This year’s five hundredth anniversary of the origin of the Protestant Reformation—the issuing by Martin Luther of ninety-five theses objecting to the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences—provides a convenient opportunity for a comprehensive exploration of Protestantism’s extraordinarily diverse past. Alec Ryrie, a historian at Durham University in England, has taken on that daunting project, and while some readers may take issue with his theological perspective, all will owe him a debt of gratitude for his impressive historical reconstruction.
Date-marking considerations aside, this would not seem a propitious time for Ryrie’s project. Western Protestantism has fallen on lean days. To the most severe of its critics, it seems a burnt-out case. This is less so in the United States, where evangelical and Pentecostal churches often thrive, but even here the mainstream Protestant denominations derived from their Lutheran and Calvinist roots in the sixteenth century live with declining numbers and dwindling theological energy.
Professor Ryrie acknowledges the Western mainstream’s current low estate. But he reminds us that the West is not the world, and he shows that in Africa, Asia, and Latin America Protestantism is considerably more vibrant than it is in its European birthplace. In any case, Ryrie’s primary concern is not religious scorekeeping. He wants to tell the Protestant story, and, as his subtitle indicates, he thinks that story worth hearing if for no other reason than its protagonists’ ethos-making effect on the world we now inhabit. The long arm of the Reformation “helped to seed,” in Ryrie’s terms, much of modern secularity: “rationalism, capitalism, communism, democracy, political liberalism, feminism, pluralism,” even “some forms of atheism.”
Luther’s was a spiritual enterprise.
All that is not, of course, what Luther and his successors intended. Theirs was a spiritual enterprise. As Ryrie notes, they wanted not to modernize the world but to save it. But their religious efforts produced more, and often other, than what they intended. In the Protestant story, ironies abound.
The ironies begin with Luther himself, who, in the indulgences dispute and for a period thereafter, intended only lower-case reformation. In his own prolonged search for a gracious God, a search rooted in an inability, despite his agonized efforts, to rid his conscience of the burden of sin, he finally experienced a revelation. Contrary to the established doctrine of cooperation with grace, he concluded that we are made right with God solely by grace alone, through faith alone, by the merits of the crucified Christ alone. Salvation is pure undeserved gift. Our good works have no salvific content or effect; they are simply responses of love to God’s prior love. Luther initially hoped that his new understanding of justification—he actually thought it a recovery of Christianity’s original gospel—would find acceptance within the Church. It instead found appalled rejection and, for its unrepentant author, excommunication as a heretic in 1521.
Theological judgment of his teachings aside, Luther’s doctrine of free grace in Christ undermined the Church’s central role as mediator between God and the individual believer. More particularly, in basing his assault against Church teaching on the authority of the Bible alone—he had come to his views through his reading of Pauline epistles—Luther uprooted the sense of the Church as guarantor, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of orthodox teaching. The principle of sola scriptura was, Church authorities insisted, an invitation to theological anarchy.
And, as the history of Protestantism has demonstrated ever since, they had a very considerable point. All serious Christians believe that the Bible is the source of the truths of faith, but their varying readings of that source have regularly led to bitter disputes as to the truths it conveys. Luther’s insistence on the fallibility of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is infinitely arguable, but as a practical matter there can be little doubt that the absence of a definitive ecclesial magisterium makes it difficult for Christians to maintain a common understanding of what it is that defines them. (In time, a number of Protestant churches would adopt articles of faith—the Augsburg and Westminster Confessions, for example—that functioned as magisterial authorities.)
The Reformation’s fissiparous tendencies revealed themselves immediately. In his home city of Wittenberg, Luther struggled to keep control over purported followers for whom reformation required stripping the town’s churches of Catholic statues, images, and relics. These unruly iconoclasts were among an ever-expanding group of radicals who took his movement in religious directions he thought wrongheaded and in political directions he never intended.
By far the most extreme manifestation of the latter was the German Peasants’ War of 1524–25, a violent uprising inspired in part by preachers like Thomas Müntzer who appropriated Luther’s idea of Christian freedom to demand the end of serfdom and an egalitarian restructuring of society. This mass rebellion—the largest, Ryrie notes, in European history prior to the French Revolution—took bloody form and was even more bloodily put down. Luther afterward condemned the peasants in the raw and brutal language he customarily employed against anyone who aroused his polemical instincts.
