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What Does it Mean to Be a Catholic Protestant? Dr. Michael Allen

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Guest: Dr. Michael Allen | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Allen about unity within the church. Topics of conversation include

  • Defining the words catholic and protestant
  • Factors to consider as we strive toward a more united church
  • What we mean by the word retrieval, and why it is important to learn from those who have gone before us
  • Responding to objections to retrieval
  • A case study in theological retrieval.

Dr. Michael Allen serves as John Dyer Trimble professor of Systematic Theology and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is the author of Ephesians in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Brazos, 2020), Sanctification in the New Studies in Dogmatics series (Zondervan Academic, 2017), and, with Scott Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015).



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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

Just before Jesus died, he prayed a prayer that has come to be known as The High Priestly Prayer in John 17. Part of that prayer was Jesus’s desire to see the church united. He prayed, “I do not ask for those only, that is, the disciples, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” However, unity is not a word that many people would use to describe the church today. For centuries, at least since the time of the Reformation, the church has continued to fracture into quite literally thousands of denominations. But unity mattered to Jesus, and it should matter to us as well. His prayer is that people will know that he is the truth by the unity of his people.

Brian Arnold (01:04):

So how can we pursue that unity in the church today? Well, here to help us understand this question is Dr. Michael Allen. Dr. Allen is the John Dyer Trimble professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, where he also serves as academic dean. In addition to teaching, Dr. Allen has written and edited numerous books in the field of systematic theology, including the Brazos Theological Commentary on Ephesians, the New Studies in Dogmatics Volume on Sanctification, and, particularly relevant to today’s discussion, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, which he co-authored with Scott Swain in 2015. Dr. Allen, welcome to the podcast.

Michael Allen (01:43):

Thanks so much for having me.

Brian Arnold (01:45):

So we always ask our guests one big question, and today the question is—what does it mean to be a Protestant Catholic? So right off the bat, that’s going to be confusing, I think, to a lot of people listening in. And we’re going to need to do some defining of some words here. Let’s just begin with the word catholic, catholicity. What do you mean by this word?

Michael Allen (02:04):

Yeah. So the word catholic, or catholicity, comes from a Greek term that means “according to the whole.” And so the idea of catholicity is about wholeness in different ways. The Bible commends the importance of being a whole Christian—not someone who grows in head alone, or in heart alone, but someone who is whole and effective, formed in every which way. The Bible commends the idea of the whole people of God—the idea that there are folks around the globe and through the ages from every tribe, tongue, and nation. And, as Ephesians two puts it, we’re one body, we’re fellow citizens, we’re all members of the household of God, we’re a temple of the Spirit. The Bible also commends the idea of the whole counsel of God, that all of God’s Word is inspired by God, and it’s useful for equipping us for every good work. So catholicity gets at that wholeness that we are meant to receive from Christ, and to pursue, day by day. Obviously, catholicity sometimes gets heard as being distinctly Roman, or Roman Catholic, and that’s completely understandable. They’ve had good branding for years upon years now, and have sort of owned that name. But catholicity and the Holy Catholic Church is something that all of us, as Bible believing, credal Christians—we cherish dearly. And so it’s a really important idea.

Brian Arnold (03:34):

Well, and just to piggyback on that last idea—the credal nature of it. For those who may not know that the ancient creeds do confess our faith in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” That we are part of this idea, this church universal, that is meant to be united. And that is the small “c” catholic, right? That universal kind of concept of that. So then how would you define protestant? Actually, before we get there, if I can plug a recent episode that I did with David Hogg on Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, where we—perhaps cheekily—said that Protestantism is older than Catholicism, if we date Catholicism to the Council Trent in 1546, where they made some really strong declarations that really have formed a lot of the Catholic church as we know it. Even today, as a Counter-Reformation Council. So with that idea, kind of Roman Catholicism as being separate than what we’re speaking of, what do you mean by protestant?

Michael Allen (04:41):

Sure. Protestants are those folks influenced by a 16th century set of concerns regarding ways in which the church had begun acting out of character. That is, acting and believing and practicing in ways that neither fit biblical teaching, nor even the earliest ways of the Christian Church. And so this isn’t the first time in church history—there are earlier waves attempting to reform various ills, but there’s an especially important movement in places like Germany, Switzerland, eventually in England and Scotland and elsewhere beyond, that is going to really coalesce and receive a remarkable amount of opposition from Roman leadership, but also a ground swell of support. And that leads people like Martin Luther to be booted out of the Roman Church, and to begin the task of forming what become known as Lutheran, and Reformed, and other churches, that we sort of sum up as saying they are “Protestant.” They have protests regarding these ills, or problems, regarding worship, sacraments, pastoral care. Concerning the authority of Scripture and its relationship to tradition, or concerning the place of repentance and its relationship to the justification we have in Christ. Those are going to be the main concerns. And, you know, those are things that are, by and large, going to be shared by Protestant Lutherans, Reformed Anglicans, Methodists, or Baptists.

