Reformation Reflections

The Protestant Principle, Presumption and John 8

by Phil Johnson

I. "And you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free." John 8:32

When Professor Donald Frisk outlined the Protestant principle" in Historical Theology class at North Park Seminary as the principle that there are "no sacred persons, places, or things," I felt an elation which sometimes comes from recognition and understanding. The principle expressed, I thought, a conviction about reality which I had been taught from childhood and I believed to be true. This freeing truth, stated in a simple, clear way, reassured me that it was possible to pursue faith and learning together.1

Paul Tillich discusses the Protestant principle in his work The Protestant Era, a collection of essays, most of which were written before he left Germany for the United States in 1933.2 When I first read Paul Tillich's comments, I felt again what I had felt in Professor Frisk's class — a freeing truth.

The Protestant principle, Tillich observes, must be distinguished from the Protestant church and from Protestantism. The Protestant principle is the "no" that is brought against any doctrine, practice or form which lays claim to, or, to put it more accurately, which people claim has, absolute authority or importance. The Protestant principle may be absent in a Protestant church and operative in a Catholic church. Both churches are expressions of people's response to Jesus and the New Testament. Both churches may create idolatries of absolute truth or religious practice.

I have remembered Tillich's testimony in connection with the Gospel text for this Reformation Sunday, in which Jesus says "the truth will set you free," and at a time when I have been confused. This has led me to browse through the Protestant Era again, especially the introduction.

What I specifically recalled in Tillich, I was able to find again. He writes: "Not only he who is in sin [as Luther discovered], but also he who is in doubt is justified through faith." He goes on, 'The situation of doubt, even doubt about God, need not separate us from God. There is faith in every serious doubt, namely, the faith in truth as such, even if the only truth we can express is our lack of truth."

But if this lack of truth, Tillich continues,"...is experienced in its depth and as an ultimate concern, the divine is present; and he who doubts in such an attitude is justified' in his thinking."

"So," he writes, "the paradox got hold of me that he who seriously denies God, affirms him. Without it I could not have remained a theologian."3

When I was a pastor in Haddam Neck, Connecticut, and a student at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, I discovered another application of the protestant principle which saved me at the time. It was this: not only the one who is in sin and the one who is in doubt, but also the one who is incompetent is justified by faith. As Luther had felt the burden of moral justification in the 16th century and Tillich, the burden of intellectual justification in the 1930s, I felt the burden of, shall I say, professional justification in the 1970s. What seemed demanded of a person to be worthy and acceptable was competence and what was demanded of a pastor was special competence. Pastors, it seemed, were to be the best of all professionals, competent leaders and managers as well as counselors and agents of social change. This, of course, presupposed that a pastor knew what social change was right and needed. Since I was not competent in this sense and was not sure of what action was needed, I was relieved by the word of protestant insight, which came to me by Gram, that I was justified not by my competence:, but in faith. Indeed, paralleling Tillich, "serious" incompetence — i.e., admitting that I could not in truth claim expertise — seemed to be the grounds for pastoral ministry for me.4

To the experiences of Luther, Tillich, myself and yourself in which persons have experienced being freed by truth, we can add two more instances of the same nature. The first is the example of Alcoholics Anonymous. David Wright referred to this at the Mission Meeting when he said, "This is my chance to say you're [the Covenant Church] not much different than the program that gave me back my life - the program of Alcoholics Anonymous."5 'The first step of the 12 steps of AA is: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable." Paradoxically, it is the admission of the truth of helplessness which frees the alcoholic for recovery. So, as Luther was freed for Christian living in the truth that he was powerless over sin, Tillich was freed for Christian thinking in the truth that he was powerless to overcome doubt, and I was freed for ministry by the truth of my inability to be competent, the alcoholic is freed for recovery by the truth of his or her powerlessness over alcoholism.

