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Tradition and modernity in Protestant Christianity.

Protestant Christianity, which was described as a "new sociological type" by Ernst Troeltsch,(1) is too varied to be easily defined. Historically, the Protestant churches are the offspring of the sixteenth century reformation in Europe, but lineage is an insufficient criterion for determining who is and who is not a Protestant, since new churches have arisen on the spiritual soil of Protestantism that have departed too far from its formative principles to be regarded as Protestant, except in derivation: for example, the Latter Day Saints (Mormonism) and the Unification Church (Moonism). In either case, a new revelation has superseded what C.S. Lewis liked to describe as 'mere Christianity'.(2) The main formative principle of Protestantism is contained in the designation 'Protestant' itself, coined at the Imperial Diet of Speyer in 1529 when a dissenting group of reformers protested (Latin: [pro]testari, to testify) that they could do nothing contrary to the Word of God (Verbum Dei). By the Word of God, the reforming party meant the authority of holy scripture, a text that "shines clearly in its own light" and requires no extraneous augmentation. Thus the first Protestants attempted to cast off the accretions of an increasingly decadent late mediaeval church in order to return to what they regarded as the true sense of the biblical message. The Protestant tradition, therefore, coalesced around the theme of sola scriptura (scripture alone) as the final court of appeal as far as matters of faith and morals were concerned. This, as much as anything, constitutes the essence of Protestantism.

Tradition, however, is always an ambiguous concept, both because traditions are always defined by later ages and because, once established, a tradition is soon reified into an orthodoxy, losing its original freshness and innovative capacity. One of the ironies of Protestantism is that what began as a protest against orthodoxy (in the form of Catholic sacradotalism) ended as a new orthodoxy (in the form of Calvinism or Lutheranism). As a result, the first principle of the reformation, sola scriptura, which, for the first generation of reformers, never signified a literal inerrant biblical text - for Luther, the Bible was the 'cradle' of Christ, and for Calvin the Word without the Spirit was a dead letter - became an infallible book or 'paper pope' in the hands of the Protestant scholastics, producing a type of intellectual rigor mortis. Another example of the same scholastic process was the subtle transformation of the reformation experience of God's unconditional forgiveness (justification by grace through faith) into the notion that belief in God's unconditional forgiveness is the source of our justification. In this fashion, Luther's rediscovery of the radical character of divine mercy was robbed of its existential power.

The rise of orthodoxy in any great movement is only a matter of time, and cannot be averted; it simply belongs to the nature of things. Dogmas, creeds, confessions, theologies, ethical codes, rites, sacraments, religious institutions, in short, all the elements of tradition, not only define a religion but also enable its survival. However, orthodoxies always set the stage for profound tensions both within the community itself and between the community and the world. In the case of historical Protestantism, these tensions arose mostly in conjunction with two developments: (1) the emergence of pietism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a moral and spiritual protest against the barren and arid state of church life in northern Europe; (2) the emergence of higher criticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a spinoff of the Enlightenment, resulting in what has been called a "revolution in thought comparable to the Reformation itself."(3) A crisis of faith, involving a contest between the head and the heart, or modernity and confessional loyalty, ensued. Friedrich Schleiermacher's attempt to address this crisis inspired his famous speeches to the "cultured despisers" of religion, really of Christianity, in the Berlin salons: one of the classics of Protestant literature.(4) It is no coincidence that he is remembered as the first modern theologian of the Christian church.

The pietists, who emphasized conversion (Wiedergeburt) and the experiential aspects of religion, saw themselves as completing the reformation, finishing what the earlier reformers had left unfinished. Except for the reconstituted Moravian Brethren of Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, they usually preferred to remain in the state churches of Germany, where, however, they became a church within the church, or a sectarian presence without turning themselves into an actual sect. English pietism in the form of Methodism did detach itself from the established Church of England, despite John Wesley's fervent Anglican loyalties. Sectarian in character, whether or not sectarian in fact, pietism was both modern and anti-modern. It was modern in its social reforms - educational in Germany, economic in Britain - and in its stimulation of higher learning because of the conviction that godliness requires edification in order to be effective. Wesley, moreover, was far ahead of his time on certain issues, as his great tract against slavery in the British Empire demonstrates.(5) It was anti-modern in its basic theological orthodoxy, and in its strong ascetic components, which, on occasion, sprang into sharp relief, as, for example, in the prohibition of laughter in August Francke's schools and in the young Zinzendorf's prohibition of sexual intercourse during his honeymoon. Seriousness, not frivolity and carnal pleasure, was regarded as the true mark of the Christian life.

