PROTESTANTISM . [This article provides an overview of the Protestant branch of Christian religion. The historical origins of Protestantism are examined in Reformation. Particular manifestations of Protestantism are discussed in Denominationalism and in numerous articles on Protestant churches and biographies of Protestant leaders.]
Protestantism is a worldwide movement that derives from sixteenth-century reforms of Western Christianity. As a movement it is both a set of church bodies and a less well defined ethos, spirit, and cultural achievement. Thus, one speaks of Reformed or Methodist churches as being Protestant, just as one may speak of a "Protestant ethic" or a "Protestant nation."
Through the years different needs have occasioned a variety of attempts to determine the definitional boundaries of Protestantism. Sometimes there may be theological or liturgical motives for restricting these boundaries. Some Anglicans, or members of the Church of England, for example, who stress how closely they are identified with the ancient catholic tradition, often resent being classified as Protestant at all. So do Lutherans of similar outlook, even though the term Protestant was first applied in 1529 on Lutheran soil. At another extreme, many Protestants refuse to include movements like the Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons in their ranks, even though these new nineteenth-century religious traditions flourished on Protestant soil and kept something of the Protestant impulse in their church life.
Four Protestant Clusters
For demographic purposes, David B. Barrett in his World Christian Encyclopedia (1982) tries to bring some order to definitional chaos by classifying the non-Roman Catholic and non-Orthodox part of the Christian world into five families, or blocs, which he calls "Protestant," "nonwhite indigenous," "Anglican," "marginal Protestant," and "Catholic (non-Roman)." All but the last of these have some sort of Protestant ties. The mainstream Protestant category includes long-established Northern Hemisphere churches such as the Congregationalist and Baptist. The Anglican family includes plural, low church, high church, evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, and central (or Broad church) traditions. The category of marginal Protestants includes Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Religious Science, and Unitarian, Spiritualist, and British-Israelite churches.
The existence of the fourth category, nonwhite indigenous Christianity, "a whole new bloc of global Christendom," Barrett speaks of as "one of the more startling findings" documented in his survey. Its existence has been long known, but few, says Barrett, realized that by 1980 it numbered eighty-two million. For all their independent rise and growth, however, nonwhite indigenous forms of Christianity still derive from missionary efforts by classic Protestants. They share many of the doctrines and practices of the Western parentages. In almost all cases they also share the familiar names Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, and the like. Therefore, while attention to them may be secondary, these younger churches do belong in any encyclopedic coverage of the longer Protestant tradition.
Location of Old and New Protestantism
After more than 450 years, worldwide Protestantism is entering a new phase, because of this shift of power to nonwhite indigenous versions. Classically the movement was strongly identified with northwestern Europe and Anglo-America. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once spoke of the Reformation itself as a family quarrel of northwestern European peoples. From the early sixteenth century until well into the nineteenth, the vast majority of the heirs of this Reformation did remain in Europe and its North American colonies. The Latin American nations were almost entirely Roman Catholic in makeup. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, this older Protestantism underwent vast expansion through missionary efforts to convert people in all nations and to establish churches everywhere. It was in the mid-twentieth century that the inventive and often autochthonous character of the nonwhite indigenous groups became evident, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Latin America, and the Pacific island world.
The power shift from northwestern Europe, where established Protestantism consistently lost power in the face of secularizing forces, to the vibrant world of the Southern Hemisphere portended great changes in the Protestant ethos as well. For centuries Protestant religion had been seen as an impetus toward capitalist economies, yet the new growth came in portions of the world where capitalism had little chance and few promoters. This religious emphasis in Europe had characteristically been established in coordination with the state. However, in the new nations of Africa or in Latin America, where Catholicism was first established but where anticlerical revolutions later barred privilege to any Christian bodies, nonwhite indigenous Protestantism had to make its way as a movement independent of state establishment or privilege.
Other changes came with the shift. Historically the Protestantism of Europe relied on thought patterns that depended upon and connected with older Catholic philosophies. The Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century protested against some uses Catholics made of, for example, Platonic or Aristotelian philosophies through the centuries. Yet soon they were themselves developing theologies that relied on the mainline Western philosophical synthesis. In the new area of growth, however, leaders of nonwhite indigenous flowerings of Protestantism did not have the luxury of exploring these philosophical schools. They saw no need to relate to them and often explicitly rebelled against them.
All these changes make generalizing about Protestantism far more difficult at the beginning of the twenty-first century than at the end of the nineteenth. Often one must fall back on definitions from the classic period, the first three or four centuries, keeping in mind the exceptional new developments as a subtheme. In any case, much of the plot of Protestantism after its period of expansion has revealed the dialectic of adaptation and resistance on the part of both missionary agents and the missionized. The agents of the West often arrived along with merchants or military forces, and they had to choose between being openly identified with their purposes or establishing an, at least, subtle detachment from them. Inevitably they were bearers of Western national values, but they could choose to keep their distance from uncritical embrace of these values. On the other hand, those who accepted Christianity at the hands of the missioners also had the choice of adopting as much of Western culture as possible or picking and choosing those elements of Protestantism that they could most easily or advantageously graft onto their old culture and ways.
Protestant Diversity and Coherence
The first perception of both old and new Protestantism has always been its diversity. Barrett claims that the one billion and more practicing Christians of the world belong to 20,780 distinct denominations. While more than half the Christians are Catholic, the vast majority of these 20,780 denominations would be classed as part of the Protestant movement. Thus, in classic Protestantism, in 1980 there were almost 345 million people in 7,889 of these distinct bodies in 212 nations. The nonwhite indigenous versions, almost all of them Protestant, were located in 10,065 distinct bodies. There were also 225 Anglican denominations and 1,345 "marginal Protestant" groups. Indeed, this diversity and this fertility at creating new, unrelated bodies were long used as a criticism of Protestantism by Roman Catholicism, which united under the Roman pope, and by Orthodoxy, which was divided more into national jurisdictions but saw itself as united in holy tradition.
It is possible to move behind this first perception of the chaos of unrelated bodies to see some forms of coherence. Great numbers of Protestant bodies, along with many Orthodox ones, are members of the World Council of Churches, established in 1948, which has a uniting confessional theme around the lordship of Jesus Christ. In many nations there are national councils or federations of cooperating churches, which allow for positive interaction even where there is not organic unity. World confessional families of Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, and others throughout the twentieth century brought into some concord these churches that have family resemblances. Finally, there have been significant mergers of Protestant churches both within families, such as Lutheran with Lutheran, Presbyterian with Presbyterian, and across family lines, as in America's United Church of Christ, which blended a New England Congregationalist tradition with a German Reformed heritage.
Whoever chronicles Protestant diversities and coherences also has to recognize that significant differences appear within each group and that important elements of concord transect the groups. Liberal Episcopalians and Methodists may have more in common with each other on many issues and in numbers of practices than either of them has with conservative members of their own communion. It is probably the better part of discretion not to seek rigid categories in classifying Protestant bodies; the concept of something like "zones" is more fruitful. Thus across the Protestant spectrum one may begin with "high church" Anglican zones, where many formal practices of Catholicism prevail, the liturgy is extremely complex, and worship is highly adorned (with icons, incense, and artifacts or gestures). At the opposite end of the spectrum and at least as securely in the orbit of sociological Protestantism is a "low church" zone, where groups may have rejected as much as possible from the Catholic past; for example, the Quakers seek utter simplicity and silence in worship and make no use of the sacraments of Catholic Christianity at all.