The second instance is found in "Ultimatum," the last entry in Volume II of Either/Or which, we are told, is a sermon by a Jutland preacher based on Luke 19: 41ff. It is titled: 'The Edification Implied in the Thought that as Against God We Are Always in the Wrong." The preacher says, "There is only one way of supporting the claim that you are in the right before God — by learning that you are in the wrong. Yea, this is what you yourselves ought to wish. So when you are forbidden to contend against God, this is an indication of your lofty station and by no means affirms that you are a lowly being which has no importance for Him. The sparrow falls to the ground — in a way it is in the right before God. The lily fades — in a way it is in the right before God. Only man is in the wrong, for to him alone is reserved that which to all other creatures was denied... to be in the wrong before God."6

These are examples of experiences and ways of stating the principle of which Jesus' words are a description. That the truth frees is something that we do not need to hear from Jesus to know. This truth can be discovered and perhaps has been discovered, through the experience of every human being whether or not the person has recognized or stated it. Socrates and Plato knew this reality long before Jesus' time. What Jesus does make clear in the text is that the blessing of truth setting a person free comes from God, who is no respecter of persons. It brings to mind the poem of William Blake, "The Everlasting Gospel". In the prologue Blake states, "There is not one Moral Virtue that Jesus Inculcated but Plato 8r. Cicero did Inculcate before him; what then", he asks,"did Christ Inculcate? Forgiveness of Sins. This alone is the Gospel, k this is the Life 8r, Immortality brought to light by Jesus...."7

Socrates said that he was puzzled for sometime when he heard that the Oracle of Delphi had answered "no one" to his friend's question whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. For he said, "I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small." This set him on his career of inquiring into the claims to wisdom of various people.

He concludes this part of his defense before the court in Athens as follows, "The effect of these investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to arouse against me a great deal of hostility... But the truth of the matter is pretty certainly this, that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value. It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us, The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless."9

II. Confusion and Presumption

If ignorance and confusion are conditions for truth, I am in a strong position. For some weeks I have been in confusion. Theological confusion and life confusion. While this has been my state, things have been going very well. Our family is healthy, I am healthy. Resources for our living have been generously supplied and they are more than sufficient.

One point of uncertainty in my confusion is whether religion and theology are worth anything at all. I spend much time thinking, reading, talking and even writing about religion and theology. In my confusion in times like this I no longer know what religion is or what theology is about.

Along with questions about the value of theological enterprise in general comes the specific question - why do I continue to be interested in and active in the Covenant Church? Seldom do I seem to have a convincing answer to this question. I usually feel that I have failed to give a satisfactory answer when asked by someone at a party or when a friend inquires.

Perhaps my confusion is similar to the confusion of Will Barrett who was a graduate of Princeton, a boxer in college, and was good at getting to know people no matter what they did or were like or how they might be socially described. Because I was taught that different beliefs and religious practices were not obstacles to friendship, I can identify with Will.

'There were times when [Will] took roles so successfully that he left off being who he was and became someone else."

"So well did he adapt that it always came as a surprise when two groups who got along with him did not get along with each other. For example, he had fallen in with an interracial group which met at a writer's apartment in the Village on Friday nights. It did not strike him as in the least anomalous that on Saturday night he met with the Siberian Gentlemen, a nostalgic supper club of expatriate Southerners, mostly lawyers and brokers, who gathered at the Carlyle and spoke of going back to Charleston or Mobile. At two or three o 'clock in the morning somebody would sigh and say, 'You can't go home again,' and everybody would go back to his Park Avenue apartment. One night he made the mistake of bringing a friend from the first group to the second, a Southerner like himself but a crude sort who had not yet mastered group skills and did not know the difference between cursing the governor of Virginia, who was a gentleman, and cursing the governor of Alabama, who was not. 'IIiereafter the Siberians grew cool to him and he dropped out. Nor did he fare much better with the interracial group. On his way home from the Village, he was set upon by Harlem thugs in the park and given the beating of his life. When he related the incident at the next meeting, his friends frowned and exchanged glances."10

I've found myself in similar situations, less the beating, both as a secular person and as a member of the Covenant denomination. Perhaps a pietist of the Covenant variety is a chameleon. Although others of the more substantial fellowships may take a liking to us because of a certain friendliness and openness, many protestants and catholics outside the Covenant, which amounts to most Christians, are puzzled by us, and, I am quite sure, question whether belonging to such a church body is worthwhile or whether it should persist.

