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Religion Library: Protestantism

Modern Age

Written by: Ted Vial

Contemporary Protestant Christianity in Europe is largely characterized by nominal affiliation. That is, in many nations nearly half of the population never attends any religious services unless they involve a major life event like a wedding or a funeral. While that statistic is largely acknowledged, it is less commonly recognized that even in the most secular countries, there are thriving Protestant communities, and there is a growing number of ethnic minority Protestant congregations. There are large black church communities in the U.K., and great numbers of European Roma have been converting to Pentecostalism.

In the United States, there are some similar trends, though the situation is more complex. In the waning years of the 19th century, biblical criticism began to erode Christian confidence in the authority of the Bible. Many European and American scholars—including, among many others, Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), and Paul Tillich (1886-1965)—abandoned or radically reinterpreted many of the traditional Christian doctrines. The onset of World War I and the Great Depression exacerbated this trend and redirected a great deal of Christian focus to the social and economic needs of people rather than their beliefs. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) exemplifies this shift of focus and is known as one of the founders of the "Social Gospel" movement.

Liberal theological positions became increasingly embedded in North American mainline seminaries, as they had in many European academic circles. The American Protestant church, however, experienced an organized resistance to this theological trend in the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. The term "fundamentalism" is derived from a 12-volume set of essays published between 1910-1915 called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Those who advocated for biblical inerrancy, scriptural authority, and the historical veracity of the core Christian dogmas—incarnation, resurrection, miracles, etc.—became known as fundamentalists. They opposed the modernists, who had largely embraced the rational, scientific, and cultural arguments of the day, and had found new ways to interpret Christian doctrine accordingly. The fundamentalists' essential posture of resistance became epitomized in the 1925 Scopes Trial regarding the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Though the fundamentalists won the trial, they lost face in the public arena, and were largely mocked for their anti-scientific views.

Besides the rise of fundamentalism, the American Protestant community witnessed another remarkable movement that also rejected the rationalism of the modernist movement: the rise of Pentecostalism. William Seymour (1870-1922) initiated the Pentecostal renewal movement in his Los Angeles church in 1906. Drawing on earlier holiness traditions, Seymour preached the baptism of the Holy Spirit and a new power in Christian living. This emphasis could also be seen in Charles Parham's (1873-1929) ministry in Topeka, Kansas. The fastest growing Christian denominations in the world today are Pentecostal movements in Latin America, India, Africa, and China.


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