Some Protestant Elements Held in Common
To accent only Protestant diversity, as demographers or critics may be tempted to do, does not take into account the fact that the word Protestant arose to cover a distinct set of phenomena. In the minds of those who use the term, it may denote something fairly specific. The easiest way to put a boundary around Protestantism is to deal with it negatively and say that it is the form of Western Christianity that rejects obedience to the Roman papacy. Such an approach is an immense clarifier, since Protestants do reject the papacy. The only remaining element of confusion in this negative definition comes from the fact that Western (non-Roman) Catholic Christians also reject the papacy. In 1980 this group, including the Catholic Apostolic, Reformed Catholic, Old Catholic, and Conservative Catholic churches, numbered 3,439,375, as against 344,336,319 old- and new-style Protestants.
While the resistance to papal claims is a uniting factor, it is not likely that many people ever choose to remain loyal to Protestantism on such marginal and confining grounds alone. One is Protestant for many reasons; one then differentiates one's faith and practice from Roman Catholicism in nonpapal-versus-papal terms. That issue was strong in the sixteenth century at the time of the Protestant break with Rome, and it became a subject of intense controversy late in the nineteenth century, when papal infallibility was declared. The controversy remains to plague Catholic-Protestant ecumenical relations. But in the daily life of believers, the rejection of the papacy has little to do with churchly commitments. One must seek elsewhere for the positive elements and accents of Protestantism, even if it shares many of these with Catholicism.
The first common mark of Protestantism is historically clear and clean; virtually all Protestant groups derive from movements that began in the sixteenth century. When later groups were formed, as were the Disciples of Christ in nineteenth-century America, they may not have seen themselves as working out the logic of earlier Protestantism; yet historians at once traced the roots of this typical new group to various older Presbyterian and Baptist forms, among others.
A very few Protestant groups can also trace their lineage back to pre-Reformation times. Modern Waldensians, for example, are heirs of a movement begun under Pierre Valdès (Peter Waldo) in the twelfth century, and some modern Czech churches are heirs of traditions that go back to the Hussite Jednota Bratrská (Society of Brethren, known in Latin as Unitas Fratrum) of the fifteenth century. Yet the Waldensians, the Czech groups, and others began to be recognized as something other than illicit sects on Roman Catholic soil as a result of the Protestant breakthrough. At another point on the spectrum is the Church of England, or Anglicanism. Most of its articulators stress that they remain the church Catholic as it has been on English soil since the Christianization of England. Although it has kept faith in the apostolic succession of bishops and has retained many pre-Reformation practices, the Anglican communion as it has existed since the break with Rome under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century is vastly different from the Catholic church under Roman papal obedience in England before and since the Reformation. In short, the Waldensians, the Czech groups, and the Anglicans alike were, and were seen to be, part of the Protestant revolt from both the viewpoints of Roman Catholic leadership and historical scholarship ever since.
To have undergone formal separation from the papally controlled church or to have been transformed by the fact that one's tradition changes through such separation are the major historical marks of Protestantism. Individual groups may have parentage in the Middle Ages or may have sprung up late in the twentieth century, yet the sixteenth-century breach in Christendom is the event by which Protestant existence is somehow measured. Beyond the normativeness of that breach, Protestants begin to share elements of Catholicism. That certain elements are shared in no way diminishes their importance in Protestant definition. They tend to acquire a special color when viewed through the prism of Protestant experiences.
God in Protestantism
All Christian movements, unlike some other religions, focus finally on their witness to God. Protestantism is theistic. There have been momentary expressions by theological elites of a "Christian atheism," but these have been dismissed by the Protestant public as idiosyncratic, personal forms of witness or philosophical expression. Then, too, some prophets and observers have pointed to a "practical atheism" among Protestants who in their ways of life seem to ignore the claims of God upon them. Yet such practical atheism is unself-conscious, reflexive. When called to their attention, it is usually vigorously dismissed by the people to whom it is applied, a sign that they regard theistic belief to be focal.
At the left wing of marginal Protestantism, as Barrett clarifies it, stand some former Protestant groups that have retained certain elements of the Protestant tradition. Among these are Unitarianisms of humanistic sorts and Ethical Culture movements, which grew up on Jewish soil in America but acquired some Protestant traits. It is significant that such groups are dismissed by the vast cohort of Protestants precisely because they are humanistic, or because they exclude themselves from Protestantism, usually on grounds of theism.
If Protestants are not humanistic or atheistic, they also are not pantheistic. Individual pantheists may exist as mystics, and there have been pantheistic Protestant heresies, so regarded both by those who have innovated with them and by those who have excluded their advocates. In some formal theological circles, one sometimes hears advocated teachings that seem to verge on pantheism, the proposition that the world and God are coextensive, identical. Yet articulators of such teachings usually take pains to distance themselves from pure pantheism, for example, through panentheisms, which speak both of identity and distance. Marginal Protestants such as the Mormons teach doctrines that look pantheist to mainstream Protestantisms. Here, as so often, it is their departure from theism that is at issue in the principles of exclusion.
Protestantism on occasion has had deistic proponents, agents of a natural religion that made no room for a personal God, special revelation, or reasons to pray to an unresponsive, divine, originating, but now absentee force. In eighteenth-century England there were Anglican Deists, and in the continental Enlightenment one heard of equivalents. In practice, many Protestant believers may act as though they are deistic in their prayer life, which means that they somehow believe in a divine force but see no reason for prayerful intercourse with it. Yet deism has consistently in due course been seen as a deviation from, not a part of, the Protestant impulse.
The God of the Bible and Trinitarianism
The freedom that belongs to the Protestant ethos has made room for the enterprising and innovating philosopher of religion, but the determining element in Protestant concepts of God has been some form of adherence to the biblical witness. The God of Protestants is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Along with Catholics, Protestants believe in the God revealed in the Hebrew scriptures, which Protestantism has taken over intact from Judaism and made its own. This God, Yahveh, is the God of Israel and the God of the prophets. Protestantism thus relies on God as creator and sustainer of the universe, existent though hidden, being and not nonbeing, somehow an agent in history. Although not all Protestants speak of a "personal" God, most conceive of God as personal and thus addressable.
Protestant theologians spoke of the Protestant intention as one directed to what H. Richard Niebuhr called "radical monotheism." This intention has meant that Protestants share the concern of Hebrew prophecy to distance believers from "many gods" and false gods alike. The Protestant impulse, sometimes directed even against itself by its own prophets, has been iconoclastic. Pioneers of the movement such as John Calvin saw the natural human mind as an instinctive idol maker, always busy serving either the true God or gods of its own making, who must be smashed. It would be impossible to say that Protestant believers have been more successful at being radical monotheists than have others; yet reflective Protestantism has been so nervous about icons or images that might be construed as having identity with the divine or divinized figure they represent that the iconoclast always has a privileged place in Protestant arguments.
The battle against icon and idol in Protestantism may sometimes continue on the abstract planes of philosophical discourse or theological definition, but the iconoclastic position is usually stated most forcefully when Protestants explain the biblical account of Israel's witness to Yahveh, the one God. The God to whom Protestants point is one who, although hidden, exists, acts, and speaks through a divine word. This God is in every case a God of judgment and mercy, wrath and love, holiness and forgiveness.
While some Protestants have been unsure about the meaning of the covenant with Israel in the Old Testament, few have doubted the witness to God in the New Testament. The God of Israel is present in a special way in Jesus of Nazareth. Some forms of liberal Protestantism were reluctant to speak of Jesus as partaking uniquely in the divine nature associated with the one he called Father. When they showed this reluctance, this was in the interest of radical monotheism. When most other forms of Protestantism remained content with or became emphatic about classic creeds that associated Jesus Christ with God, they did so in conscious reference to the fact that this in no way detracted from monotheistic faith. Protestant interpretation of philosophies of history have always seen this God of Israel as somehow active in history.
