One of the most important tools for shaping Protestant identity emerged in England and America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—the voluntary society. We have already noted its significance in developing a mission agenda. This same mechanism came to be of major importance in shaping Protestant identity. A group of like-minded individuals would come together to promote a shared concern or interest—for example, to encourage the spread of the gospel in Oceania, to promote the King James Bible at a time when other translations were gaining the upper hand, or to ensure that the ideas of premillennialism were more widely understood. These often became pressure groups that lobbied churches and seminaries in order to persuade them to change their policies on certain issues. They gathered support from like-minded individuals and, as a result, were able to exercise greater influence.
The pattern is familiar from many areas of life, particularly the political sphere. Yet the voluntary society has played a particularly significant role in the shaping of Protestantism in that this form of Christianity has been particularly supportive of entrepreneurialism. An excellent example is provided by the Dallas Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1924 as the Evangelical Theological College by the Presbyterian Bible teacher Lewis Chafer (1871-1952). Chafer's objective was to establish an institution that would promote dispensation-alism—a specific way of interpreting the Bible—thus ensuring a supply of pastors who would preach this approach.
There can be no doubting the success of that vision, given the subsequent growth of the Dallas Theological Seminary and the impact of its alumni. The important point to appreciate is that the same fundamental pattern can be seen throughout Protestant history since about 1800. There has been a surge of organizations, networks, seminaries, and other institutions dedicated to advancing a particular emphasis or doctrine within Protestantism. At times, critical observers have expressed concerns about these developments, suggesting that they are about naked political power. Yet it is an important reality of Protestant life that needs to be understood—without necessarily being endorsed—if the development of the movement is to be understood.
In this chapter, we have explored how Protestantism has understood its relationship with the Bible and how this affects its life and thought. Yet we have only begun to explore the many questions raised by this symbiotic relationship of people and book, faith and text. In the next chapter, we explore the impact of the Protestant emphasis on the Bible on its worship and preaching.
St. John the Evangelist on the island of Patmos, by Hans Memling (1435/40—94).
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