Brian Arnold (06:18):

So I think it was B.B. Warfield who said something like, “in the balance of the Reformation hung, on one side, Augustine’s view of the doctrine of grace, and on the other side, Augustine’s view of the doctrine of the church.” And they had to really weigh—what do we do with this, that we are one church and this will fracture it? And yet these doctrines of justification by faith alone are so critical, that we can’t give that up. So wrestling through this idea of even catholicity, like, how do we pull these pieces together to see a more united church? How do we do that, with even the groups that you just mentioned, there—Methodists, and Presbyterians, and Baptists, and Anglicans? You know, I can see people listening and saying—what are we meant to do with some of this? We’re putting the cart a little bit before the horse, I think, with that question, but just curious to see how you would start to help us think through that.

Michael Allen (07:15):

Sure. Well, it is a challenge. There’s no way around it. You’d alluded earlier to the language of the Nicene Creed, where we confess belief that there’s one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And those four descriptions of the church, they come in two pairs that relate to each other, so that the church is holy and set apart, but it’s apostolic. It’s not set apart to be alone. It’s set apart for mission to others, to draw them in. Similarly, the church is one, and it’s catholic. It’s unified, or one, but it’s also catholic and whole, or diverse and broad, worldwide in every sense of that term. And necessarily, there’s going to be a challenge of thinking about—what are ways in which unity can be sought that are unproductive? When does unity become homogenization, or conformity that that isn’t necessary, that is rote?

Michael Allen (08:12):

Even that’s…you might say externalism. But on the other hand, when are we allowing diversity that actually involves pluralism and—in some fashion in each of us—betrayal of biblical truth? Those are real challenges we all constantly have to address—how to rightly pursue both the unity and togetherness on the one hand, and the diversity and breadth on the other hand, of the kingdom of God. And through the ages, Christians have found that’s a constant search for equilibrium, as with other areas where we’re trying to repent and to obey better. It’s a pilgrimage, and we don’t arrive in this life. But it’s something that even those Protestant Reformers pursued to the very end. Folks like Martin Luther and John Calvin and Martin Bucer continued meeting not only with one another—with different Protestants—but they even continued conversing with Roman Catholics, hoping that they could eventually, prayerfully, come to a common shared commitment about biblical truth and practice. And the fact that they may not have succeeded in every way they wished is no demonstration that their concern and their desire and and their prayers were wrong. I think that’s a model for all of us. And so, in all sorts of different ways, and in very different contexts, trying to live into what we share, and to benefit from and bless those with whom we differ, are both crucial tasks.

Brian Arnold (09:51):

Well, it’s to be Christian, in many ways. You mentioned…I like how you said pilgrimage. And you mean, even in this life of—as we’re trying to sort these things through between the unity and the diversity. But you also made a comment about “through the ages,” as the church has sought to do this. One big part of what you have been calling people to is this idea of retrieval, of really mining out the past, and trying to figure out how that pertains today. So maybe if you would describe what retrieval is, why it’s so important, and I’d be interested just to hear—what turned you onto that? What was it in your intellectual pilgrimage that led you to some of these great sources? And what were some of those in particular that had such an important impact on you?

Michael Allen (10:36):

Yeah. Well, maybe I’ll start with the personal, and then move to the conceptual. I found, as a reader, and someone who is pressed in both a great high school context and then liberal arts study at college, that as I kept looking at both Christian authors and non-Christian authors, folks at the cutting edge, I kept observing over the centuries, and in very different settings, from very different authors—the folks who kept pressing, and creating, and constructing, and challenging in new and fresh ways, were folks who had been shaped deeply by knowledge of those who’d gone before them. And that just struck me, overwhelmingly, as I read so many classical authors, modern poets and novelists, and, yes, lots of theologians through the centuries. And that then led me to think biblically, theologically, how do we make sense of that reality? That the people who are at the cutting edge of the arts, the humanities, the letters, and Christian thought especially—they seem to be people who are well-steeped in what’s gone before them.

Michael Allen (11:45):

And I just observed the remarkable role the Bible gives to listening intergenerationally to those who’ve gone before you. The shortest way to note it is simply to say—we do theology with reference to the fifth commandment. We honor our fathers and our mothers. Not just literally those who raised us as children, but our fathers and mothers in the faith. And honoring them means listening, acknowledging, seeing them. Seeing them as they actually are—not some sort of idyllic, whitewashed notion. But seeing them respectfully and receptively. Not standing over them in judgment, but trying to listen to them and to receive what we can. And I’ve just been struck, especially, how the Epistle to the Hebrews really challenges that. Most of us realize Hebrews 11, the so-called Hall of Faith, commends these Old Testament saints who do so many wonderful things, all of them by faith—so-and-so did such-and-such by faith.