The most significant of Luther’s Protestant opponents were those who came to make up the Reformed tradition, a group commonly referred to as Calvinists—a term Ryrie thinks misleading because the movement preceded the man. Before John Calvin came on the scene (he was only eight years old when Luther issued his theses), Luther encountered competition from reformers gathered around the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli. Luther and Zwingli agreed on much, but came to complete loggerheads over the Eucharist. After extensive talks between them in the late 1520s, Luther decided that the denial by Zwingli and his colleagues of Christ’s real presence in the sacrament made fellowship between their churches impossible.
Ryrie’s treatment of Calvin focuses on his efforts to bring unity to the Protestant world, a goal the author thinks Calvin came “agonizingly close” to achieving. But Ryrie’s own narrative suggests otherwise. Calvin’s attempt to bridge the gap between Lutherans and Reformed on the Eucharist failed, although he received some encouragement in his larger enterprise from Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s more irenic colleague and successor. But soon Calvin and Melanchthon were wrangling over the confounding issue of predestination, a doctrine of central concern to Calvinists but one which Lutherans, then and since, have preferred to fudge. (The difficulty, briefly put, is this: denial that it is God’s inscrutable will that preordains some to heaven and others to hell challenges his sovereignty, but affirmation brings into question his love.) Over the decades to come, Calvinists and Lutherans disagreed with each other and among themselves about a wide range of issues, all of which Ryrie explores in informed detail. Beyond this, assorted sectarian radicals were propagating doctrines, such as denial of the Trinity, that seemed no less heretical to mainstream Protestants than they did to Catholics.
The Reformation was first and finally a religious affair, but it pervaded every realm of life.
The Reformation was first and finally a religious affair, but it pervaded every realm of life, politics most notably. Protestants understood from the beginning that their survival depended on support from the secular leaders (mostly kings and princes) who ruled Europe and who had it in their power to crush the reform movement in its infancy. Once reformers gained that support—as in England, Scotland, and mostly central and northern regions of the Continent—they had to put together and, where they could, put into effect political principles consistent with their theological convictions. Ryrie’s painstaking description of how this played out defies neat summary because reformers never fully agreed among themselves about those principles and, in any case, displayed creative flexibility in applying them to the needs of the circumstances they variously encountered. It seems generally the case, however, that the politics of Protestantism inched fitfully away from autocratic authority in the direction of popular involvement. The theological principle of the sovereignty of the biblically informed individual conscience spilled into politics and subverted traditional habits of deference.
As seen already in the Peasants’ War, the social and political side effects of the Reformation were anything but peaceful. Catholics persecuted Protestants, and Protestants (though they had fewer opportunities) persecuted Catholics and also each other. For Protestants and Catholics alike, the stakes involved were high: how could truth tolerate error if the propagation of error endangered susceptible people’s eternal salvation? The punishments for heretical teaching were often horrific in nature—burning at the stake, drawing and quartering—but the three thousand or so victims of judicial executions in the several decades after 1517 paled in number compared to the millions who perished in the religious wars that broke out in the 1530s and continued into the mid-seventeenth century. The final and most awful of them, the Thirty Years’ War, eventually drew in most of the great powers of Western Europe and before it ended in 1648 had disastrous effects in lives lost, economies ruined, and landscapes laid to waste.
As the wars of religion dwindled to an end, some Protestants were reconsidering their attitude toward toleration. The costs of rejecting it in pursuit of religious uniformity—persecution and catastrophic war—had been intolerably high. As a positive incentive, the example of a thriving Dutch Republic that accepted de facto religious pluralism indicated that a policy of confessional latitude was conducive to economic prosperity. Practical considerations aside, the Protestant doctrine of the inviolability of the individual conscience had from the beginning argued against coercion in spiritual matters. Error might not have rights, but it could, at least to a degree, be lived with.