The rise of higher criticism, which entailed the application of the new tools of literary and historical research to the text of the Bible, as well as the investigation of the origins of Christianity in the religious and cultural milieu of Hellenistic antiquity, was immensely threatening to traditional belief with its creedal and confessional certitudes, especially the dogma of an inerrant text. Suddenly and catastrophically, the authority of scripture was buffeted, and the entire edifice of orthodox Christianity was in danger of imminent ruin. Was the Christian faith itself nothing more than an eclectic compound of ancient gnosticism, esoteric cultism with its dying and rising gods, Stoic morality, Iranian dualism and Hebrew eschatology? The discovery of myth in the pages of holy scripture was another shock. Was Jesus of Nazareth even a real man, or merely another mythical figure like the phantom Christ favoured by the second century gnostic theologian Marcion? What, if anything, can be known about him, given the unreliable character of the canonical gospels? Not only the Old Testament, with its tale of paradise lost, but also the New Testament, according to the radical critic David Strauss, was permeated with myth and legend, and to be regarded with scepticism.(6) Even professional theologians began to sink into doubt. One of them, Ludwig Feuerbach, bequeathed to his age what was destined to become one of the classical texts of modern atheism, The Essence of Christianity, in which the treasured articles of traditional belief were dismissed as fantasies arising out of an alienated consciousness.(7) Feuerbach's philosophical materialism greatly influenced the young Karl Marx, who described him as the "purgatory of our time."(8)

In the face of this challenge, which only grew more formidable throughout the nineteenth century, Protestantism adopted two strategies: (1) that of embracing modernity, or at least the best elements in modernity, while seeking to preserve the substance of Christian tradition by following the path of reformulation; (2) that of rejecting modernity, or at least the worst elements in modernity, by restating the cardinal doctrines of Protestant orthodoxy in their pristine form in defiance of higher criticism, evolutionary science and the secular Zeitgeist. The first strategy, which was pioneered by Schleiermacher, gave birth to the powerful intellectual, spiritual and social school of Protestant liberalism, which produced a number of creative theologians, especially Albrecht Ritschl in Germany and Walter Rauschenbusch in the United States. Disavowing metaphysics, the Protestant liberals emphasized ethics, taking advantage of a revival of Kantian philosophy (neo-Kantianism) to argue that Christianity is essentially a moral religion with its own supreme version of the categorical imperative in the teachings as well as the life and death of Jesus. In this fashion, they sought to address the anti-religious and anti-Christian polemicists of an increasingly sceptical and secular century. The church, in liberal Protestant eyes, existed in order to establish the kingdom of God, or the ethical fellowship of the human race. It was difficult to quarrel with this Kantian goal, especially when fact, the realm of science, was separated from religion, the realm of value, allowing each to function without interference from the other. Tradition and modernity were both accommodated, and placed in a state of reasonable equilibrium.

The other strategy, which eventually acquired the name of fundamentalism, found its inspiration in a back-to-the-Bible movement in which the classical principle of sola scriptura was reasserted by turning the words of scripture into a "God-breathed" infallible text.(9) Only the autographs were God-breathed, however, not the extant manuscript. On this basis, the conservative Protestants attacked Darwinism, liberalism, positivism, agnosticism, atheism and the other assorted evils of the new age of doubt. However, these defenders of tradition did not concern themselves merely with matters of doctrine; they also reacted against a perceived threat to human dignity in the Darwinist reduction of Homo sapiens to a purely animal level, eliminating moral and spiritual meaning from existence. If humans are essentially higher apes, if life is essentially a struggle for survival, if the law of nature - a nature "red in tooth and claw" - is the only law, what becomes of the commandments of scripture, not to mention the ideals of traditional ethics? Is nihilism the final verdict on all things? Implicit in conservative Protestantism, especially in its puritan and pietist expressions, was a powerful sense of moral order stemming from the Word of God, which was the final court of appeal for the Protestant conscience. Tradition, therefore, meant more than correct belief; it also meant correct morality. Lifestyle and faith were interwoven.

