Christianity: Protestantism

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Christianity: Protestantism

FOUNDED: 1517 c.e.


Along with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism is one of the three major branches of Christianity. It is divided into numerous groups, often called "denominations," that are marked by their own institutional characteristics. Each denomination has its own history, and each possesses unique beliefs, emphases, organizations, and practices that set it apart from other groups in the Protestant family. These extensive differences make Protestantism appear fragmented compared with the highly centralized structures of authority that mark Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. A common conviction of Protestantism is that humans are saved not by good deeds or other actions but by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Humans receive this salvation though the work of the Holy Spirit, who illuminates the readers of Holy Scripture with the gift of faith.

The early Protestant groups emerged in sixteenth-century Europe in what came to be called the Reformation. The term "Protestant" was first used in 1529, when five German princes seeking church reform issued a statement (Latin, protestatio) at the Diet of Speyer. This statement of belief declared solidarity against the powerful Roman Catholic majority. Later in the sixteenth century the term came to describe two reforming movements that separated from the Catholic Church: Lutheranism, based on the teachings of Martin Luther (1483–1546), and Reformed, based on the work of Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) and John Calvin (1509–64). An additional stream of protest against the Catholic Church, which featured a rejection of infant baptism, was called "Anabaptist." In England a "middle way" between Catholicism and Protestantism was developed, resulting in the Church of England, or Anglicanism. Protestantism has subsequently spread throughout the world, although some contemporary groups have moved away from and beyond their Protestant roots.


The beginnings of Protestantism are traditionally associated with an event that took place on 31 October 1517; Martin Luther, then a Catholic priest, nailed his "Ninety-five Theses" to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Criticizing elements within the Roman Catholic Church that Luther viewed as not rightly based on Scripture, these were intended as items for debate. Luther's emerging critique of the Catholic Church and his developing theology led to his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1520. His writings and reforming activities gave rise to the formation of "evangelical" churches that opposed Catholic theology and sought to focus authority for Christian faith and practice on the Old and New Testaments instead of the teachings of the church.

The joint "protestation" of princes at the second Diet of Speyer in 1529 led to the use of "Protestant" to describe those who opposed the halting of the reform movement, something Roman Catholics at the diet proposed to do. But the term also had a positive meaning. The Latin protestari means "to witness," "to profess," or "to declare formally," which was consistent with the desire of those at the Diet of Speyer to "testify openly before God … and likewise before all persons and creatures" according to their consciences. Thus, Protestants are those who witness, or testify, to their Christian faith.

Although the term did not appear until 1529, during the 1520s new churches had begun to emerge that could be called "Protestant." These bodies opposed the doctrines, organization, and juridical functions of the Catholic Church. The new churches and movements represented the theological beliefs of Luther and, later, those of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and the Anabaptist Menno Simons (1496–1561).

The followers of Luther established Lutheran churches, whereas those who followed Zwingli and Calvin were called "Reformed" or "Calvinist." The name "Reformed" recognized the impulse of these two men to reform the church "according to Scripture." Zwingli and Calvin had theological disagreements with Luther about such issues as the Lord's Supper, or Communion (opposing Luther's view that during the Lord's Supper the bread and wine were transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ). The Anabaptist stream of Protestantism was made up of groups that emphasized baptism not for infants but for mature believers who professed their faith in Jesus Christ. This view made Anabaptists suspicious in the eyes of Catholics as well as Lutherans and the Reformed. Typically Anabaptism was also marked by a strong sense of social radicalism, the desire to order the church according to New Testament patterns and practices, and an expectation of the imminent end of the world.

Since the sixteenth century there has been a proliferation of Protestant bodies worldwide. These groups are termed "denominations" (Latin, denominare; "to name") in the United States. Among the most prominent denominational families are Adventist, Anglican (Episcopal in the United States), Baptist, Brethren, Campbellite/Restorationist, Christian Church, Church of God, Congregational, Friends (Quaker), Holiness, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Moravian, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Reformed. Today so-called mainline denominations have their own identities, while Protestants across denominational lines sometimes primarily identify themselves as "evangelicals," stressing the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or as "fundamentalists," interpreting Scripture in a literal sense. As these groups function through church bodies in different countries, they incorporate various cultural practices that accompany their theological beliefs. There is no single head or leader of Protestantism, each church family instituting its own form of church government.


Protestantism emerged out of Martin Luther's protest against the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church as he understood them in the context of sixteenth-century Germany. Protestants today continue to be marked by a rejection of Catholic dogma, church structure, and views on authority. They also differ from Eastern Orthodoxy in theological views and in matters of church government and authority.

