On the one hand many Protestants champion Classical Liberalism as an outgrowth and even the natural offspring of the Magisterial Reformation. Reason over tradition, progress, the rights of the individual, civil society and democracy are all viewed as legitimate fruits of Reformation thought applied to the sociological realm.
And yet it all went wrong and in the background there has always lingered a rather potent Roman Catholic critique. It perhaps reached its zenith in the 19th and early 20th centuries and yet the cultural crisis of that era may in fact be eclipsed by the realities of our own day. We are still living in the wake of the World Wars, still living out their implications.
Classical Liberalism so poignantly represented by the United States was viewed as poison and a triumph of the secular over the sacred. Rome sought to protect its flock from the influences of American ideology. Classical Liberalism was the spawn of the Reformation's triumph of the individual. The lone man was allowed to challenge and cast down all authority. This is the sociological aspect to Luther that many Protestants have failed to grasp. The individual gets to decide what is right and wrong and the Reformation unleashed epistemological uncertainty and the social chaos which began the long process of dismantling Christendom.
The Reformation led to Modernism and as a consequence Post-Modernism and now Nihilism.
Undoubtedly there is some truth to this narrative and the post World War II period has brought about a time of intellectual reconsideration on the part of Evangelical Protestants and not a few defections to both Rome and Constantinople. The political Papacy utterly defeated by the late 19th century reformed its teaching and came up with a new paradigm for the industrial secular age. Consequently it allied first with Fascism then with the West (in general) at the conclusion of the war. It began to build a new empire, one wed to the Capitalist forces so dominant in the Protestant world and joined the fight (real or imagined) against world Communism. Today Rome no longer rules a geopolitical realm but instead reigns over a vast financial empire and has regained a little of its lost ground.
Evangelicals have been forced to reckon with the problems of Christianity wed to Classical Liberalism and as I've written elsewhere there are tendencies both toward revisionist history and increasingly in the direction of abandoning Liberalism for a more Roman Catholic-friendly Throne and Altar type paradigm.
There is undoubtedly much that is valid in the critique of Classical Liberalism and in what the Reformation unwittingly unleashed. And for this reason the glorification of Protestantism which is at its zenith in this 500th anniversary year, ought to be weighed carefully if not rejected.
But the truth of the critique is limited to the sociological realm.
The true problem is not individualism (which can indeed work to destroy society) but the attempt to formulate Sola Scriptura into a comprehensive societal worldview. That was a rival philosophical project rooted in speculation and dependent on speculative philosophical coherence... thus it fragmented.
The Reformers only began to toy with this question. Luther, perhaps the more conservative of the Reformers was content to sustain the Medieval-Renaissance order and sit under the protection of a so-called Christian prince. Calvin's Geneva moved in the direction of Authoritarian Republican government. Zwingli took up the sword (so to speak) and died by it on the battlefield.
It was in the 17th century that Protestant Scholasticism began to earnestly reckon with the implications of the Reformation applied to society. It was at this point that Sola Scriptura as a social organising principle failed. Rightly so I would add, as the New Testament nowhere even envisions a Christian State/Christendom project. In fact it repudiates the very notion of it.
In wedding Reformation theology to the Christendom project the Protestant Reformers and certainly the Scholastics after them undermined their own vision and sowed the seeds for epistemological collapse. They employed (and even exploited) the Scripture for something it was not meant to be used for. In the end their project exploded into the 17th century Wars of Religion and ultimately undermined not only their social vision... but their theological and ecclesiastical hopes as well.
And yet it took more than a century for this to properly bear fruit and perhaps took another century (or more) for many to understand what had happened and why.
The same fragmentation and dynamism occurred in the Roman Catholic organisation. The consensus patrum as well as any notion of a monolithic historic consensus were exposed as pure fiction. The adherents of such arguments laud Thomism which itself was progressive in the medieval context and yet ultimately fragmented and collapsed under the weight of its own methodology. It produced Via Moderna Nominalism, opening the door to the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Reason.
