In 1620 the great Puritan theologian John Robinson preached a sermon to those about to leave for the New World aboard the Mayflower. His powerful address portrayed the pilgrims as setting out on a voyage that would lead them not only to a new world but to a new grasp of truth. They would be spiritual and theological pioneers exploring not only the new world of the Americas but the new insights they would find in the Bible as they sought to plant the kingdom of God there. One phrase from that sermon has rebounded down the ages: "I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word."
Robinson's words are a fitting epigram to the entire Protestant engagement with the Bible. Some have argued that this task is completed and that closure has been secured. Protestantism's task is merely to repeat the ideas and values of its definitive shapers, such as Luther and Calvin. Most, however, hold that this argument is quite contrary to the ethos of Protestantism. To be a Protestant is to set out on an intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage that is never completed. Every location, every generation, every challenge forces the community of faith to reread the Bible, asking what it might have to say in this situation that it did not say in other situations. For Robinson, no person, no age, could ever fully plumb the depths of scripture. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, new challenges would lead to new insights, above all in relation to church structures and policy. What might be right in one situation or for one era might not be so in another.
As we have seen, the capacity to adapt is the birthright of Protestantism. The contrast with both Catholicism and Orthodoxy could not be greater at this point. Although both consider the wooden repetition of yesterday's certainties to be inadequate, preferring to work with the idea of a "living tradition" that is capable of at least a degree of development, both equally emphasize the fixity of their doctrinal and institutional forms. For the noted Catholic apologist Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), the Catholic deposit of faith is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Protestant innovations and heretical degradations—religious categories that tended to elide in Bossuet's judgment—could be identified without undue difficulty precisely because they represented change.4 John Henry Newman had no doubt that each generation could wrest further insights from the Catholic tradition; its substance, however, would not change.
From its outset, Protestantism stated its identity in terms of a method rather than its outcome—a means by which ideas would be generated and governed, not a specific set of ideas resulting from its application. The Protestant principle of grounding matters of doctrine and ethics in the Bible and subjecting these to constant review immediately generated controversy. Luther and Calvin argued that this method led to the reestablishment of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith, on the one hand, and the reformation of areas in which the medieval church had gone astray through inadequate attention to scripture, on the other. These doctrinal outcomes were expressed as "confessions of faith," which were understood as local, provisional, and revisable statements of faith, not to be confused with the universal and final statements of Christian faith contained in the creeds.
Their radical Protestant critics suggested that this represented an inconsistent reading of the Bible; a more radical—or, better, a more consistent—reading of the text led to skepticism concerning traditional doctrines such as the Trinity and more recent innovations such as Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone, which they held to lack biblical warrant. Yet such debates were ultimately healthy in that they encouraged theological vigilance and avoided the premature foreclosure of important debates.
This had three significant results. First, a number of ways of interpreting the Bible emerged as characteristic of Protestant traditions, and those traditions then felt obliged to defend their way of interpreting scripture. One can easily speak of a Lutheran tradition of interpretation of Paul's doctrine of justification, or a Reformed tradition of interpretation of the concept of the kingdom of God. Second, the debate led to changing patterns of biblical interpretation over time as constant review led to revision of the original judgments of the founders of Protestantism. Third, it resulted in a variety of approaches to biblical interpretation within specific Protestant groupings, thus forcing a difficult discussion of the acceptable limits of diversity. When did diversity degenerate into deviation, hence forcing the exclusion of those who would then go on to form new Protestant groupings, further contributing to the fragmentation of Protestantism?
In considering such difficult questions, it is important to note that biblical interpretation is partly a socially constructed enterprise that rests on inherited assumptions concerning what is "natural" or "obvious" within a community. Individuals experience part of the complex process of socialization by growing up within such an interpretative community, absorbing its values and approaches.5 Judgments as to what is the "natural" way of reading a biblical passage rest partly (but not exclusively) on the prevailing consensus within that community, which often assumes that the familiar and traditional are equivalent to the self-evidently correct. The theological notion of the "natural sense of scripture," not unlike its cultural cousin "common sense," is a communal notion that is shaped partly by the happenstances of history and is sustained and sanctified through constant repetition and application.6
As the history and experience of a community develop, traditional ways of reading scripture are reviewed and revised in the light of new challenges, experiences, and encounters—such as the rise of a capitalist economy, a growing awareness of the existence of vast geographical regions untouched by the Christian gospel, or spiritual experiences that appear to replicate those described in the New Testament. All of these can be shown to have been important factors in encouraging Protestant engagements with the Bible and shaping their outcome.
