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Book Review: ‘Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World’

Volume traces history and character of Reformation-inspired Christians

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – On the eve of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation-launching writings and disputations, scholar and author Alec Ryrie has released a book he hopes will explain the origins and impact of the Protestant movement. Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World (Viking, April 2017) provides a comprehensive overview of major, and many minor, events throughout the history of Protestantism, and how it shaped and impacted the modern era.

Ryrie, a professor of Christian history at Durham University in England, set out to do in 500 pages what few have been able to accomplish in much longer or multiple volumes. Divided into three sections—the Reformation Age, the Modern Age and the Global Age—Ryrie’s survey sees Protestantism “snowballing” from its scholarly beginnings to the current context of explosive growth in the global South.

Starting with rumblings within medieval Catholicism and attempts at internal reform of the Church, marching through the groundbreaking split from the Church by Luther and the theological groundwork of John Calvin—who codified “Reformed” thought—and ending with the modern context, he leads readers not only through the historical and political landmarks that defined the Reformation, but also into the mindset of Protestantism itself.

The “point of no return” for Protestantism, when it went from being an attempt by Luther to reform the wrongs he was confronting in the Catholic Church, happened at the Leipzig Disputation in June 1519.

“Luther has by then already developed his doctrine of justification by faith alone,” Ryrie said via a Skype interview. “That alone is something Catholicism could have, and now has, embraced in large part. The dispute over how faith and hope and love relate to one another could also have been resolved.”

“The key thing that happens at Leipzig is that Luther is pressed to submit his authority to those of the general councils, in particular the case of Jan Hus, who was condemned to burn at the stake in 1415,” he said. “Luther recognizes he has to either double down or back down. And backing down was not the man’s style. His insistence that power of the Church in any form, not just the pope, cannot bind his conscience. As he would later put it, that he is captive to the Word of God and he doesn’t recognize any authority, including anybody else’s right to interpret scripture. … It’s a recipe for chaos.”

The Protestant faith, Ryrie argues, is built on three tenets that infuse and inspire all Protestant thought. They are free inquiry, democracy and apoliticism. Of these, he says apoliticism is the most unique point. “Protestants might have sometimes confronted or overthrown their rulers, but their most constant political demand is simply to be left alone.”

The other two tenets, free inquiry and democracy, would flow into the burgeoning Enlightenment movement and lead to great social and political change throughout Europe and the New World, even as Protestants attempted to build their “kingdom of heaven” rather than being subject to and self-interested in constructing earthly kingdoms.

And it is this passion for access to and knowledge of God that fuels one of Protestantism’s other well-known features: division. Whereas the Catholic Church exerted control over its reformist tendencies, in the form of lay and monastic movements, Protestantism had no such superstructure within which further reforms could coexist.

“There is a tension in Protestantism, and maybe in Christianity, between inspiration and institution,” he said. “When you have a particular movement of the Spirit or a period of renewal and rediscovery, then the first generation is swept up by it. But unless it’s going to just flare up and disappear you need to create structures and institutions—churches. And as soon as you do that, it fossilizes and you lose some of the life, until that becomes the new establishment, which the new round of renewal will inevitably rebel against.”

Digging into the ramifications of free inquiry, personal inspiration and institutional freedom, Ryrie spends a great deal of time looking at the issue of slavery in the book. He asks how people of seemingly good intent could end up on opposite sides of questions regarding the enslavement of other humans.

“Slavery had always been accepted, often regretted, but it was there and the biblical case for it was very strong,” he said. “But then you have this moment in the 19th century, and the real work is done by American radicals, who reach the point of saying this isn’t a tolerable evil and we should try to regulate or abolish it. It’s inherently evil—it is a sin and always has been a sin; we just never saw it before. We spent 18 centuries being wrong.”

Once that is said, and a biblical interpretation of human dignity replaces the literal acceptance of slavery, Ryrie posits that many ethical disputes—including modern discussion of human sexuality—take place with this understanding as the great example of how accepted thought may be counter to biblical intent. “Nobody says now that slavery could have actually been OK,” he said.

While a widespread understanding of the birth of Protestantism and its expansion in theological and social contexts throughout the modern era is at the heart of Ryrie’s work, the book’s final section on the Global Age of Protestant expansion is most compelling, and likely forward-looking.

In this section Ryrie examines mission efforts in Korea, China, Africa and Latin America, focusing on how in each of these cases Protestant Christians have come to claim societal power, most often once the traces of colonial Christianity left and indigenous church leadership emerged.

Ryrie also looks at the influence of Pentecostalism, noting it is the fastest-growing form of Christianity worldwide and a subgenre of Protestantism that has found its way into almost every Christian expression. He predicts it may continue to grow and be the dominant expression of Christianity worldwide.

“You’re bringing spiritual life in to the private sphere, and this has been what’s helped to drive the Pentecostal explosion,” he said. “It also keeps Christianity, or these forms of Protestantism, out of the public eye. So you can have these huge religious movements as you do in Latin America and China especially, which are largely invisible.

“There may come a point at which that’s just not possible anymore, because of the sheer numbers.”


Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World was released April 4, 2017, for worldwide distribution.

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