Ryrie’s extended discussion of the Reformation experience in Britain—his academic specialty—serves to recapitulate the Protestant drift toward limited forms of tolerance. In the aftermath of the English Civil War, a conflict about much more than religion but which, Ryrie says, religion made toxic, Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s became the first Protestant ruler to support religious toleration as a matter of principle. Protestants still feared and abhorred Catholics, but, as Ryrie nicely concludes, by the late seventeenth century they were “slouching toward a grudging, genuine tolerance.”
Ryrie devotes the middle section of his book to the development of Protestantism in the West from the eighteenth century to the present, interspersing his chronology with detailed explorations of specific critical moments and concerns. As with his discussion of the Reformation era, the analysis is both lucid and comprehensive, though marred at points by questionable emphases and interpretations. (There are also, on American matters, a number of distracting errors, including the dumbfounding assertion that, when elected president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was an “avowed abolitionist.” How Ryrie could write that, or how any even half-attentive editor could let it pass, is entirely inexplicable.)
Christians necessarily concern themselves both with thinking correctly about their faith (orthodoxy) and with embodying that faith in practice (piety). As they moved from the late seventeenth to the eighteenth century, Protestants increasingly shifted their emphasis from the former to the latter—a shift that among the majority of them has never been reversed. Pietists, dismissed as “enthusiasts” by their critics, concerned themselves less with abstractions of doctrine than with immediacies of being and doing; theirs was a concern with experience, a concern manifested in outbursts of renewal and the fervent pursuit of holiness. Be ye perfect, Jesus had said, and the enthusiasts took him at his word. The pietist impulse, which began in Germany, developed in time into evangelical Protestantism, and John Wesley’s Methodism, originally a movement within the Church of England, became its quintessential expression.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Methodist Church was easily the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. But Ryrie’s chapter on what he calls “Protestantism’s Wild West,” after perfunctory notice of Methodists and the other mainstream Protestants who dominated the American scene—Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists—preoccupies itself with extended descriptions of various groups on the Protestant fringe: Millerites, communitarians, Shakers, food faddists (Sylvester Graham, John Harvey Kellogg), Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and sundry others. The impression conveyed is of an American Protestantism composed mostly of exotics, eccentrics, and outright crackpots. Ryrie of course knows better, but here his encyclopedic ambition—leave no one or nothing out of the Protestant story—produces a lopsided narrative.
American Protestants in the first half of the nineteenth century spent much of their time quarreling among themselves over the vexed issue of slavery. No one today doubts that antislavery adherents had the moral argument right, but for orthodox Christians at the time the matter appeared less certain. The Bible, after all, never condemned slavery and in many places—Old and New Testament alike—appeared to condone it. Pro-slavery Protestants in the South suggested that the condemnation of slavery as sin by Northern Protestant critics revealed their indifference to the biblical text. When those critics replied that the “spirit” of Scripture took precedence over its “letter,” or when they implied the possibility of “progressive revelation,” the pro-slavery forces felt confirmed in their suspicions. And, as Ryrie notes, theologically speaking there was something to their claim. After the slavery issue was finally settled by the Civil War, some victorious Protestants wondered: if the biblical tradition could have for so long tolerated so intolerable an evil, what other venerable scriptural assumptions might also require reconsideration?
American Protestants in the first half of the nineteenth century spent much of their time quarreling among themselves over the vexed issue of slavery.
Protestants had always viewed Catholics as their primary existential threat, but from the Enlightenment onwards they confronted a new, and over the long run more dangerous, opponent in secularist modernity. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Christians of all persuasions experienced assaults on their faith from a ceaseless battery of sources: philosophical naturalism, biblical higher criticism, and the emerging sciences of geology and biology. The net effect of these assaults was to bring into question the authority of the biblical text and, beyond that, the whole notion of divine purpose and control—indeed, divine presence itself. Where Christian belief wasn’t in error, secularists charged, it was irrelevant.
