Book Review: Protestants, by Alec Ryrie
Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World. Viking, 2017. 467 pages.
On October 31, 1517, an obscure monk in an obscure university in rural Germany set in motion a course of events that would nearly rend the Western world in two. Five hundred years later, that monk’s legacy still shapes the modern world. Few events have had such a singular force on the shape of human history as the Protestant Reformation. For some, it is celebrated as the freeing of the true church from its captor; for others, it is an unrestrained disaster.
A 500 YEAR HISTORY
How did this movement now known as Protestantism shape the world? Alec Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University, helps readers understand how one faith made a formative impact on the world. Ryrie’s Protestants is a sweeping narrative that is engaging and rewarding. Ryrie is charitable to his topic, but he is also sufficiently self-aware to provide thoughtful critique. He has a sharp theological mind that clearly understands much of Protestant theology, and he summarizes even the most difficult to understand doctrines in a way that is clear and accessible.
But this is not a book of theology, but of history and sociology. Telling a story that is global in scope and that covers five-hundred years of history is not a task for the faint of heart. But Ryrie manages to do so, taking the reader from a small town in Germany to the great cities of China and Korea centuries later. He divides Protestantism’s 500 year history into three ages: The Reformation age, the modern age, and the global age. A capable storyteller, Ryrie develops several features of Protestantism across each of these ages. Persecution, for example, was a central factor in the spread of Protestantism even from the beginning of the Reformation, and it has remained so for Protestants in closed-off countries today.
WHAT IS A PROTESTANT?
Despite Ryrie’s compelling portrayal of the history of Protestantism, I do have one major disagreement with the book. Ryrie calls Luther’s breakthrough a “ravishing love affair with the God he met in the Bible” (456). For Ryrie, this experience of God is the heart of Protestantism—a personal encounter with God. Ryrie considers Protestants as Christians whose faith can be traced back to Martin Luther and who share this type of personal experience.
But Ryrie’s definition of Protestant leaves the reader asking “then who isn’t a Protestant?” If Protestantism is merely a personal encounter with God akin to Luther’s then how does that definition understand Protestantism’s doctrinal parameters. But Ryrie explicitly rejects a definition of Protestantism based on shared theological convictions because “defining [Protestant] that way is usually an attempt to exclude people” (455). Thus, Ryrie argues that our definition of Protestants would include communities such as Quakers, Unitarians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses—traditions that adhere to theological convictions well beyond those shared by mainstream Protestant traditions.
Aberrant theological communities that still claim to be part of the mainstream are standard fare throughout the history of the church. But theological claims matter far more than genetic descent when defining a movement. You can’t leave the faith and still maintain that you’re part of it. Paul’s letter to the Galatians addressed this problem. Augustine did as well. Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants—all have experienced this phenomenon. Doctrinal convictions must shape how we understand religious movements. Influence and genealogy do not constitute a shared identity. The simple fact that one group branched off from a particular tree does not mean they continue to have any serious connection with their source. It is one thing to note that such groups emerged from a time and place in which Protestantism was deeply influential or even dominate, which Ryrie acknowledges. It is an entirely different claim to say that they hold serious connections with the faith that led many of the first Protestants to be burned at the stake and leads many Protestants today to jail cells in closed countries.
A Protestant is not simply someone who has an all-encompassing experience with the God they find in the Bible. “Protestant” connotes, in part, certain theological convictions: beginning with the ancient creeds and including the solas of the Reformation. Protestant must carry theological claims if it will mean anything at all.
Ryrie concludes with challenges and opportunities he sees going forward for Protestants. Pastors and church members ought to consider carefully his concerns. One can disagree with Ryrie at certain points: his definition of Protestant, for example, or his description of how the faith informed political and social movements. But for anyone hoping to understand the Reformation and how it has helped form the modern world, Protestants is both engaging and helpful. Ryrie’s Protestants helps readers understand the good and ill that has surrounded those who claim to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther. Combining sharp insight and riveting storytelling, Ryrie’s tale is not only a book you should read; it is a book that you will not want to put down.