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Chesterton Reformed: A Protestant Interpretation

James Sauer

I've got a problem with Chesterton. The problem is that I think he is a wonderful, wise, witty, and pious man; after reading his works, I never leave the page without feeling edified. Then what's the problem? Perhaps, the problem, if it is a problem, isn't in Chesterton, but in me. For I am a Protestant; but not just any Protestant. I am an American Evangelical Protestant. But there's more. I am a Conservative, Capitalistic, Bible thumping American Evangelical Protestant. And hold on to your seats folks, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse; I must confess, I am also a Calvinist. We all have our crosses to bear. Anyone who is familiar with the writings of Chesterton will see the great irony in my situation.

I can only ask you not to blame me for this state of affairs, I didn't choose to be elected; it was irresistible grace. I was predestined for Presbyterianism. But since I have received this unmerited favor of God, I might as well enjoy it. I can only thank my Sovereign Maker for his predestination. Not only did he choose me to be among his chosen people, but he also destined me to be among that other elect who have had the privilege of meeting through literature the great mind and good heart of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. No doubt the ever volitional Chesterton would have pointed out that predestination had nothing to do with all this; he would have argued that I chose to pick his books up of my own free will. But I think he is wrong on this matter: I must respond that it is all of God, as all grace is.

All this leads to the question on which this paper is built; considering Chesterton's polemical and unflinching theological particularism to the Roman Catholic communion; and his equally pronounced revulsion from the Reformed Protestant Tradition, how is an American Conservative Biblical Calvinistic Evangelical to approach Chesterton? It seems to me a good question; since he is certainly attractive and edifying to many Protestants like myself.

A Protestant Chesterton?

I would like to begin to answer this question of Protestant interest in Chesterton with a paradox in the Chesterton tradition. The first point I wish to make about Chesterton the Catholic writer is to suggest that in some ways, Chesterton is very Protestant. Perhaps those were groans, I just heard; and you are thinking: "oh no, the man is a revisionist." Believe me I detest historical revisionism as much as the next fellow, and firmly believe that, after the mythic Revolution, revisionists should be placed against the proverbial wall, right alongside other useful idiots. Certainly, if Protestants are to understand correctly any "Protestantism" in Chesterton, then we must avoid any hint of remaking Chesterton after our image. Chesterton cannot be transformed into a Protestant writer; even in the earliest "Anglican period" of his writings, the hints of Romanism abound.

Nevertheless, I think that certain Protestant traits do exist in Chesterton; and those elements of Protestantism are at least fourfold:

First, I think there is his eccentric freethinking family life. It is not Catholicism which formed his early personality, but Protestantism in a state of theological rot. We have Chesterton's own words to guide us. In Orthodoxy, he says "the philosophy in which I have come to believe, I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me."[1 ] This confession came from a man essentially raised by freethinkers, cultural Anglicans, and Unitarians. There is of course an even greater irony in this sentence; for it is the essence of the Calvinist Creed. At the heart of Calvinism is the notion that we are debtors to a Sovereign grace-giving God. He made us; not we ourselves.

The second element of Protestantism comes from his English personality. Chesterton is the first to admit the Englishness of his background: "If I made a generalization about the Chestertons, my paternal kinfold...I should say that they were and are extraordinarily English."[2] In spite of the Bellocian myth of the intrinsic and essential Catholicism of England, it seems evident to any impartial observer that England is a Protestant Nation, with a Protestant Establishment, and a Protestant personality. English eccentricity, liberty, and theological pluralism all seem to display a Protestant ethos. Perhaps for a European a culture cannot be deemed fully Protestant if it has only been under the influence of Protestantism for a mere 450 years; most Americans, however, would concede this point immediately. Chesterton's England is a Protestant England; and Chesterton is wildly, almost absurdly English.

