The Unbridled Faith

With an estimated 40,000 Protestant denominations worldwide, how is it possible to compress such a subject in a single book, even in 500 pages on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?

Alec Ryrie offers Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, whose title itself suggests the difficulty. It is a history of Protestantism but he insists it is merely about Protestants because he would otherwise be overpromising a definitive history.

Ryrie, a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion of Durham University, delivers the impossible nonetheless. His solution could not be more comprehensive, more meticulous in its attempted objectivity, or presented in more enjoyable prose. The book’s very virtues, however, will undoubtedly make it more popular with non-adherents than passionate Protestant believers because he presents the subject warts and all.

As a professed believer himself, he is friendly to all aspects of his very diverse subject, although those sensitive to the criticism will undoubtedly note his self-identification as a lay minister in the Church of England.

A good example of the warts is his contention that Martin Luther would probably not have accepted what became Lutheranism’s official Book of Concord, for its very authoritativeness represented a hemming in of Luther’s world-changing, unrestricted passion—a passion that Ryrie brings alive for modern audiences.

Ryrie even insists that Protestantism must be defined as “Christians, whose religion derives ultimately from Martin Luther’s rebellion from the Catholic Church.” This includes many who reject the designation “Protestant,” such as Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals. Defining Protestants this way is necessary, Ryrie emphasizes, since even the Bible is not looked to as the ultimate authority by all Protestants. Pentecostals, among others, place the Holy Spirit first, and many more denominations do not use the Bible as sole authority. Even those that do, use it in two ways: merely tactically—to overrule others’ interpretations—or as the ultimate inspiration but one that is interpreted, as John Calvin believed, through “feeling” the Spirit rather than through simple human reason alone.

The history of Protestantism, then, must begin from that which it derived. The book’s respectful treatment of Catholicism is almost shocking and could likewise limit its appeal to a Protestant audience. Ryrie explains the pre-Reformation Church as historically “flexible and creative, a walled garden with plenty of scope for novelty and variety and room to adapt to changing political, social and economic climates.” But that church also had boundaries, even if flexible ones: “Those who wandered too far would be urged, and if necessary forced, to come back.”

And so the person whom Ryrie calls the “indispensable firestarter” of the Reformation erupts into history. For Martin Luther was first and last a man who tolerated no boundaries. Observing today’s organized, conservative Lutheranism, modern readers will be astounded at the pure passion that was Martin Luther. The author emphasizes what he calls Luther’s passionate “love affair” with God, absolutely unbounded by any limits. Luther was personally “grouchy, obstinate and an unabashed sensualist” but was first and last in love. God’s loving grace proceeding through Jesus to him; that was everything, and anything else was simply in the way.

Luther “was not a systematic theologian,” according to Ryrie. It was only synthesizers such as his sometime associate Philip Melanchthon, who dared even to summarize Luther’s doctrine with the iconic phrases so identified with him, “faith alone” and “Scripture alone” as the key elements in Luther’s thought. These were essential ideals to him; as for enclosing them in doctrine, though, he rejected it in any form. Luther’s was “an intoxicating passion”—even “reckless” in believing that Jesus loved his faithful adherents absolutely, and laid down His life for them as a pure gift that merely had to be accepted, without church or sacramental intervention.

As Ryrie notes, Melanchthon’s attribution of “alone” to Luther was even more important than its application to faith or Scripture: “there is nothing and no one else than God incarnate in Jesus Christ worth attending to.” Ryrie emphasizes that literally no one had thought in quite these terms before but somehow Luther’s teaching immediately seemed to be self-evidently true to the large numbers who heard or read him. This was a powerful teaching, partially because it was opaque in an era when the people were suspicious of formal authority, and partly because Luther was able to communicate his passion as, literally, the inventor of mass communication.

Print had been around a half century before Luther posted his 95 Theses in Wittenberg in 1517, but it was all thick volumes, mostly in Latin, the language of the educated. Luther invented pamphleteering, producing 544 such works, one every three weeks since nailing his Theses to the church door. He himself produced 1,465 pamphlets, pro-Luther authors another 800, and Catholic opponents merely 300. The latter were mostly in Latin, whereas Luther wrote mostly in popular German to vastly wider audiences. The Catholic Church naturally tried to tame him through discussion and debate but he would not budge even when finally condemned.