Most Protestants ignored the skeptics or rejected them with fundamentalist fervor, but from the outset an elite liberal minority, responding both to modernists’ arguments and to their own doubts, attempted to preserve Christianity by defending its essential core while discarding its most vulnerable elements. That was no simple exercise, of course—how in the process could one avoid reduction of Christian particularity to, in Ryrie’s phrase, “pantheist mush”?—and traditionalist believers regularly accused liberals of selling out the faith. Ryrie defends the progressives against their conservative critics. They were malleable, he admits, but hardly less so than their accusers. “All Protestants adapt,” he says, “the difference is that liberals admit it.” That attempt at evenhandedness seems empirically dubious. Protestant conservatives and liberals are not, as Ryrie here suggests, equidistant in their beliefs from where Protestantism began. Whether they are right or wrong to do so, progressives virtually by definition concede more to their ambient circumstances than do traditionalists.
As Ryrie carries his chronology into the twentieth century, he pauses to dwell on Protestant behavior during the Third Reich, an ignominious episode that implicated conservatives and liberals alike. The failure traced back to Protestantism’s founder: there is no direct line connecting Luther to Hitler, but Nazi propaganda made effective use of Luther’s vile rants against Jews to justify their anti-Semitic policy. German Protestants also employed an extreme version of Lutheranism’s Two Kingdoms doctrine to rationalize their overall political acquiescence. In this understanding, God has ordained the rulers of the left-hand realm of the state; citizens in the right-hand realm of the church are therefore justified in opposing those rulers only when they intrude in the spiritual order. Thus much of the opposition to the regime by the Protestant Confessing Church had to do with protection of religious boundaries and prerogatives rather than dissent on ideological grounds. Its founding Barmen Declaration of 1934, Ryrie emphasizes, was a theological statement, not a political manifesto.
As for the notorious Deutsche Christen, the German Christians enthusiastic in their support of the Nazis, theirs was a pathetic attempt to curry recognition from a regime that refused their church formal involvement in the Party. Most Nazi leaders, Hitler included, were content to let Christianity dwindle into insignificance without persecution. They required compliance from the churches, but were otherwise indifferent to them. Only those rare Protestants actively opposed to the regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer most notably, had reason to fear that their faith would cost them. Ryrie’s judgment is severe. Protestants were by and large complicit or unconcerned in the face of Nazi evils; and while they could not have prevented the worst that happened, they could have done more than they did. But he wisely concludes by warning readers against facile condemnation or the assumption that, in the Germans’ place, they would have behaved more nobly: “There is only one reason why we do not share in their guilt: we were not there.”
Protestantism in the postwar West enjoyed a season of religious resurgence. This was especially true in the United States, where during the Cold War 1950s, as Ryrie notes, “In God We Trust” became the national motto, the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, Billy Graham’s revivalist Christian crusades drew the nation’s attention, and the country recorded the highest percentage of church membership in its history. Catholics remained a significant numerical presence, but Protestantism’s traditional cultural hegemony seemed as secure as ever. In the popular imagination, America remained, as it had always been, a Protestant nation. Europe experienced nothing so exuberant, but there too the Protestant churches continued to exert considerable cultural influence.
And then suddenly, in the late 1960s, things fell apart. The Protestant surge ended (with the notable exception of evangelicals and Pentecostals). Among opinion leaders of the American Protestant mainline, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism—liberal in politics and neo-orthodox in theology—gave way to a secularized theology subsumed in radicalized politics. That new dispensation, in Ryrie’s view, traced back in significant part to Bonhoeffer, who, while languishing in prison prior to his execution by the Nazis in 1945, had reflected on the meaning of the failure of the churches and their traditional theology.
The fundamental problem, he concluded, lay in the churches’ outdated ways of thinking and talking about God. In a post-metaphysical world—a world intellectually “come of age”—self-aware people could no longer be religious, at least not in the way religion had customarily been understood. The only honest theological response to the message of modernity was a “religionless Christianity,” a faith stripped of traditional spiritual assurances and dedicated not to vacuous hopes of “saving souls” but to building a this-worldly kingdom of righteousness in the service of “the distressed and the excluded.”
