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Christ Ever Present, But to What Church? Reviewing Phillip Cary’s “Meaning of Protestant Theology”

August 14th, 2019 | 9 min read

By Myles Werntz

The calls of warning for Protestant theology have been long in the making, or at least for a certain variety of Protestant theology. The 20th century, for all of the ecumenical exchanges which occurred, were rough times for Protestants, as the markers and assessments of what even counts as a Protestant changed, morphed, and proliferated across the world. As charismatic movements, evangelicalism, and global movements of Christianity exploded, the originating impulses of the 16th century founders seem like a distant echo, the ones who opened doors out of Catholicism, but no longer are sought for their approval as millions pass through on their way to building new houses of worship.

As I read Philip Cary’s new book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel That Gives Us Christ, it was with this dual sense then of appreciation and puzzlement. On the one hand, this is certainly a book for now, as mainline Protestant denominations continue to decline and pan-evangelical and charismatic churches continue to soar; if a confessional Protestant theology is to have a future, now is the time to recover it. On the other hand, his book, which argues for nothing less than a robust Protestant account of God’s presence to humanity, and the liturgical and pastoral implications entailed by this theology, feels like a book time out of joint.

As a Baptist, conversations about Protestant theology in particularly come with certain kinds of freight, for the roots of our tradition are manifold. We are, at the same time, inheritors of English Separatists with their Anglican affinities, and of Anabaptists, who held no truck with institutional authorities but Scripture and the Spirit. We are theological sponges, soaking up Reformed anxieties about salvation, Lutheran suspicions of accretions of tradition, Anabaptist emphases on baptism and conscience, and Wesleyan belief in the movement of the Spirit. This being said, Baptists are, as it were, one of the last stops out of a truly Reformation theology and into the no-man’s land of a Christianity without a past. And so, I remain Baptist for, among other reasons, that there are vestiges of the Reformation here which are worth preserving. It is with the deepest of gratitude, then, that I read Cary’s new book, for in this book, we find not only a clear and copious reconstruction of what it means to encounter Christ, but also what is at stake in where we find Christ, and indeed, what might be so good about being Protestant.

Cary’s book is primarily an exercise in historical theology which is always looking sideways, recovering the roots of Augustine and Luther’s dependence and departures from Augustine on the question of what it is that Christ does, and how Christians receive those benefits of Christ. Beginning with a brief primer on the Platonist underpinnings of Augustine’s world, Cary offers a carefully crafted account of how their teachings on materiality inform and are adopted by Augustine. That God—the True, the Beautiful, and the Good—may exist was uncontroversial for the Platonist, but that this God might appear in flesh was something of a puzzle to be resolved by Augustine.

For on the one hand, denying Christ’s human nature was impossible, but making Christ’s human nature of equal standing with the divine nature posed its own difficulties, for a multitude of reasons both technical and pastoral. Christ, in Augustine’s writings, mediates creation to God through the flesh of Christ, but in a way which draws the believer beyond Christ’s flesh into the very life of God. Love calls to love, and we are drawn through the fickleness of the material world and into the eternal and unchangeable love of God. The creaturely world becomes the vehicle which is journeyed through as the soul approaches God.

This journey to God, made possible by the flesh of Christ, entails for Augustine the ability to be able to see God, to have our faith made sight, and our passions purified along the journey of life as we seek the God who has made himself known in Christ. The emphasis on vision, found in Platonism, and carried forth by Augustine, is critical to Augustine’s Christology. This journey for Augustine is best described as one which undertaken as an interior journey, a purification of the unholy desires and passions which are maiming the soul. As we journey inward, away from material distractions, we find Christ, the one who is closer to us that our own soul, and in doing so, we release our hold on the material world and its frailties.

