Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction
Edited by Onsi Aaron Kamel, Jake Meador, and Joseph Minich.
The Davenant Press, 2022.
Paperback, 270 pages, $26.95.
Reviewed by Joshua Bowman.
One of the greatest dangers to the vitality and orthodoxy of Protestant Christianity in the United States is widespread biblical illiteracy and ignorance of Church history and traditions. Though not speaking specifically to the life of the Church, historian Wilfred McClay’s remarks could easily apply:
A culture without memory will hardly be a culture at all; it will be barbarous and easily tyrannized, even if it is technologically advanced, because the incessant drumbeat of daily events will drown out all reflective efforts to connect past, present, and future, and thereby understand the things that unfold in time, including the path of our own lives.
Put a different way, a Church that has forgotten its foundational beliefs and traditions is more vulnerable to deception, heresy, and confusion. For at least a decade, The Davenant Institute has been working to recover Protestants’ memory of their own traditions through educational programming, publications, events, and more. As a committed Anglican (ACNA), I have found the institute’s work to be encouraging and refreshing. Its recent book, Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction, is a testament to its work and scholarly community. Despite some criticisms below, I am grateful for this project, for it has the potential to strengthen Protestant discourse on social and political questions while sparking new readings and research of “classical Protestant” thinkers especially.
The editors recognize, from the beginning, the need to distinguish themselves from Catholic Social Teaching. Steven Wedgeworth writes in the introduction:
It is the form which differs. There is no central institution, no magisterium, which intervenes to resolve moral and social teaching for Protestants… Protestant Social Teaching exists more like a common law, an ongoing but nevertheless ascertainable collection of consensual exegesis of the Scriptures and moral philosophy, a philosophy built upon Protestant principles.
The common law metaphor is helpful, but it also highlights a significant challenge Protestants face. On the one hand, we believe that God’s grace continually renews the human conscience and draws it ever closer to God’s truth. As Wedgeworth explains, “Where a matter is closer to the basic principle, greater clarity and agreement should be expected. As a moral question becomes more specific and dependent upon circumstance, greater diversity of judgment should be expected and greater liberty allowed.” (This could be read as corresponding to Augustine’s words [paraphrased], “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things, love.”)
On the other hand, how can this Protestant epistemology and moral philosophy resist the inevitable pull of subjectivism and the theological free-for-all found in more liberal or progressive denominations where even the creeds have become non-essentials? Without a magisterium, what ecclesiastical mechanism can hold churches accountable to the foundations of Protestant orthodoxy? With social and political questions especially, some Protestant denominations have decided to “live their truth,” independent of Biblical teaching and millennia of church tradition.
At the same time, it is not at all clear that the presence of magisterial intervention would resolve the problem. Modern social and political thought has put a premium on moral autonomy and is suspicious of tradition and authority. This spirit infects every denomination—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—and it undermines church discipline and unity. Would a more rigorous papacy or an aggressive episcopacy achieve greater unity and clarity, or would it drive faithful Christians out of the Church?
The Davenant Institute’s book responds to this question indirectly, not directly. Each chapter confronts a particular issue, eschewing a crude casuistry in favor of recovering the historical conversation that contemporary Christians may enter into. Like the Reformers, most of the authors look to Scripture and the early Church—and to the Reformers’ reading of them—to develop a distinctively Protestant intuition for confronting specific questions. The volume is strongest when it approaches this formula.
Brad Littlejohn’s chapter on the Civil Magistrate, for example, provides an excellent summary of the tension inherent in the Reformers’ admonitions to be subject to the ruling authorities by taking a very strict reading of Romans 13. This has made many classical liberal readers of Luther and Calvin uncomfortable, while confusing those who, rightly, see in the Reformation tradition a movement toward popular government and the “empowerment of the laity.” Littlejohn and other authors are careful, though, to emphasize the considerable contextual differences for the Reformation. Reading back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries any modern political ideology would be anachronistic. Civil Magistrates in the time of the Reformation were expected to wield the temporal sword against internal and external threats, but to also be accountable to the rule of law and to a more objective, spiritual good. Their authority was not absolute, nor can the political theology of Luther, Calvin, Hooker, and Bucer be easily applied to modern secular states, if at all. This is especially true given the Reformers’ disparagement of centralization and movement toward modern federalism. The magistrates’ office was sacred, but their duties were ultimately not of eternal significance. They were not agents of the Church. But the expectations placed on these magistrates—that they care for the people’s education and their moral, physical, and economic well-being—warrants more discussion. Why is it, for example, that many of us increasingly view such expectations as naïve and dangerous?
