Louis Bouyer “Spirit and Forms of Protestantism”

Well, I finally finished reading this classic volume, first published over fifty years ago. I’m not going to do a very long blog on it, as to do it justice would not only require several thousand words, but also many more years of reflecting on his ideas.

I was surprised to read here that Bouyer died only very recently. Bouyer was one among the the small spate of conversions of European Protestant clergy to the Catholic faith in the middle of the 20th Century (which, among other things, led to the current practice of the Catholic Church granting dispensation for married clergy converts to enter the priesthood). Bouyer was French, and, from what I can gather, Lutheran, but very well versed in Calvinism also. His book is an attempt to offer a just explanation of the “spirit and forms” of the tradition he left, but also to point out where, in the evaluation of the Catholic Church, that tradition had failed.

He does this in quite a different way from the traditional and common approach of comparing and contrasting specific protestant doctrines with corresponding Catholic positions, and tries to get at the very heart of the matter.

Essentially he identifies four aspects of Protestantism (some Lutheran, some Calvinist): Sola gratia, sola fide, solo Dei gloria (Calvin’s “sovereignty of God”), and sola scriptura. He demonstrates how each of these are thoroughly orthodox, thoroughly Catholic doctrines also, and then proceeds to ask the question “So why did the protestant churches end up not only in schism but actually in heresy?”

In so doing he works his way through Protestant Orthodoxy, Pietism, Methodism, and into the twentieth Century to the theology of Karl Barth.

He draws three main conclusions:

1) That the reformers—both Lutheran and Calvinist—unconsciously adopted as the very basis of their whole theological method the one great anti-Christian corruption of the medieval church which should have been their first priority to eradicate: namely the nominalist philosophy of Duns Scotus and the other late scholastics which held almost universal sway among the theologians—Catholic and Protestant—of the early 16th Century (including folk like Erasmus et aliter).

2) That, unlike the Catholic Church, Protestantism has been unable to purge itself of the effect of this nominalism due to the systematisation of the Reformers insights during the period of Protestant Orthodoxy; nominalism thus became synonymous with the very “system” of Protestantism itself.

3) That the best hope Protestantism has of rediscovering true Christianity is to pay attention to the elements of “revivalism” in its history; and that correspondingly these “revivalist”, “pietistic” and “mystical” elements (which keep cropping up in Protestantism) might also become bridges back to authentic Catholic Christianity. He notes, however, that Neo-Orthodoxy and Neo-Confessionalism always tend to fight against such trends.

It is all very interesting, and I rather think that if I had picked up this volume twenty years ago, it would have accelerated my entrance into the Catholic Church. I see in it a clear validation of those elements of Lutheran spirituality that I still treasure, even as a Catholic, but also a warning of those lingering aspects of nominalism of which I still honestly have to work hard to divest myself!

I have also been a bit surprised to find this book of particular relevance to a lecture I am preparing for our School of Prayer in the Archdiocese on the place of Luther and the Lutheran Pietists in the history of Christian Prayer and Spirituality. More on that later.

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