Essay / Misc.

Bruce McCormack on the Future of Protestant Theology

Bruce L. McCormack of Princeton Seminary is a serious theologian. He’s not messing around, trying things out, or riding hobby horses; he’s reading and writing Christian theology as if it matters, as if something depends on it. In an article in the new issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology (“Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism,” in IJST 8/3 (July 2006), 243-251), McCormack turns in his usual excellent performance, providing a preliminary report on his much-anticipated Scottish Journal of Theology lectures to be given in Aberdeen in 2007. After making his main argument (about Christology), McCormack concludes with some remarks about the way he views the current situation for Christian theology:

The situation in which Christian theology is done in the United States today is shaped most dramatically by the slow death of the Protestant churches. I have heard it said —and I have no reason to question it—that if current rates of decline in membership continue, all that will be left by mid-century will be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and non-denominational evangelical churches (the last named of which will include those denominations, like the Southern Baptists, which are non-confessional in doctrinal matters and Congregationalist in their polity). The churches of the Reformation will have passed from the scene—and with their demise, there will be no obvious institutional bearers of the message of the Reformation. What all of this means in practice is that it will become more and more necessary, for the sake of the future of Christianity, to establish stronger ecumenical relations with the Catholics and the Orthodox.

(You might want to read that twice before going on; McCormack phrases things carefully.)

By “the slow death of the Protestant churches,” McCormack means the membership decline of those (mainly) Lutheran and Reformed denominations with clear European roots. As he goes on to make clear, evangelical and Baptist churches don’t count as “Protestant” in this sense because they don’t have creeds or confessions, and their church structure doesn’t rise much above the local level (no bishops or presbyteries or strong denominational hierarchies). To a good Presbyterian, that kind of evangelical church life must look anarchic.

This has been a wearisome summer for anyone who’s keeping track of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches grinding toward their seemingly inevitable breakups. Perched safely in an Evangelical Free church, I can at least watch from some distance and feel the pain from afar. But McCormack is planted right in the middle of the PCUSA, a supposedly confessional church which is having to confess that it doesn’t know which end of the Bible to point at human sexuality.

So run the current trend to its end, and imagine yourself in the year 2047.

The last PCUSA church in America has just sold its property to the thriving evangelical Korean congregation that’s been meeting in its basement for decades. The bishop of Canterbury now lives in Nigeria, but in America the Anglicans are now a loose network of Community Church congregations “united” by their use of the Book of Common Prayer (2035 revision). A Garrison Keillor simulacrum-droid is still pumping out Prairie Home Companion, and people still laugh at his Lutheran jokes but they’re not sure why because nobody has ever met a Lutheran. The United Methodists (“Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.”) have merged with the United Church of Christ (“God Is Still Speaking”) and the Unitarian Universalists (“Whatever”), and between them they have nineteen gorgeous buildings to host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and not much else. The largest denomination in the USA is the Revived Shaker Church, but they do not self-identify as Christian.

It’s 2047: Bruce McCormack is just over 100 years old and is trying to figure out where to go to church. He’s not picky, he just wants a place that teaches justification by faith and sola scriptura. There are no mainline Protestant churches to choose from, no “obvious institutional bearers of the message of the Reformation.” Everywhere he goes, there are non-denominational evangelicals, and Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox. Who’s got the Reformation theology, where can I go to get it?

Jumping back to 2006, and back to my own evangelical (just barely denominational) context, I can see the advantages of doing what McCormack ’06 recommends: “for the sake of the future of Christianity, to establish stronger ecumenical relations with the Catholics and the Orthodox.” But as an evangelical theologian committed to the theology of the Reformation, I think my more pressing task is to work for a clearer theological witness in evangelical congregations and institutions. I think it’s possible for evangelicalism to function as a much more “obvious institutional bearer of the message of the Reformation.” Indeed, with the mainline keeling over and dropping the Protestant baton, the people most likely to pick it up are people like my people, or maybe Pentecostals in the developing world. Everything hinges on greater theological sophistication and stronger commitment to doctrines like sola scriptura and justification. I actually wonder why McCormack pointed instead to Roman Catholic and Orthodox dialogue partners. Probably it’s because his speech was about reinvigorating traditional Chalcedonian christology, and he (rightly) thinks he’s more likely to find conversation partners about that among Catholics than among evangelicals.

To evangelical theologians (Baptists, non-denominationals, etc.) I would take a hint from McCormack and say: The baton is being dropped, the mainline churches are going down. Study harder, learn the great tradition of Christian doctrine (from the Catholics and Orthodox perhaps), and keep your hands ready to take up the baton of Protestant teaching. Plan for mid-century, when there will be a crying need for an “obvious institutional bearer of the theology of the Reformation.”

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