Michael Allen (12:47):

So-and-so did such-and-such. And then it wraps up, it says, “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we are called to run the race set before us.” So we don’t try and live in the old era, but we try and learn from the old era to run the race for today. And then it calls us to look especially to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of faith. The greatest example of living by faith. But the next chapter, Hebrews 13:7-8 says, “remember your leaders, those who taught you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In other words, it’s not just the famous Abrahams and Sarahs, and, you know, great figures of the Old Testament. It’s not merely Jesus. But it’s also myriad saints who have played roles since him. Anonymous figures to the wider public, but close figures to each of us, who’ve taught us the Word of God, who finished well, and who…we don’t follow their every idiosyncrasy, but we learn to imitate their faith. And we can do that confidently, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Because he doesn’t change. Their faith, then and there, continues to be a resource and a prompt to us, here and now. And so, retrieval is just this practice of attempting to glean from the whole church. Attempting to learn from the whole range of the communion of saints. To receive from all of them, that we might better listen to the whole Word of God.

Brian Arnold (14:17):

And it’s a posture of humility. One of saying that I need to learn from others who’ve gone before me, in a recognition that God’s Spirit has been moving and active in his church for 2000 years. And hopefully that our work is not in vain. Right? The books that you are publishing now, that will be history in a century, that saints can look back and see what the Lord was even telling the church in this period as well. So I’m grateful for your walkthrough of retrieval. I think that that’s the best actual walkthrough of that that I’ve heard before. So that’s tremendous. One of the things you mentioned there, because one of the critiques that happens with retrieval, is there’s a lot of consternation today of retrieval of certain people, as though we have to swallow the whole of them.

Brian Arnold (15:05):

And let me just give a very specific example that’s kind of live right now is Thomas Aquinas. So a lot of people are retrieving some medieval theology, especially as it pertains to the doctrine of God, and they’re taking a lot of hits for it, because people would say—he seems to be wrong on some of these areas. So how in the world could you retrieve him on that? I’m sure you’re seeing a lot of these same dust-ups that I’m seeing. So how do you respond to somebody who would give that as a caution, or a warning, or a red flag on those things?

Michael Allen (15:36):

Sure. Yeah. I think there’s a lot to think through there, and that’s an important, interesting example. You know, I think on the one hand, we want to be open to challenge from resources of the past. We also want to be open to challenge by—and I think this is a real thing we need to be alert to today—we want to be open to challenge by people who are not perfect and complete. It just so happens that the greatest voices from the Christian tradition—they all have their failings. Some larger, some smaller. Augustine’s my favorite. He was not a Protestant. You mentioned the Warfield quote. And that’s true in one sense. It’s also remarkably simplistic in another sense. And so, as I learned from Augustine more than anyone else, I also have to humble myself and learn from someone here, where I find that others have rightly challenged him there.

Michael Allen (16:28):

And there’s that difficult dance, in so doing, especially in an age where we cancel people who have a sin to their name. Aquinas obviously has a host of beliefs any Protestant will find problematic. On the other hand, the early Reformers rely on him in all sorts of ways. And if we pay attention to Thomas, it’s interesting to observe that he himself is relying on others. Augustine above all else, but a host of other earlier theologians. And he’s trying to learn from them, to sift from them, to reflect on their sometimes competing claims, to better hear Scripture. And, you know, in a real sense, looking to someone like him, or to Luther, to Peter Lombard, or to Augustine himself, is actually an example of learning how to be a catholic—small c—theologian. Someone who is already themselves really dealing with an earlier tradition, trying to receive it productively as a guide to Holy Scripture.

Michael Allen (17:30):

And so when I study Thomas, and do so with my students, my goal isn’t for them to be Thomas. It’s for them to learn to be reformed and catholic. And Thomas is going to directly inspire that at times, where he’s in the center of the credal faith, where he’s remarkably engaging earlier sources, and trying to help people be attentive to Scripture. But especially, also, where he’s not trying to rally a school or a party. He’s trying to to be a whole, a broad, a catholic Christian, drawing on those who’ve gone before him. And so, you know, I do think we want to engage people like him, but we want to engage people like him not as the latest character, who we are happy to be on Team Thomas or something, but as a gateway and entryway to a bigger conversation that precedes him and continues after him, and includes, you know, not only Peter Lombard, and Maximus the Confessor, and Augustine, and so forth, but later is going to include other figures—the Peter Martyr Vermiglis, and John Owenses, and Francis Turretins and Herman Bavincks, and so forth.