For example, Father Roger from East Hampton, Connecticut, after listening to me describe the creedless convictions of the Covenant, said: "I can't imagine having to come up with all my ideas and theology myself." He was deeply grateful in that moment for Mother Church. And, I can't blame him. In fact, I am glad for both him and me.

Father Roger left us that night with his blessing. It wasn't theological or spiritual agreement that he gave me or I him. Rather, he gave me his life, independent of my experience and of any need for help from me. He didn't need my history or my evangel or my care to be blessed. He had a blessing — his life in the church. Further he, like me, was relieved of any burden or obligation for me. But, we had met.

When these experiences happen, I feel like I am close to the spirit and experiences of Jesus. The paradoxes begin to apply and to make sense. Like, only in giving do you receive and, it would seem, only in receiving graciously can you give.

In this paradoxical way I think I did give Father Roger a gift by becoming a learner from him and by showing him another zone of human Christian experience - though at some point he might have wondered whether it was Christian experience or another cult. He in turn showed me a new zone which I was able to enter through personal meeting.

At times like this, I am glad for what I've been taught and have managed to learn — especially a little church history, theology and a bit of travel — which enhance appreciation.

In this case Father Roger, who studied Catholic Theology for seven years in France, made me think of Augustine and of ancient churches in Europe, like Chartres — the steps whereon I once threw up, a protestant reaction in spite of a favorable conscious disposition? I think not. It was bad food from the previous night — and the great monastery of Mont St. Michel which rises suddenly out of the sea and looms huge against the horizon as you approach it from the south while driving past grazing sheep.

As I think of these things, I begin to realize that though I am in this preposterous little denomination, a flick on the reaches of time and tradition, I also have the inheritance of Chartres, Mont St. Michel and Augustine, not by my doing but by Grace.

Nevertheless, the claims of belonging and of inheritance are bold and presumptuous.11 My claim is quite outrageous, but so are all Christian claims. My claim that I need not submit to any doctrine or creed or swear allegiance to a group or person other than Jesus; that I need not acknowledge any other authority than a particular book, the Bible, an historically conditioned document; and that, though I am appreciative of, I am not dependent upon the Catholic church or any other orthodox body for a standing before God — is only slightly more outrageous than other Christian claims, Roman, Orthodox and mainline Protestant, to be of the Household of Faith which finds its origin in Israel.

Israel has not granted the Christian religion the right to claim Israel's heritage. Israelites may be offended and at times amused by Christian claims to correct ownership of its scriptures and Christian presumption that Jewish knowledge and understanding of scripture is at some point or in some way lacking and incorrect.

III. Questions About Jesus, John 8

Other than the words about truth and freedom, I find the words and actions of Jesus in this chapter caustic and annoying. Jesus does not seem friendly and open. His words are not words of reconciliation. What happens between these Jews and him is not what happened between Father Roger and me nor is it what happens at City Gates Bible studies where Jews and Christians study scripture together. Those events seem much more "Jewish" or "Christian" than the conversation recorded in John 8.

The presumption of our Christian claim is evident in this text. The people react against Jesus' presumption that, because of his teaching, they will be set See for the first time. "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth.. . " (31b-32a) These particular people, we are told, are Jews who had believed in Jesus. I sympathize with their resistance. Jesus seems to be challenging their good will. He is treating them as if they are, not and never were, anything without him.

At this point it can be seen that there are multiple presumptions: my presumption as a Covenanter to belong to the larger church without joining its ranks or swearing to its creeds, the presumption of the Covenant to be a church, the presumption of the church to have an ownership in the heritage of Israel based upon the invitation of a rejected prophet of that heritage and the presumption that Jesus, through the living Christ, loves and befriends me personally are a few.

