Have been meaning to post this segment of writing I put together months ago. News has a way of starkly demonstrating present circumstances:
Observing the lifecycles of Protestant denominations leads to the conclusion that they will all likely suffer the same fate. It is this, roughly: early vibrancy with a new, significant quirk of belief or practice spearheaded by powerful and devout early leaders which energizes adherents and draws committed followers or traditionalists from past Protestant movements along with those culturally inclined to the new movement; continued growth, institutionalization, and systematization, wherein Universities or cultural footholds are constructed; peak influence and interaction with political realities; steady decline, consolidation, and recession of those cultural footholds which are taken over by other religious or modernist influences; occasional revival based on outlier events or charismatic figures which arise and propel the organization forward; and eventually, fracture into “modern” or “progressive” vs “radical traditional” or “historical” wings, wherein newer, more vibrant movements then siphon off those most committed to traditional notions of the Godhead and societal morality. Most denominations have a small ghetto of traditionalists who keep to the original practices of the denomination as their influence over their nation and civilization wanes.
Protestantism is like a fraying thread where divergent denominations, sects, and cults arise and mostly fizzle out on the periphery, but a continuous, although increasingly small thread of those still holding close to the center. Denominations holding historically Christian notions of Jesus (anti–Arian, anti–Nestorian, anti–modal, etc.), the trinity, salvation, heaven & hell, morality, etc., tend to have much longer periods of vibrancy versus fully modernized or liberalized denominations. Each Protestant iteration renews itself by appealing to some combination of traits perceived in the early church (in their words, pre–Catholic corruption phase, wherever they tend to place that) in the present context. American Christianity was defined by the Protestant revival experience, and revivals can only go on so long until this method is exhausted. Even today Baptist and other similar ministers pray for “revival,” as they did in the 1800s.
Those denominations that maintain historically orthodox positions on Jesus, the Godhead, the trinity, etc. (defined by what the Catholic Church believed in the first few centuries after the Apostles) also tend to last longer without creeping modernist corruption and have a slower decline phase – the phase many American denominations happen to be in now. Many, after having peaked, had some enduring institutional success in creating Colleges or Universities even when on the downslope. Most of these institutions have begun to show cracks or are in decline as they fragment into traditional and heretical/modernist factions, such as the Episcopal/Anglican dispute over an open homosexual being ordained to the Episcopal Church, as well as recent votes on gay clergy in the Methodist Church. Gradually, all Christians will be forced to bend the knee or go underground on certain moral issues unless there is a genuine traditional resurgence, as I believe we are witnessing.
I observe the same pattern in the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the Rehoboam/Jeroboam split with varying dominant families and dynasties, one after the other, who took authority by force of will rather than by any deeper–rooted lineage initiated by God. Dynasties in the Northern Kingdom didn’t last more than a generation or two before they were overturned by the next dynasty. Major Protestant leaders who started organizations and denominations may have intended well and even accomplished many good things or sacrificially given of their lives that Christ would be better known by blood and sweat and human organizational efforts. They roused enthusiasm by appealing to some kernel of Christian truth relevant for that time, that place, and that culture, and their skill was usually rewarded.
Major Protestant denominations seem to have this consistent lifecycle pattern across cultures. Many were simply added to the identity of a nation and become part of its cultural pantheon, and nominally (but not substantively) they endure long after the culture has abandoned the theological roots or essentials of Christianity. They become vaguely part of the background culture or blended with it. Southern Baptists are the epitome of American Evangelicalism.
As previously mentioned, the first stage of a denomination is where enthusiasm or vibrancy regarding an aspect of Christian truth leads to a flashpoint and lays the organizational roots, somewhat like a container garden where the limitations of the soil capacity lead to a natural limitation in growth. This is usually under a particularly eloquent, charismatic, or scholarly head figure, often who is never really matched or superseded by subsequent leaders.
