Last week Tim wondered about the definition of evangelicalism. Today I’d like to step back a category and ask: whether evangelical or mainline, churchly or individualistic, what makes Protestants “Protestant”?
One could list a set of shared beliefs here, most likely starting with the solas of the Reformation. My Protestant denomination, for example, sees itself
as standing in the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation, particularly with reference to the doctrine that justification is by faith alone. While affirming with the reformers the sovereignty of the word of God over all creeds, and the priesthood of all believers, the Covenant Church has placed particular importance on the Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone—apart from the works of the law.
Protestants, this line of thinking goes, might debate how grace relates to faith and works, or Scripture to creeds and theological tradition, but they all affirm some version of sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura.
So it’s striking to read Alec Ryrie’s dazzling, frustrating new history of Protestants and find that it’s not really about “doctrines and churches and theological systems” but a people united — and torn apart — by a common passion:
From the beginning, a love affair with God has been at the heart of [Protestants’] faith. Like all long love affairs, it has gone through many phases, from early passion through companionable marriage and sometimes strained coexistence, to rekindled ardor. Beneath all the arguments, the distinguishing mark of a Protestant is the feeling and memory of that love, one on which no church or human authority can intrude. It is because Protestants care so deeply about God that they have been willing both to fight one another and take on the world on his behalf. (2)
Right off the bat, you should wonder if Protestants were or are the only Christians to feel so passionately about God. (Mysticism?) But Ryrie detects a…