The Latino/Latin American Church and the Reformation

The reception of the Protestant Reformation in the United States Latino and Latin American church is a sweet agony. On the one hand, there is the continuity of missional passion, while on the other hand, there are discontinuities in the theological heritage. Still, the Latino church continues to grow rapidly as more people confess “Jesús es el Señor.”

Latinos are the largest minority population in the U.S. Notably, the Pew Research Center reports that 22 percent of Latinos self-identify as Protestants. This is not a surprise considering that the Protestant Latin American church is one of the fastest-growing sectors of Christianity in the world.

As Christians in North America become more consciously diverse, and more specifically as the Reformed Christian church grows in its awareness of diversity in the body of Christ, attention to what it means to be a Christian and Reformed is more needed than ever. As the commemoration of the Protestant Reformation draws near, the Latino and Latin American church can be a helpful gauge of the impact (and problems) the Reformation has crossing into new cultures. Though the focus of this article is on Latinos in the U.S., the concluding questions are ones that Reformed Christians throughout the world need to continually be asking themselves.

Heritage of the Protestant Reformation

Contemporary Protestantism in Latin America and in the U.S. Latino experience can be traced to two main movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the missions of the Euro-American mainline churches and the missionary activities of the Holiness movements in the United States after the wars for independence in the Americas. The Reformed tradition arrived principally by way of Presbyterian missionaries in the nineteenth century.

The 1960s witnessed the emergence of a Protestant movement in Latin America that produced its own scholars and theologies. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Latin American/Latino Protestants grew to become one of the largest minority Protestant groups in the U.S. Certain sectors embody principles of the Reformation more than others.

The theological intuitions of U.S. Latinos hark back to the experience of Latin American churches. These Latinos are culturally and ethnically diverse. Nevertheless, they share a common trait: an emphasis on being a people with a mission to embody the gospel despite being underrepresented in important theological forums. Historically Latino and Latin American theological reflection, though intensely missional, does not have a significant voice within the Anglo-evangelical or historical Reformed church.

Most Latinos prefer to identify as evangélicos in the heritage of the Latin American usage and not simply as “evangelical.” This is the case because “evangelical” refers to a theologically, politically, and culturally conservative movement with emphasis on personal piety and missions. In the United States, evangélicos and pentecostales share theological orthodoxy and a missionary impulse, but they tend not to identity with Republican conservatism. Rather, piety is emphasized in communal expressions, and social witness tends to prioritize structural social issues.

It could be said that Latino churches are distant recipients of the Protestant Reformation. Although there is no direct ecclesial tradition nor ethnic genealogy that takes them to Europe, the Protestant ethos is vital. More specifically, they share the theological solas of the Reformation in informal ways. The solas are treated not as an explicit theological inheritance from a treasured Reformed orthodoxy, but instead as theological signposts of the Christian experience. This experience is received by faith alone, in the unique work of Christ alone, testified in Scripture alone, and as such is a sheer divine gift that brings glory to God. Even without a lot of explicit theological formulation, these beliefs are not disputed.

Back to the (Reformational) Future

In contrast to the Euro-American experience, there was no religious revolution in the Spanish-Portuguese Americas. In other words, there was no historical impetus for such a concise theological formulation in this part of the world. The German, Swiss, and English reformations, with their recuperation of the centrality of Scripture and its democratization for the masses, was not successful in Spain. Spain had Reformers, but their influence was cut short by the Inquisition and the monarchy. Spain dominated Latin America. Nevertheless, the work of some Spanish Reformers lived on to shape Spanish religious language in Latin America. Casiodoro de Reina and Cipriano de Valera produced the first Spanish translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate (1569 and 1602). Juan Valdés likely did the first translation of the New Testament from the Greek into Spanish. These two accomplishments are key for the Bible’s reception in the Americas.

Most Latinos prefer to identify as evangélicos in the heritage of the Latin American usage and not simply as “evangelical.” This is the case because “evangelical” refers to a theologically, politically, and culturally conservative movement with emphasis on personal piety and missions.

By the twentieth century, indigenous evangelical churches emerged as a de facto theological and civic opponent to Roman Catholicism. First, on the theological front, the work of evangelicals retrieving Reformational theology in contextual perspective emerged in the 1970s with the formation of ecumenical bodies such as the FTL (Latin American Theological Fellowship), ISAL (Church and Society in Latin America), and CLAI (Latin American Council of Churches). These interdenominational assemblies deployed the Reformational intuitions in service to an emerging contextual paradigm: Misión Integral (holistic mission). Here, dogmatic theology was implemented in the service of missional theology, not the other way around. Justification by faith and the reign of Christ were carefully considered, especially as to how these precious doctrines affect every sociopolitical sphere. As the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation had explosive effects in the sixteenth century, the application of these doctrines once again made waves in spheres well beyond the church walls.

In the face of political turmoil, these evangelicals were the first regional theologians to constructively engage the rise of revolutionary movements and liberation theology with the doctrines of Scripture, ecclesiology, Christology, and the confession of Jesus as Savior. The civic aspect of this new evangelical tradition antagonized the religious-political synthesis of Catholicism as the ultimate expression of Christendom on the continent. In a sense, by relativizing human and religious institutions, the application of Reformed doctrines desacralized the status quo in Latin America.

For instance, “the priesthood of all believers” implied a protest against any kind of religious or secular authoritarianism. Social and political reform was a direct consequence of a culture shaped by the values of the Protestant Reformation. A democratic society, equality under the law, and access for the most vulnerable to the goods and justice of a healthy society became part of the missional discourse of evangelicals.

Latinos and the Reformation Today

In the U.S. the Reformed tradition is mostly received by Latinos in its pietistic and revivalist tenors. The Reformational solas are implicitly part of the communal experience of seguimiento (daily walk). However, explicit Reformed theology does not enjoy wide acceptance. Although Reformed churches have attempted to engage in cross-cultural missions to Latinos, they have been perceived as a mostly monoethnic and scholastic culture. Latinos have historically preferred a diverse community and a praxis-oriented Pentecostalism.

Today most Latinos identify within the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. Latino theologies tend to have an ecumenical ethos due in part to a shared migrant experience. Additionally, the guilds of theological thinking within the Reformed and evangelical traditions are still somewhat uncomfortable with global theologies. Latino theologians work to elaborate how Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology speak to the liminal (in-between) culture identities of immigrants. The theological concerns of Latinos gravitate toward the struggles of those who live as members of the minority culture; traditionally, this has not been an emphasis in Reformed theological contemplation.  

These brothers and sisters pose a theological and missional challenge to the Reformed body celebrating the achievements of the Reformation: What have we done with the “least of these” who are racially and culturally “other” in light of the wonderful doctrine of grace? Does Reformed orthodoxy still translate into a liberating theology of cultural transformation, political renovation, and longsuffering with a body of believers on the margins?

Moving forward, we must understand that for Latinos, confessional orthodoxy is not the only criterion for human flourishing. Orthopraxis in favor of empowerment and inclusion of those on the margins is the visible criterion for a credible Reformation.  As Latino theologians walking and thinking en conjunto (together) with the church, we pray ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church must always be reformed). Is the Reformed communion praying the same? We ought to! After all, the Reformation is not a static achievement but a continual call and task in this historical moment.

Jules Martinez-Olivieri (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is a teaching pastor at Iglesia La Travesía (PCA) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and an adjunct professor of theology at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico. He is the author of A Visible Witness: Christology, Liberation and Participation (Fortress Press, 2016). He blogs at www.theodrama.com.