The failure of Protestantism: Socrates, Jesus, and the dilemma of inferior disciples

There are steps we can take towards a “Protestant catholicity” while still remaining true to our particular beliefs.

16 MAY 2020 · 15:00 CET

Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">Martin Reisch</a>. Unsplash, CC0,
Photo: Martin Reisch. Unsplash, CC0

Once in a while, there comes along a teacher who is too great for his followers: his teachings are too profound, his life is too exemplary, and he has been able to hold in tension too many disparate truths.

The issue is not necessarily that the teacher or his followers have failed in some way, but rather the simple fact that the master was just too much for his followers to handle.

This has only happened a few times in history, both in the East and West, and here I would like to focus on two of them and try to draw some parallels. While in some ways the focus of this article is on the teachers, the real focus is actually on the followers, that is, you and me.



Socrates (or, if you prefer, Plato1) belongs to this very small group of truly great men. When one reads the Republic, the Symposium, the Apology, or any other dialogue in which he is present, it becomes obvious that Socrates was operating on a different level than the rest.

His theories on ethics, politics, and education have proved foundational for the building of the West, and his impeccable life and fearlessness of death have been considered exemplary throughout history. He found a way to incarnate Truth that few could even imagine, and he did so in a harmonious and coherent fashion.

However, after Socrates, what we find is the fragmentation of his life and thought into at least five different schools, with each being in some ways faithful, and in other ways unfaithful, to Socrates:

Academics: Like Socrates, Academics sought theoretical knowledge about reality through the dialectic; unlike Socrates, they did not put much emphasis on practical wisdom and the virtuous life.

Sceptics: Like Socrates, Sceptics were great doubters of common knowledge and tended to suspend their judgment about accepted truth claims; unlike Socrates, they denied that it was possible to know truth at all.

Stoics: Like Socrates, Stoics sought to suppress the passions by aligning themselves harmoniously with nature, and to face life and death with courage; unlike Socrates, they did not give much thought to theoretical knowledge and the dialectic.

Epicureans: Like Socrates, Epicureans sought to avoid pain and to pursue pleasure, especially by the removal of their fears; unlike Socrates, they did not seek virtuous living at a personal or societal level.

Cynics: Like Socrates, Cynics affirmed that man is an animal, and shunned culture as mere human convention; unlike Socrates, they denied that man was rational could contemplate divine realities.

As can be seen, each school was able to claim Socrates as their own, but only in part. This is where the flaw of all of these schools can be seen: each took a part of Socrates’ life and teaching and then absolutized it over and against the rest.

From an historical perspective, this process of “fragmentation by turning a part into the whole” proved disastrous for all five schools: while most were able to survive (and at times, thrive) for a few centuries, eventually they all died out.2

The key lesson to learn is that this fragmentation will lead to a movement’s eventual downfall.3



From the preceding discussion, I hope it is clear to the readers where I am going with all of this: Christians, and especially Protestants, have done with Jesus what Greco-Roman philosophers did with Socrates.

Each denomination has taken different parts of Jesus’ life and teachings and absolutized them. Often new movements and denominations will arise as reactions to perceived extremes and deficiencies, only to establish new extremes and deficiencies which will evoke future reactions.

Just like Socrates’ heirs, we have fragmented Jesus’ life and teachings, and absolutized certain parts over and against the rest. Although it is a bit reductionistic, here are some examples of how this has worked out within Protestantism:

- Lutherans: Like Jesus, the Lutheran denomination focuses on radical forgiveness and the Law–Gospel dialectic; unlike Jesus, they have a tendency to reduce Christianity to existentialism that is detached from any historical reality (a la Bultmann) and have jettisoned much of Christian morality (Lutherans have some of the most liberal churches within Protestantism).

- Anglicans: Like Jesus, the Anglican denomination seeks to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic; unlike Jesus, they tend not to care for doctrinal and moral purity as they should.

Reformed: Like Jesus, the Reformed denomination seeks doctrinal purity and the exaltation of God in all things; unlike Jesus, they have a reputation for being some of the most grace-less churches in all of Christendom.

Anabaptist and Baptist: Like Jesus, the Anabaptist and Baptist denominations place a premium on brotherly love and personal holiness; unlike Jesus, they have split into more denominations than anyone else and have forsaken the universal reality of the Church.

- Charismatic and Pentecostal: Like Jesus, the Charismatic and Pentecostal denominations have focused on the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit; unlike Jesus, they have a reputation of forsaking Scripture and basing their preaching and church life on extra-biblical teaching.