The sixteenth century reformation, as Troeltsch never wearied of pointing out,(10) concerned itself as much with the shape of life in the world as with anything else, and with society as much as the individual in spite of its so called individualism. Divided into multitudinous churches, and split from the beginning into two broad segments, later defined as the classical and radical or right and left wings by historians,(11) Protestantism nevertheless embodied a single religious idea: the direct bestowal of divine grace without the mediation of priests, sacraments, ecclesiastical systems and institutions. "Luther, the young monk... dared to reject all safeguards that piety and the church wished to extend to him."(12) The consequence of this conception was both a spiritual egalitarianism, since Christians of all ranks found themselves on the same footing vis-a-vis God, and the abolition of the two-story ethics of the Middle Ages (nature and supernature), since love in its New Testament sense (agape) cannot exist on two levels and still be love. The further consequence was the abolition of the monastic system and the release of the monastic spirit into the world ("intramundane asceticism") with monumental results for western society. It was not Lutheranism but Calvinism, according to Max Weber, that turned every Protestant into a monk, so to speak, and thus infused the social order with the values of asceticism.(13)

Weber's thesis is famous. Calvin's peculiar doctrine of double predestination, with its decretum absolutum or secret decree of the divine will, divided the masses of the human race into two categories: the elect and the reprobate. Since no one, not even Calvin himself, had access to the the divine will, doubt concerning one's personal destiny was a natural fruit, along with fear: 'Am I among the elect?' Such apprehensions could only be dissolved through the diligent application of the individual to his worldly calling. As Protestantism had sanctified the old secular vocations, there was no reason why they could not serve a spiritual purpose, helping the Calvinist to assuage his soul. Thus a religious energy transmuted itself into a social energy, generating a new and potent dynamic in the midst of pre-modern and early modern society. It was the discipline of the Calvinist that changed the face of the earth, a discipline rooted not only in mediaeval monasticism but also in the great reformer's Aristotelian belief in the golden mean, or rule of holy moderation with respect to the appetites of the flesh.(14) A life governed by the spirit of holy moderation will never indulge itself with excesses; if the Christian prospers, therefore, he must not reward himself unduly, but, mindful of the higher ends of his existence, detach himself as much as possible spiritually from the goods and glories of the world by sharing his riches with the poor. Calvin was not opposed to the possession of wealth, nor did he depreciate the material aspects of life, as did the mediaeval Christian ascetics. Instead, he affirmed the emergent money and commercial economy of his age - in that respect, he was a thoroughly modern man - while favouring the constant redistribution of its gains in order to create a better social equilibrium.(15)

Among the later Calvinists, however, by whom Weber meant the seventeenth century puritans, Calvin's noble social humanism suffered erosion as the purely ascetic elements in his ethic suffered exaggeration. The result was a tendency to combine extreme personal diligence and conscientiousness with the pursuit of profit, since profit had providential implications as long as money was never converted into Mammon. A man as intensely spiritual and psychologically profound as Richard Baxter, for whom the whole of life and every moment of existence were matters of immeasurable concern, nevertheless reflected this strange obsession:

If God show you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another way (without wrong to your soul or to any other), if you refuse this, and choose the less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and you refuse to be God's steward, and to accept His gifts and use them for Him when he requireth it: you may labour to be rich for God, though not for the flesh and sin.(16)

From this spiritual ground, Weber believed, rightly or wrongly, the titanic power of modern capitalism gained its impetus.

