From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

Although I did not attend Yale Divinity School, I was shaped by the faculty of the School, especially in my understanding of the Reformation. As an undergraduate, I read Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (1950) and Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity in two hefty volumes (1953, 1st edition). They not only informed me, they captured my imagination.

Both works were composed at a time when mainline Protestants enjoyed an ascendancy in America that is now a relic of the past: Reinhold Niebuhr graced the cover of Time (March 8, 1948), and the Federal Council of Churches became the National Council of Churches (1950), constructing the 19-story limestone-clad Interchurch Center on 475 Riverside Drive in Manhattan (1952). It is hard to conceive of Time featuring a theologian today, and the NCC left Riverside Drive in 2013. When the Pew Research Center conducted its first Religious Landscape Study in 2007, half of Americans considered themselves Protestants (51.3 percent). By 2014 that percentage had dropped to below half (46.5 percent). A country that was once overwhelmingly Protestant is no longer so.

The composition of Protestants has also changed. From the 16th century onward, Protestants have consisted of multiple traditions. In the US today we think of three large groups: In 2014 evangelicals comprised 55 percent of the Protestants, mainlines 32 percent, and historically black churches 14 percent. The same mix was not true of the 1950s.

The other major change is the shift of the center of gravity in the global Protestant world from the North to the South and from the West to the East. The fastest growing area is Sub-Saharan Africa: By 2060 an estimated four in ten Christians worldwide will live there practicing forms of Christianity unknown in the West.

These changes mean that it is no longer possible to read Bainton’s Here I Stand in the same way that I did in the 1970s. As we remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we do so through a new set of lenses.

In this Reflections issue we want to reflect on our heritage, assess the present, and contemplate the future. The Reformation of the 16th century, or perhaps we should more accurately say the Reformations of the 16th century, unleased forces that changed the course of Western history. We should ask what we can learn from the Reformation(s) without feeling bound to the answers of the 1500s. Our world is quite different from the medieval world to which the reformers reacted. It would be foolish and futile to repeat views of the reformers tout court. We should not, however, forget the sources that have shaped us.

We need to own our present. The church today needs to hear voices that were not heard in earlier generations. This issue conveys some of the diversity that now characterizes Christianity.

Finally, we need to think about the future. Where are we headed? One of the features of the Reformation was the proliferation of denominations. I am not sanguine about the future of denominations. I do not think that they will immediately disappear, but the present does not bode well for their long-term survival. This creates an opportunity to be more ecumenical than we have been, but in a new way – a way that privileges people over institutions. Churches are a result of a prior relationship to Christ, not the goal of the relationship. The reformers can still teach us some things. I invite you to read this issue by standing in the present and Janus-like look with one face to the past and one face to the future. God worked in a powerful way in the past and can do so again in the future.