Bonhoeffer’s perspectives resonated with those in both Europe and America dismissive of conventional religion but still eager to employ “prophetic” and “authentic” Christian perspectives in the remaking of society. As the reigning religious mantra of the day put it, “The world sets the agenda for the church.” In the 1960s and beyond, involvement in the civil rights movement in America and the worldwide anti–Vietnam War and anti-apartheid crusades demonstrated religionless Christianity in action. In Europe, the accompanying mood frequently expressed itself in Marxist analysis; in America—though Ryrie does not say this—it increasingly took the form of a furious, inchoate discontent with a society presumably so morally degraded as to be beyond redemption.
Ryrie’s judgment of the Bonhoeffer moment is wry and mordant; it was, he says, “courageous, sincere, and utterly disastrous.” Christianity as quasi-revolutionary politics appealed to many Protestant leaders; it left the rank and file bewildered and angry. People in the pews—those who stayed—puzzled over the meaning of a Christianity with the religion left out, and they rejected the febrile left-wing politics that accompanied it. Declining membership rosters and financial contributions concentrated the minds of American church officials to a degree, and as radical tempers cooled the Protestant free fall leveled off. But the mainline churches have never fully recovered.
A lingering effect of the time of troubles is a voiceless Protestant liberalism.
A lingering effect of the time of troubles is a voiceless Protestant liberalism. The novelty of our age, Ryrie claims, is “not the prominence of the religious Right but the silence of the religious Left.” He is sympathetic to the liberals’ plight. Their reluctance to assert a distinctive non-secular identity, he says, stems not from lack of conviction but from an admirable impulse, in our post-Auschwitz world, to approach moral issues in an inclusive manner that precludes emphasis on Christian particularity. The mainstream’s noble Bonhoefferian devotion to “self-sacrificial service” to the world rather than “its own narrow confessional self-interest” makes it hesitant to speak its faith (“prayer might offend”) in the social realm.
That seems more than a little strained. An application of Occam’s razor would suggest, as Ryrie’s preceding analysis in fact indicates, that much of liberal religion got swallowed up in secular politics for the simple reason that politics is its gospel. The contemporary disinclination among liberal Protestants to emulate Martin Luther King, Jr. in unashamed display of Christian commitment has to do more with diminished faith than with a creative reordering of moral norms.
The religious Right has its own political temptations, of course, and it quite regularly succumbs to them. The difference is that politics is a second-order reality to those of evangelical or traditionalist persuasion. They do not speak the language of politics at the expense of the language of faith, and it is the latter in which they are most at ease and most fluent. They give natural priority to matters of sin and grace, incarnation and resurrection. Their faith does not reduce to metaphor, and, unlike so many on the religious Left, they can talk about God without changing the subject.
Ryrie’s concluding section on global Protestantism—whose contents can only be sketched here—sensibly makes no effort at comprehensive treatment. He instead takes selective instances, with chapters on South Africa, Korea, China, and the worldwide explosion of Pentecostalism. If there is a dominant theme in all this, it is that in non-Western settings Protestantism has rediscovered the urgent vitality of its origins—though there is some question as to whether that energy can be sustained.
South Africa is a special case, unrepresentative of the modern Protestant experience in most of the continent, but Ryrie is drawn to it by Protestantism’s formative role both in the establishment of white supremacist rule and in its final dismantling. From 1948 to 1994 South Africa was governed by the National Party, the voice of the Dutch-settler Afrikaner “nation,” as it imagined itself. Afrikaners were (and are) a deeply religious people, and the National Party was intimately allied with the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church. (The long-standing joke had it that the only difference between the NP and the drc was the day of the week.)
The policy of official racial separation inaugurated in 1948 by the NP found its moral and theological justification in the drc’s teaching, based on its reading of the Old Testament, that diversity among peoples and nations is God’s will. From that assumption there followed conveniently the notion of “separate development” for South Africa’s blacks and whites, expressed politically in the system of apartheid. The reasons for the final collapse of white rule between 1990 and 1994 are complex and not yet fully agreed on, but no small part of the story, as Ryrie points out, was the regime’s gradual loss of “moral self-confidence,” which in turn stemmed from the declining plausibility—including within the drc—of the idea that racial separation (i.e., white domination) had anything whatever to do with the will of God. Ground down by condemnation from outsiders and their own self-doubts, the leaders of the National Party lost the capacity to defend their cause when they could no longer convince themselves—much less their children—that the cause was just. Regimes fall as often from internal loss of will as from external pressure, and Ryrie’s analysis offers suggestive evidence that apartheid fell apart mostly from the inside.