Luther was “saved by politics,” in Ryrie’s words, his powerful and protective prince Elector Frederick deterring Catholics from enforcing retribution for his own political reasons. But Luther became frustrated by followers who wanted to go further than he. Ryrie reports that Luther was horrified by those demanding the elimination of infant baptism and holy images, which demands set new, non-Biblical rules impinging on what should be decided by love alone. His Christian freedom was inner liberation, not political upheaval. When Frederick objected and the radicals denounced serfdom and demanded even the election of priests, the distribution of church property, and the abolition of private property, the prince cracked down. Luther sided with Frederick rather than the peasants in the 1524 Peasants War, the largest rebellion in Europe until the French Revolution.

“Fairly or not,” says Ryrie, the whole disruption was blamed on passionate Protestant teachings and led even admirers like Erasmus to break with Luther and the whole Reformation. That blame shook Lutheranism to its core, and Melanchthon and others found it necessary to fashion “Luther’s vivid, chaotic theological insights into a coherent system” that still is the essence of organized Lutheranism today. To the end, Luther could not reconcile his borderless passion with doctrines, even prudent ones written by his supporters. His spirit was and remains the spirit of Protestantism: against forcing the love of God into any set form. That spirit was and is the genesis of its continuing divisions into innumerable types and understandings.

With the Muslin Turks knocking on the door of Vienna in 1683, the German Catholic princes and Holy Roman Emperor could no longer ignore the disorder. At this stage in European history, observes Ryrie, “the Reformation was fundamentally a struggle for the backing of secular governments.” Luther had proposed “two kingdoms”: a secular king ordained by God who deserved obedience, and a more important kingdom beside it, ruled by Christ, where one’s heart must rest. The church should respect the state and the state respect church religion and morality.

But such a division proved difficult to enforce. The two-kingdom solution was resolved differently by the other giant of the Reformation, Calvin. Swiss churches under his direction and that of other Reform leaders were “not so much subordinate to the state as part of the same organic whole,” writes Ryrie. Calvin himself became lifetime chief preacher of Geneva as a state employee and leading figure of the governing class. A lawyer, he emphasized structure and law, the very opposite of Luther. Pastors still led the services but a new class of elders ran the churches and oversaw the members’ moral conduct. Outside of Switzerland, John Knox brought Reform Calvinism to Scotland in the form of Presbyterianism.

To complicate things further, Ryrie identifies the most prominent figure in Swiss “Calvinist” Reform as not Calvin but the city preacher of Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli. Zwingli claimed his Reform doctrine owed nothing to Luther although they shared a Gospel of salvation, Biblical exclusivity, and opposition to Catholicism and Anabaptism. What they differed greatly on was the critical question of the Eucharist. Zwingli claimed Christ’s “This is my body” was not meant literally while Luther argued that taking it in any other way reduced Jesus to an abstraction, violating the Savior’s own Biblical words. The dispute between these bitter enemies was not resolved until Zwingli’s death in 1531, in the Swiss Civil War. That ended with a Catholic victory and Protestantism restricted to its then existing cantons (whose territorial limits still exist  today). Luther interpreted’ Zwingli’s defeat as proof that his own interpretation was correct.

Calvin was the synthesizer who attempted to bring it all together, through his great Institutio (An Instruction in Christian Religion, 1536), and came close to carrying out his goal. Unlike the emotionally intense Luther, Calvin was “a man of reserve and precision,” a “spiritual writer of luminous clarity, fired by a ravishing vision of the light and sweetness of Christ” who used Geneva to create an operating example of Christian moral living. He advanced the cause by convincing Zwingli’s successor to accept a Zurich Consensus that was adopted by all Protestant Reform cantons over time.

Upon Luther’s death in 1546, the next step was to bring in the Lutherans. But Calvin alienated Melanchthon by insisting that the latter had agreed with him on points where he actually did not, while the German Lutherans in turn split for and against Melanchthon’s actual concessions and finally produced their own Book of Concord. Calvin’s unity efforts had found their limit, with the two main divisions remaining all the way until the time of Kaiser Wilhelm’s imposition of an established church to promote unity leading up to the Great War of 1914-1918.