Michael Allen (18:44):

So the key is to find a way in, to journey around in that great stream of Christian conversation around Holy Scripture and its significance for us. And as you said, I think you named it rightly, to be humble. To be alert. Not to be defensive, not to seek to posture, and to sort of always put down people in another tribe, but always to ask rather—what are ways they can challenge me to hear the Word better? What are ways I can be grateful for what they’ve offered? And where are spots where I nonetheless feel compelled to differ, because God’s Word leads me to do so? And all of that’s important to being a whole and mature Christian.

Brian Arnold (19:25):

One of the things you mentioned there was even cancel culture. And it’s ironic to me—a lot of the voices today that are strongest against cancel culture in the broader culture, when it comes to the theological world, cancel a whole lot of folks in the stream of Christian thought. That might not, like you said—tribalism—might not agree with their tribe in every single way, cross every T, dot every I. Whether that’s even in their own lives or in their theology. And we need to be careful. I like how you said about journeying in that stream of Christian conversation that has been going on for 2000 years. And we can…because we’ve had 2000 years of reflection, it’s easier to even see where people kind of go off the rails, and where we can call them back. But that our faith can be so much deeper if we will take the time to understand them, to read these sources. And then when we come today to have these conversations, even across denominational lines, understanding where they came from, how they got there, what their theologians have said, gives us a lot of even starting ground to have conversations across those places. You know, we don’t have a ton of time left, but I was wondering if you might take a doctrine and give an example of what reformed catholicity looks like for you?

Michael Allen (20:37):

Yeah. In one sense, you could take almost any topic, of course, and ask—how do you lean into thinking in a reformed manner? How do you lean into being open to the wider catholic breadth of a tradition? Just by way of one example I’ve been thinking anew about lately—humanity is the image of God. It’s a perennial issue. It’s also a pressing one for a range of reasons today, where understanding what it means to be human—the study of what we call anthropology—matters, again, in some fresh ways. Christians through the ages have had this catholic notion. It’s not always involved uniformity or homogeneity in every sense, but this idea that human beings are made in the image of God, and that means there’s a dignity to every human life, there is a value. We want to be careful, sanctity isn’t quite the right term here, because it’s not necessarily holiness, but there’s dignity, there’s beauty, there’s purpose, there’s significance—that is a reality for every human creature.

Michael Allen (21:44):

And that’s been a remarkable catholic emphasis. And that’s why, of course, the Christian faith has been at the forefront of, over the centuries, developing things like notions of human rights, thinking about the just war tradition, beginning to sort of act out Christ’s abolition of things like slavery. That those are implications of affirming the dignity involved in bearing God’s image. All of us, not just one tribe, not just one gender, not just one class or caste, but each and every one of us. At the same time, reformed folks, when we get this side of the Protestant Reformation, have had a concern that we make sure and understand that the image of God is not simply something that marks out our dignity like a token or a badge, as if part of us makes us special. But one big emphasis of the reformed is that the whole person—not just our soul, but also our body—the whole person is the image of God.

Michael Allen (22:49):

And imaging God involves every facet of you in some sense. Doesn’t mean there aren’t certain aspects of life that be more or less to the foreground at different times and in various ways, but that the human is the image of God, not some faculty, not some small aspect, or a specific sliver of the human. And that, too, speaks to the significance of all of life. The concern that God has for all of our humanity. That all of it, in some way, is meant to be given in devotion and love to God, and to thus render glory to God—a great hallmark of the reformed tradition. And so, that’s not to say that there aren’t any non-reformed people who believe that, but that that’s one way in which Protestant reformed folks have believed we need to make sure and clarify how all of us share the image.

Michael Allen (23:44):

It’s not, you know, simply because we all have a soul. It’s not simply because we all have a body. It’s because we are this psychosomatic whole. We have this complete nature that God has fashioned and designed, that we might receive graciously from him, and that we might return glory unto him, as we seek his kingdom and as we do good to our neighbors, his fellow images. So, you know, that’s a way in which we can see both a sort of shared, unified Christian commitment, as well as this inflection, this idea, that there’s a reformed notion that slightly tweaks, or specified how we receive it, so that we don’t receive it in a misleading or a misapplied manner.

Brian Arnold (24:29):

And I think that is the issue of the day, right? Anthropology, how retrieval and reformed catholicity can speak into that is going to be critically important, I think, for how Christians approach that issue in the most robust way today. Well, I would commend our listeners to check out your book on Reformed Catholicity with Scott Swain, and even just mention Phoenix Seminary professor Steve Duby, who’s also done a lot of great retrieval in his work on classical theology. So there’s a lot of things we could say about this, but we’re all seeking to be faithful in this faith once for all delivered to the saints, what the Lord has done in the last 2000 years through his church, that we might stand on the shoulders of these giants. Dr. Allen, thank you so much for your time today.

Michael Allen (25:15):

Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Outro (25:18):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

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