Is our claim good?12 How can we get past the difficulty posed by Jesus' words and actions in the text? How is it that these people who had believed in Jesus (vs. 313) become, during the course of this conversation, people whom Jesus accuses of seeking to kill him (vs 40) and who, by the time the chapter is over, Jesus has provoked to the point that they actually pick up stones to throw at him?

Is it the case that the author of John is explaining, years later, by use of this dialogue why the Christian church is no longer a part of the Jewish community? Is this a case of a prophet attacking the prejudices of the people with whom he is dealing in the hope of jarring them into seeing the truth about themselves and about their situation? Is this like Jeremiah wearing an iron yoke after Hannaniah had broken his wooden one (Jeremiah 28)? Is this like the Zen woman who, upon determining that a student was in her tea shop to observe her Zen rather than drink her tea, hit the student over the head with a poker?13 Is it the case that Jesus is deliberately provoking these people so that he can draw them out to kill him in order to show their hand as well as his? Is Jesus planning his crucifixion and is this a move in the execution of that plan?14

Is this strictly a theological argument? Is Jesus arguing that the heritage of these people is inadequate without him and that they have been unfaithful to their heritage? Is Jesus' message an unrelenting one about the fact that God is no respecter of persons? In other words, is Jesus preaching a radical monotheism which is always a critique of any particular religion, a critique under which the greatest of religions become cults?

What is the truth here that will set us free?

Jesus, we know, was facing strong opposition. He, though kind, loving and non-judgmental — witness the first 11 verses of John 8 — refused to yield on many matters. These matters include the conviction that you can't charge people to worship God (Matthew 21:12 ff.), that no one is righteous, that human hearts are filled with evil, etc.

Jesus' brothers are among the opposition. They do not believe in him (John 7:5). The brothers challenged Jesus in the previous chapter to go to Judea to show himself to the world (7:4). Jesus responded with the assertion that the world hates him because its works are evil (7:7) and that he will not go up to the feast. Apparently Jesus did not want to go with them. Later he goes privately, and at the moment of his choosing, begins to teach in the temple. The text for Reformation Sunday is a portion of the story of that visit to Judea.

This does not seem to have been a very happy time for Jesus. Except when he is encountering needy, humble people, he seems to bristle with antagonism. In light of Jesus' attitude and actions the position of his brothers is understandable. What if your brother told you that the world hated him in particular because its deeds were evil?

A diagnosis of grandiose paranoia would have to be tested before it could be ruled out. Nevertheless, his brothers' attitude toward him must have stung Jesus. His experience seems to have been a lot like the experience of Joseph with his brothers in the book of Genesis

We must proceed very carefully at this point. There is a matter here that we must be clear about or the trouble will go on. One unfortunate result of the language of the Gospel of John is that, over the centuries, it has fostered a powerful prejudice of Christians against Jews. "In the language of John," David Nyvall pointed out, "the term 'Jews' has lost all national and religious meaning and is almost without exception the technical term for the official opposition to Jesus..."15 Realizing this we can see that the way the term is used in John has not usually been recognized. Over the centuries this failure in recognition has been both consciously and unconsciously a basis for hatred and persecution of Jewish people by Christians. There is not something inherent in being a Jew that has made people end up hating and killing them. There have been, though, centuries of millions of people reading these words in John. The result has been that these millions, including sincere Christians, have been under the conviction that Jews continue to be enemies of Jesus who hate him and would kill him again. If it is true that Jesus was hated in his life time — his death seems a satisfactory witness to that — it has been true of the Jewish people hundreds and hundreds of times over since then. The Jews have become the ones who have known the feeling of being hated.16 At times Christians have repented for their part in this persecution and have asked for forgiveness, but the 20th century has revealed that the misunderstanding persists.

There are two serious problems with our faulty understanding of matters here in the Gospel of John. The first is what we have been addressing - persecution of Jewish people. The second is related. We fail to see ourselves in the text in opposition to, or as persons who are addressed by, Jesus with these caustic words.

