Let me propose a different way to think about being Protestant. Often this way is referred to as Radical Protestantism, at least in its modern dress. But what I am referring to is both radical and Gnesio. Both terms, radical and gnesio can be closely related and mutually informing, one of the other. The former comes from the Latin root word radix, which means: ‘root.’ The latter, Gnesio, or γνήσιος in the Greek, means: ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic.’ If you’re familiar with Protestant history, you will recognize this term in reference to the so called Gnesio-Lutherans versus the Philippists. This was an internecine splintering within and among the followers of Luther, post his death. The Gnesios believed they were in strict adherence to Luther’s teachings, whereas the Philippists came to follow the teachings of Luther’s best friend and comrade, Philipp Melanchthon. The details of that rupture are interesting in their own right, but unnecessary to develop for our purposes. I simply want to riff on the language of Gnesio, in overlap with radix.
I have written on this issue numerous times before, but let me reiterate, because I think this issue is fundamentally important. I want to propose that there is actually a Gnesio Protestantism available in the history; that the spirit of Luther’s protesting work has been taken up by various theologians, and yet mostly quenched by the consensus of Protestant theologians. Ron Frost, a former historical theology professor of mine, a mentor of mine, and someone I did a teaching fellowship for, introduced me to this line of thinking eighteen years ago. Let me refer you to something (at length), that Frost wrote (for Trinity Journal, Fall 1997), where he pinpoints what he refers to as a ‘stillborn’ reformation:
Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?
What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:
I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.
The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”
What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.
In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:
It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.
The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.
An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:
In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.
This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms. A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.
Luther’s whole project was one where a radical theology of the Word was at the forefront. He was confronting his sense of how Aristotle’s categories had malnourished, indeed, suffocated the reality of the Christian’s Freedom in the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. This was the ‘spirit’ of the gnesio Protestant Reformation, and one that was quickly snuffed out by the re-adoption of the Ramist and scholastic methodology deployed by the Post Reformation Reformed theologians, along with, ironically, the development of Lutheran orthodoxy. This meant a re-submission to the via antiqua (ancient way) of theological reflection, one informed by Aristotelian and overly metaphysicalized categories that are foreigners to the theology of the Word revealed in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.
At base or as a fundamentum, my proposal for a so called Gnesio Protestantism brings us back to the original ‘spirit’ of Luther’s reformational work. This would mean, and radically so, that much of the so called “Reformed” theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, insofar as it moved away from the spirit of Luther’s reformation, be abandoned. It is possible to identify a canonical thread from Luther onward, into the present; that is, it is possible to identify people who understood the spirit of Luther’s work, even in and through the 16th and 17th centuries, and onward, but it requires much work to excavate.
Personally, this is why I am so taken by the theology of Karl Barth. Barth more than anyone else that I have come across (even more than Thomas Torrance, who I love) imbibes the spirit of Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He reifies the sort of Christ concentration, and therefore, theology of the Word that I think Luther was all about! Barth’s theology has been politicized though. We must look beyond that. Barth’s theology has been diminished because of his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum; Luther’s should be then, given his apparent anti-Semitism, in his mature years. But we don’t look to these men as absolutes in themselves, we look to the reality that they sought to bear witness to in their unique ways; we look to Jesus Christ, as He is the Word of God these theologians sought to amplify, even in the midst of their sinfulness. The ground and grammar of theology I will always plant my roots and words in is the Word of God that these types of theologians, in opposition to the consensus of theologians (whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant orthodox), attempted to bear witness to for the world to see and handle and touch.
I commend to you: Gnesio Protestantism. The genuine article Protestantism that has radical rootage in the living Word of God. A Protestantism that is one of dissent, not consent to the consensus. Do you understand this? The spirit of Protestantism, I take it, is one that is rooted in the so called via moderna (modern way). It doesn’t have ground in the natural order of things, like a stable conception of a historical Church, but its ground is in the other worldliness of the heavenly Kingdom; one that is mediated to us by the Pure Grace of God who is Jesus Christ! There is no natural or historical iteration, in my view of the spirit of Protestantism, that can serve as a bastion of stability and authority for the Christian person; only Jesus Christ, as He in-breaks into our lives, moment by moment, afresh and anew, can be that / can do that. Recanto! you say? Nein! ‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’
 Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24 [emphasis mine].
 You might be thinking, ‘man, Bobby, drama much?’ Indeed, I’ll both live and die in this drama. Soli Deo Gloria.