At the same time, Protestantism is a Christ-focused faith. Here again one may speak in the language of H. Richard Niebuhr about a tendency that he saw as less compatible with true Protestantism and that, indeed, was a heresy on any terms. Some forms of evangelical, Christ-centered Protestantism, he charged, were guilty of a "Unitarianism of the Second Person" of the Trinity. This meant that just as earlier theistic Unitarians believed only in the divinity of the one God whom Jesus called Father, at the expense of the Son and the Holy Spirit, these gospel-minded people, without usually meaning to, identified Jesus almost exclusively with God and had little to say or do about God apart from witness to Jesus.
Not all Protestants have been ready to use the inherited language of the preexistent Logos, or Word, that became incarnate in the historical Jesus. They have, however, found ways to witness to the bond between Jesus and God. In his best-known hymn, "A Mighty Fortress," Protestant pioneer Martin Luther spoke of Jesus Christ as "the Lord of hosts" and then burst forth with the assertion "And there's no other God." There is no other God than the one revealed in Jesus Christ. Such witness led to radical expressions that verge on the ancient heresy of patripassionism, the claim that God the Father suffered with the Son on the cross. In this spirit Martin Rinkhart offered a line in a Good Friday hymn to the effect that in the death of Jesus "our God is dead." Nineteenth-century critics, especially left-wing Hegelians, seized on incautious lines like these to claim that the death of Jesus meant the death of God, even on orthodox soil. Rinkhart and the Protestants were not ready for such consequences or corollaries, but they left themselves open to this claim, so eager were they to proclaim the divinity of Jesus Christ. Protestants in the main have been so Jesus- or Christ-centered that they are more willing to take such risks than to side with humanistic or minority liberal Protestants who broke up notions of the Trinity and saw Jesus as a distinctive but not unique human.
As for what the creeds describe as the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, one despairs of pointing to a distinctive witness held by almost all Protestants. Negatively, again as a corollary to the nonpapal witness, Protestants have refused to identify the Holy Spirit with the tradition, the magisterium or official teaching, or the papal authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Most have been more at home seeing the Holy Spirit connected with revelation and authority as the inspirer of the text of the Bible. Some left-wing reformers of the sixteenth century and their heirs down to twenty-first-century Pentecostal Protestants have been ready to speak of revelation from the Holy Spirit direct to the individual, apart from scripture. Yet it is significant that in their minds, this revelation occurs alongside and not in antagonism toward or independent of what is heard in the inspired Bible.
This witness to God in three persons, historically as Father, Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit, has added up to a Protestant trinitarianism. Once the term Trinity is introduced, it is difficult to see what distinctions remain. True, a few Protestants, especially among the Pentecostals and others who resist Catholic creeds and dogma, reject the trinitarian approach because the word does not appear in the Bible and because it points to human formulations. Yet without using the term, they tend to reproduce the substance of trinitarian faith even while rejecting its formulations.
In sum, the distinctive characteristics of Protestantism emerge from the variety of models that Protestants endorse in forming their churches. Because of their diversity, Protestant churches have been less likely or less able to converge on the basis of each other's witness than have churches in the more homogeneous Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. As a result, Protestants are thrown back more on story than on dogma, more on biblical narrative than on creedal formulation, yet for the most part without rejecting dogma or creed. And they have been pressed to develop special ways of understanding how God is mediated and present in human affairs and, specifically, in the circle of believers and the church. Urgent on its agenda for centuries, then, has been the concept of mediation in formal authority and structure.
Authority and Structure: The Scriptures
If the believer on Protestant soil is to be responsive to God as creator (or, sometimes, Father), Son, and Holy Spirit, questions arise. Who says so? How is this God to be known? What are the boundaries of witness to such a God? Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism stress the authority of tradition, magisterium, apostolic succession of bishops (as do Anglicans and some Lutherans), and, uniquely to Catholicism, the Roman papal office. They also testify to God's revelation in scripture, but Protestantism is thrown almost wholly on scripture. Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, more and more Protestants have been willing to see a relationship between the Bible and tradition. They have become contextual thinkers who see that the Bible reiterates the tradition it grows out of. Yet for their ancestors in faith the Bible held a special status, and tradition or papal authority could never match it. So emphatic was this Protestant emphasis that critics from within, such as the Enlightenment-era Protestant Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, complained that Luther substituted the Bible as a "paper pope" for Protestants to match the authority of Catholicism's human pope.
The Bible of Protestantism is the canon of the Old and New Testaments, and almost never the Apocrypha, which has special status in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. The canon is theoretically open; it is conceivable that a book could still be added to it. So teach most Protestants. It is difficult to imagine the circumstance in which the many Protestant church bodies could agree on a later-discovered and apparently canonical-level writing, yet, for thoughtful Protestants, the openness of the canon is a partial safeguard against making an icon or idol of the Bible.
While the Bible has become the only document used and useful for uniting Protestant witness or helping determine Protestant theological argument—it provides at least something of the genetic programming of Protestantism, or the ground rules for their games—there is here as so often a very broad spectrum of approaches to its authority. Most Protestants have accepted the Luthern mark sola scriptura, that the Bible alone is the authority; but this formula tells all too little about how to regard the book.
At one extreme, conservative Protestants who have resisted modern historical criticism of biblical texts stress that the Bible is somehow not only inspired but infallible and inerrant. The inerrancy applies not only to revelation in matters of faith but also in all details of history, geography, and science, at least as would apply to the original autographs. Some of the originators of Protestantism often used language of biblical authority that was so confident of biblical truth that it gave reasons for later theologians to build elaborate theories of this inerrancy. In later centuries, some dogmatic teachers went so far as to propound mechanical or dictation theories, in which the author of a biblical writing was a kind of conduit or secretary for God, at the expense of personal inspiration and independent style. Most proponents of inerrancy, however, have been less extreme. They have tended to build on the basis of various Aristotelian or Baconian philosophies, stressing syllogisms in which a perfect, hence inerrant, God chooses to engage lovingly in revelation, hence taking care to assure that readers receive no error or ambiguity. These inerrantists have engaged in heated polemics against all, no matter how high their view of biblical authority, who have not found inerrancy to be a biblical or theologically defensible concept.
At the other end of the spectrum are a minority of Protestants, chiefly in academic centers, who have completely adopted post-Enlightenment views of biblical criticism. They have thus treated the biblical text as they would any other ancient literary text. They grant no special status to the inspiration of biblical authors. For them the Bible still has authority as a document that both reflects and promotes the norms of the Christian community. Many schools of interpretation, even among those who have immersed themselves in historical and literary criticism, find that the Bible "discloses," or potentially discloses, what God would reveal. This disclosure or revelation, it is contended, can occur even if the Bible includes grammatical inaccuracies, historical misstatements, and scientific concepts long proven wrong and rendered obsolete. The polemic of these contenders is against the inerrantists, who, they claim, do make the Bible into a quasi-papal authority or turn it into an icon at the expense of radical monotheism.
The spectrum is visible in another way when one considers how different Protestants regard the reader of the Bible. At one end, there are those who contend that "the right of private judgment" is the Christian mark of distinctiveness. Thus Martin Luther was said to have challenged the emperor in 1521 to convince him that he, Luther, was wrong on the basis of the Bible and reason. One cannot go against conscience for the sake of authority. In a sense, the conscience and intelligence of the individual in such a case take priority over claims of the community. At the other end of the spectrum, there is as much concern as in any other part of Christianity for Christian community and the nurturing of the word in the context of congregation or church. In these cases, the church is credited with preserving the Bible, seeing that it is embodied in people who effectively display its power in their lives, and calling people to belief on the basis of biblical texts that are turned into calls of faith by living people. In all cases, it is fair to speak of Protestants as being especially "people of the Book."
The Authority of the Church
Lacking paper authority as they do, and unwilling as they are for the most part to yield to bishops as having a determinative role in dispensing tradition, how do Protestants see the authority of the church? The vast majority of Protestants in all ages, though they be churched and faithful, have rendered secondary to the Bible all other church authority, creeds, confessions, and forms of polity. When they are serious and are seriously confronted, most Protestants characteristically will say that they get authority for teaching and practice from the Bible alone.
