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I have read and recommended many books to friends, acquaintances, and strangers over the years, but I have done so selectively, carefully choosing what I recommend and to whom I recommend it. I have found few books, aside from dictionaries and Douglas Adams, that I would urge on others almost without condition. I have added one to that list: Protestants: The Radicals Who Made The Modern World, by Alec Ryrie.
The Protestant Reformation made and remade what we consider to be modern Western Civilization, and regardless of what your faith is (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist), Protestantism has affected it for good or ill, even if you live half a world away from the epicenters of its origins in Europe. Regardless of whether you are even a Christian, you live in a world where Protestant Christianity has shaped, and even governed the way entire nations have thought and acted. If the 20th Century was the American Century, and the 19th Century was the British, then both were also the Protestant Centuries, for the very identities of those nations were inextricably bound up with Protestantism, both in their greatest triumphs and darkest sins. Alec Ryrie, a devout Anglican himself, presents the history of Protestant thought, denominations, and life in a single narrative volume that spans the past 500 years. It is his love letter to his faith, but told fairly and written with honesty and humor, and as such, it is an invaluable window into seeing the state of the modern world, and the origins and workings out of much of what we assume to be true.
“Protestants are fighters and lovers. They will argue with anyone about almost anything. Some of these arguments are abstruse, others brutally practical. If we look at the great ideological battles of the past half-millennium – for and against toleration, slavery, imperialism, fascism, or Communism – we will find Protestant Christians on both sides…. But Protestants are also lovers. From the beginning, a love affair with God has been at the heart of their faith. Like all long love affairs, it has gone through many phases, from early passion through companionable marriage and sometimes strained coexistence, to rekindled ardour.” (pages 1-2)
Ryrie, however, is quick to provide a caution of what his history is and is not:
“This book tells the story of how the first five centuries of Protestant history brought us to where we are now, and asks what might be coming next. It is not chiefly a history of Protestanism, of doctrines and churches, and theological systems, although a certain amount of that can’t be avoided. It is a history of Protestants, who see themselves as God’s chosen people.” (page 5)
Ryrie is trying to describe the personalities of the generations of reformers, but in so doing he also has to discuss what they came to believe and preach, and why. In so doing, Ryrie also identifies the common themes and arcs found throughout Protestant history, in order to identify what binds the various factions together, what drives them apart, and from whence those themes arose and wove themselves into the tapestries of Protestant thought in particular, and world history in general. In broad measure, these themes can be laid out as Biblical Supremacy (often but not always meaning Sola Scriptura), Personal Conscience in matters of faith and practice, Anti-Catholicism, Toleration (in the older sense of the term), Pietism, Missions, Millenarianism, Liberalism, and Charism. Many of these themes are present right from the beginning, but others emerge only over the course of generations.
This is not a small book, nor is it a small undertaking. Yet Ryrie is a delightful writer and an organized historian, making this the sort of book one can read and re-read, in whole or in part. Between the sheer scope of material and the author’s style, the book at once feels both larger and smaller than it actually is. It is easy to read, but not a book to be taken lightly. Ryrie is making a series of arguments as he connects the various themes of his history, and one does well to pay close attention. Ryrie wants his reader to arrive at the end with him, fully appreciating the impact that the Protestant Reformation and Protestant Reformers have had on how we conceive of the world. And he wants this appreciation to be tempered with unflinching looks at many of the darker aspects of this 500-year revolution in human self-conception.
Ryrie of course begins with Martin Luther. “Luther was not a systematic theologian” (page 20), and for the period of Luther’s greatest influence, this also meant that he was often attempting to form his doctrines and understandings as he went along (Calvin, by contrast, was a meticulous systematizer who had no toleration for paradoxes or loose threads). But Luther set in motion the chief unifying principles that have unified all of Protestantism ever since: the Bible and individual conscience. Luther staked his entire reformation on his own interpretation of the Bible, and then challenged the Catholic Church to dispute him on those very grounds – ultimately an impossible challenge and a dangerous trap as anyone who has ever gotten into a proof-texting argument can attest.
What made Luther’s stance so outrageous was not that he valorized the Bible. That is hardly unusual for Christians. What was shocking was that he set it above everthing else. He treated the views of the early Church fathers, or more recent scholars, even of Church councils, with great respect, but he would not be constrained by them. In the end, anything outside the Bible, including anyone else’s interpretation of the Bible, was a mere opinion. This was the true and enduring radicalism of Protestantism: its readiness to question every human authority and tradition. (Page 29)
These are the first two foundations of all of Protestantism, but also the crux of the first major division of the movement: that between Calvin and Luther. And for a few decades of the 16th century, Calvin and his successors very nearly achieved a unity with the Lutherans, which might have there halted and given bounds to the Reformation, but they could not reconcile. Just as Luther and his students could not be bound by Rome, they could not either surrender their theology to Calvin and his school – their consciences would not allow it.