The protagonists in our story seem to be open to discussing and to discovering what has set them free. It is not as Jesus says, they argue, that they are not free and that he will, as he says, set them free. Rather, they are free and if Jesus can reveal more aspects of their freedom they will be glad. But, they don't want him or anyone else to think that they are not free without him. They believe they are blessed.

I find myself among them. I share their feelings in this situation. It reveals a lack of gratitude for anyone to think that they have been without God's blessing and providence. Perhaps Jesus means that, no matter who we are, we do not have our blessings due to God's personal favor to us and ours. We have what we have due to human and natural factors. Maybe God makes God's self personally known more in opposition to us, in God's no, rather than in the blessings God bestows on both the just and the unjust, on both the good and the bad, on our friends and on our enemies.

If this is so, then Jesus is saying that religion — including the Christian religion which was not an option at the time — is not the sure-fire gateway to God. He is.

This is the offense. This is hard to get past. It is one thing to recognize that religion is not the gateway to God. It is another to say that a particular person is. Substituting Jesus for religion seems on the surface like exchanging one absurdity for another.

How do we reconcile the imperial claim of Jesus with the person who is "meek and lowly of heart," the one who comes to us humble and wanting to be our servant and friend? The one we sing about when we sing, "I have a friend who loveth me."? The protagonists — ourselves in the story do not think they have a friend who loves them. They think they have an arrogant man on their hands who is determined to put them down.

However this matter comes out, we Christians base our claim on this person. We base our right to the inheritance of the Household of Faith and its first fruit - the Hebrew Bible - upon this one person's unauthorized invitation. Indeed the invitation to us Gentiles does not even come from him directly, but from his followers. This is humbling, but it is also freeing. It is the truth.

Further, it seems very clear that the leading point of Jesus' teaching and preaching is not how to become religious, but how to be human and what it means to be a person before God.

Jesus' approach and style with people of other faiths was, it seems, more gracious than it was with people of his own faith. His attitude toward the Samaritans in the village near Jacob's well is a case in point. He and the disciples spent two days as guests in the Samaritan village where, I believe, he listened and learned as well as taught and blessed. He crossed a boundary, bringing his friends — the disciples — with him, and entered into the life of another tribe.

Alfred North Whitehead makes this observation about what the Spirit was at work accomplishing in preparing human culture for Jesus, Paul and the church. To put it another way, Whitehead describes the conditions which existed which were decisive to the spread of Christianity and to its true Spirit, which even today is much needed in the world.

"Within the millennium preceding the birth of Christ, the communal [tribal] religions were ceasing to be engines of progress.... Human thought had broken through the limited horizon of the one social structure. The world as a whole entered into the explicit consciousness. The facility for individual wandering in comparative safety produced this enlargement of thought. A tribe which is wandering as a unit amid dangers may pick up new ideas, but it will strengthen its sense of tribal unity in the face of a hostile environment.

"But an individual who travels meets strangers on terms of kindliness. He returns home, and in his person and by his example promotes the habit of thinking dispassionately beyond the tribe. The history of rational religion is full of tales of disengagement from the immediate social routine. If we keep to the Bible: Abraham wandered, the Jews were carried off to Babylon and after two generations were allowed to return peacefully, St. Paul's conversion was on a journey, and his theology was elaborated amid travels."17

In light of this it seems that the choice of our present time is between retreating into national, religious and cultic tribalism, or crossing boundaries in friendliness. The witness called for in the spirit of Jesus is the witness of persons crossing boundaries to listen and to learn rather than to teach and to dominate. It makes a great deal of difference how we regard people if we have been their guests or they ours. Crossing boundaries also provides us with opportunities for delicious first time experiences.

So, here it is, my friends - the product of my confusion, Yet, I will take responsibility for every word and submit every sentence to scrutiny if you wish to challenge what is said herein. I pray for lively, friendly discussion and for reports readers may have of visits among, or meetings of persons from other tribes.