Despite this claim, reflective Protestants will also admit that over the centuries they have spilled much ink in treatises on churchly authority. As much as Catholics, they may have exacted sweat and blood from people who ran afoul of church authorities, who tested the bounds of orthodoxy, or who came under ecclesiastical discipline. Protestantism, in other words, may seem chaotic to the outsider who sees its many groupings and varieties, but to most confessors and members the chaos is minimized, because they are ordinarily touched only by the authority system of which they are a part, that of their own church.
Once one insists on making churchly authority secondary, other values come to be dominant in association with the church. The church on Protestant soil is a fellowship, a congregation of people who have like minds or similar purposes. The church may be seen as "the body of Christ" or "the communion of saints" before it is an authority to compel conformity in teaching or practice. Yet once one assigns values to the group, even in forms of Protestantism that accent the right of private judgment or go to extremes of individualism, there must be and in practice have been many subtle ways to assert authority and to effect discipline. A small congregation's authority on Baptist or Congregational soil can be felt more immediately, for instance, than might Catholic authority asserted from the distance between Rome and India by a not always efficient and always pluralistic church. Democracies can turn authoritarian. Ambiguity about authority can often lead to expressions of arbitrary discipline. So polity and authority have been nagging questions in Protestantism.
First, there has been ambiguity about the lay-clerical distinction. Theologian Hendrik Kraemer, in A Theology of the Laity (1958), accurately pointed out that Protestantism was a revolt against authoritarian and overly hierarchical clericalism. Yet almost all Protestantism retained a professional and ordained clergy, somehow setting it aside with sacred sanctions and for special functions. The "somehow," however, became problematic. Protestantism wanted to engage in a leveling of ranks by insisting that all believers were priests, that they could all intercede for one another at the altar, symbolically before the throne of God. Then what were these ordained "priests," or whatever Protestants called their ministry or clergy, and how did they hold power?
Kraemer, historian Wilhelm Pauck, and others have shown that authority (in all but Anglicanism, the Lutheran Church of Sweden, and other "high" episcopal bodies) resides chiefly in the word of God and in the responsive congregation. The minister has tended to become the person called and set aside to be the more expert preacher and expounder of the word. Yet Protestantism was unwilling to say that the laity could not be expert at speaking the word, which was accessible to all. It was also easy to demonstrate that the succession of faith in congregations that were responsive to the word was vulnerable to faithlessness and error or heresy. To claim that ministry consisted in the clergy's unique right to administer the sacraments or holy ordinances was something that not all Protestants were eager to do. They did not want the sacramental life to seem in any way magical. As a result, in almost all cases they retained a specially sanctioned clergy, ascribed great authority also to the laity, and left the status of both ambiguous and thus problematic.
Confessions and Creeds
Church authority is not only an issue of clergy and laity. It must also concentrate on the substance or content of the faith that holds people together and finds them members of one Protestant confession and not another. Of course, heredity, accident of birth, and many casual factors based on aesthetics, personal choice, or marriage across denominational lines have played their parts. But thoughtful Protestantism has also insisted that its members are not only "believers" but "believers in" and in some ways, necessarily, "believers that" something or other is true. Whether or not they call these creeds or confessions, and whether these statements are formal or informal, there tend to be some common expressions that give clarity to faith and that establish boundaries between one set of beliefs and others.
Most Protestant bodies display their distinctiveness by resorting to documents from the times of their origins. In their first or second generation, leaders of groups were called upon or felt impelled to define themselves and to witness to their truths. For Lutherans the instrument was chiefly the Augsburg Confession; for the Reformed, the Heidelberg Catechism; for Presbyterians, the Westminster Confession; and for Anglicans the Thirty-nine Articles. Even loose bodies such as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England Congregationalism in America produced enough creeds and confessions to make up large anthologies. These documents have attracted various levels of respect and authority. Some came to be neglected or even rejected by huge parties. Yet the ecumenical movement, in which these churches had to find out who they and their counterparts were, exposed to view these ancient documents and showed their enduring power.
By some Protestants their originating confessions were believed quia ("because"), that is, because they were held to be simply and perfectly congruent with biblical witness. Others held to them quatenus ("insofar"), that is, insofar as they witnessed to biblical truth in later times and special circumstances. At times the claim was much more informal than either of these, and in some cases it is not possible to point to a church confession at all. For many Protestants a confession says "This we believe" as a hearty declaration to the world; for others it comes across as "This you must believe" and is used to rule out heresy or to provide a basis for polemics.
Protestant Church Polities
As with confession, so with structure, or polity: Protestantism presents a broad spectrum of often mutually incompatible polities. Again, they can be inclusively categorized according to what they negate. They all resist the notion that the Roman papacy is the best, or only, conduit of divine revelation and that the guardianship of the Christian church must rest in the hands of the pope as the vicar or representative of Christ on earth. Beyond that, most Protestant churches have preserved elements of the polity that came with their birth, transformed by exigencies of local, contemporary demands and, in the modern world, adjustments to the managerial and bureaucratic impulse. Yet even in the last and most practical case, the Protestant impulse is to see some legitimation for polity in the Bible and in the experience of the early Christian church.
On one end of this spectrum are churches like the Anglican church or the Lutheran church in Sweden, which insist on apostolic succession in an episcopacy that is of the essence (displays the esse ) of the church. Elsewhere, as in Methodism and much of Lutheranism, bishops belong to the bene esse of the church; they are beneficial for its order but theoretically could be replaced in a different polity. Many Reformed churches rely on synodical or connectional and associational patterns under the rule of presbyters or elders. From the days of the radical reformation in the sixteenth century through various later Baptist and Congregational witnesses into modern times, and especially in burgeoning nonwhite indigenous Protestantism, the authority and even the autonomy of the local congregation is asserted.
Those Protestants at the "catholic" end of the spectrum, who regard bishops as of the esse of the church, have been least ready to see their polity as negotiable in an ecumenical age. Presbyterian, synodical, and congregational bodies, while emphatically cherishing and defending their polities, have shown more signs of flexibility. A safe generalization suggests that even Baptist and Congregationalist groups, who find biblical rootage for congregationalism, have adopted enough bureaucratic instruments that they have functional polities that transcend mere congregationalism. Yet they would find it a part of their Protestantism to be suspicious of bishops.
Alongside church confession and internal polity has been the issue of the authority of the church or religious realm in or alongside the state or governmental and civil realms. Here one can speak of a long trend, based on Protestant latencies, to move from church establishment toward disestablishment and a celebration of voluntarism.
It is historically inaccurate to say, based on the record of American celebration of "separation of church and state" with Protestant concurrence, that Protestantism has always been voluntaristic. It would be more fair to say that the sixteenth-century Reformation carried with it some potential for voluntarism—seeds that broke open, sprouted, and grew from two to four centuries later.
In the late twentieth century, most of the new nations in which nonwhite indigenous Protestantism prospered had undergone experiences of modernization that, whatever else these meant, provided no room for fusion of church and state or an interwoven pattern of religious and civil authority. Similarly, it was on the soil of largely Protestant nations such as the United States that the greatest degree of constitutional separation between the two authorities first occurred. Yet political philosopher Hannah Arendt is correct to chide Protestants for claiming that modern democracy with its religious freedom is simply a Christian invention. Some Christians have found it easy to reach into their repository of options to find impetus for supporting republicanism based on Enlightenment principles and practical support of equity and civil peace whenever pluralism has been strong.