A third element of his Protestantism might be found in his Romanticism. The feisty Chesterton seems enamored by the politics of the underdog. His revolt against "the powers that be" involves the questioning of their authority. He fights the wicked economic Anti-Christ of Capitalism and the Beast of Power Politics, Imperialism. There is a little of the Luther in Chesterton, a point which would probably have irked him no end.

And finally, the fourth element of latent Protestantism in Chesterton is his incredible faith in democracy. Hierarchical Catholicism is hardly the breeding ground of democracy. Democracy requires pluralistic tolerance. And in fact, the most successful democracies have all been Protestant nations: Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia; though indeed Catholicism is actively present in all these nations, it is a minority, and therefore functions as just another sect. Democracy, therefore, is a Protestant virtue; just as democratism--the belief that a 51% vote constitutes the voice of God--is a Protestant vice. Chesterton seems to have drunk deep from these democratic taps. The only other people I know who have as optimistic a view of democracy as Chesterton are all Baptists.

Now, none of these elements make Chesterton a "Protestant" writer; as I have said, I don't think such revisionism can be accomplished without damage being done to the persona of Chesterton. However, I mention these elements in order to suggest that he has brought into his Catholic life ways of looking at the world which had their origins in the Protestant milieu. I think this recognition of Chesterton's latent Protestantism can offer his Protestant readers an initial basis for appreciation. We see in Chesterton a little of ourselves. But this does not lessen the obstacle of Chesterton's Roman Catholic particularism; and it is to that wall of separation that I now turn.

A Protestant Critique I: A Protest

As a Protestant I think it is my inherent duty to protest. So let me give notice that from a Protestant point of view, Chesterton's constant vilification of the Protestant and Reformed faith represents a twofold failure on Chesterton's part. Firstly, Chesterton fails to recognize the reformulative and evolving nature of Catholic doctrine itself, which has increasingly been able to accept and digest the Protestant worldview; and, secondly, he fails to display an objective understanding of Protestantism. His view of Protestantism is often skewed by a Crusader's spirit, and simply lacks rational balance.

Chesterton, it must be remembered, is not to be viewed as a contemporary Roman Catholic writer. Chesterton's Catholicism antedates Vatican II. It is a combination of Tridentine attitudes and the Conciliar Populism of Pope Pius IX. His was a fighting faith, medieval in spirit. The battles he fought with Reformation theology were alive to him, not mere academic jousts. His hatred of what he perceived as Calvinistic fatalism stemmed from a passionate demand for human accountability and freedom, So in one sense, Protestants have more in common with the current ecumenical crowd than they do with Chesterton the Church Militant who defended Old Rome. Chesterton would have been proud to be listed among those who had the faith of the medieval Everyman: trusting in Good Deeds to enter with him into paradise. He abhorred the Protestant's Biblical soteriology; in fact, he abhorred everything Protestant.

Chesterton's caricature of Protestantism does not wear well, his theological cardstacking grows old quickly. Chesterton seemed to have an inability to present Protestantism fairly or even present its doctrines correctly. When he grasps for a witty put-down for Shaw, he calls him a Calvinist, a Puritan--pejoratives in Chesterton's mind, they have no theological meaning when applied to Shaw. In fact, Chesterton found it almost impossible to say anything good about Protestantism, and when he did say something good, there was a Catholic connection. For instance, he admires the Anglican Book of Common Prayer; but his praise consists in that "it was written by apostate Catholics. It is strong, not in so far as it is a Protestant book, but in so far as it was the last Catholic book."[3] Or listen to this gratuitous insult to the Great Reformer: "on a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would be almost invisible." [4] Amusing, no doubt; but is it accurate? One can only wonder what would prompt a man like Chesterton to feel it necessary to attack a man ad hominem centuries after his death. I am afraid we are examining a pathology.

This imbalance, this blindness concerning things Protestant; this reductionism to Protestant equals bad, Catholic equals good represents a major flaw in his thinking. I would call it a gigantic flaw, because he was a gigantic man. And I think we have tolerated the flaw because of his greatness. I wonder how long we would tolerate a mediocre Protestant writer whose constant refrain was a virulent Reformational aggressiveness against the Great Romish Babylon. Not long, I think.

