Protestant Ecclesiastical Anarchy and Dogmatic Diversity

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Review of Mark A. Noll. Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xvi + 161 pp., with bibliography of further reading, glossary, index. $11.95 (paperback).

Mark Noll’s Protestantism is a brief, interesting, and useful account of a religious movement that began with the remonstrance of a contentious German monk who, much like others in the Latin Catholic Church before and after him, called for reform. On 31 October 1517 in the small town of Wittenberg in Saxony, Martin Luther (1483–1546) certainly did not plan on founding a new church. His was merely a “local protest” (p. 10). Among other things, Luther complained about the sale of indulgences, which were believed to ease the pain of those presumably undergoing a necessary postmortem purging. This tiny event eventually led to a radical division of Western (Latin) Christianity into Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church.

In describing what he considers “Protestant and Protestant-like churches” (p. 89), Noll asserts that “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) represented an American creation further from traditional Protestant norms” than the Alexander Campbell/Burton Stone movement that eventually yielded the Disciples of Christ and other sects (p. 62). “The Book of Mormon that its prophet, Joseph Smith, promulgated as an extension of biblical revelation became the [Page 18]foundation of first a new civilization in the western American desert of Utah and then the stimulus for a new church that has spread around the world” (p. 62). First a civilization and only then a church? Could Noll, one wonders, be unaware that the Saints, beginning with Joseph Smith, have never seen their faith as Protestant but rather as a divinely revealed replacement for all flawed Christianities, including those generated by the Protestant Reformation?

Enormous diversity is the dominant theme of this fine, richly illustrated introduction to Protestant religiosity. Noll begins his story with the word “diversity” (p. 2 heading) to explain the current Protestant movement and uses the word often (pp. 115, 125, 133, 136, 139). Diversity takes a strange form when he describes the stunning recent emergence of Christian faiths in sub-Saharan Africa. Noll describes African Christian leaders as deeply involved in “healing and prophetic gifts” (p. 98) that are not limited to the bland “sign-gifts” (p. 91) commonly found in holiness and pentecostal forms of Christian piety. For example, we learn that “while in prison” in Liberia in 1910, William Wadé Harris was “visited by the Angel Gabriel” in what was “later described alternatively as a vision and a palpable revelation” (p. 99). Harris’s fervent preaching, according to Noll, drew thousands who were organized “locally around the twelve apostles he regularly appointed” (p. 99). Harris “tolerated polygamy,” much to the annoyance of missionary-led Catholic and traditional Protestant congregations who benefitted considerably from his evangelism (p. 101).

Noll elsewhere indirectly stresses the theme of diversity (e.g., pp. 5–6, 9, 21, 37–39, 43, 63, 89, 95–102). For example, although the “magisterial reformers” ((The term refers to the mainline Protestant reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin who, in contrast to the “radical reformers,” allied themselves with secular authority (princes, city councils, magistrates) in pursuit of a reformed Christendom.)) were concerned about salvation right from the beginning, the “ever-present internal [Page 19]conflicts” within the movement generated “an immense range of variations among Protestants in fleshing out this general picture of salvation” (p. 5). Despite this great variety of beliefs and practices, Noll assures his readers, “it is still possible to speak, in admittedly very general terms, about a common Protestant history” (p. 6). Today’s “sheer multiplicity of Protestant and Protestant-like denominations”—more than 38,000, we are told—makes it “challenging to write a coherent history,” Noll concedes (p. 9).

Some of the distinctive terminology generated rather accidently by Luther’s actions is explained. For example, it was Landgraf Philipp of Hesse (a secular/political figure who adopted Luther’s teachings and organized like-minded German princes) who used the word “protest” in 1529 at an imperial diet in Speyer, Germany (p. 19), thus giving us the labels “Protestant” and “Protestantism.” Luther’s side of the Reformation took the name “evangelical” (p. 19), while John Calvin’s side became known as “reformed.” (Current use of the label “evangelical” has nothing to do with the name of Lutheran churches.)