Historical Protestantism in almost all its mainstream and dominant forms first simply carried over authority patterns from medieval Catholicism. In the Church of England, the Presbyterian church in Scotland, the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and wherever else leaders had the power to do so, they naturally clung to establishment. They simply broke from Roman Catholic establishment to form Protestant versions. Martin Luther supported a "territorial church" with princes as bishops. Elsewhere, monarchy and legislative bodies gave establishment power or privilege to the favored church and forced disabilities on others.
Only the left-wing, or Anabaptist, churches of the first generations were independent of the state, and they tended to be harassed as much by Protestant establishments as by Catholic establishments. Where they became powerful, as did the Puritans from England who founded New England, they reversed themselves and became the new established monopoly church. Even in much later republics, where no form of Protestantism ever came to dominance, Protestants were tempted to reassert power by looking for legal privilege.
Despite all these establishmentarian dimensions, it is also fair to say that Protestantism did contain the seed that helped disestablishment and separation of church and state develop. A religion of the word, Protestantism called for that word to separate people from attachment to the culture as it evoked decision. So the boundaries of the church and the state could not be coextensive, as they aspired then to be in Catholicism. Whatever "the priesthood of all believers," "the right of private judgment," and the call to conscience in biblical interpretation meant theologically, they had as their practical consequence an honoring of individualism and personal profession of faith. Both of these would become confined were there an official and authoritative church.
Another way to describe this individualism is in terms of modern theologian Paul Tillich's famed "protestant principle" of prophetic protest. This principle calls believers to question all structures and institutions, also and especially those of their own state and church. Naturally, Protestants have not found it any easier to do this than have others, since seldom does one wish to give up ease and privilege and to share power voluntarily. Yet, in contrast to much Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology, Protestant theology at least had a legitimating principle for criticizing church structure and its bond with human governmental authority. Protestantism, then, has lived with a heightened dialectic. On the one hand, it called for support of government, in the terms of Paul's biblical letter to the Romans, chapter 13, as God's instrument. On the other hand, it was critical, along the lines of Revelation 13, of civil and ecclesiastical government as being especially subtle and potent concentrations of power, symbols, and capacities for self-idolization and the oppression of others.
Personal Experience as Authority
A word should be said about personal experience as authority in Protestantism. From the first its "spiritualists," "mystics," and "enthusiasts," who claimed that God spoke directly to and through them, have been both recognized and under suspicion. Those who carry these claims to extremes, as did many of the Quakers, or Friends, the seventeenth-century Puritan sect, and some modern Pentecostals, know that they are "on the margin," out of step with mainstream Protestantism. Their own protests and the way the rest of Protestantism unites against them reveal this.
At the same time, few Protestants have been willing to resist going further than Orthodox and Catholic teachers in granting much authority to individual assent in the grasp of faith. Calvin spoke of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of the believer who hears the word of God or reads the Bible. Luther's possibly apocryphal cry at the Diet of Worms in 1521, a cry against emperor and pope, state and church, "Here I stand!" has acquired mythical dimensions as an act of Protestant heroism. There is always at least the theoretical possibility that the individual may be right and the church wrong, a possibility that both nagged and inspired Luther and other reformers.
In the end, most Protestantism asks the Christian who claims to have had an experience of God or a direct revelation and a call to individual conscience to subject these claims to the responsibilities of the congregation or church at large. There may be great suspicion by fellow believers of such claims, and the individuals who make them may suffer liabilities and persecution. Yet on the other hand, Protestantism honors "heart religion," insists on heartfelt response to the word and the claims of God upon the mind, and thus it sees experience as an authority alongside the Bible and the church.
Original or classic Protestantism was more ready to see itself as distinctive in the content of faith than is modern pluralist Protestantism. In the sixteenth century, late medieval Catholicism presented what to Protestant eyes was an egregious violation of God's system of approach to human beings. Catholicism had generated, or degenerated into, a system that progressively depended more and more upon human achievement. Key words were human merit or humanly gained righteousness. Elaborate schemes, for example, the sale of indulgences to help make up the required number of merits to assure salvation, had been devised. These led to abuses, which contemporary Catholic reformers and later historians have agreed made Protestant revolt plausible.
Protestantism across the board held to generally extreme views of human finitude, limits, "fallenness," and need. Mainstream and marginal reformers alike were not convinced by claims that human beings retained enough of the image of God upon which to build so that their own works or merits would suffice to appease a wrathful God. They exaggerated the way Catholicism had diminished the role of Jesus Christ as giver of a gift or imparter of grace upon the wholly undeserving. Once again Paul Tillich from the twentieth century can be called in as witness to what Protestantism affirmed: that God "accepts the unacceptable." Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God does not wait for sinners to become acceptable through their efforts.
In the sixteenth century, there were many variations on this theme, and Martin Luther's proclamation of "justification by grace through faith," while at home in all of Protestantism, was not necessarily the chosen formula for all Protestants. Yet all did accent divine initiative, human limits, the gifts of God in Jesus Christ, and the new condition of humanity as a result of divine forgiveness. The variations from the first included some new Protestant ways of propping up the moral quest. Not all were as sure as Luther was that the law of God, as revealed in the Ten Commandments or the sermon on the mount, played no positive guiding role in salvation. They often feared "antinomianism" or lawlessness. The grace-proclaimers protected themselves against this by insisting that faith must be active in love, that works must follow grace, that "sanctification" is an inevitable consequence and correlate of "justification."
Where such resorts to human claims and achievements were not part of original Protestantism, they did develop later. An example of this was a revision on Dutch and then English soil in a movement named after one Jacobus Arminius and called Arminianism. This system proclaimed the benevolence of a God who gave humans more capacity for benevolence on their own. In some Unitarianism this teaching became a kind of philosophical or moral system that moved to the edges of Protestantism. In Wesleyan Methodism it remained "evangelical," gospel-centered, but picked up on the themes of sanctification and the quest for perfection. In the latter case, it did not make the sacrifice of Christ or the imparting of grace as a gift unnecessary or even secondary. Somehow, then, Protestants have concentrated on faith and grace in distinctive ways. Modern Catholicism, however, has undergone such a revitalizing of faith in similar approaches to grace that the distinctively Protestant note has become compromised—a trend that most Protestants profess to welcome enthusiastically. Protestantism has considered the church always to be reforming, never reformed; Catholicism and Protestantism alike, many would say, stand in need of being reformed, and from time to time they move past rigid, older identities and formulas. Such moves are not incongruent with the Protestant ethos and spirit.
The Protestant Response to God
To speak of Protestant creeds and a Protestant substance or content does justice to the cognitive dimensions of its faith. At the same time, one can easily exaggerate these elements. In the lives of most people called Protestant, behavioral factors are at least as vivid and more easily grasped, if defined with more difficulty. One can readily consult a dogmatics text to see what Protestants believe or are supposed to believe. It takes more subtle observation, more willingness to risk generalization, to observe their response in practice.
Protestantism has honored the rites of passage through life. Few Protestants would call their ordinances "rites of passage," yet most can easily be led to see that their sacraments and ceremonies do relate the individual to cosmos and community in patterns that match those observed on other soil by historians of religion. They may not see themselves classified with "the primitives" with respect to initiation, fertility, or funerary rites, but there are parallels.
Thus, almost all Protestants—Quakers chiefly excepted—see the need for a rite of initiation. With so few exceptions that they do not merit pointing to, this rite is "water baptism," something shared with the rest of Christianity. Most Protestants retained infant baptism, as either an instrument of grace (as in Lutheranism) or an expression of covenantal life (as in most of Reformed Protestantism). Yet Protestants, when called to reflect, also resisted what they saw to be Catholic notions of ex opere operato, which Protestants regarded as a "magical" application of human elements in sacramental life. This left those who baptized infants with the burden of showing how faith can be active among children who can have no rational conception of what is going on. How to explain the decision that was still called for in response to gifts of grace in faith, or the expectation that some disciplined life must follow?
