Alec Ryrie’s “Protestants” — another uneasy moment

If you have put up with this blog long enough, you will have discovered that I go through times when I am uneasy about my Protestant identity but not convinced enough by the claims of the Orthodox to join them (let alone the Romish — I mean, Roman Catholics). Last week I finished off Alec Ryrie’s book Protestants, and it makes me uneasy once again.

First, though: I recommend this book. It is a look at the great love affair with God that Protestants have had over the last 500 years. Ryrie seeks to have sympathy for most of the weird, wonderful, beautiful, and bizarre characters and ideas that fill the page. The chapters on transatlantic slavery, Nazism, and apartheid are particularly powerful and uncomfortable because they show how Protestants were instrumental in the rise and fall of all three. On the subject of Nazis, he notes how few Germans resisted the regime and its ideology, and observes that if we had lived through what they had lived through, would we fare any better?

This sort of sympathy is not there to exonerate the guilty but rather to keep us off our high horses.

My favourite bits were about Luther, the English church from Henry VIII to the Methodists, and the chapter about Pentecostalism. Indeed, the Pentecostals were my favourite part of the twentieth century.

So what makes me uneasy?

As the book wound its way through the seventeenth century, I found myself being reminded of all the things I love and loathe about Protestantism. I tend to get fired up by the story of Martin Luther, whether played by Joseph Fiennes, or told from the perspective of print technology by Andrew Pettegree in Brand Luther, or wherever you meet the man. His story and his ideas make me love Protestantism. I also enjoy the English Reformation, of course.

But Protestantism is not so cut-and-dried. We may all have some family traits in common, and we may all cling to the words “justification by faith alone” (although we may also mean different things by them), but we are not all descendants of Luther. The ecclesiastical eruption that occurred because of him took many shapes even within his lifetime.

One of the by-products of the Protestant Reformation is the subjectiveness of the Christian faith now, coupled with the rise of individualism. For people like Luther to take a stand for conscience in the face of the machinery of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical power was heroic and maybe even necessary. But when combined with sola scriptura and the polysemous nature of textual meaning in the Bible, its results have been disastrous.

Who is Martin Luther to tell Zwingli that his interpretation of the Bible passages about the Eucharist is wrong? If it goes against Zwingli’s conscience to interpret Luther’s way and to celebrate Holy Communion in anything resembling the Roman Mass, who can stand in his way? And thus it goes, unsurprisingly producing not only Baptists and Methodists but Jehovah’s Witnesses and even Mormons as well.

We are an extraordinarily divided bunch of people, Protestants. Some say that the word is utterly meaningless these days.

Moreover, Protestants have had a harder time resisting the wider culture around us than our Orthodox and Catholic siblings. Sometimes, of course, Protestants were instrumental in shaping consensus — thus, after having had their wills bent to accept slavery, they would later be among the earliest, most prominent abolitionists. Yet behold the Nazis. Or consider the Anglophone mainline today and their stance on any ethical issue.

The hope that Ryrie does not express is that, as western society drifts farther away from Protestantism and secularism becomes more hostile to its roots in liberal Protestant religion, Protestants will find following western society less and less appealing.

Not that the Orthodox have never been seduced by secular cultural power. But in the West, because they are already the “other”, originating either as immigrants from Eastern Europe or indigenous Christians in the Arctic, they seem less prone to accepting western societal trends as norms for themselves. As an example, I read something by Frederica Mathewes-Green about the gay marriage debate and how she was slow to write on the subject because she felt American society had long ago already rejected traditional marriage from an Orthodox standpoint.

Anyway, what’s remarkable about our current Protestant moment is that even as statistics show that the more you give in to the wider culture the more likely you are to die as a church, much of the Anglican Church of Canada and United Church of Canada continue to pursue the path of accommodation that has been killing them.

And so do the evangelicals, they just don’t realise it yet — but Jesus of suburbia is a lie.

Anyway, I am about to read Archimandrite Sophrony’s book Saint Silouan. (I tend to alternate between East and West in my spiritual reading.) We’ll see where I stand when I’m done, right? For now —

Here I stand. I can do no other. 😉


10 thoughts on “Alec Ryrie’s “Protestants” — another uneasy moment

  1. Much of what you describe is exactly why I am a “classical Lutheran” and many of my Lutheran brothers get uneasy with how “orthodox” or “catholic friendly” I seem at times. Outside of Lutheranism or Anglicanism, I have a very difficult time with any other form of Protestant as a confession or systematic. I would become Orthodox before Baptist for example, Roman Catholic before Missionary Alliance etc…

    • I can definitely relate to this. My hope is to follow Christ, and for much of my life that has been done in Lutheran churches. But if Lutherans were not an option, I would see Constantinople and Rome as closer to Jesus than some other groups.

      Take care & God bless
      Anne / WF

    • Indeed! In one moment of exasperated grief at the words coming from the pulpit at a church circumstance had forced me to attend, I told my brother I wasn’t sure I was an evangelical anymore. He noted, ‘Sounds like you’re a catholic Anglican to me.’ Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, yes. Baptists? erm. But Methodists and Free Methodists on paper aren’t very different from Anglicans on paper (I go to a Free Methodist Church at the moment — better than the heresy at my local Anglican parish).

  2. Also, there is a reason why we end up with a Book of Concord and the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy/Scholasticism, the subjectivity you describe WAS/IS a problem! Chemnitz’ “Two Natures of Christ” is a virtual quote book of Cyril of Alexandria, John of Damascus, Augustine, Cyprian etc…

  3. Prior to reading this, I had just finished listening to the latest episode of the Holy Post podcast, and they seem to be speaking on similar subjects (broadly). Perhaps the connections are merely from having both so recently consumed. Thank you for continuing to share your thoughts, as I always learn something when I read them.

  4. I can relate so much to this- I’ve had a lot of moments wondering about the same things. For me though, I can’t countenance not being able to take communion with my family, or my church family (maddening as some of them may be). I can’t bear the thought of not acknowledging them as Christians and my family at the Lord’s table, and being separated from them in that moment. I pray constantly for God’s guidance, but I just can’t see any way through that.

    • Yes, this is part of my resolve to stay put. I was once falsely informed that I’d have to get baptised again to become Orthodox, and that kept me far away, because that wouldn’t simply be saying that the baptism my Granddad performed when I was a baby was invalid but also the baptisms of all the people I love…

      • Absolutely- especially when the people you love are models of holiness to you as I’ve experienced in my family/church! I’m hoping that there is something sanctifying in the experience of unease for as long as it lasts, and I do think it has been the case for me so far. Please God, maybe this aching for a wholeness in the church is also part of the Spirit’s work for bringing about unity among Christians. It can feel like a desert experience to grieve the heritage of division… But the Bible often shows the Lord’s deliverance coming after his people move through the desert. Maybe that’s a fanciful interpretation of the situation but I pray it may be the case.

  5. I’m in the same boat as you. Made a move either way yet? My husband has converted from Baptist to Roman Catholicism after much study. He also reads this book to me often, but I am still on the fence…it is a tough place to be. Very uncomfortable.

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