Protestants, by Alec Ryrie

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They say that nature’s wind blows from west to east but the wind of God blows from east to west. For five hundred years, Protestantism has been blowing from the old world to the new world, and then to third worlds. For better and at times for worst, its influence is indelible. Since a coarse German monk unwittingly challenged Rome’s papal authority, this protest movement has challenged and re-shaped the world as we know it today. Alec Ryrie, professor of history of Christianity at Durham University and parish minister, writes a compelling and obvious (for those who read history) account of how Protestantism has made the modern world.

His outline fits this wind fanned incendiary movement into three eras: the Reformation Age, 16th and 17th centuries; the Modern Age, 17th to the middle of mid-20th centuries; the Global Age, latter 20th and early 21st centuries. What began as a protest against church abuses has evolved into a global impact that shaped the world’s cultural views, political processes, economic developments, social changes and religious practices – for examples, the abolition movement, civil rights, democracy and social activism. After Luther nailed his protests on a wooden university’s door, the Protestants’ heterogeneity became as diverse and uneven as its reformers. Luther’s reformation was far different from Zwingli’s. Across the channel, the English Reformation took on a varied mood only because its king wanted a male heir. Later across the ocean, America witnessed its own mixed-up mixture of Protestantism from urban centers to the wild frontiers. Like many great movements, Protestantism is not a united nor assiduous force. A sprinkling of its many isms displays its inherited distinct, often disparate, characteristics: Calvinism, pietism, Arminianism, revivalism, Methodism, liberalism, Pentecostalism, fundamentalism, Evangelicalism. Then there are the fringes that also germinated from Protestantism: Quakers, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.

In many ways, Protestantism’s rise came opportunely in the 16th Century because of the era’s social, political and economic developments: the new middle class’s ascent in Europe (individual wealth, de-centralized political, social and religious authorities), the invention of the printing press (common accessibility of the Bible, books and pamphlets) and the cultural renaissance (advances in individualism, education and literacy). The original reformers’ insistence for the individual’s conscience in “sola fide” and “sola scriptura” found their existential hegemony in the convergence of these historical realities.

The global phenomenon of Protestantism is perhaps the most fascinating. For the first time, its epic centers are no longer in the old or new world. In fact, Protestantism as history know it is marginalized in Europe and waning in America. Its powerful presence has resided in the third worlds. Africa’s explosive indigenous church growth in urban centers and in rural areas. More Protestant converts are witnessed in People’s Republic of China than anywhere else in the world; South Korea has the largest Protestant church in the world. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religion in South America. In global diversity, what then is Protestantism and where is it heading? Ryrie concludes that the movement is neither a doctrine, a theology nor a people. It is best defined as “a sprawling, diverse, and extremely quarrelsome family.” In a cultural pluralism, Protestants are divided by their beliefs and yet bind together by their faith. Ryrie’s vision of a global Protestantism future paints these strokes: adherence to denominations is nil; more politically active churches; female dominance in church ministries; sexual ethics informs theological discourses; centrality of Bible in faith and practice is debated and redefined. No doubts, these dynamics reflect the signs of our times, just like the first protesters in their times.