Unlike in sub-Saharan Africa, where in the post-colonial period Christianity has enjoyed spectacular success (from negligible status in 1900 to a substantial majority of the population today), Christian gains in Asia have been limited, with the exception of South Korea and China. The Korean Protestant experience is remarkable: Between 1960 and 1990 South Korea went from being a desperately poor nation to a very rich one; during that same period the proportion of Protestants in the population increased from 2.5 percent to 27 percent. That growth came almost entirely from conservative evangelical churches. (Liberal Protestantism had no more attraction in late-twentieth-century Asia than it did in the West.)
The simultaneity of economic and religious growth had theological repercussions. The South Korean economic “miracle” unsurprisingly produced, among the nation’s religious adherents, something of a “prosperity gospel.” As Ryrie puts it, religious conservatives celebrated “a liberation from bondage that combined the spiritual and the practical.” In this perspective, Christians were not meant to be materialistic, but they should hope to prosper—God does not intend poverty for his people—and might thereafter enjoy that prosperity for themselves and for the generosity they can then extend to others. Overall, South Korean Protestants have been staunchly orthodox, often apocalyptic (most anticipate the imminent return of Christ), and largely apolitical. Since 1990, the Protestant churches have hit a wall, and their future appears uncertain. Numbers are down and may remain so as, in a reenactment of Western experience, rationalist modernity erodes the openness to transcendence necessary to traditional religious faith.
The percentage of Protestants in the People’s Republic of China does not begin to match that in South Korea, even as the Korean numbers decline. A recent credible estimate (precise figures do not exist) pegged the proportion as 5 percent, but 5 percent of 1.4 billion still works out to seventy million people—which means, as Ryrie points out, that Protestantism is winning more converts in China than anywhere else in the world. (Protestantism predominates among Chinese Christians.) Those numbers are the more impressive because Christianity in China endured terrible oppression under Mao Tse-tung. Conditions are much better today, but China’s Protestants still experience occasional crackdowns, perpetual suspicion, and the threat at any time of renewed persecution. As in South Korea, most Chinese Protestants are evangelical or Pentecostal, and in the early post-Mao period their inclinations were similarly apolitical—they avoided involvement in the democracy movement that ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. In recent years, however, they have become increasingly active in human rights campaigns.
Wherever one goes in the religious “Global South”—Africa, Asia, Latin America—Pentecostalism is a ubiquitous presence. Assuming its modern identity in the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century, the movement now constitutes a staggering one quarter of all Christians in the world, which makes it, Ryrie notes, not only the “main engine” of contemporary Protestantism but “the most dramatic religious success story of modern times.” Known mainly for its glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and emphasis on healing, Pentecostalism in the broader sense involves a “thrilling, rapturous, transformative inner encounter with the Holy Spirit.” Its open embrace of the miraculous makes it attractive to Catholics, millions of whom, most notably in Latin America, have defected to Pentecostal churches. Pentecostalism is less noticed than it should be largely because of its indifference to political matters, but its success in effecting moral transformation in its followers’ personal lives might well make those whose religion puts politics first reconsider their priorities.
Alec Ryrie is in many ways an ideal teller of the Protestant tale. He describes himself as “a believing Protestant Christian and a licensed lay preacher in the Church of England,” but his book is in no way an apology for the Anglican faith—or for any other particular church or movement. It would be difficult to imagine a more fair-minded, dispassionate chronicler of the infinitely varied expressions of Protestant identity. He approaches each movement on its own terms, describing it as though from within, almost always in ways that its adherents would find difficult to fault. When opinions collide, he is careful to give each side its due, and he seldom reveals his own preferences.
Ryrie does, however, insist on an inclusive understanding of what it means to be a Protestant, and, pushed to the limits, that can be problematic. For him, proper definitions must provide room not just for mainstream Calvinists and Lutherans, but also for “Anabaptists, Quakers, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals.” Efforts by so-called “magisterial” Protestants to define Protestantism in theological terms are illegitimate, he suggests, because their intention is to exclude churches that have in the mainstream view transgressed the boundaries of doctrinal acceptability.
Ryrie thus rejects as “special pleading” the attempts by early reformers to draw the line at the doctrine of the Trinity; the proto-Unitarian Socinians, he insists, had traceable Calvinist roots that identified them as Protestants. But by insisting on this genealogical definition, Ryrie wanders into questionable theological territory. Christians through the ages have stipulated and worshipped God as triune. According to the common understanding of the faith, God is Trinity. In this light, Ryrie’s insistence on including non-Trinitarians in the Protestant community puts him in the peculiar position of maintaining that one can be a Protestant without being a Christian. (Ryrie himself is not infinitely accepting. He categorizes Mormonism not as Protestant but as “a new religion,” one that is “at least as far removed from Christianity as Christianity is from Judaism.”)
At the heart of Protestant identity, Ryrie believes, is a consuming “love affair with God.”
Ryrie’s definition of Protestantism goes beyond the genealogical. Protestants are not merely those whose religion “derives ultimately from Martin Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church,” they are a family—“sprawling, diverse, and extremely quarrelsome,” but tied together by more than accidents of birth. There is, to begin with, a commonality of mood: “a generic restlessness, an itchy instability . . . [a spirit] of dissatisfaction and yearning.” This persistent spiritual discontent, matched with an instinct for uninhibited intellectual inquiry, typically results in a politics impatient with “established orthodoxies and distinctions of race, nation, and gender.”
But for Ryrie it is not mood, habit of mind, or political style that most unites Protestants. At the heart of Protestant identity, he believes, is a consuming “love affair with God.” He does variations on the love affair theme with Luther in the sixteenth century, with the Pentecostal experience today, and with much that intervenes. Ryrie recognizes, of course, that intense love of God has always marked the Christian community, but among Protestants, he thinks, that love has been pursued with a “reckless extravagance” and a “blithe disregard” for ecclesial authority or tradition that sets their movement apart. He affirms, somewhat equivocally, that the love affair persists among Protestants as “a lived experience, a memory, or a hope.”
Ryrie’s attempt to make of the disparate Protestant reality a family is inventive, but not finally persuasive. There are, as he would probably concede, multiple significant exceptions to the family resemblances he sets forth. And his assertion that the love affair with God is “the distinguishing mark of a Protestant” does an injustice to the Catholic experience (think for a moment of any number of Catholic saints) and is not fully adequate to the Protestant one (to say of Luther’s theology, for example, that it is not a doctrine but a love affair posits an odd and misleading polarity that would have baffled Luther himself).
If there were a Protestant family, it would not be the one Ryrie imagines. Should the members of his putative clan ever get together to compare belief systems, many would recognize each other as at least shirttail relatives, but they would regard certain others with blank incomprehension. That incomprehension would be mutual. Most participants would wonder how, for instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were any part of this gathering, and the Witnesses would likely wonder the same thing.
The problem of Protestant identity goes well beyond judgments concerning Alec Ryrie’s perception of it. At issue is whether, in the Western world at least, the word Protestant today denotes anything beyond a name commonly applied to those Christians who are neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. The melancholy reality is that it probably does not.
It is no longer the legacy of the Reformation that most divides Christians. Protestants and Catholics alike are not what they were five hundred years ago, and in most Protestant churches Reformation Day is not the triumphalist occasion it once was. Denominational names and identities linger, but individual Protestants increasingly find their deepest attachments across denominational lines. In an ecumenical age, a conservative Methodist is more likely to feel at home among traditional Catholics than he is among liberal Methodists. He remains attached to his church’s name and tradition, but the term Protestant no longer signifies anything substantial.
People will fight to defend things that matter to them. Even in a time of religious debility, where secularity can seem the wave of the future, countless faithful Christians of Protestant heritage would surely fight to defend their identities as Presbyterians, Baptists, or Lutherans—or more generally as evangelicals or Pentecostals. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would lift a finger in the cause of Protestantism.
1Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, by Alec Ryrie; Viking, 513 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 19
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