Ryrie early on brings in the third common unifying principle to nearly all of Protestantism, best typified in that other “giant” of the early Protestant champions, Henry VIII. This principle is “Not Catholic”. As Ryrie illustrates, this principle has never been entirely theological, not merely because of Henry’s own conceptions of himself and his divine prerogatives being rather driven by worldly desires, but also because religious wars, battles, and massacres of “heretics” quickly came to dominate any territories contested between Protestants and Catholics, both with and (as often as not) without any pressures from whichever noble happened to govern an area. Indeed, very often Christian doctrines and practices for the various growing and splintering denominations were decided, not strictly on biblical interpretations, but on whether such doctrines and practices were too overtly Catholic – (this question would come to play a significant part in the religious arguments of the English Civil War). Memories of Catholic sins, both real and imaginary, would continue to haunt Protestantism for centuries to come.
The development of tolerance (understood at best as a grudging willingness not to attempt to convert heretics if they weren’t actively causing harm) emerged as an early issue not due to frictions and wars between Protestants and Catholics, but between different factions of Protestants. Could tolerance be extended to others who were obviously heretical in their own interpretations of scripture, or could one really claim that others were heretics (on whom was the Holy Spirit really moving in interpreting the Bible anyway?). At every turn, this issue caused splintering, something Ryrie sometimes describes with both disappointment and sympathetic humor. In one memorable passage Ryrie describes how questions of tolerance fractured Dutch Mennonites:
The Mennonites’ heroic virtues did not… extend to toleration. In the 1550s, they themselves divided bitterly, and by the end of the century there were at least six distinct, mutually reviling Mennonite groups in the Netherlands. The most divisive issue, with painful irony, was how far they ought to tolerate one another. One party, the Waterlanders, rejected the practice of formally excluding or “shunning” those who fell foul of the community’s discipline. For this there were duly shunned by the others. They persisted in preaching reunion, and in the 1630s several Mennonite groups drew on Waterlander principles to form a body, the United Congregations, that decided to tolerate differences over minor issues in the faith. Unfortunately, it was unclear what counted as a minor issue. The Waterlanders themselves, who disliked binding rules of any kind, were not actually permitted to join the United Congregations, but by this time the Waterlanders had divisions of their own. In the 1620s, an educated dissident movement of free-thinkers known as the Collegiants had emerged, rejecting all hierarchies and structures and permitting any participant in their informal meetings to speak. The Waterlanders expelled them. The Collegiants themselves, in turn, expelled those who questioned Christ’s divinity. The United Congregations then split over how to deal with the Collegiants…
This farce contains the paradoxes of Protestant tolerance and intolerance in a microcosm. (Page 138)
One can almost imagine the author snickering a bit as he wrote that. Intolerance for or fear of dissident factions helped to fuel colonization in the New World. The Puritan Pilgrims in Massachusetts are of course the most famous in American history, but they were hardly the only group. Many groups in their turn traveled across the ocean in hopes of establishing a “New Jerusalem” on these shores, where they could be free not only of oppression but competition. This would foreshadow America’s own sense of self in the centuries to come, and America today still very much thinks of itself in holy terms. After Germany and Great Britain, the United States would become the third epicenter of Protestantism, and as Ryrie shows, much of what is considered “mainstream” within the broader Protestant world has its origins in American thought and feeling, especially in the fruition of Pietism. Pietism stands in opposition to mere intellectual assent to tenets of faith and insists that true salvation comes through the heart, and through feeling. Pietism existed as a competing current of thought from the days of Luther, perhaps found its best expression in John Wesley, but truly came to full flower in American emotionalism and revivalism in movements that birth first the millenarian Adventists, and then their disappointed children, the Mormons, Jehova’s Witnesses, and numerous cults.
Yet this same pietistic insistence on emotional connection could unmoor faith even from the Bible itself. Protestant Liberalism charted a course towards a merging of Christianity with respectable society, where “the best” of Protestant virtues would (it was assumed) become the secular norms, for if one were personally convicted, why should the Bible even be necessary anymore? Ryrie brings home how even Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work to decouple and protect Christianity from the Nazis (itself an entire chapter in the book, where many Protestants fervently allied themselves with the Nazis) was instead taken up by liberal American and English Protestants in the post-war years as a call to remove the penitential and seemingly (to them) legalistic foundations of Christianity itself. In short order this saw liberal Protestantism itself decline and nearly vanish as a force within Christian culture after barely a generation, taking with it many of what once were the Mainline denominations.
Ryrie spends the remainder of the book looking at the Protestant transformations of South Africa and Korea, and the tumultuous history of Christians in China. Are the Christian histories of these nations indicative of Protestantism’s future? Or are the syncretic African forms of Pentecostalism, where even the Bible is sometimes rewritten, a better sign of times to come? It is hard to say.
