Protestant suspicion of reason is iconoclastic

[Full disclosure: the following is not intended to be in any way an attack on Protestant Christians, many of whom I love dearly, but rather is intended as a critique of Protestantism as an iconoclastic theology. Most of what follows is really a rant, but it sincerely reflects my problem with protestantism in principle. Although I had my doubts about publishing it, I think I’ll take advice from G.K. Chesterton: “In matters of truth the fact that you don’t want to publish something is, nine times out of ten, a proof that you ought to publish it. ~G.K. Chesterton].

“Reason . . . is the fountain and headspring of all mischiefs. For reason feareth not God, it loveth not God, it trusteth not in God, but proudly contemneth Him. It is not moved either with his threatenings or his promises. It is not delighted with his words or works, but it murmureth against him, it is angry with him, judgeth and hateth him; to be short, “it is an enemy to God,” Rom. 8 [:7], not giving him his glory. This pestilent beast (reason I say) being once slain, all outward and gross sins should be
nothing.”
Martin Luther “Commentary on Galatians” (in Luther 1961, 128)

By contrast:

“Man’s faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God’s existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.

36 “Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason.” Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God’s revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created “in the image of God”.

37 In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:

Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful.13

38 This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God’s revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also “about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error”.

39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.”
~Catechism of the Catholic Church

I don’t think this contrast is contrived nor merely polemic. There is something profoundly true in this caricature of classical Protestantism. Consider that at the root of the Catholic conviction that man can know by the exercise of his reason that God exists is the presupposition that this is entailed by man being in the image of God, as it says above (“Man has this capacity because he is created “in the image of God”“). However, the Reformers were not so comfortable with this presupposition. John Knox, for instance, says:

“By which transgression, commonly called original sin, was the image of God utterly defaced in man; and he and his posterity of nature, became enemies of God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.”

Indeed, the Reformers were sceptical even about our apprehension that we are in the image of God. As Martin Luther also says:

“[W]hen we speak about that image, we are speaking about something unknown. Not only have we had no experience of it, but we continually experience the opposite; and so we hear nothing but bare words.… Through sin this image was so obscured and corrupted that we cannot grasp it even with our intellect (as quoted in Chaney, 1970, 13:18, emp. added).”

Protestantism is iconoclastic not only ideologically, but in spirit as well. This is actually profoundly consonant with the Protestant doctrine of justification by imputation rather than by infusion. That was the centrepiece of Reformed theology, and it entailed that man did not have free will, which was seen with stunning clarity by Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Knox, and others.  If Grace was imputed to man, it had to be so precisely because man could not move himself to the good, and because faith alone (meaning here one ‘act’ of faith which endures through all time) was the occasion of the full imputation of Grace. If man can do no good and is in a state of ‘total depravity’, then God alone can move man to have faith, and faith can never be freely chosen (for then the act of choosing would make it a ‘work’ in the Catholic sense of the word ‘work’). As Luther said:

If any man doth ascribe of salvation, even the very least, to the free will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright.
– Martin Luther

This whole theology of man (anthropology) coupled with soteriology, was profoundly iconoclastic in spirit. That is precisely why St. Bellarmine, that great doctor of the Church, called the Protestantism of his day a form of Christian Islam.

This iconoclastic attitude is ultimately what accounts for the lack of architectural expressions of the Gospel, or what Catholics like William Shakespeare called “sermons in stone” (for demonstrations of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, see Joseph Pearce). It also accounts for the astounding lack of icons, and even artistic expressions of worship. Of course, Protestantism today is redeemed somewhat by the fact that its services still contain music to worship God with, but it should be remembered that early Reformers like Zwingli forbade music for the same reason he forbade beautiful vestments. It is not a coincidence that in Islam it is often taken for granted that music is antithetical to the genuine prayer of a ‘Muslim’ (a servant of God), and that Islam too is profoundly iconoclastic.

Of course, there are also many forms of Protestantism which enjoy high liturgy, with images and incense and whose services reflect a recognition that prayer should involve the whole man, from his heart to his hands. Anglicanism, for instance, has retained a relatively high liturgy. However, I think that the authentic spirit of protestantism, in stepping away from the Catholic faith precisely at the point it did (concerning justification, and the recognition that man can reason his way to God’s existence), had of necessity to be iconoclastic – the very move itself was iconoclastic. Though some people who wish to be naively ecumenical want to make the fundamental disagreement on the doctrine of justification seem a trifling one, I think Catholics and sincere Reformed Protestants continue to recognize that this point lies at the heart of all other differences. Consider that the two principle disagreements between Protestantism and Catholicism are on precisely these two points: how is man justified, and what is the Church? The rejection of the strong doctrine of the Church is a rejection of that which is clearly reflected in the scripture, is clearly the presupposition of the Christian people from the time of the Apostles, and is also the only possible way of ensuring formal Christian orthodoxy existing as a revealed body of knowledge –

“the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”
~Jude 3

It was therefore not easily dismissed by the reformers, but had to be dismissed by them precisely because they saw the indissoluble conflict between their doctrine of justification and the classical doctrine of Christ’s Church, and they felt more certain about the doctrine of justification by imputation than they did about the doctrine of the Church’s infallible nature. Notice that they didn’t reason their way to the doctrine of justification by imputation from within a Catholic/classical-Christian paradigm, but rather by a paradigm-shift made the doctrine of justification by imputation central to their theology. They not only could not have reasoned their way there from a Catholic perspective, but they could not have ‘reasoned’ their way there at all, since it is palpably contrary to reason to deny that we have free will and yet believe that we are morally guilty of choosing to sin. I note that Calvin responds thus:

“…we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.
~John Calvin from Bondage and Liberation of the Will, pg. 69-70

Now, apart from the obvious problem which Calvinism here shares with Naturalism (that blame cannot belong to a person who willed to do this or that thing if their will to do that very thing was determined by something other than themselves – which is clearly the case if they could not have chosen otherwise, but chose by necessity), Calvin’s language is misleading. For although he wants to say that man’s choosing to sin is not coerced, even though necessary and unavoidable given his nature and the human situation in which he resides, he DOES want to say that being saved comes only by coercion, and is literally the furthest thing from a free choice. ‘Liberation’ for Calvin is simply liberation from the bondage of sin, but it is not the free act of accepting Christ or falling in love with God, or entering into a covenant relationship with God as one does with a spouse in marriage. No part of man can freely choose, even with the help of Grace going before (which is Catholic dogma, for man cannot move his will to do good without Grace going before it, as was said at the second council of Orange, and later repeated by the Canons of Trent), without that free choice entailing that justification comes about by faith and at least one instance of ‘work’. This is precisely why Calvinism entails the doctrine of double-predestination.

Yet it is nothing short of flatly contradictory to deny that Grace is infused by means of faith and by means of works (which are prompted by, and made possible by, the Holy Spirit – apart from which we can literally do no good) and yet to believe that we can freely choose to love Christ rather than be coerced by ‘irresistible Grace’. The positions are mutually exclusive, and the special pleading of protestants who draw back from the Reformers, wishing to remain non-Catholic while disagreeing with the Reformers at this point, are (I submit) incomprehensibly inconsistent. In rejecting that we can ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12) they also reject that we can “grow up into the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). It is even to unite two contraries to suggest that we can pray for our fellow man, granting him more Grace, and in the next breath to claim that the Church as a communion of saints cannot, as an entire body, pray for her members by the means which we call ‘indulgence’. Purgatory is anathema to a Protestant only because the idea that we can gradually grow up into saints is anathema as well, for one cannot become ‘more justified’ (the Catholic Church teaches adamantly that we can, but the protestant understanding of the term justification is univocal and legal, instead of analogous). It is not surprising that at this juncture as well the protestant position seems to run contrary to reason, since to claim that Christ, in a straightforward legal or judicial sense paid for our sins, imputing righteousness to man by dying on the cross, and to claim that Christ died for all men, entails that God, in a legal sense, owes us all salvation by the imputation of righteousness. This is why the Calvinist doctrine, departing from the Catholic and Augustinian doctrine, says that Christ died on the cross only for those who were predestined to salvation. It is certainly true to say that the protestant doctrine of justification stinks in the sight of reason; they are at odds – ever enemies, always opposed.

Ultimately the logic of protestantism, when taken seriously, leads necessarily to an iconoclastic vision of reason itself. Putting the destruction of icons and even the desecration of the graves and bodies of saints like Irenaeus by Calvinists and other Protestant protesters aside, there is hardly anything more radically iconoclastic than the rejection that man is in the image of God. By the natural light of reason we know that we have free will, and as immediately we also know that we reason, and that reasoning is a means of searching for the truth, which is actually just a form of love. The philosopher really is in ‘philo‘ with ‘sophia‘. The philosopher is and can only be in the image of God. The classical reformer is and can only be an anti-philosopher.

For these reasons I am convinced that Protestants today, for the most part, are not truly protestants at all – what they reject in Catholicism is a mere caricature, and what they say and do betrays a deeply Catholic conviction about man being in the image of God. Their fondness for apologetics itself reflects the conviction that reason itself is good. They often say that Christianity is about a love relationship, and that love must be freely chosen, without realizing that this echoes the Catholic objection to Protestantism itself as a theology! Recall that freely choosing to love God, to accept Christ as one’s personal Lord and savior, is a ‘work’ in exactly the same sense which Catholics mean when speaking of salvific (or meritorious, which are really synonymous terms) works. Protestants, for the most part, are already Catholics wandering outside of the Church. The notable exception is the Calvinist, faithfully maintaining a consistently protestant theology which takes seriously the centrality of the doctrine of justification by imputation. Putting the merit of consistency aside, it seems to me that the Calvinist can only be a Calvinist by being an iconoclast, and thereby being suspicious of reason. The Catholic, by contrast, is an iconophile, and thus loves the philosopher in principle.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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One Response to Protestant suspicion of reason is iconoclastic

  1. John P Curtin says:

    I have this week come to see historical iconoclasm and the contemporary attacks on modern science as related similiar mindsets. The art of the past was a victim of this intolerance because the iconoclasts could get ahold of it and destroy it. Whenever the art of the past reached the level of cosmological truth iconoclasm turned on. Today iconoclasts attack science because it is approaching cosmological truth. The difference today is that modern science gives the iconoclast no material object that can be destroyed. Modern science will continue to progress in healing, astronomy, botany, nutrition and other sciences and bring us closer to Jesus.

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