For Luther, his inner turmoil and obsession with the grace of God affected his theological outlook profoundly. Luther emphasized the personal experience with God versus the institutional elements of adherence or duties to priest and parish. Luther despised the emphasis that religious works had within the Roman Church:
The first and highest, the most precious of all good works is faith in Christ, as He says, John VI. When the Jews asked Him: “What shall we do that we may work the works of God?” He answered: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him Whom He hath sent.” When we hear or preach this word, we hasten over it and deem it a very little thing and easy to do, whereas we ought here to pause a long time and to ponder it well. For in this work all good works must be done and receive from it the inflow of their goodness, like a loan. This we must put bluntly, that men may understand it.
We find many who pray, fast, establish endowments, do this or that, lead a good life before men, and yet if you should ask them whether they are sure that what they do pleases God, they say, “No”; they do not know, or they doubt. And there are some very learned men, who mislead them, and say that it is not necessary to be sure of this; and yet, on the other hand, these same men do nothing else but teach good works. Now all these works are done outside of faith, therefore they are nothing and altogether dead. For as their conscience stands toward God and as it believes, so also are the works which grow out of it. Now they have no faith, no good conscience toward God, therefore the works lack their head, and all their life and goodness is nothing. Hence it comes that when I exalt faith and reject such works done without faith, they accuse me of forbidding good works, when in truth I am trying hard to teach real good works of faith.[i]
As has already been mentioned, this was only slightly different in substance from Catholic teaching, but worlds apart in emphasis, and would never have been enough to spark the Reformation by itself. As future movements would prove, there are as many opinions as men, and the facet of Christian truth upon which they fixate primary importance varies across time and place and produces the variety of denominations that emerged after the Reformation.
For the “Calvinist” or more aptly titled “Reformed” tradition, the emphasis on order, predestination, the absolute sovereignty of God, and theological consistency where the Bible is its own interpreter were emphasized. Calvin’s voluminous systematic theology is emblematic of this tidy, thorough approach and ministers in this tradition reflect it, such as F.C. Sproul. This was necessary in the post–Luther era, since ~1200 years of tradition needed reinterpretation and the Bible needed a completely new exposition.
The primacy of the individual’s relationship to God, provided certain basic historically Christian beliefs about Jesus and God are at least nominally held is a fundamental component of Protestantism. This seems strong for a time and can create an initial groundswell of growth, conversions, and religious devotion, as was the case in mid 1800s United States culture. However, it fades quickly because it has no root, as the parable goes. The crucial components of Jesus and the nature of God are the first pieces to be put into place and the last to go. Eventually, the decay in the perception of the Bible, biblical morality, and political pressures and divisions exert enough power to rot the exterior, and traditionalists who hold to the truths of the original movement are either confined to a ghetto or break out of the denomination and create their own – sometimes which restarts the entire cycle. The former husk of a denomination, drained of its traditionalists, usually then experiences a slow death to creeping modernism and agnosticism.
This, too, is very similar to the various dynasties of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Samaritans who survived beyond the Assyrian destruction of Samaria only respect the first five books of Moses and retained their view that the Kingdom of Judah broke from the true lineage which was before Samuel and David, when Eli was priest at the Tabernacle at Shiloh, and the line of David never had legitimacy. All of this is parallel to the view of Protestants that Catholicism created man-made institutions which did not carry any legitimacy – institutions such as the Papacy.
American Protestantism has unique Protestant characteristics taken to an extreme, as it was the first nation out of western civilization to be founded almost solely within Protestantism. The signs are obvious: a focus on monetary or popular success as a proof of God’s favor; a lack of deep civilizational roots (evidenced by a preference for the last “great” generation), an obsession with personal preference; and a unique cultural anti–intellectualism (for many Evangelicals, but definitely not all of them) which has proven to be a two–edged sword in recent history.
