  19. 9-2-2010


    A couple of things. You make valid points. The problem that Jesus had with the Pharisees was that they used Torah to squelch the Jewish religion. That is why Jesus called them blind guides who strain at gnats and swallow camels whole. Torah was meant to be protect Judaism from the polytheistic Hellenists which surrounded Israel at the time. That is why the party of the Pharisees came into existence in the first place, but they then used Torah to excess, condemning people unjustly for doing good things. That is also why St. Paul so strongly persecuted the early church, because he saw It as a threat to the monotheism of Israel rather than the continuity and fulfillment of Judaism whereby through faith in the Lord Jesus, God the Son, the whole world could be brought into the family of God the Father.

    There are things that are excesses which damage the faith. Those should be rejected. But there are practices which are natural results of the faith. Indulgences properly understood are good things. (By the way, they were never legitimately sold and they have nothing to do with forgiveness of sins.). Unfortunately since the time of Luther indulgences have gained the reputation of being an example of works righteousness, which they aren’t.

    I agree that the Church should be filial, but I don’t think the lack of filial affection for the brethren is a fault of the organization of the Church. It is difficult for Christians to not be overwhelmed by the world with it’s materialistic and nihilstic outlook, and unfortunately that is reflected in the attitudes of the people in the Church. But I don’t think it’s the Church and her practices that are the problem. It is for this very reason that the Church has to grow. It has to address the culture of all ages head on and test everything and hold fast to what is good and reject what is bad. What the Church has traditionally done is assimilate that which is good and destroy that which is bad.

    So while we must use the scriptures as a guide, we cannot use them as the Pharisees did. We cannot say, “Well, this obviously wasn’t practiced in the New Testament Church so it isn’t good.” What the Church has done through the ages is more along the lines of, “Is this contrary to the Gospel? Does it conflict with the scriptures? Does this edify the community?” That is why you need leaders, to make decisions based on authority which is given them by Christ. As all things Christian end up being paradoxical, the paradox is that in the end, the leaders become the servants, giving up their very lives in service to the gospel through service to the community.

  20. 9-2-2010


    I still say that if the church doesn’t think it’s the church but thinks that something else is the church, then there’s a problem.


  21. 9-2-2010


    That’s the thing. We KNOW we are the Church, but when we affirm that, people get all insulted and accuse us of being all triumphalist.

    Besides, it’s all irrelevant now. Stephen Hawking has put out a new book which explains it all, and guess what? God is not even necessary anymore, so this discussion is redundant and therefore not necessary. (Brian moans, “How long, O Lord? How long? Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations!”)


  22. 9-2-2010


    When I said there’s a problem that the church doesn’t know it’s the church, I was replying to your previous comment about what those around you at mass (the church?) would say about the church.

    By the way, I admit there’s a problem in Protestantism and Evangelicalism.


  23. 9-2-2010


    I see. And my comment saying we KNOW we’re the Church was a feeble attempt at humor (but the comment about Hawking was not. Oy!)

    I will have more about the “what is the Church” question later.


    P.S. There is a problem in Christianity in general.

  24. 9-2-2010


    Thanks for your reply. I found the first section very informative and filled with some new thoughts.

    The second chapter had me wondering for examples of excessiveness in the church and how we determine what they are. I would think scripture combined with the inner witness of the Spirit would have something to do with it.
    Have you seen the movie_The Mission_. Would this be an example of how the priests resisted the hierarchy of the church given to excessiveness as a proper method. One chose resistance one non-violent resistance. Of course movies dramatize things so I don’t know for sure how truthful it was but it was definitely thought provoking.

    Third chapter my only comment is that I do think some church practices do hinder the free flow of filial affection of the brotherhood. I think Alan’s story of the man who came to church

  25. 9-2-2010

    Oops my computer locked up on me. At least I didn’t lose what I wrote but it automatically sent it without me proof reading it. When I said chapter, I meant paragraph. I know you weren’t writing a book Brian. 🙂

    …man who came to church looking for connections with people and came and left feeling dejected. I guess it wasn’t Alan’s story but he posted it. The last statement in the third paragraph is a little hard to swallow being raised Mennonite and having read and looked many times at The Martyrs Mirror and Foxes book of Martyrs. However I no longer consider myself Mennonite but simply Christian. Both the Protestant and the Catholics were a little hard on my ancestors but I guess it made me an American rather than a European and I’m glad for that. I don’t hold it against the people of either of these faiths but it does give me a different perspective.

    In the fourth paragraph I would have to answer yes to these questions (“Is this contrary to the Gospel? Does it conflict with the scriptures? Does this edify the community?”) when I think of some of the church practices in the New Testament that are no longer practiced, especially when these practices pertain to human relationship and interactions which are timeless and not necessarily cultural.

    Alan- Isn’t it great though that we can discuss this on the computer in love rather than hiding in are own church traditions and never being truly challenged by people who think differently.