These are just a sampling of the fragmentation within Protestantism, but the truth is clear: all of us have fallen short of the fullness of Jesus’ life and teachings. While I am no prophet, I think it is quite reasonable to predict that the same fate that came upon Socrates’ heirs come upon a fragmented Protestantism as well: extinction.

True, Protestant denominations have been around for a few hundred years, and some may survive (even thrive) for a few hundred more, but their demise is inevitable.

The greater the disconnect that there is between Christianity’s claims to be the one (i.e., united) people of God on the one hand, and Christianity’s practice to be divided and segmented on the other, the quicker this downfall will come, and the greater will be its fall.


The way forward: Three suggestions

Before offering some suggestions concerning the way forward, allow me to soften the blow of what I have said so far: fragmentation, which is not necessarily the same thing as division (although it can be), is inevitable in Christianity.

If Socrates’ followers found it difficult to replicate the fullness of his life and teaching, how much more impossible is it for us, who are trying to follow God?

We are limited beings called on to proclaim the limitless, finite being called on to reflect the infinite, particulars called on to embrace the universal. Thus, I think it is fair to suggest that a certain amount of diversity is inevitable.

However, I still do not think that fragmentation is the ideal, and thus the question needs to be asked: What can we do to limit it? I would like to suggest three ideas.

First, we should be humble. We must remember our limitations. This is one of the benefits that post-modernism has brought to us: our culture, background, experiences, etc., have shaped us to view the world in particular ways.

These same influences have also limited our ability to read the Bible in certain ways, and therefore our interpretation of Scripture is also limited. So, remember your limitations, and be humble when assessing your own beliefs and judging those of others.

Second, we should be thankful. By this, I do not mean a thankfulness in general, but rather thankfulness in particular for others who are not like us. Baptists should be thankful for Anglicans, Charismatics for Reformed, Lutherans for Anabaptists, and so no.

I can speak from my own experience that I have learned immensely from other denominations. I am a baptist (please note the lower case “b”), but I have learned deeply from Anglicans and their ecclesiology, from Lutherans and their Law-Gospel dialectic, from Reformed and their exaltation of God, from Anabaptists and their emphasis on love and community, from Charismatics and their dependence on the Holy Spirit’s directing in their lives, etc.

We do not need to look at others as a threat to our own beliefs, but rather as a potential source of enrichment and edification. If we extend the body metaphor from the local church to the universal one (which I think is fair), then this may help us see how other denominations can actually be a blessing to us, even if they are not like us in every way.

Third, and most importantly, we should love one another. Love is what allows God’s intra-trinitarian reality to be manifested among us: the many unified into one by love.

This allows us to continue to be true to who we are —Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Charismatic, etc.— while at the same time allowing us to learn from others. No one can embody the fullness of God, but the Church can do a much better job than any one person or denomination can by themselves.


Concluding thought

What I have been trying to say is this article is that, in order for the Church to reflect the fullness of God, it must, in some sense, be catholic. But it is precisely here where the Protestant Reformation has failed.

However, I still think that there are steps we can take towards a “Protestant catholicity” while still remaining true to our particular beliefs. But I do not want the readers to take this issue lightly.

Historically, the Church has defined two great sins: heresy and schism. Heresy is any breach of doctrine, schism is any breach of love, and they are both awful. As Protestants, we can be proud of what we have accomplished with regard to heresy: the Reformation was necessary, and our forefathers rooted out much heresy that had crept into the Church during the previous centuries.

However, in some ways, the Reformation has proven to be tragic, since we have fragmented the one body of Christ. So, allow me to end with this: as we continue to call on the Roman Catholic Church to take the plank of heresy out of their eye, we need to deal with the plank of schism in our own.



1 Socrates wrote very little in his life, and none of it has been preserved. What we do know of Socrates comes from later writers, especially Plato. Therefore, separating the “historical Socrates” from the “Plato’s Socrates” can be difficult at times.

2 Each school enjoys brief moments of revival every so often, but they never stick.

3 Other great thinkers could have been included in this summary. For example, Mark Noll has written the following about Jonathan Edwards: “Evangelicals have not thought about life from the ground up as Christians, because their entire culture has ceased to do so. Edwards’ piety continued on in the revivalist tradition, his theology continued on in academic Calvinism, but there were no successors to his God-entranced worldview or his profoundly theological philosophy. The disappearance of Edwards’ perspective in American Christian history has been a tragedy” (“Jonathan Edwards, Moral Philosophy, and the Secularization of American Christian Thought,” Reformed Journal 33 [1983]: 26; quoted in John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004], 16).

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Feature - The failure of Protestantism: Socrates, Jesus, and the dilemma of inferior disciples