It is not the rise of capitalism, however, but the diffusion of asceticism through puritanism into the broad stream of Protestant Christianity that is the concern of this essay. Its mental characteristics have been summarized eloquently by Gerald Cragg:

The brevity of life, no less than the imminence of danger, was responsible for the earnestness so characteristic of the Puritan. Day and night there hung over his spirit an urgent sense of the incomparable value of time... Human life was bounded by an eternity that was pressing upon it; the issues involved were as momentous as the permitted span was brief... Amusements were treacherous: time flew past so quickly that a man learned too late how much he had lost. Company was dangerous; he lingered too long in unprofitable conversation. Sleep, in particular, presented temptations against which a man needed to be ceaselessly on guard... Over every aspect of life there brooded a firm conviction from which in turn there crystallised an unfaltering desire: 'Time is precious; Lord give me skill and wisdom to redeem it.'(17)

Not all Protestants, of course, were puritans, either in the seventeenth century or in later periods; in fact, an anti-puritan protest lodged itself early in Protestant history, especially in Anglicanism. However, the puritan spirit became a substantial part of the Protestant religious tradition, penetrating and embracing the churches descended from both wings of the reformation on both sides of the English channel and both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In Richard Tawney's magnificent words, it was "will organized and disciplined and inspired, will quiescent in rapt adoration or straining in violent energy, but always will" which was the essence of Puritanism.(18) Like a "steel spring compressed by an inner force, which shatters every obstacle by its rebound," Tawney continued, the puritan, whether religious or secular, left an indelible mark on the modern world.(19)

This spirit of necessity moulded the Protestant lifestyle and dominated the mores of countless Protestant societies, past and present. At its highest, it represented a harmonious and classical balance between reason and passion, with reason in control, as exemplified in the simple but beautiful whitewashed churches of New England with their pleasing and sometimes perfectly symmetrical proportions. Art and life inspired each other. At its lowest, it turned into the kind of dismal repression that Weber inveighed against: an asceticism that "descended like frost" on Merrie old England, killing every pleasure and instilling monotony and dreariness into every aspect of modern culture, from dress to social conventions to modes of worship.(20) Today, in our post-Freudian climate, 'puritanism' has acquired a pejorative meaning, but the negative aspects of the puritan movement were never its authentic substance. John Bunyan's beautiful and profound allegory of the journey of the soul, The Pilgrim's Progress - "As I walked through the wilderness of the world, I lighted upon a certain place where there was a den,... as I slept, I dreamed a dream..." - defies caricature.

In post-puritan times, the Protestant lifestyle in fact often did degenerate into a narrow religious legalism and moralism, with all of the attributes of a new and rigid orthodoxy, particularly in its fixation on 'blue laws' and sabbatarianism. "In the evangelical mind," writes the American church historian Robert T. Handy, "public recognition of Sunday as a holy day provided a clear sign of Christian civilization..."(21) Underlying this notion of virtue was the conviction, shared in the United States by both liberal and conservative Protestants, that, even if the European pattern of state churches was disavowed, the nation was a Christian nation and should remain a Christian nation. Thus private morality and public morality drank from the same deep Protestant well, or from the Bible as interpreted by innumerable expositors and preachers, of which American society with its origins in religious dissent was a natural spawning ground. In few modern countries has the pulpit played such an influential role, for both good and ill. From its vantage point, when confronted by the rising militant secularism of the late nineteenth century, one side of an anxious Protestantism fought back by invoking not only the old doctrinal certitudes of a bygone scholasticism but also the old sabbatarian commandments of a bygone puritanism. The clash between tradition and modernity grew more and more acute.

In this clash, great and perennial issues rose to the fore. Perhaps the famous Scopes 'monkey' trial in Dayton, Tennesee, in 1925, which pitted the fundamentalist orator (and onetime candidate for the American presidency) Williams Jennings Bryan against the agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow dramatized most effectively the tensions between what Reinhold Niebuhr subsequently called 'pious and secular America:' the two faces of a divided society.(22) The trial revolved around the legal right to teach evolutionary science in the public schools of Tennessee - the defendant, John T. Scopes, was accused of "undermining the faith of Tennesee's children and robbing them of their chance of eternal life"(23) - but became both the setting and the pretext for an acrimonious debate about the Bible itself, and therefore about godliness and ungodliness in American society. Secular America naturally supported Darrow. Pious America split along modernist and anti-modernist lines, and its contradictory voices and internal dissensions resulted in a general diminishment of Protestant authority in this most Protestant of Protestant countries.(24) Neither the fundamentalist backlash against modernity nor the liberal attempt to reconcile Christianity and modernity carried the day. In the one case, tradition had ossified into a narrow and defensive biblicism unable to address the intellectual, moral and spiritual dilemmas of a changing world in a creative manner; in the other case, despite some creative moments, it had surrendered too much to modern culture, and failed to bring too many of its certitudes, for example, the notion of a value free science, under serious scrutiny.