Catholic apologists can place the blame on the Reformation, some will attack Ockham and Nominalism... but precious few are willing to go after Aquinas and the revival of Aristotelianism.
As an interesting aside, this might be identified as a subtle theme in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The antagonist and villain, the Spanish monk Jorge of Burgos is absolutely anti-modern. The early 14th century setting places him against both Nominalism represented by the Franciscan William of Baskerville and the new orthodoxy of Aristotelian Thomism. Eco clearly condemns the anti-modernism of Jorge (and would probably place Biblicists like myself in the same 'evil' category) and yet what does he end with? Uncertainty and Postmodernist reflection. Even if I don't agree with Eco it is undeniably a brilliant and captivating book.
New Testament Biblicism is peripheral in terms of society. Yes, if one takes up the sword of state and attempts to compel the lost world into a forced obedience... the form it generates would appear cold and cruel. More accurately it produces at best a Judaized Pharisaism, a world affirming perversion of the Heavenly Zion put forward on the pages of Holy Writ.
The New Testament ideal is that of a Martyr-Remnant witnessing subculture that transcends sociological frameworks. It is internationalist (minus the politics) and thus hostile to all Sacralist frameworks (those claiming to be Christian or otherwise).
We necessarily reject the vision and aspirations of Medieval Christendom but at the same time equally excoriate the doctrines and false hopes of Classical Liberalism. Democracy and Civil Rights provide a social matrix in which the Church can survive. And yet they're not universal moral concepts. They're not Christian in any way shape or form. In actuality they are quite hostile to the ethics and doctrines of the New Testament and while the Church can live at peace under such a sociological paradigm, there are real dangers. History has demonstrated that all too easily can many a blown about member of the Church adopt and incorporate these doctrines and values. Synthesised and syncretised with Christian doctrine a host of heresies and idolatries can easily be generated. One need only appeal to America as Exhibit 'A'.
This is all the more facilitated by the confused philosophically rooted epistemology that is passed off as theology, a framework that all too often confuses, confounds and undermines Biblical doctrine. Necessarily speculative, it employs inference (both inductive and deductive) and as a consequence ranges far beyond the boundaries of textual revelation.
New Testament Biblicism is anti-philosophical and negative in terms of any claims of coherence, any attempt to formulate a philosophical or social monism. And yet as a peripheral movement, pilgrim and remnant in its ethos, it serves as salt and light. It's not a preservative per se though it is that in some sense, but a seasoning as Christ himself described it. Its role is prophetic, offering both criticism and hope in its proclamations of doom and glory, death and life.
Man is fallible and his knowledge is necessarily subjective. As redeemed mankind we find our unity forged not in a contrived or even syncretic social monism, nor in an institution, but in and by the Spirit. The Oracular Mark of the Church is the presence of the Word, meaning it is venerated, respected and submitted to. This is not applicable to Roman Catholicism or Protestant denominations (as denominations). Nor is it located in Christendom or Protestant forms of Modern or Liberal society as such. In fact the incorporation of the social element, the synthesis of Church and State, the ideal of both Roman Catholicism and Protestant Sacralism has in the end always produced a corrosive effect and ultimately destroys the Oracular authority of the Word. Instead of setting the stage for the Zionic Kingdom's triumph in the world it lays the foundation stones for the Whore-Beast relationship, the always apostate Christendom of Antichrist.
How is the Oracular Word to be interpreted? It is a valid concern and one that must be addressed. But the standard critiques of Sacralist Theology represented by Traditionalist Roman Catholicism and Dominionist Protestantism can't get there because they necessarily deny Sola Scriptura as a premise.
How so? Is that not an unjust charge at least as far as Protestantism?
Sola Scriptura is meaningless apart from Sufficiency. Sadly Sufficiency today is often interpreted as an a priori platform or basis for inference and speculative deduction. This does not reflect what the Scriptures themselves say about sufficiency and the nature of revelation.