Noll refers to two dynamic processes—the tendency of Protestants to “change inherited doctrines in accord with intellectual norms from the Enlightenment” (p. 43) and “Protestant disunity” (p. 21)—that fragmented the Protestant world (p. 58). He employs the word “fragmentation” to describe the anarchy of this diverse, ever-shifting movement. The stark dependence of Protestant ecclesiastical authorities on princes, kings, and other civil authorities is also noted. Noll emphasizes that because Protestant leaders tend to be self-selected (p. 7), Protestantism lacks anything approaching a “magisterium” (authorized teaching authority) and for a very long time was intolerant of competing opinion and the common use of the [Page 20]sword and fire not only in war but also in beheading and burning heretics at the stake (pp. 1, 3, 33), an ugly side of the Reformation. The profound impact of the acids of modernity on Protestant beliefs and piety is also treated (pp. 65–66, 57, 125). Noll tells the story of the famous Azusa Street revival in 1906 in Los Angeles (pp. 90–91, 133) that, at least in part, led to the dramatic rise of the Pentecostal movement in America and the subsequent stunning growth in that variety of the Protestant movement, especially in the so-called Global South (Southern Hemisphere). The best estimates indicate that some six hundred million people are involved in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement today. Perhaps even more stunning is the emergence of an essentially indigenous Protestant-style faith in China, now numbering somewhere between eighty to one hundred million adherents.

The recent rise of megachurches (congregations entirely independent of denominational supervision) and parachurch organizations receives mention as well as the rather distressing story of the rapid decline of Protestantism in Europe (p. 8), in contrast to the dramatic rise of Protestant-style religiosity in such places as Latin America, Africa, and China.

For those seeking to better understand American Protestant theology, Noll provides a fine account of the emergence of the Fundamentalist response to Protestant liberalism, which had gained a major foothold in the once-dominant mainline denominations (pp. 112–13). He argues that “divisive strife as much as unifying tranquility has marked the 20th-century history of American Protestantism” with “fundamentalists generating publicity” by objecting to Christian teaching modified by fashionable new moral sentiments and “modern learning” (p. 112). Noll unfortunately neglects to explain the 1942 creation of the National Association of Evangelicals and how shortly afterward Billy Graham, with his wealthy friends [Page 21]and sympathetic followers, marginalized fundamentalism by setting evangelicalism in its place.

Noll correctly maintains that Protestantism is “overlaid with a multitude of doctrinal differences, differing musical forms, differing political attitudes, and huge differences in wealth and kinds of social power” (p. 136). With the Bible providing a shared “point of convergence,” the movement’s “multiple traditions for interpreting that text, multiple authorities proclaiming the text, and multiple contexts in which the text is appropriated create a loose field of experiences and truth claims rather than anything coherent” (p. 136).

Protestantism is a fine, broadly instructive book that will benefit many, including Latter-day Saints seeking to better understand a movement that has generated much of the sectarian opposition to their faith.

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About Louis C. Midgley

Louis Midgley (Ph.D. Brown University) is an emeritus professor of political science at Brigham Young University, where he taught the history of political philosophy, which includes efforts of Christian churchmen and theologians to identify, explain, understand and cope with the evils in this world. Dr. Midgley has therefore had an abiding interest in both dogmatic and systematic theology, and the alternatives to both. His doctoral dissertation was on the religious socialist political ideology of Paul Tillich, a once famous German American Protestant theologian, most famous for his systematic theology which is a radical elaboration of classical theism. Dr. Midgley’s encounter with the writings of Leo Strauss, an influential Jewish philosopher/intellectual historian drew his attention to the radical challenge posed by what is often called modernity to both the wisdom of Jerusalem, which is grounded on divine revelation, and also the contrasting, competing wisdom of Athens, which was fashioned by unaided human reason. Dr. Midgley has an interest in the ways in which communities of faith have responded to the challenges posed by modernity to faith in God grounded on divine special revelation.

2 thoughts on “Protestant Ecclesiastical Anarchy and Dogmatic Diversity

  1. I think I’m a bit autistic! I say that because, while reading this article, I was acting very much like a friend’s son, who is autistic. Reading some of the interesting things that Bro. Midgley points out from the book “Protestantism”, I was literally laughing out loud and dancing in the room, and making funny noises in response to his comments. I know this sounds funny, but after having dealt with many people of protestant/evangelical/fundamentalist background, and having to endure their unwillingness to be, at all, “diversity” minded when it comes to Christian doctrine, and to have them condemn my faith for being unchristian and way-out, it’s almost unbearably impossible to sit still and not physically react to the irony of Mr. Noll’s and Bro. Midgley’s observations on the anarchic state of the Protestant movement. Thank you Bro. Midgley, for pointing these things out!

    • I very much appreciate Richard’s comments. I am gratified to see signs (in both public and private) that my efforts to understand the history of Christianity have been helpful for other Latter-day Saints.