Many mainstream Protestants compensated by accenting reaffirmation of baptism in some version of a rite of confirmation. Others saw each act of repentance and each day's conscious Christian affirmation as a new death of "the old Adam" and a "being born again" as a new being in Christ. These ideas have held the imagination of millions and made it possible for the rite of initiation to occur very early in human life.
At the same time, the logic of Protestantism and the impulse to connect rites of initiation with conscious response to the word of God led many Protestant branches to grow restless about infant baptism and to move closer to locating initiation in or after adolescence, as so many other religions have it. This meant a further move from seeing water baptism as an instrument of grace to seeing it as a human response based on decision. The new evangelizers or converters, then, called for a decision that issued in repentance and faith and then initiation. "Adult baptism" as a sign of response, usually dramatized in baptism by immersion, better exemplified the sense of ordeal and the passage across a "liminal" or threshold stage to new community. As a result, whole church bodies became "Baptist," and the baptist forms of Protestantism came to prevail progressively in the modern world, where the demand for choice and identity grew more intense. Most of fast-growing nonwhite indigenous Protestantism stressed this form of passage.
Marriage, regarded on Orthodox and Roman Catholic soil as a sacrament with an imparting of grace, distinctively stopped being that on most Protestant soil. The reformers tended to regard it as essentially a civil act, with the church serving merely as an agent to bless the couple and to hear their vows. The church was the custodian and recordkeeper of the state's work until the modern secular state took over the recording functions. One could, at least in theory, be validly married without the blessing of the church and clergy. In practice, however, the impulse of people to see their acts of bonding and fertility sacralized has won out. On most Protestant soil, whatever the theology of the marriage ceremony and act, people have seen to the development of elaborate churchly rites at times of nuptials. Yet it is distinctively Protestant to prevent notions of grace-giving or sacramental character from developing in most places.
Protestantism has not encouraged distinctive funeral traditions, but almost everywhere its churches have been participants in memorial or mourning rites. Again there occurred the negation of the Catholic notion that a sacrament was involved at the point of passage to a life to come. Some Protestants use oils for symbolic purposes associated with prayer for healing but assign them no sacramental or instrumental significance. When death comes, there is much reflection upon the event and its meaning. Almost always a cleric holds rites of the word that accent the gospel of what God has done in and for the deceased person and assure that God's love is stronger than death. These rites may occur in the sanctuary of a church or in a mortuary, and burial (whether of a body or ashes) can occur on church cemetery grounds or in public burial places. Here Protestantism offers few consistent words except that one sees the life of the believer wrapped up in divine beneficence despite human frailty.
Alongside baptism, then, the only act seen as sacramental in the vast majority of Protestantism is the sacred meal. Such meals are common in religions, and Protestants often have failed to see theirs in a larger context. Yet they have almost unanimously—the Salvation Army and the Quakers being the nearly sole exceptions—taken over the Catholic sacrament of this meal and put their stamp on it. For centuries the Mass, in which the laity received bread and the clergy partook of bread and wine, was the repeated event in which Jesus Christ was made really present through priestly act, the word of God, and faith.
Lutheranism, as an expression of a conservative Reformation, came closest to keeping the sacramental worldview with its implications for the bread and wine as body and blood of Christ. But even Lutheranism rebelled against ex opere operato concepts and did not want to see a change in the visible elements, a transubstantiation, of any sort. This could lead to what Lutherans saw to be superstitious or magical reverence. Most other Protestants sided with the Reformed tradition. They did not see the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion as an occasion for seeing God in Christ as present or for regarding Christ as sacramentally experienced in assemblies. Instead they located the Lord's Supper in a system of grace as a human response, to which people brought their faith and their intentions in response to a command of God.
Whatever their doctrinal attitude toward the rite, these Protestants took the meal seriously. For example, the nineteenth-century Protestant movements associated with the Disciples of Christ, which were attempts to restore primitive Christianity, rejected Catholic and Lutheran sacramental views. Yet, more than most Protestants, they kept the frequent, indeed weekly, practice of sharing the sacred meal, which usually takes place during the formal Sunday observance of congregations, although usually with less frequency than in the sacramental and Catholic churches. Communicants receive both bread and wine (or, in some temperance-minded bodies, unfermented grape juice) from a central table, either at that table or in the pew. The event occurs in a spirit of great solemnity, after there have been preaching and examination of hearts.
The Role of the Word
While baptism and the Lord's Supper as sacraments, and marriage, confirmation, and funeral rites as practices, receive much attention, Protestantism is supremely a religion of the word. By this most believers mean not simply the word of the Bible but the Logos of God, the expression of God. God creates the universe by a word, pronounces sinners forgiven by a word, speaks the word to heal them, builds community through the word.
This has necessarily meant dissemination of the word. Protestantism was born early in the age of Johann Gutenberg during a revolution in printing that made literacy necessary and the spread of words possible. Some modern critics have seen Protestantism as so identified with Gutenberg's invention of movable type and a great impulse to use it that they predict its demise as print gives way to the competition from electronic and visual disseminations. However, Protestantism also makes much of the oral word and sees voice as a summons for belief. Its leaders have long quoted the Pauline notion that "faith comes by hearing" and hearing by the word of God. This has meant that most Protestant revitalizations have occurred as theologies of the word or, for the people, as enhanced preaching.
Protestantism came on the scene after the great tradition of Catholic preaching was over, and there was little new attention being given to homiletics. For Protestants, the preached word or sermon, expounding the word and applying it to the needs of people in a new day, became a challenge to the Mass as the focal act of worship. This vast majority of Protestants measure the effectiveness of worship by reference to the preaching. It is the scriptural word that gives power to baptism and the Lord's Supper, whether as instruments of grace or as human response. The word shapes prayer; people use the word in teaching and conversation. In times of crisis, it is the word that inspires intercessory prayer. Most Protestant healing involves no herbs, potions, or exercises—only spiritual direction under the word. There are as many theories about why faith comes from hearing and believing the word as there have been theologies, Protestant bodies, or movements and ages in Protestantism. Given the complexity of human psychology, the variety of social contexts, and the pluralism of philosophical options, it is difficult to picture a final definition. Despite the lack of a unitary position on the power of the word, Protestants are united in believing that somehow theirs is a religion of the word.
In describing baptism (whether sprinkling of infants or immersion of adults), the Lord's Supper, and the act of preaching and the uses of the word, the outlines of Protestant worship become generally clear. To these should be added that Protestants characteristically have gathered for worship in buildings set aside for that purpose. While they believe that the gathered community may effectively baptize, eat and drink, hear and pray under the sky or in secular buildings, they have had an impulse to set aside and consecrate a sacred space, which symbolically, not actually, becomes a house of God.
The building may be of almost any architectural style. Original Protestant churches tended to be slightly stripped-down Catholic churches that had been taken over by Protestants. In general, the concept of being "stripped down" is appropriate; when Protestants build churches, they tend to be somewhat simpler than Orthodox or Catholic churches. Rejecting icons and minimizing the sacral role of statues and painting, Protestants have tended to use pictorial art for purposes of teaching, reminder, or inspiration. This approach has led to direct and simple expressions, with the exception of a very few periods in which Protestants did revert to ornate Gothic expressions.
The sacred space usually accents a place for preaching, a baptismal font or pool, and a table or altar for the Lord's Supper. Around these the people gather, in pews or on chairs. The gathering occurs to recognize the presence of God, to follow divine commands to congregate for purposes of praise, to build the morale of the group for purposes outside the sanctuary, and to celebrate the seasons of the church year, the events of the week, and the passages of life.
With few exceptions, Protestantism is also a singing religion. It took the act of praising in song, which had become largely a preserve of clergy and choir, and enlarged it to include the congregation. There may be chorally apathetic Protestantism, but in practice Protestants honor the word of God in song. Most of their revivals—Luther's and Charles Wesley's are but two examples—have been promoted through distinctive song.
