Obsession with sacraments and liturgy seems catholicEto many in our day, but it will not be news to anyone who has read and absorbed Schaffs Principle of Protestantism that these concerns were near the heart of the Reformation. Over a century ago, Schaff had grasped that the Reformation was not a break with the catholic tradition. On the contrary, The Reformation is the legitimate offspring, the greatest act of the Catholic Church.E
Schaff recognized that the formal principleEof sola Scriptura and the material principleEof justification by grace through faith were bound together as two fronts of a war on the idols: it was natural that with the Reformation, in opposition to the reigning overvaluation of mans works and mans word [i.e., tradition], the principal emphasis should be placed upon Gods grace and Gods word.E
For Schaff, the two principles are only two different sides indeed of one and the same principle.E Schaff knew that the leading sola of the Reformation was sola Deo gloria. From that principle, he saw, everything else followed.
Schaffs book is not perfect. It is hard not to cringe when Schaff enthuses over German theology, and his affection for German idealism and Hegelianism is evident on the surface of the text. One wishes, moreover, that he had paid more careful attention to Puritanism, which he condemns as unhistorical and unchurchly.
Yet, the value of Schaffs book goes far beyond its importance as a summary of the main thrust of the Reformation; its practical relevance for contemporary Protestants, especially Reformed Protestants, is incalculable. During the past several years, conservative Reformed churches have become increasingly polarized, and polarized precisely in regard to issues that Schaffs book addresses.
On the one hand are those Reformed theologians and churches who appear to believe that the Reformed tradition has done and can do no wrong. All we need to address the doctrinal confusions of our day is a return to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and all we need to do to resolve liturgical chaos is to preserve a worship purer than Puritanism ever envisioned. To such, I recommend a prayerful read of chapter 3 of Schaffs book, The Diseases of Protestanism,Efor the diseases that Schaff identifies are still plaguing us. And they are mortal.
On the other hand, some within the Reformed churches are all too aware of the diseases of Protestantism and conclude that, while there is no balm in Geneva, there is balm in Rome. For anyone facing this temptation, there is no inoculation quite like The Principle of Protestantism, for here Schaff, reflecting the concerns of his Mercersberg colleagues, especially John Williamson Nevin, presents a vision of a thoroughly catholic Protestantism that embraces tradition and that is not spooked by sacramentalism. Moreover, Schaff shows that this was the original Reformation vision. Few tasks are more pressing for the Reformed churches today than articulating and embodying that vision.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, April 17, 2004 at 06:55 PM
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