Glenn Moots then addresses the Reformers’ controversial teachings on resistance and rebellion. Like Quentin Skinner and others, he rightly draws attention to the pre-Reformation sources they drew on to determine just how far submission to temporal authority should go and when resistance may be necessary. This introduces another instructive aspect of the volume, correcting a perception of Protestant thought as “fundamentalist” and “biblicist.” As Moots explains:
[The] Reformers did not use a ’sacred’ versus ‘secular’ dichotomy… Nor did they feel hostility or suspicion toward natural law or humanist learning… Instead, they considered themselves part of a long intellectual tradition carrying forward many older ideas without hesitation. All Reformers did consider Scripture the most authoritative source they could use, …[but] they did not disqualify the use of non-biblical sources by any presumption of ‘total depravity.’
Keeping this tradition in mind, Protestants insisted on obedience to the civil rulers as long as they did not assume ecclesiastical or spiritual authority, which corresponded, in part, to their rejection of papal authority. No Christian is called to sin in their submission to civil government, nor should the faithful try to subject the government to their own churches and form a new magisterium. Furthermore, Moots writes, “We must remember that if we are going to challenge God’s appointed authority, it should be on grounds that God himself would approve.” In other words, Christians must place duty to God over and above duty to anyone else. Civil order is not preferred at the expense of spiritual disorder. In the historical context of the Reformation, obedience to civil authorities was also prudent since the government was needed to protect churches and maintain general order in ways other institutions simply could not.
Christians then could not follow a magistrate trying to usurp the spiritual role of the church, but would Protestants be justified in rebelling based on rights violations? According to Moots:
Natural rights and liberties, though important, would likely be subordinated by Protestantism to civil rights and liberties: those afforded by particular polities and their laws, not abstractions now popular in modern American or European political reasoning, for example. Using the vernacular of the first few centuries of Protestantism, it would be better to talk about the ‘common weal’ or common good of the people, of the rule of law, and the rights and duties associated with them than it would be to talk about individual rights in any abstract sense.
Teasing out such distinctions would be a worthwhile subject of research and conversation, especially given later attempts to tie Protestant thinking to more “revolutionary” claims in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Contrary to readings of Reformers such as Ponet and Goodman, there was not so much a duty to actively kill or rebel against a tyrant, but there was a clear responsibility not to obey a ruler whose commands compromised orthodox Christian commitments. What might contemporary Protestants learn, for example, from these writings amid increasing economic, social, and political marginalization in a secularizing U.S. and Western world generally?
Moots and Littlejohn set a high standard for the book, and Mark LiVicche’s chapter follows a similar pattern on Just War to great effect. Steven Wedgeworth’s chapter on abortion, calling for modern Protestants to remember their tradition, is also invaluable as an overview and for the resources he points to.
Not all authors follow this formula, and this is where some sections tend to struggle. Matthew Lee Anderson’s chapter on procreation and children starts off in the right direction, but it feels incomplete. It also ends curiously, with a recommendation to recover an Augustinian rather than the distinctively Protestant tradition. To be sure, I do not necessarily object to this, but the argument works against the book title. Indeed, at times, some chapters—like John Wyatt’s section on death and dying or Colin Redemer and Joseph Minich on work and labor—struggle to distinguish themselves as recognizably “Protestant” at all. This may be due to a lack of developed Protestant thinking on the subject, but it is unclear if that is the case. Is genuinely Protestant social and political thought distinguished by its content or simply by the author? Is it something else? The book seems to leave that question open.
The volume concludes with Jack Meador’s reflections on Protestant thought relative to the environment. This may be the most challenging of the subjects tackled here since the Reformation tradition prior to the late nineteenth century offers very little assistance. We can follow Biblical teaching to recognize that “man stewards the world under the lordship of God,” but the shape of that stewardship considering new technologies and scientific understanding are not easily ascertained. My own work in this area has led more to literature and environmental history for that very reason, though there may be much more to uncover for a genuinely Protestant environmental tradition. After all, more than one environmentally conscious American historian has noted a connection between Calvinist traditions and the emergence of environmental thinking. Mark Stoll’s book, Inherit the Holy Mountain, is a particularly good example here.
The Davenant Institute makes no claim to offering a definitive or comprehensive statement on any of the questions it raises, and that is to its credit. Readers will be best served by viewing Protestant Social Teaching as a starting point and as a resource for inspiring future research. It should also encourage a conversation about how Protestants approach social and political questions in a manner faithful to our tradition. The example set here calls us not only to begin with Scripture, but to always read it in conversation with millennia of Church history and thinking. Whatever shape Protestant social teaching takes in the years ahead, it will be less susceptible to heresy, subjectivism, and confusion if we read the words and follow the path of those who have gone before.
Joshua Bowman is Vice President of the Ciceronian Society and the Director of Operations for All Saints Anglican Church in Holland, MI. He is a former Wilbur Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center.
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