A Protestant Critique II: Do We Agree?

Historically, the charge of Semi-Pelagianism has been leveled by Protestants against the traditional merit-centered, works-theology of Roman Catholic soteriology and practice. And I think the charge might stick against some of Chesterton's statements. His view of Reformed Calvinistic theology as a grotesque heresy, becomes ironic in this post Vatican II age of "separated brethren": and "ecumenical dialogue." Catholic congregations now sing Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," Catholic theologians question the authority of the Pope, some religious orders spew forth Marxism, and many Catholic families ignore Rome's teaching on birth control. Oh, it's a different world. Witness the following:

In the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission, representatives of both communities said: "We rejoice together that the whole process of salvation is the work of God by the Holy Spirit. And it is in this connection that Roman Catholics understand the expression ex opere operato in relation to baptism. It does not mean that the sacraments have a mechanical or automatic efficacy. Its purpose rather is to emphasize that salvation is a sovereign work of Christ, in distinction to a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian confidence in human ability."[5] Notice the thoroughly Protestant and Reformed language: "whole process," "work of God," "not...mechanical or automatic efficacy," "sovereign work of Christ," and no confidence in "human ability." Calvin could have written these words.

And how would Chesterton understand this Jesuitical explanation of the Roman Catholic/Evangelical understanding of justification by faith by Avery Dulles, S.J.: " I would say that really we do not disagree on the way in which the individual comes to justification: through the grace of Christ accepted in faith. That's pretty much common doctrine between our churches, even though it has not been recognized as common doctrine. Many Catholics are astonished to hear this--they think that Catholics are justified by their good works. But that has never been Catholic teaching."[6] Hold it boys, call off the Reformation; its all been a terrible misunderstanding. We've never really disagreed.

This would indeed have been news to Chesterton. Such sophistical dialectics would have proved burdensome for even his lithe mind to balance. Contrast the views I have just read with the Tridentine language of Chesterton; just a few examples will indicate his irreconcilability with the Reformers:

*"If almost any modern man be asked whether we save our souls solely through our theology, or whether doing good (to the poor, for instance) will help us on the road to God, he would answer without hesitation that good works are probably more pleasing to God than theology."[7] In true Chestertonian style he has relied on the man in the street--universal catholic man--for his jury. The Apostle Paul, speaking less democratically, is rather ignored: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works so that no one can boast" (Eph 2:8). Good works flow from faith, they can't precede it. They cannot help you on the way to heaven; because there is only One Way.

* Chesterton says: "It would probably come as quite a surprise [to the man in the street] to learn that, for three hundred years, the faith in faith alone was the badge of the Protestant, the faith in good works the rather shameful badge of a disreputable Papist."[8] But of course, the real shock would be for the Protestant. All this time he thought his faith was in Christ--and now Chesterton has discovered that it was actually faith in faith. Sola Fides never stood alone; it never had meaning except it was tied to Sola Gratia, and especially, Solus Christus. Consequently, if the "disreputable Papist" has been putting his faith in works, then in the Pauline sense just referred to, it was a shameful badge.

*Chesterton says again: "The genuine Protestant creed is now hardly held by anybody--least of all by the Protestants. So completely have they lost faith in it, that they have mostly forgotten what is was." [9] But who has forgotten? If the previous quotations from ERCCOM and Dulles are any indication, then some Protestant tenets seem to be held by an increasing number of Catholics. This Chesterton quotation indicates that in his mind the mainline, established Churches represent Protestantism; and he is right in suggesting that many of them no longer preach the doctrines of Luther or Calvin. What he could not have seen is that whatever strength remained in Protestantism was borne by those who still held to the old ancient Biblical truths: the Fundamentalists, the Evangelicals, Conservative Reformed and Lutheran churches, and now, it appears, many Roman Catholics.

