Establishing the Protestant Paradigm

Today I’m wrapping up my series on Christian paradigms by finishing out the beginning of the Protestant paradigm. Remember I’m using the framework laid out by Thomas Kuhn. I have already explained the pre-paradigmatic phase, normal Christianity, crisis, and revolution. Today I’m make the transition between the revolution created by Martin Luther and normal Christianity in the Protestant paradigm.

Development of a New Paradigm

In many ways the deconstructing of the Roman Catholic paradigm by Luther and other Protestant revolutionaries that came immediately after him is like the pre-paradigmatic stage of the patristic period, as doctrines were newly proposed and argued over. And this is evidence that Kuhn’s lens is helpful—it illuminates patterns in the development of Christian thought – even as it points to differences between the paradigm shifts in the two disciplines. New religious doctrines formed to address and refute new ideas, both heretical and orthodox. This is a significant difference between scientific and religious paradigms. The transition from one paradigm to another within the scientific communities is relatively, though not completely, smooth, as both the discoveries and the normal science within paradigms are rooted in experimental evidence rather than in argumentation over an ancient yet established text. When a paradigm is established, whether it be through experiments in science or philosophical and theological reasoning in religion, the paradigm shapes how the evidence is viewed. Kuhn regards this as a good thing because scientists need to trust the paradigm to further their work. It is a good thing within religious paradigms as well because the goal is not to invent new doctrines but to approach moral and religious truths more closely.

According to Kuhn, quantum mechanics arose “from a variety of difficulties surrounding black-body radiation, specific heats, and the photoelectric effect,” that could not be explained by Newtonian physics. Similarly, with the Protestant paradigm Luther could not have started a revolution and have been successful if not for Rome being fraught with errors. A new paradigm cannot replace an old one without a consensus that the new one is better able to solve problems and answer questions that the old one could not. However, there is another parallel between the scientific paradigms of Newton and Einstein and the religious paradigms of Catholicism and Protestantism. The dynamics of Newtonian physics are still in use by engineers today. Just like Newton laid the foundations with his work in physics and math for future generations, the councils and scholastics like Aquinas did the same for the Protestant Reformers

In the case of the two Christian paradigms under discussion, Protestantism could not have existed without Rome. Protestants accept the three Ecumenical Creeds and their teaching on the Trinity, for example. Protestants also recognize the wealth of background knowledge that shaped their doctrines from thinkers such as Augustine and Anselm and all the way back to the patristics and the writers of the Bible.

Development in Normal Christianity

Furthering the idea of using Kuhn’s “normal science,” which is the work of solving puzzles within a structured paradigm, as a framework for understanding “normal Christianity,” we must travel beyond Germany to France and Switzerland. Confessions and articles written within the growing stages of this new paradigm developed a more mature quality as they were not only based on doctrines that were carefully discussed and debated over in light of Scripture but, like the pre-paradigmatic stage, they were written in part to address aberrant views, most notably from Anabaptists but also from Zwingli’s failure to distinguish between law and grace. For example, even though covenants are discussed all through the Bible, there was never a reason to develop a full robust understanding of what came to be known as covenant theology as a hermeneutical principle until the Reformers realized the need to connect the covenants to show that pedobaptism is grounded in the Abrahamic covenant as a replacement for circumcision in the new covenant of Christ.

Theology professor Michael Horton touches on the progression from Luther’s law-gospel distinction to the fuller fleshed out teachings of the Reformers. “On the basis of the law-gospel distinction, the Reformed tradition developed a more redemptive-historical narrative with distinct covenants providing the coordinates and contexts for the interplay of law and gospel.” Covenant theology according to its adherents is important not only with regards to infant baptism but gives a fuller understanding to God’s grace and how He communes with His people.

Establishing the Paradigm

Because the new paradigm did not stop with Luther and his doctrines, it is important to show the continued work of Protestantism as an established paradigm, just as there is continued work in the field of physics after Einstein created a revolution.

Another example of doctrinal growth that stayed within the Protestant paradigm without straying outside of it concerns second-generation reformer John Calvin. Calvin recognized that he stood on the shoulders of Luther, for he could not have produced such thought if not for the work Luther had begun. According to historian Williston Walker, Calvin “appropriated Luther’s conception of justification by faith and of the sacraments as seals of God’s promises.” As Calvin said when echoing Luther, “We are justified not without works, yet not by works.” Calvin understood the role of works in justification as one who is justified will do good works, yet he denounced the Catholic tradition that works are what justifies a person before God.

Calvin emphasized the law of God as a guide for Christian living, for those already saved and able to do the will of God by the Holy Spirit working in them. This is an important distinction between the Catholic and Protestant paradigms. While Scholastics like Aquinas taught a distinction between the Old Law and New Law, they nevertheless viewed the gospel as a new law for Christians to do. In contrast, Calvin recognized that “the Law holds all men under its curse” and that in the Gospel, God says, “Believe that my only Son is your Redeemer; embrace his death and passion as the remedy for your ills; plunge yourself beneath his blood and it will be your cleansing.” Luther spoke of the distinction between Law and Gospel, his close confidante Melanchthon pushed forward a novel idea of upholding the Law as a Christian guide in shaping the character of one who is already in Christ, and Calvin introduced this use of the Law to the Reformed side of the coin that was minted in the Protestant paradigm.

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