The critique of Catholic teachings can be summarized through Reformation slogans that became watch-words among Protestant adherents. The first of these is "Scripture alone" (sola scriptura). Luther's initial criticism of Catholic teachings involved the practice of indulgences, the paying of money to reduce the number of years spent in purgatory. Luther believed that the practice was not scriptural. His developing theology was centered on the conviction that it is Scripture alone, not Catholic teaching (magisterium) or tradition, that provides authority for the church and the Christian. Scripture is God's Word and is the source from which theological understandings are developed. This contrasts with the Catholic view that it is the church through its traditions that interprets Scripture and thus that tradition plus Scripture are the sources of authority. Because of the conviction that it is in Scripture that God's Word and presence are found, Protestantism focuses on the interpretation of the Bible.

A second slogan is "Christ alone" (solus Christus). The Scriptures bear witness to Jesus Christ as God's incarnate Word, for it is in him that the full expression of God is found. As the second person of the Trinity, Jesus became a human being, and he is the only agent through whom salvation can be accomplished. Protestantism stresses that salvation—a restored relationship with God in which human sin is overcome—is possible only through the work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. For Protestants, Christ is the sole agent of salvation, and one can be saved apart from the church and its sacraments, which are emphasized in Catholicism.

A third slogan is "grace alone" (sola gratia). Protestant theology emphasizes that salvation is God's free gift. Salvation is not earned; it is not gained by human works or by righteousness of any kind. Humans are sinful and incapable of performing any actions that can remove their sin or make them right, or "just," in the eyes of God. Yet God showed his love by sending Jesus Christ to die for the sins of the world so that the relationship between God and humans that had been ruptured by sin could be restored. Salvation is provided solely through God's gracious love in Christ. This view contrasts with the traditional Roman Catholic belief that humans can cooperate with God's grace and thus provide an element of their salvation through the doing of works that are good in God's sight.

Finally, there is "faith alone" (sola fide). Humans receive the gift of salvation by faith. Luther's critical insight was that "the just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17). This means, Luther believed, that it is by faith, or trust, in God's gift in Jesus Christ, who died for the sin of the world (Rom. 5:8), that humans receive the gift of salvation. This contrasts with the traditional Roman Catholic position that it is faith plus human works that produce salvation. According to the Protestant view, the Christian does works that are pleasing to God but does them as an expression of faith, not as a cause for salvation.

These major characteristics of Protestantism are also the basis for other distinctive views on such matters as sin, the church, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper, and eschatology (future life). For example, on the basis of Scripture, Protestants reject the Catholic classification of sins as either "mortal" or "venial" and the doctrine of purgatory.


As guides for living a Christian life, Protestantism looks to the centrality of love and justice as expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself embodied God's love and commanded his followers to express this love. He saw love as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets of the Old Testament (Matt. 22:40), and Protestants look to the life of Jesus as a model for living faithfully before God and in right relationships with other people.

Protestants also emphasize that those Christians who are related to God by faith and who follow Jesus Christ can live their lives in freedom as the children of God. The power of sin as the controlling force in life is broken by the forgiveness that comes through the death of Christ on the cross (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). The power of the moral law to condemn sinners also is broken by the grace of God in Christ (Rom. 6:14). Christian life is life in the Spirit who dwells in believers (Rom. 6:9–11). This gives Christians the freedom to follow Christ as their guide for moral conduct and to be open to the leading of God's Spirit in determining how to live and how to act. Christian freedom involves the responsibility of seeking the will of God in all things. For Protestants the goal of Christian living is to "do everything for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

Freedom in Jesus Christ does not mean, however, that the moral law of God expressed in the Ten Commandments no longer has a role to play. The Reformed tradition of Protestantism has especially stressed the place of the law in Christian life. The law is seen as an expression of the will of God, which was fulfilled in Christ. The Ten Commandments are guides to the kind of conduct God desires humans to follow, and those who love God in Christ will keep the law and obey the commandments out of thankfulness for the forgiveness and salvation given in Christ. Christians live an ethic of gratitude for the love of God expressed in Christ.

Christian freedom, with an emphasis on thankfulness expressed through obedience to God's will, leads Protestant churches to emphasize the "fruit of the Spirit"—characteristics such as love, joy, peace, and kindness (Gal. 5:22–26)—both in individual lives and in the ministry and mission of the church. The will of God as expressed through the Old Testament prophets also provides ethical direction, for the power of sin requires that the cries of the prophets for justice, righteousness, and peace be repeated in every age. This involves the church and its members in struggles for justice and peace and in active involvement in the problems of society. These ethical concerns emerge from biblical perspectives and are motivated by the call of Jesus Christ to follow him (Mark 2:14).


