The substance of Dyrness’ essay highlights the Protestant emphasis on the brokenness of the world, and on the crucifixion as the only remedy for that brokenness.  But Dyrness points out that the emphasis on Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t on the event per se, but rather on its meaning for us.  He writes:

For all the importance the cross plays for Protestants, they have spent little time focusing on the actual event of the cross – the Catholic imagination evident in Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion of Jesus Christ’ has traditionally been alien to them. It is more important for Protestants to interpret the cross, to see their life as cross-shaped. Calvin, for example, spends barely a page in his Institutes describing the actual event of Christ’s death. But he writes a long chapter on what this death means for the Christian – that since Christ suffered this way we should not expect our lives to escape such hardship, that our lives should be characterized by this willingness to suffer for Christ and so on (this is to say nothing of the great sections he uses to develop the theological meaning of that event). The event of the cross finds its real meaning in this typological extension in the life of the believer.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I know this is a broad question which tempts unfair generalizations, but what are your thoughts on how this difference works itself out in the lives of believers? More precisely, what is the crucial difference in the life and practice of the believer between entertaining the “Catholic imagination” versus engaging in the Protestant hermeneutic?


  2. Stirfrymojo, Your comment mirrors my first thought as I read the quote: Why is it then that modern Protestantism is the tradition that has spawned a “health, wealth, and instant psychobabble solutions” response to suffering and the Catholic faith seems to embrace suffering as part and parcel to the spiritual life? I thought of the passage in Colossians 1 “filling up that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”… I’ve heard more tap dancing around that verse in Protestantism and a straightforward “we are called to suffer with Christ” from Catholic and Orthodox commentators.


  3. Your observation makes sense to me, s-p. When Christ says, “lay down our life, take up your cross, and follow me,” someone who has focused too little on the practice of this and too much on its implications–on interpreting the meaning of this in light of Christ’s life–could far too readily make a leap to the conclusion of things, could look beyond the cross to the resurrection of our Lord and claim for themselves a victory without any real cost. This kind of faith is dangerously high on sugar and short on life I would think.

    On the other hand, the double-edged sword of imagination–turning to those of “Catholic imagination” now–is that it has a natural and vigorous suggestive power, but lacks in the extreme the power to interpret itself, to look beyond the thing imagined. If one could hold in one’s mind the whole of history from first to last, from Creation to rebellion, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and the Coming of our Lord, this wouldn’t be a problem, because the whole would be present in fact and each part naturally explained by its relation to the rest. But in my limited experience, I don’t find that this is well done. I find that my friends who are persuaded by the “Catholic imagination” which Dyrness cites suffer far more frequently from a sort of persistent melancholia than those who are not. My guess–and it’s only a guess–is that this is because the suffering and sacrifice of Christ are the predominant objects of contemplation for them–His laying down His life–more so than Christ’s resurrection and ascension and Pentecost–the victories over sin, the grave, and this world. Of course, while we are ourselves in the position of laying down our lives and taking up our crosses, should we not indeed be focused on the example of our Lord? But I wonder whether we are well served if we do not also simultaneously see that, as we our laying down our lives, God is picking them up again, which is heartening to say the least. My suggestion is merely that the melancholy may be out of proportion, given the eternity and the accomplishment for us of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This, of course, is an anecdotal observation limited to my experience, and it could be leading me to make unfair generalities.

    Now, for the largest generalization yet: all this is to say that I suspect Protestants could use a handy dose of this “Catholic imagination,” while those of that persuasion might find that a more generous hermeneutics might be helpful to them in living their Christian lives.


  4. sfm, You make some good observations regarding the “Catholic imagination”. I spent several years in St. John of the Cross, St. Therese etc. as I moved away from evangelicalism because I felt an affirmation of the reality of suffering as a transformative experience to be embraced. When I began looking at the Eastern Orthodox, I found the phenomenom of the “stigmata” is non-existent and there is a general suspicion of the “imagination” and self-apprehended, self inflicted and self-interpreted suffering… and yet there is a deep theology of co-suffering, taking up one’s cross and entering the darkness wherein we find God, all predicated, as you note, on the fullness of the revelation of all things in relationship to the eschaton instituted by Christ’s incarnation, participation in human suffering and death, and the victory of the resurrection. You hinted at something and perhaps it may be partially true, that we should be careful about sweeping generalizations, but perhaps some people are predisposed to embracing certain happy or melancholy expressions of the faith and gravitate toward them because it affirms some personal issue or gives them some kind of support in dealing with their struggles. I can personally say that I was drawn to the Western suffering mystics while I was in the midst of a pretty bleak clinical depression.


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