This reading of Augustine as preoccupied with the soul’s ascent is not uncontroversial, not least from the so-called “Augustinian Democrats” such as Charles Mathewes and Eric Gregory, who argue for a more socially engaged and politically astute Augustine. But for Cary, any contributions which Augustine makes to our ethics is secondary to what Augustine truly cares about: the interior journey of the soul to God in a way which purifies our vision and moves us toward the goal of our salvation. For Augustine, we are not in possession of our salvation in any real sense, but ever on the journey toward it, and so this journey of the soul is of paramount importance. God comes into Plato’s cave in order to lead us out into the blinding light that is God, but along the way, we are comforted not by outward signs such as the sacraments or our good deeds, but by our increasing love for God, a sign known not by the flesh but by the spirit.

There are innumerable things in later Christian theology which build theologically off of this fundamental structure laid out by Cary: the journey of the soul toward God, the notion of salvation as ever in front of us but never possessed by us, of justification and sanctification as effectively the same movement, of spirituality as a matter of inward turning away from the material world, and above all, the epistemic affinity between God’s eternal being and the soul and mind renewed by grace. If God comes to us in order to lead us, as Cary puts it, “inward and up”, this requires not only some measure of analogy between humans and God, but necessitates a kind of journey toward God which is never complete and only witnessed to by the virtues present in the soul.

But for Cary, this inward turning which Augustine posits is one of the fundamental mistakes of Christian theology. For when we assume that the point of Christ was to help the soul ascend, either we are required to be certain in our soul that it is in fact God we are seeking and that we will not fail in our seeking, or if not, stave off the despair somehow which comes from not being able to know this union of the soul to God. Turning to Luther, then, we find an alternative account of the Christian life which emphasizes not the internal confirmation of the soul (which Calvin picks up from Augustine), but which emphasizes the outward nature of the Gospel. For where Augustine emphasizes Christ as the one who leads us upwards and inwards, Luther emphasizes Christ as the one who descends to us. This is the difference—the turn from the inward journey to the outward and external word—which is critical for Protestants.

For Luther, we do not turn inwardly and upwards to seek confirmation of the grace of Christ, for this assumes far too much about the human en route to their salvation and places the emphasis of the Christian life on what our spirit is doing. Rather, we turn outward from being preoccupied with our soul’s advance to the promises present in the preaching of the Gospel, the offer of pardon in the Scriptures, and to the flesh of Christ present in the cup and meal. With this outward turn, the Christian loses the preoccupation with their increase in virtue, knowing that they will always and ever be turning back to the source of their salvation, Christ. Like Augustine, Luther holds that Christians are not in possession of their salvation, that justification is not a moment but a lifelong process, but that this justification (unlike Augustine) is not a constant source of uncertainty for the Christian. For Augustine, perseverance was understood retrospectively, but could not be secured in advance, but Luther short-circuits the question entirely: our fidelity or lack thereof was not the point, but the eternal faithfulness and pardon of Jesus, seen in the very things Augustine wanted us to move through—the words of Scripture and the meal of the Eucharist.

The consequences of this outward turning in Luther are likewise revolutionary. No longer is the anxiety over one’s future unfaithfulness or lack of sensory awareness of God’s grace or one’s own virtue an issue, for these things were never the focus of the Christian life at all. For Luther, circumspection of the conscience is exchanged for assurance that Christ has come to us and is present to us again and again, though we remain novices in the spiritual life and though our consciences condemn us. The Gospel comes to us, Cary argues, as nothing less than a re-emplotment of the Christian in a greater story than themselves, which does not require them to fully understand either their own interior life or the interior life of God, for it is always ever the spoken promises of God that we trust. Such a faith is disarming, and to the anxious soul, an endless solace.

The overlap between Luther and Augustine is a theme which Cary returns throughout the book, the copious details of which are both magnificent, and not the subject of this review. Historical theologians will undoubtedly quibble with his representations of Augustine, as well as his depiction of the differences between Calvin and Luther or the Anabaptists and Luther; at times, Cary—in his pursuit of the pastoral implications of his story, overruns important differences among the Anabaptists in particular, making them all appear to be neo-Pelagians of a sort. Luther’s proximity to Catholicism will surely be up for debate, as will his explanation (which I found exceptionally compelling) about how to properly understand Luther’s famous simul justus et pecator.