Sufficiency also necessarily implies a limitation. Limiting our knowledge does not mean our worship, awe and sense of profundity are lessened. Not for a moment. Yet, the doctrine of sufficiency as well as the doctrine contained within the Scripture itself implies the Kingdom and its Lord (and certainly His purposes) are to a degree mysterious to us, available only through revelation. We live at best in a state of informed ignorance. Will we do so and be content? Is this not also an aspect and act of faith?
Societies cannot be constructed on the basis of Sola Scriptura, at least without distorting it and abusing it. Where does that leave us? If we're adherents of a Pilgrim mindset, then it's not really a problem, is it? It only becomes an issue when we try to wed New Testament Christianity to social visions and political projects. Then we must necessarily turn to philosophy as a means of developing a theology. This turn to philosophy is the birthplace of deviation and heresy. From it flows error and ultimately ethical distortion. The entirety of the Arius, Constantine, Nicaea episode comes to mind. The Church was right to oppose Arianism but the means of opposition represented a defection on many levels. The problem was solved by generating at least ten more.
The Protestant narrative of a 'Christian' Classical Liberalism is easily dispensed with. While there is a degree of historical truth to it, it can be critiqued on that front as well. In many ways Liberalism was born of intellectual rebellion, the Enlightenment rejection of the doctrines that formed the very heart of what Protestantism was supposed to be. Whether it ever was what it proclaimed to be is another matter.
But even granting the narrative that Liberalism and Modernism were the natural outgrowth of Protestant theology applied to society, then such a notion must be condemned as sub-Biblical. It does not represent New Testament doctrine either in its concepts of values. Confidence in reason? I think not. Rights? The individual? Progress? None of the concepts are found in the New Testament. Only deformed Judaizing hermeneutics can locate them through distorted readings of the Old Testament.
The Roman critique is valid but that doesn't mean a romanticised Throne and Altar is any better or has something closer to a legitimate claim to truth. As a Christian I might find some aspects of Pre-Liberal society to be preferable, in no way can I point to it as an example of a 'Christian' society. In some ways in its Kingdom-confused Christendom-claiming zeal it was actually more problematic.
Speaking generally if both paradigms were and are wrong, what then are we to make of the so-called and very misnamed Judeo-Christian West? Not much. As a society it has some very good things about it and many that are rightly condemned. Christian it is not. And the more it is associated with Christianity the more problematic it becomes.
As pilgrims we understand that this world is not our home. We look for a city to come, a new heavens and new earth. We can live and function as the salt and light Oracular Church in any culture and civilisation. That said, some will be more pleasant than others. But pleasant isn't always better, especially if it leads to laxity, complacency and confusion. Though not pleasant the most spiritually vivacious times of my life have been during periods of hardship and opposition. It's not pleasant to live that way but the antithesis becomes razor sharp which spiritually speaking is healthy. It's a good place to be. If goods, lands, and prosperity are set aside and no longer important to me, then hardship becomes certainly less hard. The yoke of suffering, the burden of Christ to which we are called, becomes a little lighter.
And though on a practical level I lament the downfall and paganising trajectory of the West... spiritually speaking it's probably the best thing that could happen. The widespread apostasy is like a forest-burn. In the end it will make for a healthier forest. The forest to which I refer is not society, but the Church. Don't ever confuse the two.
While on the one hand I celebrate the fact that the Protestant Classical Liberal narrative is being exposed as a lie... both doctrinally and historically, I am concerned that many Protestants are quickly succumbing to an equally problematic lie... the Pre-Liberal Throne and Altar vision of Medieval Roman Christendom.
I take comfort in that if I believe the apostasy serves a greater and even positive purpose, than I must view this Protestant shift in the same light. But that's a long-view. In the short term it's painful to watch people, some you personally know, embrace the error and defect to degenerate forms of Christianity (and their ethics) which upon consideration must be decried as being something less than the religion presented to us by the Apostles.