Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Bit of (Unintentional) Evangelical Propaganda

Recently, I found myself reading the TV Tropes article on Christianity. Within the article, quite a few mistakes were made regarding Protestant sacrementology, particularly with regards to the frequency of belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (the errors have been corrected, I couldn’t help myself). The particular error is question is the claim that a belief in Real Presence is largely a Roman Catholic phenomenon largely unheard of in the Protestant church. That TV Tropes made this error is not particularly troubling, it is after all a wiki without any particular checks on correctness. However, I find that this particular mistake is very common within Evangelical Protestant circles. I recently had a conversation with a friend (and not by any means an unintelligent friend) who was completely unaware of the fact that Luther had argued vehemently for the actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It seems to me that it is a piece of unintentional and very successful propaganda we have told ourselves.

The fact of the matter is that even if we leave aside the Eastern Orthodox church (whose existence many Evangelicals seem to be unaware of), the doctrine of Real Presence is far from rare. According to Wikipedia, there are 752 million Protestants (if we include Anglicans in that number1) in the world. Of those, 337 million are Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist or Reformed, all of whom profess some sort of belief in Real Presence.2

I would imagine that this misunderstanding arises for two reasons. First, because almost all Protestants do, in fact, reject the particular formulation of Real Presence confessed by the Roman Catholic church – namely transubstantiation. This is not, however, the same thing as rejecting Real Presence and being a mere memorialist. Second, because the "lower" church Christians who reject Real Presence tend to have a greater number of denominations as a result of the fact that they tend to be more fundamentalist.3

This mistake is serious because Protestants, whether they should do so or not, will oftentimes reject doctrines seen as mainly Roman Catholic without even giving them consideration merely because they are “romish.” However, if they take seriously the fact that a huge number of Protestants, who uphold the sole authority of scripture, affirm Real Presence, then they should give the doctrine a real look.
1. Wikipedia does not, but I will.
2. This isn’t a scientific study, it’s quite possible that some of the sub-denominations of these groups don’t profess Real Presence. Regardless, the point is that around half the Protestants in the world profess Real Presence.
3.  It seems that the more fundamentalist a church, the more frequently it fragments.