The great divide between the modernists and the anti-modernists was overcome, at least in part, with the rise of a powerful new theology that embodied both a return to the sixteenth century reformation and the reinterpretation of its central ideas in a twentieth century context: in short, a new dialogue between tradition and modernity. Once again, the principle of sola scriptura was brought to the fore - one of the names attached to the new movement was the 'theology of the Word of God' - without, however, negating the fruits of higher criticism, for only by recognizing the fragmentary and fallible character of the biblical text, with its myths, legends, stories, chronicles and other literary materials, can the true message of the Bible be distinguished from the many false messages. According to the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the Word of God is always being confused with the 'word of man,' as successive ages impose their ideologies and idolatries on the proclamation of divine grace that constitutes the "strange new world" of biblical discourse that Jews and Christians call holy scripture.(25) From the false prophets of ancient Israel to the worldly popes of the late Middle Ages to the bourgeois nationalistic Protestants of Barth's own day who sold out to National Socialist doctrines of 'blood, race and soil,' the history of religion is the history of idolatry and the struggle against idolatry - ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda (the church reformed but always in need of reform). Protestantism at its most profound is a protest against every human attempt to usurp the prerogatives of God, even when this attempt is made by Protestants themselves: the "great misery of Protestantism," as far as Barth was concerned, began when Protestant thought "hardened into Orthodoxy" thereby turning itself into a dogmatic system that claimed to possess revelatory truth.(26) But, like the wind, the Spirit blows where it will, and can never be possessed.

The theology of the Word of God, therefore, or neo-orthodoxy, as it was more popularly (and erroneously) called,(27) was, on the one hand, deeply traditional, since it drew its inspiration from the formative principles of the past, and, on the other hand, thoroughly modern, since it appropriated the gains of modernity while setting itself against the securities of the modern age. Not only Barth but also the German Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich located a creative iconoclasm at the heart of the Protestant tradition, which Tillich defined as the Protestant principle itself, or the principle of prophetic self-criticism that owes its origins to the Hebraic roots of Christianity and its conclusive expression to the sixteenth century reformation:

It is the principle (of prophetic self-criticism) which made the accidental name 'Protestant' an essential and symbolic name. It implies that there cannot be a sacred system, ecclesiastical or political; that there cannot be a sacred hierarchy with absolute authority; and that there cannot be a truth in human minds which is divine truth in itself. Consequently, the prophetic spirit must always criticize, attack, and condemn sacred authorities, doctrines and morals. And every genuine Protestant is called upon to bear personal responsibility for this. Each Protestant, each layman, each minister . . . has to to decide for himself whether a doctrine is true or not, whether a prophet is a true or false prophet, whether a power is demonic or divine. Even the Bible cannot liberate him from this responsibility . . . For the Protestant, individual decision is inescapable.(28)

The Protestant principle, of course, cannot exist apart from the 'Catholic substance,' or the sacramental foundations of all religion and religious life, as well as that of communal life in general: "the symbolic realities that give meaning to our existence . . . from birth to death."(29) A failure to understand this fact is the constitutional weakness in Protestantism, especially during periods of social disintegration such the fabled 'wasteland' of the twentieth century when people hunger for the taste of transcendence again.(30) Hence, many European Protestants underestimated the allure of political collectivism with its overtones of omnipotence and its quasi-religious paraphernalia of flags, slogans, leadership cults and revivalistic rallies. To its siren's song, "mass man," or the typical individual produced by a social order in extremis - atomized, isolated, angry, alienated, futile and lonely - responded only too readily.(31) As the Protestant principle without the Catholic substance is empty (the reformers could reform but not abolish' the church), the Catholic substance without the Protestant principle is dangerous, since it is only a matter of time before its sacred and holy power assumes a dictatorial and demonic character. This realization provoked the Protestant Reformation in the first place.

