2 Approaches to Protestantism

Alister McGrath’s brilliant work Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (full review coming) has this to say in its final section:

For the historian, such cycles of review and renewal seem to be an integral part of Protestant identity….

The pressure of these changes has created a furious debate within sections of Protestantism, leading to a confrontation between two very different visions – one static, the other dynamic – of Protestant identity. On the one hand are Protestant traditionalists who hold that the essence of Protestantism can only be preserved by “freezing” defining moments in the past… For such traditionalists, fidelity to the past is the touchstone of authenticity and integrity.

On the other hand are those who argue that Protestantism is not, and never has been, defined in this way, but locates its identity in its constant self-examination in the light of the Bible and in its willingness to correct itself when it takes wrong turns or situations change. This second approach – often summarized in the slogan semper reforandum (“always being reformed”) – defines the distinctive identity of Protestantism as a method, not as any specific historical outcome of the application of that method.

Protestantism is thus seen as applying the Bible to new situations in which one may learn from past applications but is not obligated to repeat them….

By refusing to regard any past expression of Protestantism as normative, this approach has liberated the movement from its captivity to the cultural habits of early modern western Europe….

So what of the future of Protestantism? Those who base their answer on its fortunes in western Europe, its original heartlands, may offer a somewhat negative answer. But for those who have reflected on its remarkable advances elsewhere, such an answer is inadequate. Yes, the sun may set on a movement – but it is too easily forgotten that the sun rises again the next day.

(pages 464-465, 478)

This summed up the message of the book beautifully, and gave me much more of an appreciation for my Protestant heritage. If you want to apply specifically to Anabaptists, you can pretty much just substitute “interpreting the Bible” in general with a Jesus hermeneutic in particular and I think the message still applies: we learn from our past, respect our past, but we are not bound to be identical to our past. In fact, if we honour the radical Jesus core of our history we will inevitably apply that radical core in ways that differ on some of the details.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.