Even the briefest account of Protestant biblical interpretation during the first five hundred years of its existence shows shifting understandings of what the Bible says and how it is to be read, and these shifts are laden with significance for the identity of the movement. If Protestantism is held to be defined by a set of specific interpretations of the Bible, then, in addition to being pluriform from the outset, it has undergone significant changes since its emergence.
Four examples of shifting Protestant understandings of the meaning of the Bible may be noted, all of which have been discussed in this work. In each case, the settled interpretation of earlier generations underwent significant modification as opinion shifted decisively toward a rather different view.
1. Is usury allowed? The consensus throughout the first age of Protestantism, on the basis of the unconditional Old Testament prohibition of the practice, was that usury was not permissible. Yet Calvin's creative and highly original argument of 1545 that this specific biblical mandate could be overlooked in order to fulfill more fundamental biblical principles introduced a new way of thinking. It took more than a century for Protestantism as a whole to come around to this new way of thinking. Yet such is the widespread acceptance of the practice today that most contemporary Protestants would be surprised to learn that this was ever an issue for their forebears.
2. Are Christians meant to evangelize? The predominant interpretation of the gospel imperative to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19) in the sixteenth century was that this command was addressed to the apostles, not to subsequent generations. It was not until the late eighteenth century that this view began to be challenged successfully, particularly through the growing influence of missionary societies in England. By the end of the nineteenth century, most Protestants considered the passage to be an obvious and clear call to all Christians to evangelize and to support the work of missions.
3. Will there be a millennium at the end of time? The belief that there would be a period of one thousand years—the millennium—during which Christ would reign on earth immediately before the end of history was widespread in the early church. Writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian regarded this as the clear and obvious meaning of Revelation 20:2. Yet from the time of Augustine onward, this way of reading this text was abandoned in favor of the "amillennial" view that Christ presently reigns from heaven. This view was upheld by mainline Protestantism until the middle of the nineteenth century, when a "premillennial" reading of the text began to gain a significant following. Today premillennialism, espoused by Pentecostals and many American evangelicals, is the numerically predominant way of reading the text.
4. Do charismatic phenomena happen today ? While all early Protestants agreed that such phenomena as speaking in tongues took place in the early church, as recorded in the New Testament, there was a consensus that these ceased with the ending of the apostolic age. Although occasionally raised as a possibility by some marginal groups, this "cessationist" view was totally predominant within Protestantism for the first four hundred years of its existence. Today it is the minority view. Pentecostalism's insistence that such phenomena happen today is now dominant within Protestantism.
Alongside these significant shifts in patterns of biblical interpretation over the last five hundred years, a number of debates have continued, repeating the debates of past years with occasional extensions. Of these, the most famous is the long-standing debate over how to interpret the words of Jesus of Nazareth at the Last Supper: "This is my body" (Matthew 26:26). Here the main positions taken in the first age of the Reformation remain contested to this day, and the debate still circles well-established landmarks and authorities. No Protestant now seriously expects these debates to be resolved; indeed, many now regard them as lying beyond resolution, having become so deeply ingrained within the traditions that make up contemporary Protestantism that they cannot be disentangled from those traditions' sense of identity and historical rootedness.
Yet other debates have opened up, extending debates over biblical interpretation. Debates about the ministry of women and homosexuals have opened up new questions and given new urgency to old ones— such as the passionate and often vitriolic debate within American Protestantism during the first half of the nineteenth century over whether the Bible sanctioned slavery. These debates, which often involve complex and controversial judgments about the role of cultural norms in biblical interpretation, often point up significant divergences within global Protestantism, especially over issues of sexuality.
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