What Is Protestantism?



The religion of all non-Catholic Western Christians. Specifically, the principles taught by Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German monk and reformer who more or less instigated the Reformation. Luther's 95 Theses, posted on the door of a German cathedral sparked a major schism in the Catholic Church and established a wave of non-Catholic sects based on the principle that ordinary Christians were competent to profess their faith without adhering to the dicta of popes. The chief Protestant tenet is that the Bible is the one rule of faith and practice. Therefore, the decrees of the Pope or other dignitaries of the Church are not infallible or obligatory. Justification by faith, individual responsibility, and the right to believe and worship according to one's conscience are cardinal points in the system.

Protestantism encompasses the Christian churches that separated from Rome during the Reformation in the 16th century. This movement was initiated by an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. The term “Protestant” was originally applied to followers of Luther, who protested at the Diet of Spires (1529) against the decree that prohibited all further ecclesiastical reforms. Other influential reformers included John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox. Protestantism rejected attempts to tie God's revelation to earthly institutions and strictly adhered to the Word of God as sole authority in matters of faith and practice (sola scriptura). Central in the reformers' understanding of the biblical message is the justification of the sinner by faith alone. The church is understood as a fellowship, and the priesthood of all believers is stressed.

The Augsburg Confession (1530) was the principal statement of Lutheran faith and practice. It became a model for other Protestant confessions of faith. Major Protestant denominations include the Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), Presbyterian, and Anglican (Episcopalian). Innumerable sects and denominations sprung from these roots, including Quakers, Baptists, Pentecostals, Congregationalists, Methodists, and nondenominational assemblies. Sects that base their faith on additional revelations or insights gained in the modern period include Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Since the latter part of the 19th century, national councils of churches have been established in many countries, for example, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America in 1908. Churches of a particular denomination have joined in federations and world alliances, beginning with the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1867.

Protestant missionary activity, particularly strong in the last century, resulted in the founding of many churches in Asia and Africa. The ecumenical movement, which originated with Protestant missions, aims at unity among Christians and churches.

Protestantism, form of Christian faith and practice that originated with the principles of the Reformation. The term is derived from the Protestatio delivered by a minority of delegates against the (1529) Diet of Speyer, which passed legislation against the Lutherans. Since that time the term has been used in many different senses, but not as the official title of any church until it was assumed (1783) by the Protestant Episcopal Church (since 1967 simply the Episcopal Church) in the United States, the American branch of the Anglican Communion. Protestantism as a general term is now used in contradistinction to the other major Christian faiths, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Branches and Sects

Two distinct branches of Protestantism grew out of the Reformation. The evangelical churches in Germany and Scandinavia were followers of Martin Luther, and the reformed churches in other countries were followers of John Calvin and Huldreich Zwingli. A third major branch, episcopacy, developed in England. Particularly since the Oxford movement of the 19th cent., many Anglicans have rejected the word Protestant because they tend to agree with Roman Catholicism on most doctrinal points, rejecting, however, the primacy of the pope (England, Church of; Episcopal Church; Ireland, Church of). In addition, there have been several groups commonly called Protestant but historically preceding the rise of Protestantism (Hussites; Lollardry; Waldenses). Protestantism has largely been adopted by the peoples of NW Europe and their descendants, excepting the southern Germans, Irish, French, and Belgians; there have been important Protestant minorities in France, Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland.

The doctrine that the individual conscience is the valid interpreter of Scripture led to a wide variety of Protestant sects; this fragmentation was further extended by doctrinal disputes within the sects notably over grace, predestination, and the sacraments. Certain movements have claimed new revelations (Agapemone; Latter-Day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of; New Jerusalem, Church of the). Of a fundamentally distinct nature is Christian Science, which as an article of faith repudiates any medical treatment.

Since the 1960s a main thrust in Protestantism has been toward reunification (ecumenical movement); this was particularly strong in North America. Most Protestant and many Eastern Orthodox churches are allied in federated councils on the local, national, and international levels (World Council of Churches and National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America).

Distinguishing Characteristics and Development

Central Beliefs

The chief characteristics of original Protestantism were the acceptance of the Bible as the only source of infallible revealed truth, the belief in the universal priesthood of all believers, and the doctrine that a Christian is justified in his relationship to God by faith alone, not by good works or dispensations of the church. There was a tendency to minimize liturgy and to stress preaching by the ministry and the reading of the Bible. Although Protestants rejected asceticism, an elevated standard of personal morality was advanced; in some sects, notably Puritanism, a high degree of austerity was reached. Their ecclesiastical polity, principally in such forms as episcopacy (government by bishops), Congregationalism, or Presbyterianism, was looked upon by Protestants as a return to the early Christianity described in the New Testament.

Theological Development

Protestantism saw many theological developments, particularly after the 18th cent. Under the influence of romanticism, which stressed the subjective element in religion rather than the revelation of the Bible, the formal systems of early Protestant theology began to dissolve; this doctrine was best expressed by Friedrich Schleiermacher, who placed religious feeling at the center of Christian life. Along with this came the assertion that the fatherhood of God and the unity of humanity were the basic themes of Christianity. Later there was a neoorthodox movement, which, under the leadership of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, sought a return to a theology of revelation; a new school of Bible interpretation as expressed in the work of Rudolf Bultmann; and a theology, derived in part from existentialism, developed by Paul Tillich.

In the United States, four broad theological positions cut across denominational lines: fundamentalism, which stems from the antitheological periods of revivalism in the 18th and 19th cent. (Great Awakening) and adheres to a literal interpretation of the Bible and a pietistic morality; liberalism, the heir to the Social Gospel movement, which encourages freer interpretation of theological doctrines and emphasizes church responsibility for social justice; Pentecostalism, which emphasizes ecstatic religious experience especially as communicated through the gifts of the Spirit; and the neoorthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth.



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