Protestantism has been shaped to no small extent by individuals who rose to prominence and influence and became accepted and recognized as leading interpreters of its traditions. In the formative phase of Protestantism, theologians such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Thomas Cranmer, Balthasar Hübmaier, and Menno Simons played leading roles in shaping and articulating the ideas of the emergent Protestant groupings. The rise of new forms of Protestantism in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries brought Puritan writers such as John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Jonathan Edwards to prominence, alongside Pietist thinkers such as John Wesley.
Since the eighteenth century, the increasing professionalization of academic theology has opened up a widening gulf between academic theology, as taught in a university context, and a theology oriented toward the mission and ministry of the church. More recent Protestant theologians to have exercised significant influence within Protestantism as a whole have included F. D. E. Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann.
Yet it is important to appreciate that Protestants are stimulated and guided in their reflections about faith by writers who are not traditional theologians. The centrality of the Bible for Protestants has given particular prominence to the biblical commentator. One of the most widely revered commentators in recent Protestant history was William Barclay (1907-78), whose commentaries were hugely popular and influential in both conservative and liberal Protestant circles. Barclay was professor of New Testament at the University of Glasgow and a minis ter of the Church of Scotland. Although his academic credentials were impeccable, his reputation rested on his ability to communicate and explain—qualities that endeared him to millions of readers.61 The seventeen volumes of his "Daily Study Bible" became an authoritative guide to the New Testament for many.
Yet Protestantism's most influential authority figures have been the preachers. For Protestantism, the sermon is a means for opening up the biblical text and exploring its rich intellectual landscape in order to make connections with issues of spirituality and ethics. As a result, preachers have played a critically important role in shaping Protestantism's sense of identity and advancing its theological, social, ethical, and political agendas. An excellent example is provided by the great Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who established himself as the foremost pulpit orator of his age.
At the age of twenty, Spurgeon became pastor of New Park Street Church, one of London's most important Baptist churches. As his reputation as a preacher grew, the expanding congregation was forced to move to increasingly larger premises, before moving permanently to the newly constructed Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1861. Widely distributed in pamphlets and books, Spurgeon's sermons were of huge importance in shaping Baptist identity in the nineteenth century. Though many of his admirers, especially in North America, were puzzled by his love of cigars, Spurgeon's reputation and influence remained enormous for a generation after his death, consolidated to no small extent by the founding of Spurgeon's College, London, designed to mold future preachers after his likeness.
How did these persons come to have such influence over Protestantism? How did they rise to such positions of prominence? These individuals were not imposed upon Protestantism; nobody had to go to hear Spurgeon preach, or read the commentaries of William Barclay. They developed their influence partly through being excellent communicators, but more fundamentally through being trusted and respected by their audiences, who recommended them to their friends by word of mouth.
Protestantism's fundamentally democratic nature was easily translated into an essentially consumerist approach to matters of theology, spiritual direction, and pastoral care: individual Protestants followed the teachings of those whom they believed were worthy of trust and respect. The figures in question—Spurgeon, Barclay, and countless others too numerous to list—often had surprisingly little authority within their own denominations. Their influence, however, was all the more powerful because it was seen as personal, not institutional. Personal authority carried with it the capacity to transcend denominational and sectarian boundaries. Spurgeon was read and admired by many who were not Baptists, just as Barclay was loved and respected by many who were not Presbyterians.
The best theoretical model to account for this development—which remains fundamental to Protestantism—is Antonio Gramsci's idea of the "organic intellectual."62 Although a Marxist, Gramsci found the Protestant idea of the "priesthood of all believers" to be a powerful conceptual foundation for mobilizing political activism. Gramsci drew a sharp distinction between an "organic intellectual" and a "traditional intellectual," the latter generally being someone who is imposed upon people by an external authority and is seen to be linked with the preservation of the interests of that authority—for example, bishops in the Catholic church. In marked contrast, the "organic intellectual" is one whose authority emerges from within the community as a consequence of the growing respect and trust in which he or she is held. The community comes to accept this individual as its representative and spokesperson. The organic intellectual is not imposed upon the community; rather, having discerned that person's merits, people choose to submit to his or her authority. This point is of fundamental importance in understanding the emergence of some highly influential personal ministries that have reshaped Protestantism during the twentieth century.
It would be impossible, and not a little irresponsible, to discuss the Protestant approach to authority without noting the considerable dangers that it creates. In his essay "The Sociology of Charismatic Authority," Max Weber noted that when traditional power structures seem to be in decline or confusion, people are disposed to seek out authority elsewhere.63 When society seems confused about its moral values, or traditional academic institutions seem muddled over questions of truth, people look for—and find—those who speak with a clear voice and offer crisp, neat, and authoritative solutions. Protestant preaching of the form we have noted in this section owes some of its power to the force of its conviction—that is, perhaps it is not so much the views held by the preacher, or the doctrines preached, but the conviction and authority with which they are held and preached. This sort of preaching is clearly open to abuse, running the risk of becoming manipulative and exploitative.64
The dangers of such a Protestant personality cult were explored by Sinclair Lewis in his famous novel Elmer Gantry.6 The central figure of the novel is an evangelical preacher whose highly profiled public posture of self-righteousness and virtue masks an inner life of deception and fraud. Lewis's novel spawned the popular image of TV evangelists that has become a cultural cliché of our time. Protestantism as a whole is vulnerable at this point, needing to ensure accountability on the part of its authority figures so that such influence is always exercised responsibly and carefully.
Yet Protestantism already possesses the resources it needs to deal with this difficulty, which is bound to arise from time to time given Protestantism's loose and fluid authority structures. The problems really start to arise when such "guardians" see themselves as the masters, rather than the servants, of the people of God and come to regard themselves as divinely appointed judges in matters of doctrine and morality. The doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" reaffirms the central place of the community of believers, extended over time and space, who are guided by both scripture and the Holy Spirit and serve as a theological jury to whom all judges are ultimately subordinate.
This theme is found in the writings of most major Protestant writers but was set out with particular clarity in a lecture given in Paris on April 14, 1934, by the great Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth. Barth stressed the importance of theology in safeguarding the vision and identity of the church. Positive, yet critical, theology serves the church and keeps it faithful to its calling. And who is authorized to "do" theology? Barth had no hesitation in reaffirming the great Protestant theme of the democratization of faith:
Theology is not a private subject for theologians only. Nor is it a private subject for professors. Fortunately, there have always been pastors who have understood more about theology than most professors. Nor is theology a private subject of study for pastors.
Fortunately, there have repeatedly been congregation members, and often whole congregations, who have pursued theology energetically while their pastors were theological infants or barbarians. Theology is a matter for the Church.66
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