  26. 9-2-2010


    Excessives…I could name some within my own parish or diocese. I think that our bishops are often treated like earthly royalty is scandalous. In my own parish when the bishop would come for confirmations or simply for a pastoral visit our pastor would order up a limo to take them to dinner etc. I told my pastor, “Wow. That’s a far cry from entering Jerusalem on the foal of an ass.” He was not amused. Another thing is that when there is an important function like a political dignitary visiting New Orleans (I live in the suburbs of New Orleans.) or the installation of a new archbishop, often common folk are left out. I want to ask the clergy, “Have you taken the briefest of looks at the second chapter of the letter of St. James?”

    It is horrible what people do to one another in the name of Christ. Some of my ancestors were Hugenots from France who were mercilessly persecuted by the very Churcn to which I belong now. The Church, while being home to some of the most holy people is home to far more sinful people. God save us all.

    I have not watched The Mission, but what you wrote made me think of the Dominicans. As I mentioned earlier in a comment, I am discerning becoming a member of the Lay Dominicans. This order, the Order of Preachers was founded by St. Dominic Guzman of Spain in response to the Albigensian heresy in France. The Albigensians protested among other things the opulence of the bishops and priests as contrary to the Gospel. Some of them lived very good lives in poverty, however the group fell further into error with regard to marriage and matters of sexuality. St. Dominic decided out of a sense of charity and mercy to preach the true gospel to them, but not in opulence, rather in poverty. He walked from village to village rather than riding on horseback. He lived a simple life in conformity to the gospel and brought many people back to Christ. It is worthwhile to mention that the greatest Catholic orders, the Franciscans, the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, all live lives of simplicity in obedience to the Gospel.

    I feel as though I write a book when I comment here. Sorry, Alan, for cluttering up the combox, but charitable dialogue is something that I love and is an obvious fruit of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for allowing me to join in.


  27. 9-3-2010

    Hi Brian,

    So you live in New Orleans. You all have faced a lot the last few years. Did you have personal loss to your property from Katrina?

    If I remember correctly I think it was Franciscans in the movie _The Mission_. It took place near the border of Brazil and Paraguay. It involved the differing political views of slavery between Spain and Portugal. Also the “church politicking” and how all this affected the normal lives of simple people desiring to follow Christ. Themes of non-resistance and resistance are presented very well without telling the viewer what to think. Robert DeNiro is a lead actor and I think it was released in 1987. Well worth a view.

    I appreciated your honesty and inward thoughts on some of the excessives you see in the church. We all need to look at our organizations in honest evaluations rather than to try to make them look perfect to others when in our hearts we know they’re not.

    I hesitate to write next what is coming to my mind because I don’t want to use your honesty as fodder to fire back. I do not intend it to be that way, but rather to help bring clarity to my views on following practice in the New Testament. I found your comment to your pastor about Jesus coming to Jerusalem on the foal of an ass amusing even if your pastor didn’t. I think to try to go back and copy the NT would be saying your pastor should bring himself and his dignitaries on the foal of an ass. But I know that is not what you were saying. What I thought you were saying is that there was a principle in this practice that carried some weight that could be applied in our modern practices. Like maybe using an inexpensive car rather than a limosine.

    I feel that many of the practices that may not have been given as commands do have principles behind them; that is why the church operated in certain ways. Therefore these practices cannot be discarded lightly, saying we don’t need to give serious consideration to them and to why they were dropped from practice by the church.

    I think of my children-I certainly hope they look and follow my practices and not just my commands, because my behavior and reasons I do things have purposes which I don’t always express in verbal form. That is why I feel we must view orthopraxis as well as orthodoxy.

    I am looking forward to your upcoming comment on what is the church. I am assuming this will be a book entry rather than a blog entry.:)

  28. 9-6-2010


    No, I meant that the bishop should have ridden in on a donkey. :-). Just kidding. What I meant was what you said. The bishop could have very easily gone to dinner in the pastor’s Toyota Camry. A limousine is not necessary.


    I asked the question, “What is the Church?” and was SHOCKED at the reply I got. “Oh, it is the family of God the Father adopted through faith in God the Son and united under His vicar, the successor of St. Peter.” This was a pew person. So perhaps some of our parishioners are listening more than I anticipated. I honestly think this answer is better than mine because he brought out the Catholic understanding of the role of St. Peter and his successors.


  29. 6-2-2011

    My main comment was going to touch along the lines of your last paragraph. I journaled some on this today as a starter thought: What is the purpose of the church & is the NT model something that works here in our culture? Can we meet daily (Acts 2)? Is the NT model too much for a practicing believer in our culture with all the demands, pressures, etc it puts forth?

    Just some initial thoughts

  30. 6-2-2011


    Yes, I think it’s possible for us today to live as the church in the manner described in Scripture.


  31. 6-3-2011

    I agree but whats the flip side of this and how, or can we, change the church culture? Ppl seem to be open to small encounters, i.e. the convo I had w/ a lady, unplanned at a coffee house today where she left saying I had ministered to her and she desired more times like it. She is a regular at the coffe place and I happened to come in nefore I work here this evening. Ppl are hungry but also desire structure…so she said she wld come to our first Bible study, the one I emailed u about. I see ppl opposed at first but they like the uninstitutionalized, not unstructured, approach.

  32. 6-3-2011


    I think having more encounters like the one you mentioned is the best way to help people understand what it means to be the church.