While the particular fascist and communist tyrannies of Tillich's lifetime have crumbled into dust, and totalitarianism, at least in Europe, is regarded as passe (despite the fragility of the democratic political experiments in Russia and the other nations behind the former iron curtain), the relevance of the Protestant principle remains. Today, in our self-styled post-modem society, in which everything is subject to deconstruction, once again certain 'truths' have emerged that have acquired a divine or quasi-divine status, especially when adopted by religious communities in the wake of the various liberation movements since the 1960s: cultural, ethnic, racial, and sexual - in short, the categories of what is regarded from one point of view as inclusivism and from another point of view as 'political correctness.'(32) Unquestionably, much that is valid has found eloquent expression in these movements, challenging long entrenched habits of speech and patterns of discrimination with respect to marginalized classes and other social aggregates, including the female half of the human race. The liberationists have exposed hitherto concealed systems of domination (a term that springs from the new discourse), and thereby awakened the western Judeo-Christian world from its dogmatic slumbers. As far as Protestantism is concerned, the stripping of both scripture and theology of their patriarchal elements is not a loss but a gain, since the deeper significance of the biblical and Christian message is brought thereby into sharper relief.

However, every revolution tends to absolutize itself, and self-righteousness is no stranger to revolutionaries, who, having discovered a higher truth, usually situate themselves on the highest conceivable moral ground. The fact of having been victimized does not obviate this tendency, but rather increases it, bestowing a special sanctity on the victim who, by virtue of his or her victimization, becomes the voice of a superior wisdom, full of inalienable troths. Rarely do the victims of oppression charge themselves with the same sins with which they charge their oppressors; rarely even do they contemplate such a possibility. As a result, a new age of ideology has dawned, an age characterized by slogans as much as by critical thought, which, of course, is the way in which ideologies are articulated in the first place.(33) No matter how noble the slogan - "racial equality," "sexual equality," "minority rights," etc., - it is still a slogan and thus a polemical weapon in the hands of a particular group or faction in the political and social arena.(34) The "dark side" of ideology reveals itself as soon as its precepts are finalized, and consequently rendered immune to any experiences or data that contradict that which in effect has defined itself as beyond contradiction.(35) Yet the Protestant principle places every human truth under judgment, whether Christian or non-Christian, whether religious or secular, whether fashionable or unfashionable, whether uttered by majorities or minorities, whether First World, Second World, Third World or Fourth World. Without constituting an ideology itself, it represents a protest against all ideology. This is its enduring worth.

Today, in the Protestant churches, powerful tensions have arisen over such issues as inclusive language (in relation to God), the rights of homosexuals, the nature of biblical authority, the 'maleness' of Christ, the legitimacy of such christological titles as 'Son of God,"Lord,"Saviour,' etc., as well as the shape of the liturgy, the role of the sermon, and a host of related matters. Should God be addressed as 'Mother' as well as 'Father'? Are the divine personae of classical trinitarianism - Father, Son and Spirit - intrinsically sexist? Are the time-honoured hymns of the faith too tainted with male imagery to be sung any longer? Should they be rewritten? Is the traditional doctrine of marriage and understanding of the Christian family informed by 'heterosexist' prejudice? What meaning or relevance can a male saviour possibly possess for women in light of ages of male oppression? Can Christ be envisaged symbolically if not historically as a woman?(36) Is the central metaphor of the reformation - the Word of God - an authoritarian concept? Is preaching, the historic focus and strength of Protestantism, an authoritarian activity? Is the pulpit, so central and important in Protestant worship, really a symbol of hierarchy? Does hierarchy in any form imply domination?