*Chesterton's obsession with the recognizably difficult doctrine of Biblical Predestination is another odd thing. Consider this statement from The Thing: Why I am a Catholic: "Of the idea of Predestination there are broadly two views; the Calvinist and the Catholic; and it would make a most uncommon difference to my comfort, if I held the former instead of the latter. It is the difference between believing that God knows, as a fact, that I choose the devil, without my having any choice at all." [10] Yet is this interpretation correct? The Calvinistic Westminster Confession says: "God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.[11] Again, "All those whom God has predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit,...renewing their wills...and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace." [12] Chesterton made a career of attacking the Westminster Confession's tautological statement of the doctrine of Predestination. In his hands, the Pauline doctrine seems radical and heretical.

Yet this belief came directly from the Bible and was reaffirmed by Augustine: "Therefore God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, predestinating us to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but He chose and predestinated us that we might be so. Moreover, He did this according to the good pleasure of His will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God's will towards Himself."[13] It is Chesterton who has balked at the paradox of predestination, and the Calvinist who has embraced Biblical antinomy.

* Chesterton falsely pictures the Protestant God as evil: "The Puritan substituted a God who wished to damn people for a God who wished to save them."[14] How pithy, but how untrue. Does anyone besides the hyperbolic Chesterton believe that the Puritans did not preach a gospel of free grace in Christ through faith? They preached good news. They were also not afraid to preach bad news. They believed that it is, as the Puritan Edwards so forcefully reminded us, "a terrible thing to fall into the hands of an angry God." What the Puritans taught was that there indeed was a God who saved people who turned to him in faith; and they also preached that this same God damned those who did not turn to him.

In the end, a Protestant critique of Chesterton must merely be a criticism of particularist Roman Catholic doctrines which Protestants consider distinct innovations of Romanism beyond the apostolic tradition, which Protestants hold as embodied, not in the magisterium of the Church, but in the Bible. True Apostolic succession, if there is such a thing, involves more than having shaken the hand of the man who shook the hand of the man who shook Peter's hand; it involves obedience to what the Apostles proclaimed.

It might be fun for some to fight the Reformation once again, and I'm sure Chesterton would have enjoyed it; however, I am afraid it will not be very edifying for most of us to reargue the particulars that Protestants believe to be Papal usurpations of Apostolic authority and Romish emendations and perversions of Biblical truth. (Luther would have liked that phrase.) Suffice it to say that where Chesterton holds to extra-Biblical doctrines -- Papal infallibility, indulgences, purgatory, adoration of Mary, justification through faith and works -- there we must part company. The Roman Catholic Chesterton cannot be forced into compatibility with Protestants. This herculean task of reconciliation can only be performed by an omniscient God (or, if He is unavailable, perhaps a Jesuit). But I do believe that such reconciliation will come about -- as all reconciliation -- in the body and blood of the Man-God, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Chesterton Reformed

In spite of the evident chasm which exists between Chestertonian Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity, I still think we can find areas for building a foundation of ecumenical appreciation for Chesterton.

1. Protestant Christians can relate to Chesterton as a "mere Christian" of the Lewisian variety. I think the early Anglican Chesterton needs no translation into the Evangelical idiom. There is in the Episcopal Church a broadness and convergence of traditions which allows High Church and Evangelical joint occupancy. It was this hallway between the rooms of our Father's house which allowed C.S. Lewis to be an effective witness to all communions. Large portions of Chesterton are in this category.

2. I think many Protestants will need a method for baptizing Chesterton's polemical Roman writing for ecumenical use. May I suggest as a simple rule of thumb that whenever Chesterton uses the word "Catholic" in a paragraph that the word "Christian" be substituted in our mind. If the sentence stands as applicable to all of Christendom, then it is truly catholic. It has achieved a universal application. If, on the other hand, the substitution of "Christian" makes nonsense out of Chesterton's meaning, then the section is, for the Reformed Christian, hopelessly Papist. We might appreciate the structure of the thought, the beauty of the rhetoric, but we stand outside the Cathedral. We cannot enter. There Chesterton stands. We must stand with the Titanic Augustinian: God help us, we can do no other.