1. The experience I am trying to describe is, I think, the same as what Anselm of Canterbury describes as a goal of reason for the believer, "...to be gladdened by the understanding and contemplation of the things they believe,". Cur Deus Homo, Book I, Chapter I.

2. These essays were translated from the German by James Luther Adams, a pietist Swedish Baptist who became a Unitarian. Adams and Reinhold Niebuhr, who helped Professor Tillich get a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in New York, made Tillich's move to the U.S. possible. Professor Adams stood for generations "in that world of intellectual cross-currents where religion, philosophy, and sociology meet...." This comment is from the flyleaf of the one book to be found by this eminent scholar who taught at Harvard. He was always helping others get things published. A number of Adams' essays were gathered together by Max Stackhouse of Andover-Newton Theological Seminary and published as a book in 1976. The title is significant: On Being Human Religiously

3. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. x, xi. It should be noted that though the Protestant principle is essential, it is not the only thing. What Tillich called "Catholic substance" is the Protestant principle's dialectical counterpoint. "Catholic substance" includes all that is present to us by way of tradition, sacrament and culture before and while we are asking questions. Tillich regarded his theological work as the task of synthesizing the Protestant principle and Catholic substance. (This information comes from a lecture by Professor Max Stackhouse. I cannot give a reference in the writings of Tillich.)

4. It was during this period that Pastor Arthur Anderson shared a little book with me which contained an article by Monica Furlong, entitled: "What I Expect from My Minister," which shed a different, freeing light on the calling. It is available in a little book called Ourselves Christ Servants. You may obtain a copy by writing us and enclosing $1.

5. David Wright, "A Witness", Pietisten Mission Meeting Supplement, Spring 1987, p. 15.

6. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or Vol. II, translated by Walter Lowrie, (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1943), p, 346.

7. William Blake, "The Everlasting Gospel", The Portable Blake (Dallas, Pennsylvania, Penguin Books, 1976), p. 610.

8. "Socrates' Defense", (The Apology), Translated by Hugh Tredennick, Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 7.

9. Ibid., p. 9.

10. Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 1966), p. 20.

11. It would be impossible, of course, for a person to function in life without presumption. If all matters had to be known before one could proceed with life, everything would come to a standstill. It is not a matter, then of whether we will be presumptuous, but of what our presumptions are and of being willing to examine them as we journey through life. The nature of a pre-assumption is not that it is wrong, but that it is unproven and therefore subject to examination of its value and appropriateness

12. See how this question is phrased and dealt with by some unknown 18th century Scandinavians in the song, "If Asked Whereon I Rest My Claim." Translated by A. Samuel Wallgren, The Covenant Hymnal (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1973), 388.

13. "Fire-Poker Zen", Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc.), p. 76. "Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves. Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon to the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a firepoker. Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating."

14. See Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot, (The Netherlands: Bernard Geis Associates, 1965), for an exposition of this interpretation of Jesus, words and actions. For a somewhat different and equally provocative interpretation see Jay Haley, The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays, (New York, New York: Avon Books, 1969).

15. David Nyvall, A New Gospel Harmony, 1932, p. 6. See also Waldenström's, "Comments to Chapter 1:19" in this issue.

16. I am not referring only to the Holocaust in Germany. Many times there have been excesses of Christian zeal for which Jewish people suffered. The fervor of the First Crusade will serve as an example. "Nevertheless, the Crusaders were constantly imbued by evangelical preachers with an enthusiasm for liberating the shrines of Jerusalem, and especially the landmarks of the crucifixion. A concentration upon the sufferings of Christ, and therefore upon the Jews as his original tormentors, aroused antagonism toward the Jews which rivaled, if not surpassed, any enmity toward the Moslems, who were the immediate target of the crusades." In Mainz alone, 1000 Jews were slaughtered warming up for the Moslems. The Jews and the Crusades, Ed. Shlomo Eideberg, (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), pp. 5, 6.

17. Alfred North Whitehead, "Religion in the Making", Alfred North Whitehead, an Anthology, ed. Northrup and Gross, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), p.481.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson