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8.1.3: Protestant Christianity

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    Protestant Christianity now predominates (though not exclusively) in Northern Europe, North America, Australia, in some African nations, and may be found in significant numbers in every continent and, except for predominantly Muslim areas, in almost every nation-yet in total number of members it is considerably smaller than Roman Catholicism but considerably larger than Eastern Orthodoxy. Protestantism is not a single institution, as are Roman Catholicism and to a large extent, though more loosely united, Eastern Orthodoxy (not including Oriental Orthodox Churches). Looked at as a whole, it would seem to be anti-institutional on a large or universal scale, for there are actually more than 20,000 different Protestant traditions, each with its own institutional structure and in some cases different doctrine, many of which (at least at some time in their history) have fiercely prized their independence from the other.41 A better understanding of Protestant Christianity may be had by conceiving it as a vernacular reformulation of Western Christianity,42 begun in sixteenth century Northern Europe, that chose to abandon what seemed to have become an opaque medium through which divine revelation was supposed to be transmitted. That medium-namely, the Roman Catholic Church-had come to be for them a foreign language and culture (Latin) in which worship and divine revelation were formulated; a kind of spiritual bureaucracy (of saints, "religious," and priests) that stood between the lay believer and God; a centralized, hierarchical, and distant structure of Church authority unresponsive to local concerns; and, not least, an institution infected by human corruption throughout.

    The dominant way of being religious in the Western European Church, as already explained, had been sacred rite, but on the eve of the Protestant Reformation (even Roman Catholic historians now concede) sacred rite was suffering from widespread degeneration. Among the characteristic vices to which practice of the way of sacred rite is subject (covered in Chapter 5), widespread examples of the following could be found: idolatry of ritual form and symbol on the one hand, perfunctory and wooden execution of ritual on the other; ritual incompetence; sacramental insensibility; and use of sacred rite, symbol, and status to serve and promote profane interests. The sacred forms had for many ceased to afford transparent access to "ultimate reality." Simultaneously, among many of the reformers at least, there was a hunger for personal assurance of salvationthe very kind of existential need to which the way of devotion is addressed. At the heart of the Protestant Reformation, then, we discover a comprehensive shift in spiritual sensibility taking place, from first priority upon the way ofsacred rite to first priority upon the way ofdevotion. The alternative to which the reformers turned was what seemed to be direct access to divine revelation in the voice of a vernacular scripture that they could read for themselves, biblical expository preaching, communal worship in their own language and cultural forms, and an immediate, personal, devotional relationship to Jesus Christ. Everything else, especially claims made by the Catholic Church to sacred tradition outside what seemed to them to be the plain sense of scripture, appeared to the reformers to be a presumptuous, even idolatrous, identification of the traditions of men (i.e., human culture) with divine revelation, and so it was subject to rejection. The point was to simplify and eliminate everything that stood between the simple lay believer and God as revealed in Christ.43 Especially repugnant in this connection was the Catholic distinction between religious and lay vocations, apparently placing the former on a higher level of respect and closeness to God because of something that they outwardly did (i.e., join a religious order and conform to its rule of life) quite apart from whether they did or did not have inward faith. In throwing out the distinction, most Protestants threw out monasticism as an option altogether and most of the spiritual and ascetic disciplines that went with it.

    The option against what was (Roman) Catholic was, for perhaps most Protestants, an option for what was vernacular. This was not entirely true, however, for it was sacred scripture read in the vernacular, not the vernacular itself, that became the single criterion for judging what was of God in local (vernacular) culture and what was not. Nevertheless, because the Protestant Reformation was a vernacular reformulation of Christianity, each local culture and social group where it took place came to shape the peculiar form of Protestantism that rose within it differently than the forms that rose elsewhere. The same has happened in every subsequent vernacular reformulation in which another Protestant denomination has come to birth to the present day.

    Because of Protestantism's emphasis upon the Bible as the channel of divine revelation and upon each Christian's need to become biblically literate-"to read, mark, and inwardly digest" the Word of God, indeed, spiritually "to feed upon it"-it was natural that certain aspects of the way of reasoned inquiry became pervasive in Protestantism. For the most part (until recent times) such study has often not been historically oriented, as generally theological literacy was more or less historically oriented within Roman Catholicism. Nor has it been as philosophically oriented or as speculative, being intent on recovering the full, divine Biblical revelation liberated from what it conceived to be accretions of human traditions and philosophies. Serious theological reflection in Protestantism, thus, primarily functions to interpret scripture, and on that basis aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of the revelation of God in Christ among the faithful in meeting the challenges of the current day. Until the employment of modern historical scholarship, Protestants have generally approached scripture with the assumption that it was possible to ignore pretty much entirely and dispense with the intervening history of interpretation, and gain direct access to the meaning of the text as something transhistorical, equally accessible in every age and context. Nowadays, however, that assumption is no longer generally shared, except in very conservative Protestant circles. Nevertheless Protestant biblical scholarship, and theological reflection growing out of it, early became a serious quest, both personal and systematic, to come to know and understand the saving revelation of God in Christ, especially in Lutheran and Reformed traditions; and it remains so to this day44-though more so in conservative circles and Fundamentalist circles, with laypersons as well as clergy, than is generally true in liberal circles.

    Of the several Protestant traditions that emerged in the sixteenth century, viewed from the perspective of historical distance and seeing what subsequently came of the precedents that were then set, different groupings stand out. First is the division between sacramental and nonsacramental Protestants. There is a widespread but mistaken notion that Protestantism as such is nonsacramental. While the way of devotion has historically played a major and at times central role in the Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal traditions, nevertheless they are markedly sacramental, meaning that they both embody and place significant priority on the way of sacred rite and consider the sacraments as "sure and certain" means by which the divine grace of God in Christ is communicated to the participant.45 Nevertheless, some Lutherans and some American Episcopalians (commonly identified by the phrase "low church" as opposed to "high church") appear to be almost nonsacramental in practice. Virtually all other Protestants are nonsacramental, though clearly some are more so than others. In other words, they place no central priority upon, though some certainly do retain aspects of, the way of sacred rite. Some of these Protestant traditions, depending on the social class with which they are associated, retain a moderately formal and aesthetically pleasing order of worship (e.g., Reformed/Presbyterian churches and, among churches of more recent vintage, some Methodist and some Congregational churches). But no Protestant tradition other than Lutheran and Episcopal, to my knowledge, retains the idea that the sacraments are "sure and certain means of grace." While all view the sacraments as symbolically representing the realities of the Gospel, none (officially at least) view them as actually presenting those realities. Accordingly, none identify their ministers as priests (i.e., specialists in sacramental ritual). (As a matter of fact, most Lutherans prefer not to use the title "priest" in reference to their pastors, though Anglicans/Episcopalians don't hesitate to do so.)46

    A second major division among the Protestant traditions that emerged in the sixteenth century was between those who sought a radical separation between church and state (and between church and culture) and those who wanted to keep them together. The roots of the idea of a church-state "marriage" go back to the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state. It is the idea that the church should be the church of an entire community, not just of a group within it, and that to belong to a particular ethnic or national group means that one also belongs to a particular church. Those Protestant traditions constituting the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation initially kept this idea. They sought to reform the whole of the Church within the particular state in which they resided and drew upon the power of the state to assist their efforts. Those who rejected the idea constitute what is often called the "radical wing" of the Reformation (in England they were called "dissenters" as opposed to "consenters"). They sought to have the Church be made up only of those persons who had faith, who believed in and personally appropriated the salvation of God in Christ, and who voluntarily were ready to stand apart, be different, and live a life that bore witness to God and his will for humankind. Accordingly, they rejected the validity of infant baptism, which had become for many a perfunctory cultural practice, and early on came to be known as Anabaptists (re-baptizers). This was to place central priority upon the way of right action along with the way of devotion among the churches of the radical reformation-for example, Mennonite, Swiss Brethren, Hutterite, and Quaker-and to a somewhat lesser extent among their later offspring-including Puritan, Baptist, Congregational, and other Free Church traditions. Not all of these traditions emphasized the way of right action to the same extent or in the same manner.47 Those that go back the farthest generally have emphasized it more strongly, usually undertaking a radically nonviolent and pacifist stance, a vigorous involvement in social welfare activities, and a strong commitment to an alternative communal lifestyle.

    The more recent offspring have typically been concerned more narrowly with personal conduct and inner attitudes, though they have strongly emphasized local, congregational control at the expense of granting authority to larger denominational bodies. In any case, the most influential legacy of the Radical Reformation has been the ideas of church-state separation, freedom of conscience and free association in religion as fundamental human rights, and freedom from governmental interference in matters of religion. The influence of this legacy has been so pervasive-allied as it has been with the secular Enlightenment concern to keep government free from interference by religious ideas and religious groups-that most Protestants and probably most Roman Catholics in modern Western nations take it for granted.48

    It should be mentioned here that a concern for the way of right action has never been absent from the mainstream Protestant churches, both in terms of personal conduct and broader concerns with social issues, though it has clearly waxed and waned over time.49 The reformers' eliminaiton of the hierarchical division between religious and laypersons served to endow the activities and relationships of ordinary life with a new depth of meaning; it became a field of religious endeavor. Now occupational work of all kinds could be experienced as a sacred calling. Every aspect of life, individual, social, institutional, came to seem open to question and change in order to be brought into line with God's will and purpose. This orientation became even more emphasized in traditions influenced by John Calvin (1509-1564), giving rise to what has come to be known as the Protestant work ethic. There, success in disciplined application of oneself to one's worldly calling, social duties, and personal responsibilities came to be interpreted as one of the signs of at-onement with God.

    Nevertheless, right action for mainstream Protestantism has for the most part been subordinated to a primary emphasis on the way of devotion (or on the ways of devotion and sacred rite together in sacramental Protestant traditions) until the emergence of what is called Liberal Protestantism and the Social Gospel Movement in the late nineteenth century. Liberal Protestantism, which has been a movement within mainstream Protestant churches and never a denomination in itself, is an attempt to reformulate Christianity on the basis of modern thinking, modern learning, and modern scientific understandings (i.e., on the basis of the secular humanistic ideas of the European Enlightenment)-to make Christianity credible to modern men and women and to modify or jettison all that cannot be so modified. Virtually the only ways of being religious straightforwardly compatible with the ideas of the Enlightenment are the way of right action and, to some extent, a largely secularized version of the way of reasoned inquiry. Indeed, many Enlightenment figures-foremost among them Immanuel Kant-held that the essential, rational function of religion was to serve as a foundation for the practice of universal morality and social justice. The implication was that, were religion to be involved in anything else, especially anything at odds with that function, it would be a corruption of that essential function and would in that measure merit criticism and reform. Though there was much more involved in the rise of Liberal Protestantism (and its near cousin, Roman Catholic Modernism, which appeared briefly in the late nineteenth century, then was crushed, only to be revived in altered guise in the latter twentieth century), its practical thrust has been to follow out these Enlightenment ideas in prioritizing the way of right action in relation to, and largely at the expense of, all other ways of being religious.50 One of the specific results of this development in the late nineteenth century was a deepening concern with matters of social justice, exemplified in the Social Gospel Movement founded by Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), which sought not just change in an individual's heart and action but change in the structures of society that condition an individual's thinking and conduct.51 The Social Gospel Movement as originally conceived did not last, but its priority of concern with matters of social justice has lasted among Liberal Protestants and it continues strongly to the present day, now linking up with the movement known as Liberation Theology (primarily based in Roman Catholic and Third World cultures).

    What now identifies itself as Evangelical Protestantism came to birth in the eighteenth century with what is called the Pietist Movement in Europe and the First Great Awakening in North America. This development was in part a reaction to degeneration in the then existing forms of mainstream Protestantism.52 While it renewed many of the classic themes of the Reformation, it exemplified even more completely (and at times almost exclusively) the way of devotion, in its insistence upon the need for a person to have a definite conversion experience-surrendering one's life wholly to God in Christ so one might come to know personally his love and forgiveness (i.e., to "invite Jesus to come into your heart to become your personal lord and savior"), to cultivate a simple devotional reliance upon the providential grace of God, and to join in fellowship with others in a pilgrimage through life that eventually will lead, at death, to a "heavenly home" with Jesus and dear ones among the faithful who have died before. It was a simple version of the Christian faith, easily communicated, met a number of profound (especially emotional) religious needs of people, and especially appealed to persons of scant education, meager economic status, and little cultural sophistication. This is not to say that it had no appeal to the better educated, the economically privileged, or patrons of high culture. It has, however, put little stock in refined theological and biblical learning, differences between the major Protestant denominations in creed and form of worship, and institutional structures. All those things may have some value and place, depending on different persons' needs but, above all such considerations, what really mattered in their judgment was a simple, childlike faith in Christ. The true Church, it held, was made up of persons with this kind of faith wherever they might be; it was not made up of outward differences. In effect, the movement of Evangelical Protestantism lent support to the Radical Reformation legacy of freedom of religion and a privatization and individualization of religion that is in large measure the corollary of separation of church and state (at least as it came to be understood in the United States). Evangelical Protestantism has become immensely popular and, at times, with the help of evangelists and revivalists, the effort to "win souls for Christ" has spread like wildfire. Though the movement has waxed and waned over the years, it remains strong and vital to the current time, directly giving rise in the last two centuries to missionary efforts around the globe and in virtually every living language.53 An interesting recent development in Evangelical Protestantism is the remarkable growth of large, so-called "nondenominational" community churches (sometimes several thousand members strong), completely independent of established Protestant denominations, which then spawn daughter congregations.

    This picture of Evangelical Protestantism suggests that it is exclusively identified with the way of devotion. At times, it has been just that. But any religious movement as large and diverse as it is, over time, must begin to address those existential needs of its members not directly served by the way of devotion,·as well as deal with those passages of scripture that seem directly to encourage other ways of being religious. And so, aspects of each of the other ways have emerged from time to time in given Evangelical congregations and in the lives of individual members, though these usually remain strictly subordinated to a central emphasis on the way of devotion. It should be said also that Evangelical Protestanism has generally emphasized aspects of the way of right action: living a changed personal life in accordance with one's inner change of heart and communicating the Gospel of personal salvation to others. Charitable activities, involvement in social reform frequently characterize Evangelical Christians, while a commitment to high standards of moral character in all relationships is generally characteristic of all Evangelicals (despite occasional notorious lapses in individual cases). Also, they manifest at times what appear to be aspects of the way of reasoned inquiry in their study of scripture to discern the fullness of God's revelation. Scriptural study and biblical theology at times become quite sophisticated in Evangelical circles. And at times aspects of mystical quest, shamanic mediation, and sacred rite are evident. Interestingly, some of the pressure to meet demand for other ways of being religious is handled in yet another way, at least in religiously pluralistic cultures like the United States: considerable numbers of individuals move between one Evangelical church and another, and between Evangelical churches and other Protestant churches (and between them and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches), depending on personal need and available supply.

    Not all of Evangelical Protestantism has been so strongly focused on the way of devotion. One of the most well known of evangelists during the early years was John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism-which became, despite Wesley's intention, a "dissenting" church independent of the state supported, "consenting" Church of England.54 Interestingly, one of Wesley's impacts on the Evangelical Movement was to stress that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ needed to be expressed in a life of personal and social holiness empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit. In consequence, at least in the Methodist tradition and its many offshoots, there has been a particularly strong alliance between the way of devotion and the way of right action (more so at some times than others). A similar alliance (if not a complete shift to a variety of the way of right action) is evident in some of the nineteenth-century Millennialist movements in the United States, which focused on the expectation of the imminence of Christ's Second Coming.55 For example, it clearly can be seen in different ways in the communitarian Shaker and Oneida Perfectionist movements, in the Mormon Church founded by Joseph Smith (1805-1844), in the Seventh Day Adventist Church founded by Ellen G. White (1827-1915), and in the Jehovah's Witness organization founded by Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). And finally, an alliance between devotion and right action-and probably a subordination of devotion to right action-must be recognized as well in the rise and growth (primarily in the present century) of the Fundamentalist movement within largely Evangelical circles (but by no means identical with it). Fundamentalism has sought to check the tide of "liberalism" in the Church and "secular humanism" in society on the basis of non-negotiable fundamentals-above all the fundamental principle that sacred scripture in its "literal meaning" is the infallible word of God that is absolutely normative for individual and social conduct.56 Its stress upon conformity to absolute biblical norms of belief and conduct, despite its avowal of the Evangelical emphasis upon devotional surrender to Christ, indicates a priority on a certain kind of right action as the means of at-onement with God. Fundamentalist Protestants have become increasingly politically active in recent years, though less in hopes of reforming society on biblical principles than in stopping the state from contributing to what they see to be the further erosion of biblically based values in society and culture.

    The way of shamanic mediation has had little if any place in Protestantism until around the beginning of this century with the rise of the Pentecostal Movement and the more recent Charismatic Movement, both of which began in the United States but have spread throughout many parts of the world. In the middle of the nineteenth century a movement called the Holiness Movement began, primarily in Methodist circles. Its followers were dedicated to reviving John Wesley's teaching concerning the life of "Christian perfection" in personal and social holiness to which each Christian was called, but which could become a present reality only as a person gave herself over to the direction and enabling power of the Holy Spirit-a process called the experience of "entire sanctification" that was supposed to be subsequent to and distinct from Christian conversion (called the experience of "justification").57 From the Holiness Movement, a number of Protestant denominations have grown: among them, the Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army, and the Church of God of Anderson, Indiana. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, a confluence of the Holiness Movement and Protestant Evangelicals of African-American heritage-who were freer in their expression of worship and freer in their trust in the Holy Spirit to direct worship-gave birth to Pentecostalism.58 Pentecostals are Evangelical Protestants who believe that the supernatural empowerment by the Holy Spirit of Jesus' Apostles that is recounted in the second chapter of the book of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament (the event known as Pentecost) is something intended for all Christians and is available for the asking, so to speak, in an experience called "the Baptism of the [Holy] Spirit." Though Pentecostals have tended to focus on "the gift of tongues" (glossolalia), the point of Spirit Baptism is to be supernaturally gifted and empowered to carry out Christ's ministry today with miraculous healing and other extraordinary signs. A few have taken this to the extreme by handling poisonous snakes and drinking poison, relying upon New Testament promises (Mark 16:17-18 and Luke 10:19) that believers in Christ should be able to do this without harm. Pentecostalism tended to generate many new churches (the largest of which is the Assembly of God Church) rather than revive existing ones, not least because of the strong opposition it encountered in the established churches.

    The more recent Charismatic Movement, which began in the late 1950s, has spread ecumenically throughout existing major denominations (including the Roman Catholic Church, as has been already mentioned, and, to a very limited extent, Eastern Orthodox Christianity). It has continued many of the Pentecostal themes and practices, for the most part without the schismatic tendencies of the older Pentecostal movement.59 Interestingly, Pentecostal churches and Charismatictending congregations of other churches are growing rapidly in Latin American and other Third World countries. Moreover, independent Christian churches in Africa-some from Pentecostal or Charismatic influence, some it seems from indigenous African influences-appear to give a similar, strong place to the way of shamanic mediation in their religious life.60

    The only remaining way of being religious yet to be discussed in relation to Protestantism is mystical quest. For the most part, mystical quest has not had a welcome home in Protestant traditions, partly from the early reformers' opposition to monasticism and in part from their insistence upon the helplessness of human beings to approach God by their own efforts. It is worthwhile noting that a few small monastic, even some eremitic, expressions can be found among Anglicans and Lutherans, though many Anglicans and Lutherans (let alone other Protestants) remain ignorant of them. The new quasi-monastic, ecumenical (Protestant and Catholic) communities of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides and Taize in France, founded just before the Second World War, are certainly worth mentioning in this connection. Moreover, here and there aspects of mystical quest, such as voluntary meditative disciplines, can be found in the history of Protestantism within every major Protestant tradition,61 especially the Anglican, Methodist, Quaker, and Holiness traditions where there has been special emphasis on experientially realizing the presence of God in one's life. Currently, there appears to have emerged an unprecedented, widespread interest among modern Western Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, in matters relating to the way of mystical quest within the Christian tradition. This is evidenced by a plethora of .books on the subject being sold in North America, by Protestants undertaking contemplative retreats (often in ecumenically minded Roman Catholic monasteries and retreat centers), and by seminars and talks being given by acknowledged experts on the subject.62

    This page titled 8.1.3: Protestant Christianity is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.