3. It has been said that Chesterton looked at life sacramentally; that all reality formed for him a spiritual parable. I think this is another place where Protestants can feed on Chesterton. As Chesterton says: "As compared with a Jew, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Deist, or more obvious alternatives, a Christian means a man who believes that deity or sanctity has attached itself to matter or entered the world of the sense."[15] Some Manichean elements have infected both the Roman Catholic and the Evangelical Churches; following Chesterton's lead would go a long way in correcting this problem.

4. I think Chesterton provides Protestants with a first class foil on which to sharpen our less prodigious intellects. Chesterton, even in opposition, acts as a Mentor and paradigm of contentious argumentative Christian Charity. His defense of Pre-Vatican II Catholicism requires the Reformed Christian to defend Biblical Christianity against a most formidable mind.

5. Protestants have in Chesterton a model for literary Christian apologetics. There is much to be learned about living the Christian life, and defending it, by listening to Chesterton's use of reason, paradox, and verbal playfulness.

6. If conservatives are to politics what John Stuart Mill called the "stupid party," then Protestants fulfill a similar role in Christendom. We are the stupid party which has opened our mind to Apostolic witness, and closed it upon those fundamental truths. Especially upon one conception, that Divine Reason alone is the authority for life, and morals, and art, and literature. And it is with a dull persistence that we come back to the touchstone of Sola Scriptura. In the end, for the Protestant, it is this rule, this measure, this canon by which we "separated brethren" will judge G.K. Chesterton. Where he does not measure up, we will cut him off; for we believe that it is better to enter heaven having lost a paragraph of Chesterton here, or a chapter there, or an entire book or two, than to pass into darkness. But where he measures up to the Word of Life, we will embrace him, we will feed upon him, we will learn from him.

In conclusion, my Protestant interpretation of Chesterton is tripartite, almost -- may heaven forgive me -- Hegelian. First, thesis: there is in Chesterton enough residual Protestantism to appeal to the independent, democratic, and romantic strains in Biblical Christianity. Second, antithesis: Chesterton's pronounced Papism and strident Anti-Protestantism is a constant and irreconcilable barrier and irritant to the Reformed reader. And third, synthesis: there is in Chesterton more than adequate common ground for a "mere Christian" appreciation by even the most American, Capitalistic, Conservative, and Calvinistic of readers.

And this, I believe, is the way it should be; just as the Lord predestined it.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1908), pp. 13-14.

[2] G.K.Chesterton, Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1936), p. 35.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Well and Shallows. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), p. 47.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933), p. 244.

[5] Basil Meeking and John Stott, The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission, 1977-1984 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1986), p. 58. ERCDOM offers a good tour of the issues which unite and divide our multiple communions: but it is equally plain that agreement is not right around the corner on most doctrines.

[6] Avery Dulles, interviewed by Donald Bloesch, "America's Catholics: What they Believe", Christianity Today November 7, 1986, p. 26.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, The Thing (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1946) pp. 58-59.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Westminster Confession (Philadelphia: Great Commission, n.d.), III, 1 (My emphasis added.)

[12] Westminster Confession, X, 1 (Again my emphasis.)

[13] St. Augustine, "On the Predestination of the Saints", in Norman L. Geisler, ed. What Augustine Says (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1982), pp. 127-128.

[14] G.K. Chesterton, Sidelights on New London and Newer New York, (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co. , 1932). p. 146.

[15] Saint Thomas Aquinas, pp. 41-42.

James Sauer is Director of Library at Eastern College, author of over one hundred published articles, reviews, and poems, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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