Protestants believe in the authority of the Bible. The canon of Scripture in Protestantism consists of the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. The Apocrypha, or deuterocanonical books, may be studied but do not possess theological status as part of the canon. Theological writings, pronouncements of church councils, confessions of faith, and creeds are subordinate standards for understanding the Bible, which for Protestants is authoritative as God's Word.


Protestant churches vary in the amount of symbolism they display in their sanctuaries and during worship. As the central symbol of Christianity, the cross is nearly always displayed in church buildings. Protestants usually display an empty cross, recognizing that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, rather than a crucifix, displaying Christ on the cross, as in the Roman Catholic tradition. Most Protestants allow the cross to be worn in various forms of jewelry.


One early Protestant leader of high standing was Martin Bucer (1491–1551), of Strasbourg, who had strong ecumenical impulses and tried to bring reconciliation between the emerging theological positions of Lutheran and Reformed Christians. In England, George Fox (1624–91), the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), possessed tremendous organizing abilities to accompany his magnetic personality and spiritual vitality. The founder of the Methodist movement was John Wesley (1703–91), whose itinerant preaching in England and voluminous writings, along with his great capacity for leadership, gained many followers and established a significant body of those who rejected the tenets of Calvinism.

Throughout the years Protestants have been leading figures in many areas of endeavor. Well-known Protestants in modern times whose influence has been world-wide include Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), best known for his medical work in Africa; Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45), a German theologian who opposed Adolf Hitler; Toyohiko Kagawa (1888–1960), a Japanese Presbyterian minister, social worker, and evangelist; Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–68), a U.S. civil rights leader; Archbishop Desmond Tutu (born in 1931), a leading South African foe of apartheid; and Billy Graham (born in 1918), an American evangelist who has preached throughout the world.

A number of Protestant women have made important contributions. One early leader was Katharina Schütz Zell (1497/98–1562), of Strausbourg, who was a tireless provider for the needs of the poor, a strong advocate of toleration of both Roman Catholics and Anabaptists, and a zealous preacher of the gospel in word and deed. Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was instrumental in establishing a moderate Protestantism in England, and Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707–91), was a lay leader in the eighteenth-century British evangelical revival. Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), a New England colonist, was an early advocate of religious liberty and women's rights. Other important Protestant women in the United States have included Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96), author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), Quaker social reformer; Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), women's rights leader; Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), Quaker minister and social reformer; and Jane Addams (1860–1935), settlement house founder and peace activist.


Martin Luther (1483–1546) provided Protestantism with its earliest theological expressions, while Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) was an important participant in theological disputations. Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) was a Swiss who began reforms in Basel and who, along with John Calvin (1509–64), was one of the leading theologians of the Reformed stream of Protestantism. Major early Anabaptist theologians included Thomas Müntzer (c. 1489–1525), Balthasar Hubmaier (c. 1485–1528), Hans Denck (1495?–1527), Pilgram Marpeck (died in 1556), and Menno Simons (1496–1561). So-called second-generation Protestant theologians included Theodore Beza (1519–1605), Martin Chemnitz (1522–86), and Francis Turretin (1623–87). Later important Protestant theologians included Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher (1768–1834), known as the father of liberal theology; Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), German Pietist; Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89); Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), perhaps the most brilliant of American theologians; Charles Hodge (1797–1878); Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), Dutch theologian, politician, and statesman; P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921); Herman Bavinck (1854–1921); Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), a brilliant German historian of dogma; Paul Tillich (1886–1965), the most prolific and influential twentieth-century Protestant theologian; Karl Barth (1886–1968); and H. Emil Brunner (1889–1966). Other theologians of note have included Helmut Thielicke (1908–86); Jürgen Moltmann (born in 1926), who has reestablished the importance of eschatology for theology; Wolfhart Pannenberg (born in 1928), who sees theology as a science with universal scope; and John Cobb (born in 1925), a leading proponent of process theology, the view that God "evolves" with the world and that humans share in the process of his emerging identity and actions. Prominent authors in evangelical theology have included Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003) and Donald G. Bloesch (born in 1928). Important women theologians in the United States have included Georgian Harkness (1891–1974), Letty Russell (born in 1929), and Sallie McFague (born in 1933).


Three forms of church government (polity) are found in Protestantism. Episcopal polity is hierarchical and features government by bishops, who have authority over local pastors and congregations. Presbyterian polity centers authority in presbyteries composed of elders and ministers from local churches within a region. Larger bodies, such as synods and a general assembly, also have governing roles. Congregational polity focuses on the local church body, which adopts its own standards for belief, organization, and practice.