Other denominations and movements continued to multiply. Calvinists themselves disagreed about predestination, which splintered the oldest and largest Calvinist church in England, not to mention the warring Calvinist factions that threatened to tear Holland apart, and the spread of anti-Trinitarianism in Poland and Transylvania.

There is so much more. Ryrie is tough on his native England, writing that it was “utterly cowed” by Henry VIII’s divine right power into something vaguely Protestant. He contends that England did not become firmly Calvinist until Elizabeth, later resulting in a civil war pitting Anglo-Calvinists and Scots-Presbyterians against a reformist Calvinist movement called Puritanism. Beginning in 1642, it flared up intermittently, taking some 80,000 lives. Later only Quakers and John Wesley opposed British dominance of the slave trade, a moral lapse not corrected until a coalition of Quakers, Wesleyans (Methodists), Baptists, and Anglicans finally abolished slavery by act of Parliament in 1833.

In the United States, although Protestants split over the slavery question, no Southern nor Northern Protestant denomination opposed slavery before the Civil War. Protestant liberalism made World War I into a moral crusade, while its fundamentalist opposites won a constitutional ban against alcohol but lost the moral argument for the future in the Tennessee trial of John Scopes over the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Following World War I, in the German “cradle of Protestantism,” a 1932 election brought the National Socialists to power, with Protestant-dominated regions going 56 percent for Hitler, and Catholic ones 23 percent. That war became defined by the Holocaust, which had the effect of a condemnation of the Third Reich’s immorality in secular rather than religious terms. Likewise, in overcoming racial segregation, Baptist minister Martin Luther King used Christian symbolism but secular theories of nonviolence and political equality rather than religion as justifications.

Limited in its expansion in Europe, Protestantism turned to the rest of the world. Unlike Catholic religious orders and monasteries with resources for missionary activities, Protestantism’s early “Faustian bargain” with the state that had confiscated those resources, and a general congregational orientation for dissenting denominations, took almost two centuries to overcome. On a voyage to America in 1736, John Wesley was inspired by Pietist Moravians to combine their energy with Calvinist order and create modern Methodism, blossoming in a Great American Awakening to bring this Protestant evangelical synthesis to America and the world.

The sub-Saharan African nations that once were British colonies still hold a majority of Anglicans today. Pentecostalism has been even more successful  in Africa and South America. Often shunned in the cosmopolitan West for speaking in tongues, spirit baptism, handling snakes and the rest, Pentecostal practices have proved authentic to many of the traditional peoples of the world, especially in Korea and China. The official estimate for China is 50,000 registered Protestant churches, with 23 million members, and perhaps between 50 and 100 million if one counts unregistered “home” churches, which are primarily Pentecostal.

The subject is so broad it was perhaps inevitable that, as exciting as was his history, Ryrie is disappointing in his conclusions. Having at the outset defined Protestantism as flowing from Luther, he concedes that the result today is so varied that his original definition is merely historical, even granting there is little substantively to justify including Mormonism, Quakerism or even liberalism under the Protestant rubric.

Protestantism, Ryrie concludes, is perhaps better considered “a family; a sprawling, diverse and extremely quarrelsome family” that is “tied together by a deeper mood and emotion” represented  by “Luther’s ravishing love affair with the God he met in the Bible.” This “restless burning” is predicted to guarantee a continuing division that can “fit itself promiscuously to cultures and subcultures across the globe,” including accepting divorce, homosexuality, abortion, and polygamy, and perhaps substituting the “spiritual importance of food” and health.

To Ryrie, Western Protestantism, having been “forced” by its cultures to accept secular norms, can likely only be “newly built” by Pentecostalism’s answering “disenchantment with the political systems and centrist technocracies” in many parts of the world with a moral rather than a political response modeled on its apolitical successes in China and Latin America. As for Protestantism as a whole, Islam will be the major opposition, with the outcome “determined by violence” and demographics, with the victor as yet unknown.

Underneath it all, Ryrie sees Protestantism continuing its love affair with God—refusing to be contained, and ever buoyed by the hope that since it changed the world once, it might just do so again.