      Since my intended audience is primarily composed of Latter-day Saints, I have been anxious to provide both what I consider new insights and also especially accurate information on what I call the anarchy of Protestantism. One reason, though perhaps not the primary one, is that the Saints are beset by an array of sometimes pugnacious Protestant preacher/apologists who often insist that they speak for historic, biblical, Trinitarian, creedal, orthodox Christianity, as they mock our faith. But without anything at all like the Roman Catholic magisterium (official teaching office), or the hoary tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism is not a single church but it is, instead, a assortment of often conflicting if not warring individuals, factions and movements. Mark Noll’s fine book demonstrates this to be the case.

      However, I also believe that the history of the diversity generated right from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, as well as that of the Roman Catholic Church and the old Eastern Orthodox family of churches is also, in at lease one important sense, our own history. How so? It is a past we share with other Christians and a history from which we can learn from and also appreciate. No one can come away from, for example, actually seeing Russian Orthodox monumental architecture and not be impressed with the vast effort to express genuine piety.

      I believe we should know this vast and complicated history as well and as accurately as possible, or we should not yield to the urge to comment on it. We should not do to other Christians what some of them continue to do to us. But what about apostasy?

      Despite our own sense that a great apostasy has taken place, we should also keep in mind that it was never complete or total. In addition, for at least two reasons we should avoid false stereotypes:
      First, despite whatever perverse or even demonic elements one finds in the larger history of Christianity, passionate and impressive faith, I believe, was also always present in one degree or another and especially among people out of the spotlight whose names we cannot now even recover such as illiterate peasants just doing the best they could in often miserable circumstances. Despite bouts of apostasy, I believe (or at least hope) that God was always busy manifesting his love for those who genuinely sought him, even if they only had shreds of light. We can, if we will only make the effort, find solid evidence of this. But we must do so by looking beneath the messy stuff taking place often at the intersection of bishops and princes, or preachers and politicians, or at where violent disputes over dogmatic or systematic theology were taking place or creeds and confession being hammered out, and so forth.
      Second, the quarrels, and the fruit of speculation and improvisation are perhaps there as a providential warning to Latter-day Saints to avoid going down those same dark paths. We should keep in mind that there is ultimately only one Way, and it is not merely the work of some clever and/or ambitious person.

      With these considerations in mind, I want to pont out that, in several essays and book reviews in the venerable old FARMS Review, I have attempted to draw the attention of Latter-day Saints to the wide variety of opinions, practices, worship styles, theological systems and speculation flowing from the Protestant Reformation, as well as the diversity of theological opinions (both dogmatic and systematic) found within the two older versions of Christian faith–that is, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

      For my views on this matter, please have a look my review essay entitled “Telling the Larger ‘Church History’ Story,” Mormon Studies Review 23/1 (2011): 157-171. And then, if curious, see my review (in same issue of the MSR) of Kenneth J. Stewart’s Ten Myths about Calvinism (IVP Academic, 2011), at pp. 177-179; and also my review of James P. Eckman’s Exploring Church History (Crossway, 2008), at pp. 184-186. And then, if you want more, have a look at my reviews of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Penguin, 2009), at pp. 173-177 in the same issue of the MSR. This book is a massive, and impressive secular account of the vast variety of expressions of “Christian faith” from even the millennium prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, hence the seemingly odd title. And it supplements MacCulloch’s impressive The Reformation (Viking Penguin, 2004). See my “Protestant Ecclesiastical Anarchy and Dogmatic Diversity,” Interpreter 6 (2013): 17-21, for some of my opinions on this valuable study. And then have a look at my essay entitled “Evangelical Controversy: A Deeply Divided Movement,” Interpreter 3 ((2013): 63-84; as well as “Confronting Five-Point Calvinism, Interpreter 4 (2013): 85-92.

      And I cannot avoid seeing signs of the hand of God at work the truly stunning growth of Christian faith in China. This growth has taken place and despite, beginning with Mao, very intense persecution, and now it seems to be continuing despite (or even perhaps because of) the widespread worldliness generated by recent enormous economic growth. For some details, see my “Christian Faith in Contemporary China,” Interpreter 2 (2012): 35-39. Even a glance at some of the literature I cite in this essay will, I believe, show signs of the work of the Holy Spirit among the people of that marvelous land. For several reasons, the Saints should be pleased to see this taking place. While Christian faith is on the decline in Europe and perhaps in America, it is growing rapidly in other places, and thereby opening new doors for Latter-day Saints to open.

      Once again I must thank Richard for his kind remarks, but even more having reminded me of one of my obsessions.

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