Protestant churches vary greatly in their architectural styles. This is true not only in terms of the country in which churches are located but also in regard to the particular denomination to which a church belongs. To emphasize the centrality of the Word of God, Protestant sanctuaries feature a pulpit, which is often located in the center front of the sanctuary. An altar, where the bread and wine for the Lord's Supper are placed, is featured prominently in the front of the sanctuary as well. Reformed churches speak of a "communion table" instead of an altar. Churches also have a baptismal font or a baptistery for baptism by immersion. Other particular features of the sanctuary are distinctive to each Protestant tradition. For example, although almost all sanctuaries feature an empty cross, the size, type, and placement vary.


Protestants historically have focused on Jesus Christ as the Word of God, thus making subordinate all other persons, objects, or entities. Yet Protestants have also recognized various religious and even natural symbols as "pointers to the divine." Some Protestant denominations with highly developed worship liturgies, such as Anglican churches, use extensive religious symbolism. Other Protestant bodies, such as Baptist churches, do not, but because of their emphasis on the Bible, they are sometimes accused of turning the Bible itself into a sacred object.


Festivals of the Christian year, as recognized by the universal Church, are observed by most Protestant denominations. Among others these include Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Palm Sunday, Easter, and Pentecost. Reformed churches initially rejected holiday and festival celebrations, but today most celebrate the major festivals. The ways in which these holidays and festivals are commemorated vary widely among Protestant churches. Local customs and practices may play a role in the way observances are carried out. Other days honoring saints and commemorating events in the traditions of specific churches are also observed. Individual congregations may recognize special days in their own locales. In a number of Protestant traditions, use of the Common Lectionary, or list of Bible readings for Sundays, provides a way by which celebration of the church's festivals are integrated into the worship practices of each congregation.


For worship some Protestant clergy wear special vestments, which may include a clerical collar, a cassock or an alb, and a cross. In other Protestant traditions, however, the clergy dress in the same way as their parishioners. The variations in dress for clergy apply both to men and to women. Protestants have no prescribed modes of dress for laypersons, which vary according to time, place, and culture. Outside worship some clergy wear clerical garb, which clearly sets them apart from other persons and testifies to the clerical vocation. In other Protestant traditions clergy do not wear special garments outside worship, the emphasis being on their common unity with the laity.


Most Protestants do not subscribe to or participate in special dietary practices. Protestants historically have not emphasized fasting in the same way Roman Catholics have. Although fasting is not a prescribed activity, Protestants may at times fast voluntarily. In Protestantism there are no specific bans against eating meat or, for a number of Protestants, against using alcohol. Some Protestants, particularly in the United States, however, regard alcohol as sinful, which has led many churches to substitute grape juice for wine in the Lord's Supper. Many Protestants see the Lord's Supper in a sacramental sense as an "eating and drinking with Jesus." For them the blessing of Jesus for fellowship around a table with food and drink gives Christians the freedom to enjoy these created, Godgiven elements as gifts that can and must be shared with others.


In practice there is great diversity among the worship services of Protestant churches. The varieties exist between Protestant denominations and also within denominations themselves. Most Protestant traditions have clear liturgical practices that prescribe or suggest the elements of ritual for each worship service and the patterns by which worship is to be carried out. Church "bulletins" often list the order of worship and provide instructions for the congregation to follow. Protestant worship services typically consist of prayers, Scripture readings, hymns, an offering, and a sermon, as well as the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Not all Protestant churches celebrate the Lord's Supper in each worship service. Baptism may be administered as appropriate, always to adults in the Protestant tradition and, for the Lutheran and Reformed streams, also for infants. Anabaptists insist that only adult baptism is valid. Some churches have a tradition of holding regular "revivals," while others emphasize glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, and some practice foot washing. Weddings and funerals are typically special services. Weddings are usually held in a church sanctuary, whereas a Protestant funeral may be conducted in a church, a home, or a funeral parlor.


Most of Protestantism recognizes two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper. In Anabaptist traditions these are regarded not as sacraments, in which God has promised to be present and which provide the benefits of salvation, but as "ordinances," that is, as memorials or acts of obedience. The Lutheran and Reformed traditions baptize infants, whereas Anabaptist traditions recognize only adult baptisms. Baptism in general is the incorporation of the person into the household of God. For Protestants the Lord's Supper nurtures the faith of believers, who are "nourished" by the bread and the wine. Unlike Roman Catholics, Protestants do not believe that the "substance" of the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ. Other rites of passage typically include confirmation, a rite whereby those baptized as infants are "confirmed" by making personal affirmations of Christian faith. Ordination in Protestantism marks a person for a ministry or function in the church. Clergy are ordained, and in some Protestant traditions laity are also ordained as church officers. Wedding ceremonies are performed by Protestant clergy and typically take place apart from the weekly worship services. Wedding services witness to the blessing of God upon marriage. Funerals serve as a witness to the Resurrection and, in many Protestant traditions, also as a celebration of the life of the deceased.


