The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel

I once read a book entitled The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter Between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Studies in the History of Christian Thought) by Stephen strehleStrehle. Unfortunately this title is now out of print (I have access to it still though). And yet even the title itself is provocative a certain reality, even for those who follow the New Paul Perspective[s]. As I recall, Strehle works through some of the magesterial Reformers, like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others; and he highlights how the grammar used by the Reformers was language taken from their Roman Catholic forbears.

The point that I want to highlight though is this: the Protestant movement originally is not what it has become today in Fundamentalist and/or neo-Evangelicalism and the Free church movement. The fissure present between Roman Catholics (Eastern Orthodox) and the Protestants I don’t think has changed much over time (except for the distance between then and now); especially in regard to conceptions regarding ecclesiology, and then subsequent thinking on salvation. Nevertheless, this notwithstanding, there remains continuity between Protestants and Roman Catholics insofar as the Protestant church is intended to be a reforming movement within the Roman Catholic church and not without it. What recognizing this orientation does, is that it grounds the Protestant heritage in the historic and orthodox faith of the church that finds continuity with the so called ecumenical councils of the church; the councils that gave us the relative grammar for the Trinity, the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ (God-man), etc.

From what I have observed, the Free Protestant church has absolutized the fissure between Rome and themselves (doctrinally) in such a way that not only have they apparently disabused themselves of the idea that the catholic faith is no longer binding, but they have, in general, presumed that the Roman Catholic church is really a totally different belief framework, such that Evangelicals can speak of Catholics as if they are not even Christians, while they as the Evangelical are.

Really all I am trying to suggest is that such a Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism has taken hold in the American Evangelical church, that every interpreter does what is right in their own eyes (even if this means to begin to question the moorings of the catholic faith, which is the Trinitarian faith).



  1. To state the obvious, that would depend upon your soteriology,
    To begin at one exclusive extreme, as we both know the Bob Wilkins tribe of the “Free-Grace” movement, emphasizes Sola fide, by faith alone, to the extreme that if you don’t believe salvation is by faith alone, to the additional extreme that if you don’t believe you are eternally secure in salvation from the moment of faith, multiplied by the fact that any doubt at that moment of faith would disqualify you, then you are not a real Christian. I’m guessing that disqualifies 99% of Catholics, 98% of Lutherans, the great majority of the remainder of American evangelicals, (Orthodox who?).
    So to my thinking the answer is in the emphasis shifting from “by faith alone” (which was apparently a shift itself away from the reformed emphasis on “By grace alone”), to the emphasis “through Christ alone”, which I believe was proposed in your book. Christ is the one thing (person) we all – Reformed of all flavors, Roman, and Orthodox, have in common. None of us in the Faith rejects Christ, so we are the Catholic Faith.


  2. Duane,

    The basic thesis is really a simple one; that is that without the Roman Catholic church there simply would be no conceptual theological material to reform, which later became and has become Protestant dogma.


  3. The problem is that these sorts of history completely ignore the constant surge of the “heretics” that existed in both East and West. The Waldenses are not even mentioned, yet they stand outside of the Roman tradition for well over 400 years before the Reformation (even longer if there’s any truth in some of their claims).

    Their sort of critique can be dated even back to Vigilantius (who lived in the Cottian Alps, the central hub of the future Waldenses (coincidence?)) who was “bashed” by Epiphanius (pun intended) for denying asceticism, prayers for the dead, and icons. The complication with them, and others, is that their history is all muddled. They didn’t produce great texts, and much of what they did write was burned. Their history is distorted because of malicious inquisitors writing badly informed accounts.

    Why do they matter? Well, the Waldenses are shown to have a strong influence on the Bohemian Reformation, especially amongst the Taborites. Also the Utraquist bishops sought to establish communion with the Eastern Orthodox, though that never happened.

    In turn the writings of the Bohemian Reformation are recognized as stirring many of the Reformers. Besides historical influence, Luther having read Hus, he was also in dialog with the Unitas Fratrum’s chief theologian, Lukas of Prague. They’re not quite Protestants nor are they Catholics.

    My point here is that I agree that Church History is ignored by much of American Evangelicalism to their detriment. But to say, oh, well, the Protestants would have nothing if it wasn’t for Rome’s deposit of theological work is just wrong. It’s typical, but ignorant of the mess that becomes more apparent the deeper one digs.

    Of course, much of this depends on defining “Roman Catholicism”. The Western Church looks very different from what we have in the 4th century than when you see it in the 8th century crowning a rival emperor to the East. Theologically it evolved, as East did from West. We have to ask ourselves what we’re Reforming. Luther & Co. wanted to scrub off the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages, others went as far back to the 4th century, others were willing to Reform all the way to the Church of the Apostles.

    Suffice it to say, it’s more complicated than seeing Rome as a wayward progenitor.



  4. Also to add:

    To recognize they use the same language is a bit of a silly shocker. Rome had, at least nominal, control over all university life. Most of the Reformers were educated men, so since they went to these schools, they would write and argue like their teachers. We all do that, whether we buy into the dogma of our institution/teachers or not.


  5. Cal,

    I realize that. But you made some pretty forceful statements based upon some impressions I provided from the book; it is obviously (or maybe not) going to be much more nuanced and rigorous than how I reported here at the blog.

    Plus the point that I don’t think you really engaged with was that the grammar has had and does have a massive and seminal import to where we are at today as Protestant Christians; that seems undeniable and even in this sense, unremarkable. What is remarkable is how Protestant theology has reified said Roman grammar in a way that while correlate with Rome is also distinct by way of its distinction relative to its theory of authority and ecclesiology; and then what impact this has upon how we conceive of salvation etc.


  6. Words like “Protestant” and “Rome” are deceptive in that they mean many different things. When you say “Protestantism” reified Roman Grammar, which “Protestantism” and which “Rome”? Do you mean the Latin church against the “East” (could ask same question: which east? Syrian, Asian, Greek or Egyptian?)? Or Thomistic-Scholastic Rome of Middle Ages?

    The grammar shifts and you can see some who are in the West speaking like Platonists, others like Aristotelians. I guess I just don’t understand your point. If it means that someone like Owen argues (grammar) like Thomas, that’s because they’re shaped by Aristotle, even if they’re not strictly Aristotelian or are in varying shades. Is that Rome’s legacy? Hardly, better to speak of Protestantism’s gratitude to Averroes instead.

    Ultimately though, the fact that you report that the book goes from Rome into Reformation, like most histories, means they’re missing a larger picture. The “heretics”, while mostly invisible, are a stream necessary to trying to understand what happened in the Middle Ages. How much did the book talk about Bohemia, the Waldenses, and the Lollards as roots to Reformation? Probably not more than a page if that.



Comments are closed.