The Next Generation

This study has woven together many histories to create a "grand narrative" of the origins and development of Protestantism. Like a plant, the movement has grown rapidly, and in unexpected ways. Perhaps the biological notion of mutation offers the best model for understanding the growth of Protestantism. In biological mutation, small changes in genetic codes lead to the emergence of new forms. Some of these prove poorly adapted to survival and die out; others prove highly adapted and flourish, transmitting their genes to future generations. While there is a very high degree of genetic continuity between these forms, they are not identical. Moreover, environmental factors have caused unpredictable changes in the genetic code.

Although clearly continuous with and related to other versions of Christianity, Protestantism arose as a new way of reading the Bible. Yet Protestantism has mutated over time as new forms emerged that shared a high degree of continuity—but not absolute identity—with what went before them. The "genetic codes"—in the case of Protestantism, the set of instructions for interpreting the Bible—have changed over time, even though they are nearly identical with those of other versions of Protestantism. Yet these small changes have brought about significant differences, over long periods of time. Some of these turned out to be unsuccessful and gradually faded away. Yet others proved highly adapted and went on to experience growth, thus passing their distinctive understanding of the patterns of Christian truth on to future generations.

Pentecostalism represents the outcome of a seemingly small change in how Protestantism reads the Bible—recognizing, even expecting, that the Holy Spirit remains active today in much the same manner as in the apostolic era. Yet that seemingly small change in the genetic code has led to a dramatically altered understanding of the dynamics of the Christian life and reshaped the contours of the Christian faith.

Biological models have their limitations in explaining religious phe-nomena.2 Nevertheless, the concept of mutation is a useful model to account for the development of Protestantism because it highlights two points.

1. While new developments within Protestantism can be accounted for after they have happened, they cannot be predicted.. The intrinsic proclivity toward reformulation, exploration, and adaptation demonstrated by its history suggests that this pattern of development will continue in the future. Its results, however, cannot be predicted.

2. The biological concept of mutation links survival with a capacity to change, on the one hand, and a competition for survival, on the other. On a Darwinian approach, it is only the best adapted forms that survive and pass their genes on to a future generation. The forms of Protestantism that have emerged from this historical process of testing and elimination are thus likely to cope with the intense pressures of the contemporary religious marketplace precisely because they have shown that they are able to prosper in such environments. The biological analogy of halophilic bacteria comes to mind: in hostile biological environments with very high salt concentrations, certain types of bacteria (more strictly, Archaea) have emerged that can survive and reproduce under these conditions.3 Protestantism shows that same capacity to adapt—and hence to proliferate through diversification.

So what might the future of the movement look like? Three major trends can be identified, each of which emphasizes the movement's ca pacity to adapt and change: changing understandings of Protestant identity; changing patterns of biblical interpretation; and a continuing shift away from a controlling institutional centralism. We consider each of these trends in what follows.

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