But what quibbles there are historiographically are more than made up for in the final third of the book, which explores the pastoral implications of Luther’s turn. In the Scriptures, we find certainty which is not rooted in historical reconstructions or in prooftexts, but in the presence of the promises of God toward us preached and heard in worship. Our salvation is found in Christ’s promises and words about us alone, not in the confirmations or lack thereof present in the soul. The sacraments speak to us of the reality of God’s work, received in faith and given in promise despite our unbelief, and all of this, toward the end of being joined to God-three-in-one. At every turn, Cary steers away from the circumspect heart or toward scholastic speculation, and toward trust in the person of Christ, present to us and promised to us.

My Baptist ears were exhilarated in every way by Cary’s description, most notably in the reminder that the Gospel is never about what I understand or feel and always about what has been promised in Christ. Baptists, who most frequently follow a Zwinglian account of the sacraments, tend to struggle with what Cary describes as Calvinist anxieties, with our accounts of baptism and Communion oriented along the axis of personal testimony rather than divine presence irrespective of my feelings on the matter. The neo-evangelical impulses of the American church would do well to be chastened by this thick account of Protestant sacramentality, not only because of the way in which it shifts the register of the Christian life away from authenticated personal experience and toward the promises of God, but because of the way this account of church ultimately is ordered around the self-giving God.

All of this is fine and good—and true! But what of all of the manifold forms of Protestant life which de-emphasize God as present in the sacraments? Are these sub-Protestant, or perhaps, nascently Catholic in their emphasis on the ascent of the soul and the mind to God? One possibility, of course, is that these movements within Christianity—whether present in the decadent American megachurch variety or in the African Independent churches—are in need of an overhaul in the direction of Lutheran piety, and that without this, they might as well concede their roots and pitch their tents among the Catholics.

But I think what Cary is describing is not entirely incompatible with many of the ways in which Baptists talk about God’s presence—whether in the contours of one’s conversion, or in the mysteries of providence (however often these accounts are actually sanctified versions of fortune), or even in the emphasis on the role of memory in what Christ has done. In his criticisms of Augustine, and particularly in the way that Augustine orients the Christian life toward the ascent of the mind toward God, there is to be sure a kind of overlap with an emphasis on memory—the mind becoming the vehicle of union with God rather than the corporeality of the bread and wine.

But in rooting Baptism and Communion on the human side of the ledger—emphasizing them as human responses to the memory of God’s action—coheres well with an account of the sacraments as God’s bodily presence. For in taking Communion not as the bodily presence of Christ but in memory of Christ’s sacrifice, what is central in eating is not our experience of Communion, but the presence of Christ’s life and act to the minds of the congregation. This act of eating, couched within the words of initiation, though it does not affirm Christ’s bodily presence, does something bodily in a different way: it calls forth the narrative of Christ’s life, and the ways in which that life has shaped our own life in the past and present. In this way, the rememberer is not the subjective center of the meal, but Christ who positions, renews, and repositions the remembering subject.

If there is a criticism to be made of Cary’s book, it is that it depicts a vision of Protestantism that one will struggle to actually find in any church today. The Protestant mainline so richly depicted here is not where the cultural weight of churches are, either in the United States or elsewhere. With such a growing edge of the global church in charismatic expressions, it would be interesting to have seen Cary’s reconstruction engage with these bodies, not to call them back to an ancient faith, but—if Christ is present in the work of the church—what it would mean to thicken existing practices along the lines which I have offered with respect to my own Baptist tribe. To ignore where growing churches are in favor of only lamenting the absence of thick Protestant theology is a tongue-clucking in vain; what is needed is a kind of resourcement which acknowledges the work of the Spirit, present in all kinds of ecclesial forms, albeit forms which are prone to various (and easily-avoidable) theological defects, anxieties, and, God-forbid, heresies.

This is, ultimately, is not a book to be gulped or nibbled, but like the Eucharist, a book to be savored. In my own copy, nearly every page is dogeared or underlined, as Cary drops rich historical, pastoral, and theological observations throughout the volume. Without exaggeration, it is one of the best strictly theological works I have read in years, ripe with wisdom, ecumenical insights, and pastoral wonder. And best of all, it has the ability to change the way that we worship.