And I’m by necessity glossing over other massive sections of the book – the slavery debate, various apocalyptic obsessions, the morphing of the strictly Calvinist Pilgrims into Unitarians, the English Civil War (where Great Britain almost became officially Presbyterian), American and South African civil rights, and numerous other arcs besides. There are many gems to unearth, and even now, months after my first reading, I’m still digesting it all.
His conclusions about Protestantism’s future, however, are uncertain and tempered by caution tinged with a note of despair. As I said at the beginning, the book is a sort of historical love letter to his faith. But as it is also necessarily a work of history, Ryrie does keep away from discussions of faith itself, and away from exercising any value judgments on particular beliefs and doctrines. Nevertheless, Ryrie is frank that Protestant culture is, especially in Europe where it has lost its former dominance and respectability, now forced to confront two great forces with which it has never successfully contended: Islam and Secular Materialism. Pentecostalism (which other Christian scholars have argued should be seen as an entirely new creation – a movement away from Protestantism entirely in a denial of the Trinity and a radical reinterpretation of scripture) is gaining adherents in many regions, but as Ryrie wryly notes, “It has become a preachers’ truism in Africa that African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.” (Page 464).
The established Protestant sects and cultures in Europe, and to a lesser extent America, though once revolutionary and dominant, have been weakened by their association with the very systems of thought and governance they once established, and have lost much of their credibility after two world wars and a half-century of decadent enervation coming from thinking itself at the “end of history”. It is perhaps only in Pentecostalism that Ryrie sees any new possibility of cultural revival, but that would come with a price:
It is even possible that a new Pentecostal politics may emerge, aspiring less to a particular policy agenda than to changing the political culture with a new moralism… It is not at all clear that a development like this would be good for Western democracies, nor even that it would bolster Protestantism. It does, however, seem likely that the Western democracies’ moribund and transactional political culture will find a new moral compass at some point. There are many worse options available. (Page 467)
Ryrie wrote his book largely before the rise of Trump, and he avoids discussing modern politics, but I would suggest that in America Protestantism is running the same danger of being discredited. The political Left has largely excommunicated Christians from its midst, and this has left Christians no other political ally. Yet it is a common thought among unbelievers today that part of becoming a Christian is necessarily now also becoming a Republican, and becoming a Republican is equally seen as becoming a Protestant Christian. With such scandals as that of Jerry Falwell Jr. as examples, Christians should take heed and be wary of falling to the temptations of temporal power as a path to cultural restoration or even cultural hegemony. This thinking, which was at one time so pervasive in the old Protestant heartlands of Britain and Germany, especially in their then-dominant liberal factions, led both to complacency in evangelizing younger generations, and offloading the cultural capital of centuries onto civil government, to the great weakening of faith. While I would suggest American Protestants have weathered this loss better than their European counterparts, the abundant threats of Secularism here, now fervently coupled to Cultural Marxism, have tempted Americans of faith towards a different danger – using the government to seek protection. I would suggest that this is no protection at all.
Of course that political aside is beyond the scope of the book, but there is one matter which is not. Ryrie’s work is obviously a defense of Protestanism. And yet in looking at the modern political dangers and weakenings of Protestantism, Ryrie never questions what lay at the beginning of it all: the elevation of the Bible and the personal interpretation thereof, above all else in Christianity. Ryrie’s avoids the many rabbit trails of the more esoteric sects and factions, but even so, his book delineates the major outlines of dozens of denominations whose claims to “The Truth” jockey and fight with each other at every turn. Ryrie tries, at the end, to justify a sort of “unity in disunity” umbrella, but with the ongoing cultural revolution attempting to strip away and knock out the Christian underpinnings of our society, there is much more to be said for a “disunity within disunity” argument, where little really binds one denomination to another, and where there is no check on any particularly charismatic pastor running out to start yet another church. With Christianity in the West now facing open hostility from a populace that no longer even recognizes its own history, pressure from the growing Islamic and Hindu worlds, and malevolent repression from China, is this disunity really a strength?
Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World is the sort of work that any student of the last half-millennium should include in their library. There are many survey history books for this same time period, but few that take seriously the direct impact of the Reformation in its full scope. Many other such works cease paying any attention to the development of Protestant thought and theology after the 30 Years War, and eagerly jump into the secular aspects of the Enlightenment as somehow the beginning of “real” modernity. Yet just as Tom Holland argues in Dominion, where one can see a clear fault line in history with the rise of Christianity in the ancient world, so too one sees that Martin Luther too is a clear fault line between the ages before and since, in ways the “Renaissance” (an arbitrary creation of Italian historians) never could be. One cannot point to a clear break between “before Renaissance” and “after Renaissance”, but one must do so with Luther and the Reformation. Alec Ryrie shows you why.
Ryrie, Alec. Protestants: The Radicals Who Remade the Modern World. William Collins, London, UK, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-00-746503-3
Nota Bene: The US edition has a different subtitle: “The Faith that made the modern world”.Published in