Except in Seventh-day Adventism, Protestant worship almost always occurs on Sunday, the Lord's Day, the Day of Resurrection, although believers are urged to worship at any time or place. Most Protestants observe the inherited Catholic church year but have purged it of many of its occasions. That is, they annually follow the life of Christ from Advent and Christmas, with its birth rites, through another season of repentance and preparation, Lent, on the way to a climax at Good Friday and Easter weekend, and then a festival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The more Puritan forms of Protestantism, however, saw something "papist" in these seasonal observances and did away with almost all of them, sometimes including Christmas itself. The rest of Protestantism, which kept the church year of observances, also honored biblical saints like Paul and John on special days but rejected most postbiblical saints. It was believed that honor directed to them distracted from worship of God in Christ. In many places a new church year tied to national and cultural events has emerged. Thus in the United States many observe a Thanksgiving Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day, Stewardship Sunday, Lay Sunday, and the like. The impulse to ritualize life is strong even on the purging, purifying, and simplifying soil of Protestantism.
The Way of Life
How, it may be asked, can one speak of a Protestant way of life when the ways are so varied? What do a wealthy American high church Anglican executive, a Latin American Pentecostal, and a black under oppression in South Africa have in common as a "way of life"? It would be foolish to impose a single ideal, force a straitjacket, or overgeneralize a vision, but something can and must be said about Protestant styles of behavior. Sometimes activities are so obvious that no one bothers to note them, and this is the case with some Protestant commonalities.
First, most overlooked and yet obvious on a second glance, is the widespread assumption that the life of grace to which Protestants witness by faith must issue in some form of personal ethic. This seems unremarkable, but by no means have all religions of the world made much of this moral notion. Many have centered themselves more on matters of rites and mores than on matters of conscience and morals. Protestantism has almost always been stereotyped as moralistic in intention and outlook. Catholic Christians have dismissed some of their own heresies, such as Jansenism, as being like "grim Calvinism" or dour Protestantism. Others have rebelled against the Protestant impulse to reform the world, to rearrange by law or example or injunction the lives of others, or to convert the experience of grace into severe new legalisms. While these rejections of Protestantism may be based on exaggerations or partial misperceptions, there is enough consistency in Protestantism to warrant elaboration of the theme.
Catholic Christianity has stressed personal ethics and produced people of impressive moral conviction and achievement. Yet often it has implied that participation in the Mass and the act of having a soul saved are paramount, and that the faithful as a group are the moral agents. Protestantism, through its tendency toward individualism, expects more of an internalization and personal application of the message of the church.
Protestantism has often been impelled to be critical of the sexual mores of its day and to ask its people for restraint in expressions of sexuality. Partly under the impetus of sixteenth-century reformers who, as clerics, had been celibate but who later married, established families, and lived in "parsonages," Protestants chose to affirm sexuality in familial contexts. Scorning monasticism most of the time, and speaking of the vocation to propagate where that was possible, Protestants became champions of the family. Their critics see Protestantism as being so familial that it tends to adopt the norms of bourgeois families wherever these appear, without sorting out what is temporary cultural expression from what is integral to the faith or biblically based. Sometimes, despite Protestant individualism, the individual who is not vividly involved in family life has felt left out by the norms of preaching and teaching that see the family as a basic unit of revelation, nurture, and discipline.
It is not easy to strain all the Protestant impulses for personal ethics and morals into a single mold. In general, Protestantism has called not just for applying the faith within the Christian community but for taking it into the world as well. The line between the sacred and the secular calling and sphere was supposed to be a fine one, whether it turned out to be so in practice or not. Some Protestant ethics have been legalistic, a somber response to the commands of God in the divine law. Yet more frequently reformers have insisted that Protestantism is an issuing of faith in forms of love that seek to serve as conduits of God's agapē, which is a spontaneous, unmotivated love. This understanding, it has been claimed, is more liberating than those Catholic forms that stress almsgiving or doing good to obtain merit and thus would be partly self-serving. Similarly, Protestant ethicists have often criticized Catholics for using models of human desire and friendship or natural love, not the agapē that exemplifies the initiative of divine love.
Protestant response often generates an ethic of attention to the life of the church. Lacking the appeal of the sacramental presence of Christ in the reserved communion Host, or bread, or the understanding that something happens uniquely in the sanctuary, Protestants have often had to work strenuously to provide reasons for attending worship regularly. "Go to church" becomes a large part of the ethic, and the quality of Christian life is often measured by faithfulness in participation on church premises.
As for social ethics, Protestantism includes several strains. There has been a denial of the world of a sort that, in H. Richard Niebuhr's terms, pits Christ against culture or sees Christ to be too pure and lofty to be stained in society and thus sees Christ above culture. There have been constant temptations for Protestantism, where it prevails, simply to baptize the surrounding culture in forms of a Christ of culture. Then all lines between the Christian and the world on some terms or other are obscured.
Two other types have tended to dominate wherever Protestants have been reflective and self-critical. One of these would be called by observers and critics a form that keeps transforming culture with a millennial or utopian tinge. In this version, Protestants pick up biblical witness to the always-coming kingdom of God. Proclaiming this coming kingdom involves a prophetic denouncing of the world as it is, the vision of a better world, and some sort of program for reaching it. This transforming strain of Protestantism tends to prevail in times when progressivism is plausible in the culture and calls forth a buoyant, activistic kind of response. On its soil there have been genuine efforts to change the structures of society, to promote more justice. Many Reformed and especially Puritan and later moderate evangelicalisms have been dedicated to such models.
This form of approach tends to call forth common action by the church. Either through movements, demonstrations, or the issuance of teaching and prophetic proclamations, church bodies ask for corporate wrestling with issues. The church as church takes some stand in society and tries to work for change that will make the empirical world look like or realize some dimension of life in the kingdom of God. Then the accent on personal morality is not secondary, but it becomes specialized. It works in some aspects of life but not in others.
The other main Protestant stream also asks for engagement with culture, but it is more individualistic and relies less on progressivist models. Although the kingdom of God may be wholly eschatological, coming or to come only after human history as now known is exhausted, the individual Christian is not relieved of responsibilities of citizenship. But he or she is now a more isolated representative who does not wait for and may not agree with joint Christian efforts. In this school there is more accent on the perduring element of the demonic in human history. People are seen as more intransigent, as less malleable to change. The task of the church is more otherworldly, and salvation is seen in individualistic and spiritualizing terms. There are instincts to be more conservative, to support the status quo at its best, to honor the government and the authorities or powers that be as ordained of God.
In either case, Protestantism has been culturally productive. Whether on corporate or individual terms, this movement, in the eyes of many social thinkers, including Max Weber, took advantage of new economic opportunities that arose during and after the Reformation era in western Europe and Anglo-America. By turning its ascetic and self-denying powers from the search for salvation, as in the monastery, to the search for productive life in the secular setting, Protestants produced new motives and energies. They were ready to work hard and long. They wanted to be stewards of the earth and its resources. They would not waste and wished to save. Consequently, as they took risks with capital and invested, they developed a "Protestant ethic," which spread wherever Protestantism did.
More recent sociologists have questioned Weber's thesis. There seems to have been capitalism, as in fifteenth-century Venice, before there were Protestants. There is an equivalent to the Protestant ethic in nations such as Japan, where there have never been many Protestants. Motivations for capitalist venture were too broad to be clustered under a "this-worldly ascetic" motif. Yet the Protestants, for the most part, in Europe and now in nonwhite indigenous circles, have been great promoters of individual work and responsibility. The use of leisure, the concept of siesta and fiesta, is not dealt with so consistently where Protestants dominate. They would live out a divine-human drama in the workaday world, one that calls for them to be productive and busy.