Most Protestant denominations seek to expand their membership through evangelism or other means. In the history of Protestantism there has been a wide variety of evangelistic practices, ranging from special services featuring "altar calls," or the opportunity for people to confess their faith in Jesus Christ, to door-to-door efforts, in which believers witness to their Christian faith to strangers. Many Protestant bodies have also been vigorous practitioners of mass evangelism through radio, television, and the Internet. Western Protestant churches historically have been deeply involved in missionary efforts to take the Christian gospel to people in other countries. In contemporary times, with recognition of the negative ways in which Western mores and culture were part of the traditional missionary enterprise, many of these efforts have taken different forms, including efforts to develop indigenous leaders.


Because a number of Protestant churches were persecuted in their origins, many—especially in the Anabaptist stream—have stressed religious toleration and sought freedom to worship. After the sixteenth century degrees of toleration were granted in various European lands, and in some nations Protestant bodies became the state churches. In the American colonies religious intolerance was common, but with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, freedom of religion became a founding ideal, and today Protestants and other groups enjoy religious toleration. To varying degrees Protestants have been involved in the ecumenical movement, seeking points of contact and agreement with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. There also are dialogues among Protestants, both at official and local levels. Churches of Christ Uniting (COCU), originally the Consultation on Church Union, is ongoing in the United States.


Protestants have made strong commitments to education, and many schools and universities owe their origins to Protestant church bodies. Education is seen as a gift of God and thus as a Christian responsibility. Protestant churches also have been concerned with the alleviation of poverty and have worked both legislatively and through local congregations to provide relief for the plight of the poor. In the United States the Social Gospel movement of the early twentieth century was a Protestant effort that made concern for the poor a central focus, believing that Christian responsibility for the less fortunate was both a personal and a collective mission. Some Protestant churches have been outspoken in their support for human rights. Through their official bodies Protestant denominations regularly issue pronouncements that address a wide range of issues in social justice.


Marriage and the family have been important concerns for Protestant churches. Protestants view marriage as ordained by God and intended to be permanent. Many Protestant denominations, however, have dropped prohibitions on divorce and no longer consider it a disqualification for leadership. While marriage is not regarded as a sacrament, it is considered to be a sacred obligation. Nonetheless, given human brokenness, marriage is sometimes better ended through divorce, and divorced people may legitimately remarry. Because Protestantism did not adopt the requirement that clerics be celibate, marriage and family experience have been features of the life of the clergy. Protestants have not generally been opposed to birth control, believing that stewardship of the family is a responsibility of parents. Protestant's views differ on the ethical legitimacy of abortion.


A number of contemporary issues create divisions among Protestants. There are, for example, strong differences over the legitimacy of ordaining women to pastoral offices. Issues of war and peace are sometimes divisive, although political contexts and convictions play as great a role as formal theological views. The appropriateness of homosexuality and of homosexuals in church leadership is strongly debated. The great variety of political and cultural settings in which Protestant churches exist means that they are not unanimous in their perspectives on a number of other controversial issues. Among these are stem-cell research, cloning, and end-of-life issues.


A primary Protestant affirmation, that Christians are called to serve God in the midst of the world, has been a strong impetus for believers to engage their cultures fully and, at times, decisively. For example, the musical works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) were composed in the service of the German Lutheran Church but provide religious depth for all Christians. George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) is perhaps best remembered for his oratorio Messiah. The Protestant tradition in hymnody has produced thousands of songs. Among writers the Puritan poet John Milton (1608–74), author of Paradise Lost, and John Bunyan (1628–88), author of The Pilgrim's Progress, stand out. Protestant literary traditions continue through the poet William Blake (1757–1827) to the present day with the contemporary Left Behind series, based on a reading of Scripture. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and the mathematician Isaac Newton (1642–1727) were both Protestants.

Priesthood of All Believers

Martin Luther emphasized that all Christians are "priests" and thus are able to approach God directly through Jesus Christ. Baptism incorporates believers into the household of God, where as part of the "people of God" they are a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). In the sixteenth century, however, "priesthood" had predominantly come to mean the ordained hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther's rediscovery of the biblical usage became an important part of his theological understanding and a key point of Protestant doctrine. Christians may pray to God directly without the need for an ordained priest as a "mediator." This view also implied that Christian believers can directly interpret the Scriptures without the need of priestly intermediaries.

Donald K. McKim

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity


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