From Martin Luther to American Evangelicals

Alan D. Strange

We’ve gone through a series of five hundredth anniversaries of events that were significant for the Reformation of the sixteenth century (e.g., Calvin’s birth in 1509 and Knox’s in 1514). Now we have finally reached the anniversary of what’s reckoned as the Reformation’s proper starting date, October 31, 1517. On that date, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to Wittenberg Castle’s church door (or something like that—what actually happened is disputed). A plethora of books have emerged to mark the occasion, addressing many aspects of the Reformation and its legacy.

Two books are receiving significant press attention. One is on the rise and spread of Protestantism broadly (Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World, published by Viking), and the other focuses on the United States and the history of evangelicals as a significant part of the Protestant movement (Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, published by Simon & Schuster). Ryrie is an English historian who is also a Protestant minister, and that sensibility pervades his book. He can be rather critical of much that goes by the name Protestant, which he defines quite broadly—calling them “fighters and lovers,” asserting that “from the beginning a love affair with God has been at the heart of their faith”—while at the same time clearly appreciative of the movement as a whole. FitzGerald, on the other hand, while striving to be fair, is essentially out of sympathy with her subjects, and this too colors her whole work.

Ryrie begins with Luther and the Lutherans. He well portrays Luther’s stand on the Word, over against the Pope and councils—though, he avers, Luther does not make the inerrancy claim of the fundamentalists years later. Throughout his book, Ryrie says that Protestants, though centered on the Word, are likely to see future success if they are not rationalistic about it, which he sees fundamentalism as being, having its roots in Protestant Orthodoxy. Ryrie argues that Pentecostalism and the like—those approaches that are open to continuing speaking of the Spirit—are the likely future of Protestantism. He sees Calvinism as failing to unite Protestants, though it more than anything gave it the old college try, both on the continent and in Britain. (His chapter on “The British Maelstrom” is first-rate, making up for some of his factual errors with respect to American history.) Ryrie’s treatment of Korea and China, the latter being the fastest-growing nation for Protestants, is also excellent.

There is much to learn in FitzGerald’s account. There are details here that are rarely brought together in one work and with such skill (though occasionally marred by minor errors). In her hands, however, evangelicals remain caricatures of themselves, not people with whom any thoughtful person can identify. While there is much to critique, for instance, respecting the rise of the Moral Majority and all that has followed in the politics of evangelicals on the right since the late 1970s, FitzGerald finds them so distasteful that they often seem unreal in her treatment. She treats Machen in her examination of fundamentalism and identifies the influences of both R. J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer on the rise of the evangelical right.

FitzGerald starts where many Americans started to become aware of evangelicals: with Jimmy Carter, whose claim to be “born again” baffled many in the media and the academy at the time, soon followed by outsized figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson and others—though no one embodied a broader evangelicalism more than Billy Graham, in some respects, as both books point out. But FitzGerald quickly goes back to the roots of evangelicals in this country—the First and Second Great Awakenings, of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively. It is the Calvinistic and then Arminian (and even Pelagian) ministries of Edwards (whom Ryrie calls humane, which is an accurate read of a man often seen entirely as a rigorist), Whitefield, Campbell, Finney, and others that came to embody this diverse thing called evangelicalism.

FitzGerald quotes George Marsden’s definition: “Evangelicalism today includes any Christians traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of the old nineteenth-century evangelical consensus: the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, the real historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture, salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive mission of Christ, the importance of evangelism and missions, and the importance of a spiritually transformed life” (p. 3). This definition highlights the spiritual character of evangelicalism.

The order thus remains for most evangelicals that what they believe to be paramount spiritually should be paramount politically. That abortion and same-sex marriage appear to evangelicals to be especially egregious violations of God’s law should lead us to expect evangelicals to oppose such practices at the ballot box and in the legislature. There has also always been an evangelical left concerned about social welfare, and we may today be witnessing the revival of such (and the transformation of the Christian right) as evangelicals tire of being taken for granted by Republicans and begin to be concerned about income inequality, the environment, and the like.

Interestingly, Ryrie, who in addressing Protestantism is focusing on something larger than evangelicalism, never loses sight of the spirituality that is at the core of Protestantism. In a particularly perceptive treatment of the South African experience, Ryrie ends by saying, “Protestant movements that become too deeply attached to … social and political issues tend to find that they are running out of steam. Like it or loathe it, the heart of Protestantism’s message is a spiritual one, a message of salvation and of divine power” (p. 361).

To be sure, there is a cautionary tale here. Evangelicals in America have too often been held captive by a cultural and political agenda that they assume to be biblical, though the Bible, in fact, prescribes neither a form of civil government nor the details of such government. Yet, as Ryrie points out well in his volume, Protestants are those chiefly who have embraced the love of God in Christ and for whom everything else, politics included, is decidedly secondary.

Both the narrative sweep and the handling of the details make these critical volumes worth reading in this banner year for Protestants and their evangelical heirs.

The author, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.