Only with broadest brush strokes need one show how Protestantism issues in a variety of thought patterns. It goes almost without saying that as a religion of the word it must connect with other patterns of word use, other systems of thought. While it could inherit much of Catholic theology and convert it to embody the new or renewed Protestant concepts, Protestantism also placed on individuals more burden for formulation than did Catholicism, where more was inherited through the tradition. Since Protestantism also induced variety and pluralism, it became important for each group or profound thinker to formulate what was special about his or her locale, context, public, and program. The freedom that Protestantism professed to bring was a mandate and a license to be enterprising in theological form-building.
By contrast, in reaction to the Reformation, Roman Catholicism through the Council of Trent tended to freeze theological development. Experiment was downgraded, and innovation was a subject that induced suspicion. The theologian became the reformulator, the custodian of assured truths. Developmental or modernist thought was formally condemned, and the papacy came to elevate Thomistic scholasticism to privileged—indeed, virtually monopolistic—status. Protestantism also engendered scholasticisms and orthodoxies but was unable to suppress the experimental tendencies it had opened up.
Protestant theology saw the Bible as its basic set of texts and, often, the only norm and source for theology. Many thinkers, with their churches, were ready also to accept the main themes and modes of early Christian orthodoxy from the creed-making period. To these they added the statements of faith from the first or second generation of each Protestant expression. Finally, there was room for individual witness and ingenuity dependent upon available philosophy and urgent cultural necessity. Protestantism was born not in episcopal residences or monasteries but, for the most part, in universities and academies. This meant that the new formulators were uncommonly exposed to rival and alien—but also sometimes alluring—patterns of thought.
Protestant thought has moved through a number of epochs. The first generation tended to be open, explosive, rich in dialectic, ready for ambiguity, indulgent with paradox. A second period led to reaction and scholastic impulses to nail everything down, to be secure and neat, to defend propositions of faith. Later, in most of the older Protestantism, new movements of the heart, new Pietisms, forced changes in thought patterns. These were quickly supplanted by the rationalisms of the Enlightenment, which colored Protestantism almost everywhere. Then came a crisis of historical consciousness, a readiness to see everything in the Christian scheme colored by accident and contingency in history. In the twentieth century, among the explosion of options, there was some embrace of existentialist and personalist outlooks. To the non-Protestant Christian, this meant individualist irresponsibility. To the churched forms of Protestantism it became both a challenge and a threat, as theologians applied Protestant witness in varied thought patterns in changing cultures. In nonwhite indigenous Protestantisms new patterns are still emerging.
That Protestants chose preaching, hymnody, architecture, and the like for cultural expression and economics or reform for social expression can be inferred from preceding passages. In general, Protestantism has been less fertile than Catholic Christianity in affirming the literary and artistic worlds. Sometimes this has resulted from a certain suspicion about the validity of the earthly venture for the sake of salvation. Tillich balanced his "protestant principle" with "Catholic substance," the ability to relish and invest in the sights and sounds of human endeavor, which was often lacking in Protestantism. Sometimes moralism has prevented Protestants from literary expression, since literature often pushes at the edges of moral convention. The tinge of iconoclasm in much of Protestantism has kept it from being free for artistic expression.
All this has meant that Protestantism seemed most productive in the field of music, perhaps because the kinetic character of music seemed to be congruent with a word-centered, iconoclastic tradition. One thinks here of the musical poets of Protestantism, most notably the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. In literature there have been John Milton and John Bunyan, but in the contemporary world Protestantism has seldom helped produce anything approaching modern classics. In the visual arts geniuses like Lucas Cranach or, supremely, Rembrandt, have given expression to their evangelical sympathies and Protestant outlook. But this artistic tradition is no match for Catholic versions. The Protestant movement, then, has concentrated on other fields and still awaits substantial aesthetic articulation.
Protestantism has been in decline in its heartland, western Europe and the British Isles. The old establishments there survive, but languidly, and churches are nearly empty in much of secular western Europe. In North America the picture is more complex, varied, and promising. While mainstream Protestantism as an heir of establishment has been languishing, revitalized conservative movements, more worldly than their antecedents, prosper. The greatest growth is in nonwhite indigenous Protestantism, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Following present trends in the Southern Hemisphere, Christianity, and Protestantism with it, is on the way toward becoming numerically dominant. What it will choose to retain from the missionary forms of Protestantism and where it will choose to innovate are not yet determined. As the two clusters come together, the result will help determine the future of Protestantism wherever that form of Christianity propagates itself.
Anabaptism; Anglicanism; Baptism; Baptist Churches; Basilica, Cathedral, and Church; Biblical Exegesis, article on Christian Views; Christianity; Christian Liturgical Year; Christian Science; Christian Social Movements; Church; Creeds, article on Christian Creeds; Deism; Ecumenical Movement; Ethical Culture; Eucharist; Evangelical and Fundamental Christianity; Funeral Rites; God, article on God in Postbiblical Christianity; Hus, Jan; Hutterian Brethren; Iconography, article on Christian Iconography; Initiation; Jesus; Literature, article on Religious Dimensions of Modern Western Literature; Lutheranism; Marriage; Mennonites; Methodist Churches; Ministry; Modernism, article on Christian Modernism; Moravians; Mormonism; Music, article on Religious Music in the West; Neoorthodoxy; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Pietism; Poetry, article on Christian Poetry; Presbyterianism, Reformed; Priesthood, article on Christian Priesthood; Puritanism; Quakers; Rites of Passage; Sacrament, article on Christian Sacraments; Salvation Army; Seventh-day Adventism; Shakers; Theology, article on Christian Theology; Trinity; Unitarian Universalist Association; Waldensians; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Christian Worship.
One of the more ambitious histories of Protestantism is Émile G. Léonard's Historie générale du protestantisme, 3 vols. (Paris, 1961–1964), translated as A History of Protestantism (London, 1965–1968). Most Protestant history is simply incorporated as half of the latter third of general church histories, such as Kenneth Scott Latourette's A History of Christianity (New York, 1953). The most extensive easily accessible bibliography is in my own Protestantism (New York, 1972). One way to approach Protestantism is through its root experience in the Reformation era; on the thought of the period, see Wilhelm Pauck's The Heritage of the Reformation, rev. ed. (Oxford, 1968); Harold J. Grimm's The Reformation Era, 1500–1650, 2d ed. (New York, 1973), is especially useful for its bibliographies.
Louis Bouyer's The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (London, 1956) is an informed view by a Calvinist turned Catholic. Einar Molland's Christendom: The Christian Churches, Their Doctrines, Constitutional Forms, and Ways of Worship (New York, 1959) is especially interesting for its comparison between Protestant and other forms of Christianity. Few scholars have attempted to discern the genius of Protestantism as a whole, but there are good reasons to consult an imaginative attempt by Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism (Oxford, 1961), or George W. Forell's The Protestant Faith (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1960); for a European view, see Karl Heim's The Nature of Protestantism (Philadelphia, 1963). John B. Cobb, Jr., in Varieties of Protestantism (Philadelphia, 1960), treats modern theology.
Asselt, William J. van, and Eef Dekker, eds. Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001.
Berg, Johannes van Den. Religious Currents and Cross-Currents: Essays on Early Modern Protestantism and the Protestant Enlightenment. Leiden and Boston, 1999.
Dillenberger, John, and Claude Welch. Protestant Christianity: Interpreted through Its Development. 2d ed. New York, 1988.
Marty, Martin E. Protestantism in the United States: Righteous Empire. 2d ed. New York, 1986.
Marty, Martin E., ed. Theological Themes in the American Protestant World. Munich and New York, 1992.
Marty, Martin E., ed. Varieties of Religious Expression. New York, 1993.
Martin E. Marty (1987)
"Protestantism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/protestantism
"Protestantism." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/protestantism