The lack of deep roots bears fruit in the failure of prior generations to pass on a unified, dominant culture based in the much deeper roots of western civilization. American culture from the late 1800s through the mid–1900s was truly amazing in many ways, but like Jonah’s Gourd, it grew up in a night and died in a night in civilization terms.
Other elements of decline affect the United States as much as others in what is considered “Western Civilization.” These are not uniquely Protestant; an increasingly weak presentation of masculinity and its role in popular media and demonization of authentic manhood; a centralized, politicized, and utopian view of education; and a culture that increasingly worships distraction and entertainment over accomplishment and creativity.
The jury is still out as far as the Reformation’s role, but the end state of western enlightenment capitalism is a top–heavy social structure whereby a few families exert the lion’s share of influence globally, and do not see themselves as part of any nation. The decisions these elite families make are made with their global interests in mind or their notion of what an ideal world looks like, not the interests of any nation whose destiny and sufferings they share. Naturally, this means their initiatives end up benefitting their family and their associates the most and reducing upward mobility for those outside.
Catholicism has a long history of rejecting the sort of unrestrained capitalism this represents – pure libertarians, which I was for some time, argue that market forces correct such things. I think they ignore capitalism’s vulnerability to capture by humans who hack its strength to rise to the top, and once there, kick the ladder out from underneath them using social programs, industry collusion, or bare co-opted state power. Markets require stable societies rooted in deep values to remain truly free, and stable societies governmentally impose certain elements of uniformity, hierarchy, and vision onto the society as a Father does for a family. Markets and capitalism are like engines, and only work when the rest of a vehicle is designed to properly direct and steer the force it generates. However, extremely diverse societies do not do well in agreeing on what those elements of uniformity and hierarchy should be.
Post-Reformation societies have several struggles based on these deformations. First, they tend to struggle to reconcile group or societal dynamics because their affiliations are fiercely individualistic. Leadership suffers and advanced Protestant cultures trend towards zero population growth and conservatively managed societies (although there are obviously other factors involved than merely the echoes of Protestant assumptions). Rejecting religious authority structures with any teeth leads to a general skepticism of hierarchies at all and distorts the natural arrangement of society into families. This foments soft, Gramscian Marxism, radical feminism, and other related ideologies where leadership and headship of society is up for grabs; this creates civil apathy, angst, discontent, and insecurity. Strong, unapologetic leadership is a stabilizing factor in societies. Humans are tribal and inherently seek to arrange themselves in hierarchies. This impulse is hacked by altering the hierarchy from patriarchal to matriarchal, and by altering the hierarchy to one based on morality and achievement to who has the best oppression narrative, if this hierarchical void is not filled properly.
Second, skepticism of hierarchies in religion or politics leads to the atomization of individuals and a much higher sense of loneliness and alienation from authentic group identity. Nihilism and alienation sets in. Suicide, violence, and mental illness rates rise. Group identity is captured for political purposes, and the only ones that are accepted are those endorsed by the managed, universal, blob culture defined by popular media and liberalized Christianity. Slow decline primes a society for strongmen because society craves the order it once had when it had enthusiasm, order, strength, and virility as a part of its identity.
Third and finally, Protestantism contains a tendency to incorporate the present flaws, strengths, and philosophical outlook of the culture in which they arose rather than merely its cultural “flavor.” Catholicism in Japan is different from Catholicism in Italy; but it is not nearly so different in belief, structure, liturgy, etc. as The Church of England is from Churches who are members of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Protestantism is crafted as clay with the hands and fingers of the culture in which it is believed, instead of vice versa in the case of Orthodox or Catholic Christianity (although obviously these have some cultural distinctions across the world). Protestantism often does retain essentials of Christian belief along with this cultural influence, but that becomes another point of division for Protestants, as if they needed another. Either popular culture or religion will prevail when the two are contrary; the deeper-rooted and more intrinsic aspect of identity within the people is what prevails. Between Protestant identity and popular cultural identity, popular culture nearly always prevails in time.
[i] Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works