Any Protestant of today is familiar with these debates and their often divisive character, causing new schisms in an already fractured Christendom. In the deepest possible sense, tradition and modernity, or more accurately post-modernity, have clashed and continue to clash with each other, both in the church and in the surrounding body politic. Feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and the other reigning 'isms' of a social order in transition have induced a radical reconsideration of basic tenets and practices, and their powerful critiques cannot be ignored. No one can forecast the final resolution of these issues, or to what extent Protestant Christianity will be transformed as a consequence. Certainly, as with the rest of society, it is safe to predict that the Protestant churches of the future will bear the marks of the conflicts of our generation. This, in itself, is a sign of life rather than death, for, as has often been observed, only living things change; that which is dead does not change. Even the most conservative of religious traditions, therefore, must beware of petrification, lest they perish. At the same time, the tradition remains the vibrant core of the religion, and it is self-defeating to lay waste to old creeds, confessions and values as if they were nothing more and nothing better than the relics of a misogynist, racist and obscurantist past.(37) For the antidote to these and similar evils lies in a purified understanding of the central elements of the tradition rather than in their negation. This is the task of hermeneutics, a term derived from the messenger god of Greek mythology Hermes, who was also the patron of eloquence. 'Understanding' in its hermeneutical sense is a larger concept than 'understanding' in its daily usage; to revive a tradition one must grasp its true intent, which can be accomplished only if the interpreter is able to step inside its special world with imagination and sympathy, allowing the text - rites, sacraments, and lifestyles are texts, as well as sacred writings - to be heard afresh. When this happens, the tradition is born anew.

In the case of Protestantism, the theological insights and spiritual treasures of the reformation - justification by grace through faith, sola scriptura, the spirit of prophetic self-criticism - as well as the ascetic values that these concepts generated, disseminated by the puritans but not confined to puritanism, remain as potent sources of renewal. As has happened so often in the past, these treasures can be debased by converting them into either articles of faith to be believed or moral codes to be obeyed as a matter of rote. A nominal Christianity at best, and a stifling and legalistic orthodoxy at worst, is the inevitable result. Thus 'puritan' has become a term with mainly negative connotations in our modern vocabulary, and the so called Protestant work ethic a much despised mode of existence, associated with neurosis. The stereotype of the soulless, greedy and penny-pinching capitalist is its ultimate perversion. Asceticism, however, is misunderstood if it is conceived as a life-denying and therefore dehumanizing system of religious discipline, especially Protestant asceticism. The rich communal life of the most ascetic Protestants, for example, the Hutterites and the Old Order Mennonites, with their nineteenth century dress and preference for antiquated technology, refutes such superficial judgments. In fact, these groups are probably the closest approximination to monasticism in Protestant Christianity. Most Protestants are far removed from communitarianism, and few, if any, would regard themselves as 'ascetics': a term with Catholic connotations. Yet elements of the puritan ethic - the sense of stewardship, the preciosity of time, the organization of talent, the abhorrence of laziness, the tempered soul, the moderate and ordered life - remain as perennial characteristics of Protestant spirituality.

As the century approaches its close, Protestants are engaged once again in redefining their identity. To redefine one's identity without losing it requires a return to its foundations, which, as far as Protestant Christianity is concerned, means those principles around which the Protestant movement coalesced in the first place. Both careful scholarship and profound theological reflection are necessarily involved in this return, which may or may not yield fruitful results. The next century will determine the future of Protestantism as a global rather than merely European and North American form of Christianity. Modernity, the adversary of tradition, has much larger parameters than formerly, making the task of reformulation more difficult. Can a religious revolution in the heart of Christian Europe almost half a millennium ago preserve its distinctive legacy in the vastly altered cultural and religious situation of our pluralistic age? Can Protestantism survive as Protestantism? Only if it passes the test of history.


1. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, trans. Olive Wyon, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960, Vol. II, p. 461.

2. In the case of Mormonism, The Book of Mormon; in the case of Moonism, the Divine Principle.

3. John Dillenberger & Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through its Development, second edition, New York: Macmillan, 1988, p. 175.

4. Reden uber die Religion, 1799.

5. Thoughts upon Slavery, 1774.

6. Leben Jesus, kritische bearbeitet, 1835.

7. Das Wesen des Christentums, 1841.

8. Cited in Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 81.

9. Cf. Benjamin Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 1948 (republished).

10. Op. cit.

11. The use of the terms 'left' and 'right', which owe their origin to the seeting arrangements of the various factions (Girondists, Plain, Mountain) of the National Convention established by the fathers of the French Revolution in 1792, is not entirely appropriate in the case of the Protestant Reformation since such a duality simplifies too much the religious situation of the sixteenth century. Moreover, those Protestants on the left wing were far from uniform, consisting of Anabaptists, spiritualists, mystics and rationalists with extremely diverse opinions.

12. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, trans. James Luther Adams, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 201.

13. Max Weber, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1904-1905.

14. Cf. Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin's Doctrine of the Christian Life, Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1959, Chapter VI.

15. Cf. Andre Bieler, The Social Humanism of Calvin, trans. Paul T. Fuhrmann, Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1964.

16. Cited in Weber, op. cit., p. 162.

17. G.R. Cragg, Puritanism in the Period of the Great Persecution 1660-1688, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957, pp. 134-135.

18. R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, West Drayton, Middlesex: Pelican Books, 1926, p. 201.

19. Ibid.

20. Max Weber, op. cit., p. 168f.

21. Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 49.

22. Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr, Pious and Secular America, New York: Scribner's, 1958.

23. Cited in Ralph Volney Harlow, The Growth of the United States, Vol. II, New York: Henry Holt, 1943, p. 464.

24. Handy, op. cit., p. 203.

25. Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton, New York: Harper Brothers, 1957.

26. Ibid., p. 246.

27. Other designations for the movement were neo-Reformation theology, theology of crisis and dialectical theology.

28. Tillich, op. cit., p. 226.

29. Ibid., p. 228.

30. Cf. T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland.

31. Cf. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York: Meridian Books, 1958, Chapters X, XI. Like Tillich, Arendt was a German emigree.

32. The concept of inclusiveness has been adopted by exponents of egalitarian principles with respect to women, homosexuals, and social minorities of every description. The term 'political correctness,' which may have Maoist origins, has, in more recent years, been employed by critics of self-styled anti-racist and anti-sexist policies, especially in the schools and universities, when these policies have developed an intolerant strain. Much, of course, depends on one's point of view. To social egalitarians, anti-racism and anti-sexism are self-evident and therefore absolute values; to their critics, these 'politically correct' attitudes (politically correct in terms of reigning mores) frequently contain moral blindspots, as, for example, when anti-racist educators display racial prejudice themselves, or anti-fascist activists adopt fascist tactics in their war against fascism. An interesting recent example of the clash of values occurred at a roundtable discussion on racism in Toronto in 1994 in which I was a participant. A decision to open a new music hall with the famous musical SHOWBOAT divided the local Jewish and Black communities, which exchanged charges of racism and antisemitism.

33. Cf. Roger L. Shinn, Forced Options: Social Decisions for the 21st Century, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, p. 231.

34. Ibid., pp. 231-232.

35. Terence R. Anderson, Walking the Way: Christian Ethics as a Guide, Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 1993, p. 259.

36. Some contemporary (post-modern?) sculptors have designed crucifixes and statues of a female Christ.

37. An example of this self-defeating mindset is supplied by those occasional Christian Holocaust theologians who assert that the true roots of antisemitism lie not in the derogatory anti-Jewish 'teaching of contempt' in Christian history that accused the Jews of a cosmic crime and placed their existence under the curse of God (i.e., the Cainlike people), but in the very framework of Christian faith itself, with its incarnation/crucifixion/resurrection motifs, particularly the resurrection, which is interpreted as a supersessionist and triumphalistic dogma. Much depends, of course, on how these motifs are interpreted, and it cannot be denied that an antisemitic interpretation is always possible. Surely, however, for spiritually sensitive Christians at least, the antidote to antisemitism is contained in the traditional incarnation/crucifixion/resurrection framework, since that which is crucified is what Paul called "our old self", or our sinful self (Romans 6:6), and that which is risen is a new person, or a person, one might say, liberated from such sins as Jew-hatred and the like.

Alan Davies is Professor Emeritus of Religion, University of Toronto, Canada. He is the author of Antisemitism and the Christian Mind, Infected Christianity: A Study of Modern Racism and co-author of How Silent were the Churches? Canadian Protestantism and the Jewish Plight During the Nazi Era, and other writings.
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Author:Davies, Alan
Publication:Journal of Asian and African Studies
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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