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Mark Noll

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Protestantism Today

Posted: 10/24/11 08:35 AM ET

Anniversaries have the potential to renew a sense of the past in the present, to spark a fresh awareness of important but neglected milestones, and to prompt the best kind of intellectual debate over the deeper significance of by-gone persons and events. They can, as is well known, also be put to evil purposes. One of the truly black days in recent history was June 28, 1989, when the Serb firebrand, Slobodan Milosevic, used the 600th anniversary of the Battle of the Blackbirds in 1389 (when a small force of Slavs defeated a much larger army of Saracen Turks) to set off the disastrous ethnic cleansing that ravaged the former Yugoslavia.

Yet positive benefit from anniversary celebrations certainly accrued for all who in 2009 marked the 200th anniversary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln (born, as it happens, on exactly the same day). In 2011 commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible and the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War have been producing a remarkable range of thoughtful retrospections.

So, one can hope, it will be as the clock ticks down to October 31, 2017, the quincentennial of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On that day 500 years ago a little-known German monk, Martin Luther, posted 95 theses (in Latin) on the door of the Castle Church in Saxon Wittenberg in order to prompt a debate on the Catholic church's promotion of indulgences. The dispute on indulgences (certificates purchased to reduce time in purgatory for relatives or oneself) soon got out of hand. Within four years, this once obscure monk stood before the most exalted ruler of the western world and told the Holy Roman Emperor, the Habsburg Charles V, that he was "bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience."

Eight years later in 1529, those who followed Luther in being willing to exit the Catholic church if their reforming goals could not be met were given the name "Protestants." The occasion was another high-level conclave convened by Charles V where he heard an assemblage of German princes declare, "We are determined by God's grace and aid to abide by God's Word alone, the holy gospel contained in the biblical books of the Old and New Testaments." Within only a few more years, this German "protest" against the emperor's attempt to restore the religious unity of Europe had spread to England, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, parts of eastern Europe and even outposts in Spain, Italy, and other centers of continuing Catholic strength. Within less than a century, Protestants had established European beachheads in the New World.

And today? Nearly 500 years after Luther's initial provocation in Wittenberg, Protestants and Protestant-like movements are all over the map, both literally and figuratively. The recently published "Atlas of World Christianity" enumerates about 500,000,000 adherents to churches and denominations that trace their descent directly or indirectly from 16th century Protestant beginnings and several hundred millions more in "independent" churches with Protestant origins or strongly Protestant characteristics.

The dynamic recent changes in world Christianity that have been well described by Philip Jenkins, Dana Robert and other outstanding scholars have affected Protestants even more than other Christians. A century ago, roughly three-fifths of the world's identifiable Protestants lived in Europe, with another third in the United States. Today, almost three-fourths of identifiable Protestants live outside of Europe and the United States. More Anglicans go to church regularly in each of Nigeria and Uganda than in Britain and America (as Episcopalians) combined. Ethiopia, Tanzania and Madagascar all have Lutheran denominations as large as the biggest Lutheran denominations in the United States. There are far more identifiable Pentecostals in Brazil than in the United States. Among the countries with the most rapid recent Protestant expansion have been Armenia, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Nepal and -- most significantly -- China. As observant students have noticed, the recent expansion of non-western Protestant churches has been driven much less by missionaries from Europe and America than by local believers establishing local movements in response to local needs.

It was a challenge when asked to write the "Protestantism" volume for Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introduction" series to make sense out of a movement with very distinct origins in early modern Europe that now is predominately located where the preoccupations of that earlier time and place are not even a memory. How, in other words, to incorporate into one story both Martin Luther and David Yonggi Cho, the Pentecostal pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, which with its nearly one million members has for many years been the world's largest Christian congregation?

An answer could not even be attempted without acknowledging the extraordinary diversity of world-wide Protestantism. That diversity is structural since it describes a broad religious tradition that began as church-establishments in Europe (challenging Catholic doctrine but preserving the Christendom instincts of Catholicism); that then added a voluntary form exemplified best by the constitutional separation of church and state in American experience; and that over the last century and a half added yet another form as Christian groups throughout the world exploit American-style voluntarism in settings far from Europe or America. Moreover, a multitude of doctrinal differences, differing musical forms, different political attitudes and huge differences in wealth and social power overlays this structural diversity.

The result is that in form Protestantism more closely resembles Judaism or Islam than Catholicism. Yet if Protestantism lacks structural or organizational coherence, it is nonetheless still possible to perceive the effects of a common inheritance and to note a number of widely shared characteristics.

Thus, most of the world's Protestants adhere to a characteristic message that defines peace with God (and the possibility of harmony with fellow humans) as a result of the "gospel": God's merciful gift revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They believe that this message comes alive today through the agency of God's Holy Spirit. Protestants characteristically look to the Bible as the fullest revelation of God's general will. Even more, Scripture functions as the divinely-given narrative of God's saving actions in Jesus, a narrative into which all humans are graciously called. Most Protestants, even those within strong denominational traditions, also organize themselves through energetic practices of local agency, action and authority. And most Protestants stress the privileges and responsibilities of individual initiative.

One of the most important questions attending the run-up to Oct. 2017 concerns Protestant influence on the cultures where Protestants have flourished and now are flourishing. Historically, Protestant movements have been identified closely with a number of the West's most significant cultural achievements: the music of Bach, the artistry of Rembrandt, the science of Johannes Kepler and the British Royal Society, the promotion of capitalism (formulated forcibly, but also controversially, by Max Weber), the individualistic democracy of the United States (described memorably by Alexis de Tocqueville).

Attention to such matters has led to both sloppy filiopietistic triumphalism and much uninformed finger-pointing. But it has also stimulated extraordinarily sophisticated attempts to weigh the pluses and minuses of Protestant cultural influence (a noteworthy example is forthcoming this fall from Harvard University Press: Brad Gregory's "The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society").

Commemorations in 2017 offer an ideal occasion to examine the effects of Protestantism in societies where Protestants are newcomers. Could there be someone in Tanzania who, inspired as J. S. Bach was by his deep Lutheran convictions, will transform the music of East Africa? Will a latter-day Weber or Tocqueville find China a laboratory to measure the effects on economic or political life from the confluence of Confucian and Protestant values? Protestant movements will exist -- thriving and decaying both -- long after 2017 has come and gone. As the anniversary year approaches, it is much to be hoped that it will stimulate the right kind of commemorations with the right kind of discerning seriousness.