The big split

protestantsReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World | Alec Ryrie and William Collins

With this year’s anniversary of the Reformation and Martin Luther’s famous nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door comes, unsurprisingly, focus on the movement he initiated.

It is a story that has been told before, but Alec Ryrie tells it with well-paced prose and lively metaphors.

It is strange that we Protestants still apply to ourselves a name that has anti-Catholic connotations, but then Protestantism has always moved forward through conflict. Protestants will argue just as much with each other, and are just as likely to label fellow Protestants as heretics. Splits are easier than unity, but then competition is at the core of the movement’s vitality.

One of Luther’s key ideas was the freedom of the Christian individual, but this quickly developed, to Luther’s horror, into constant disagreement and pushing beyond the boundaries of what he thought acceptable.

Protestantism has a cyclic history of the radical settling down into the orthodox, prompting further renewal and breakaways. Anabaptists, Pietists, Levellers, Diggers, Puritans, Methodists, Revivalists and Pentecostals have sailed the seas of reinvention, with varying degrees of success.

Ryrie suggests that the passion to follow one’s individual beliefs is characteristic of Protestantism but, while this is true, a focus on passionate Protestants means we sometimes miss the experiences of pedestrian Protestants.

Complacency has also been a feature of Protestantism. In the 20th century there has been plenty of lackadaisical pew-warming and acquiescence to the status quo.

Yet the future of Protestantism belongs not to its comfortable adherents in the West, but to those in Africa; in China, where the uneasy relationship with the state is yet to be worked out; and in South America, where Protestant churches are stealing converts from their old rival, the Catholic church.

Available at: RRP: $54.99

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