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Religion Library: Protestantism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Ted Vial

First, rather than focusing on clearly marking the boundaries between historical traditions, recent work has focused on their mutual influence and overlap. The tone for this work was set by the ecumenical movement, which took its cue in turn from Roman Catholicism's Second Vatican Council and the decision made there to open theological conversations with the traditions that had broken away from Catholicism. Examples of this kind of scholarship include George Lindbeck's 1985 The Nature of Doctrine, Heiko Oberman's The Dawn of the Reformation (1992), and Tuomo Mannermaa's Christ Present in Faith (2005). Analogous work showing the relationships between Methodism and the various holiness movements that developed out of it in the United States can be seen in Vincent Synan's 2001 The Century of the Holy Spirit. Earlier work on Methodism had been concerned to draw sharp distinctions between the "respectable" mainline denomination and its more "embarrassing" offspring.

Second, there has been an effort to connect the history of individual denominations, and of Protestantism as a whole, to wider social movements. David Hempton's Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (2005) considers the growth and decline of Methodism in relationship to industrialization, urbanization, and modernization. Interest in the relationship of Calvinism and capitalism remains strong, as for example in Philip Gorski's The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Growth of State Power in Early Modern Europe (2003). Attention has also turned in recent decades to the role of women in the history of Protestantism (for example Jean Miller Schmidt's Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism, 1999), and to the role of other groups that earlier scholarship had ignored or pushed to the margins (for example, Anthony B. Pinn's The African American Religious Experience in America (2006).

Finally, for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, academics assumed that the world was secularizing (becoming less religious), and that this process was a zero sum game between modernity and all religions, including Protestantism. More recent work has shown that the world is not, in fact, becoming less religious, though the shape and place of religion continues to shift. Furthermore, scholars now argue increasingly that Protestantism, far from being a bulwark against secularism, is one of the major factors in producing secularism. Protestantism, with its focus on individual piety and its relationship to the state and to science—so different from Catholicism's—has helped create a world in which religion is voluntary; the flip side of making individual choice or individual accepting of grace the sine qua non of religion, is that individuals develop the ability to choose among religions, or choose no religion at all. Most important here are José Casanova's Public Religions in the Modern World (1994), Talal Asad's Formations of the Secular (2003), and Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (2007).

Study Questions:
1.     What has recent scholarship offered to Protestantism?
2.     What is iconoclasm? What were its effects?
3.     How have social movements influenced Protestantism throughout time?
4.     How has Protestantism changed the contemporary world? Explain.


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