The Problem Of Protestant Identity

What is the essence of Protestantism? What gives it its inner identity? On a critical historical reading of the development of Protestantism, the movement has been characterized from its outset by divergence and difference. Protestantism came into being as a diverse entity shaped by a multiplicity of different driving agendas, cultural contexts, intellectual resources, and directing visions. There is no question of a "lost primal unity" of Protestantism, a golden age of unity that quickly shattered into fragments. Its multiple geographical, cultural, and historical origins made Protestantism diverse from the beginning.

The origins of Protestantism lie in what was ultimately an uncontrollable burst of creative energy directed toward the intellectual and spiritual renewal and institutional reform of the church. That creative burst gave birth to a solar system of planets of various sizes revolving around a biblical sun at different distances and in orbits of varying eccentricity; there was no single, unambiguous Protestant template, gene, or paradigm controlling their formation. A plurality of related though competing biblical interpretations jostled for space, attention, and influence in many parts of western Europe.

One pattern that emerges from the development of Protestantism is what seems to be an endless cycle of birth, maturing, aging, and death, leading to renewal and reformulation. The relentless energy and creativity of one generation gives rise to a new movement; a later generation, anxious because the original dynamism and energy of the movement appears to be dissipating, tries to preserve it by petrifica-tion—that is, by freezing the original vision in the hope that its energy will thus be preserved. Yet all too often, petrification leads to the conservation of only a structure, not the life-giving vision itself. However perfectly preserved in the entomologist's specimen room, the butterfly is still dead.

Classically, this is held to have happened in the rise of orthodoxy within Protestantism after the deaths of Luther and Calvin. As the geopolitical aspects of the Reformation became increasingly important, the rise of confessionalism led to a politically enforced uniformity within the movement in many regions of Germany. The use of "confessions of faith" as a means of preserving the foundational insights of Lutheranism and Calvinism led, in the view of concerned Protestant activists, to the emergence of a conformist attitude toward religion expressed in formal acceptance of statements of faith rather than in a living and trusting faith in God. This concern inevitably led to growing demands for reform and renewal as faith became increasingly a matter of outward observance, without any inward spiritual reality. Pietism attempted to renew the relational aspects of faith by giving priority to an understanding of faith as personal trust in God, rather than as formal assent to doctrinal statements. The great revivals within American Protestantism showed very similar patterns.

For the historian, such cycles of review and renewal seem to be an integral aspect of Protestant identity. The development of Pietism, the emergence of the American holiness tradition, and the rise of global Pentecostalism can all be understood as the outcomes of this ongoing renewal of older traditions and development of new understandings of what it means to be a Protestant. A similar process can be seen at work within Anglicanism, a form of Protestantism that is capable of accommodating a significant number of traditional "Catholic" notions—such as the use of liturgy and architecture to communicate the truths of faith—without losing its Protestant identity. This process of review and development has not stopped, and all the indications are that further changes lie ahead in the future.

The pressure of these changes has created a furious debate within sections of Protestantism, leading to a confrontation between two very different visions—one static, the other dynamic—of Protestant identity. On the one hand are Protestant traditionalists who hold that the essence of Protestantism can only be preserved by "freezing" defining moments in the past—for example, the clerical dress, cultural attitudes, and worship styles of sixteenth-century Calvinism, seventeenth-century Puritanism, or eighteenth-century English evangelicalism. For such traditionalists, fidelity to the past is the touchstone of authenticity and integrity.

On the other hand are those who argue that Protestantism is not, and never has been, defined in this way, but locates its identity in its constant self-examination in the light of the Bible and in its willingness to correct itself when it takes wrong turns or situations change. This second approach—often summarized in the slogan semper reformandum ("always being reformed")—defines the distinctive identity of Protestantism as a method, not as any one specific historical outcome of the application of that method.

Protestantism is thus seen as applying the Bible to new situations in which one may learn from past applications but is not obligated to repeat them. It is this vision of Protestantism that has gained the upper hand in the late twentieth century and captured the imaginations of strongly entrepreneurial individuals—precisely because it creates conceptual space for the innovation, development, and experimentation that are virtually precluded by the older, more static model. Pentecos-talism is perhaps the supreme example of this second Protestant paradigm that is now clearly in the ascendancy in many parts of the world.

This second model of Protestant identity has major implications for the future of the movement. By refusing to regard any past expression of Protestantism as normative, this approach has liberated the movement from its captivity to the cultural habits of early modern western Europe. Why should twenty-first-century Presbyterian ministers in Kenya wear the black gowns favored by sixteenth-century Geneva? Why should Western cultural norms be preferred over their African equivalents? Why should Asians have to read the Bible through Western eyes? This assertion of the cultural independence of the global South has led to significant shifts in understanding and opened the way to rapid Protestant expansion outside its traditional homelands in the West. Each region now sees itself as free to find its own form of Protestant identity, grounded in a local interpretation and application of the Bible.

The twentieth century thus saw a rediscovery of the radical, dangerous Protestant principle of starting all over again, wherever necessary dismantling outmoded approaches and forging new ones, shaped by the biblical witness. It has become increasingly clear that some traditional

Protestant ideas about church architecture, denominational structures, worship patterns, and even moral values were often little more than cultural constructs, reflecting a bygone era in western European culture. The capacity of the Protestant template to respond and adapt to new environments has given it a new lease of life as it expands into new regions of the world and faces new challenges and opportunities.

This naturally leads us to consider how the Bible continues to shape Protestant identity and development.

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