The term “Protestantism” refers to various forms of Christianity originating during the Reformation. The Reformation — essentially a movement for theological and moral reform in the Western Christian Church during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — was an incomparable catalyst for change that gave birth to a number of different types, such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Congregationalism, and Baptism.
There was deep dissension within the Roman Catholic Church, which led to liberal Catholic reform earlier in the century. However, the traditional beginning of the Reformation occurred when Martin Luther, a German Roman Catholic priest, posted his Ninety-five Theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints' Day.
Luther was a pastor and professor at the University of Wittenberg. In his theses, he attacked what he saw as the theological root of corruption in the life of the Church. He insisted that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and that only the scripture was authoritative; his critique was against the doctrine of the Church. In essence, he said that the Church was acting as a mediator or filter between the individual and God. To the Reformers, the Church seemed to be a transaction in place: The people would attend Mass, make confessions, do penance, and so on, and the Church would give approval and access to God's pleasure.
Another part of the argument was that because Catholics lived in fear of failing to provide what the Church said God required and their only dispensation was via the Church, church leaders had both political leverage and the ability to exert terror and compliance over the general populace.
Like many others, Luther complained of the terrible state of affairs of the Church. He railed against the avarice and simony connected with attaining offices in the Church. After a time, he became convinced that the Gospel itself was at stake — that the Church was actually perverting the Gospel of Jesus Christ by teaching people that heaven could be purchased by good works.
Understandably, this attack didn't sit well with the Roman Catholic establishment, and Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1521.
Lutheranism, a major Protestant denomination, started with the thoughts of the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther. It may only be legend that Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, but it is no legend that his protest provoked a general revolt against the Papacy. Luther believed the church had lost sight of its central teachings, most importantly that of justification — God's act of declaring a sinner righteous by faith alone, not though any act or work.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a German theologian who was the principal initiator of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. He did this by challenging the Christian Church, especially on the idea of buying indulgences. An indulgence was the putting off of a temporal punishment still due for a sin that has been absolved.
Martin Luther's teachings spread through Germany and Scandinavia and, in the eighteenth century, to America and the rest of the world. Lutheranism is the state religion of many north European countries. Lutherans see their movement centered in the understanding that, thanks to the saving activity of God in Jesus Christ, they are themselves “justified by grace through faith.” Lutherans, like most Protestants, base their teachings not on churchly authority but on the divinely inspired Bible.
Lutherans believe that all human beings are sinners, in bondage to the power of Satan because of original sin. Their faith, therefore, is the only way out. Worship is firmly based on the teachings of the Bible, which Luther insisted was the only way to know God and his will. The Bible was the divine word, brought to man through the apostles and prophets.
Unlike the practice of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther conducted worship not in Latin, but in the language of the people. Apparently, the use of the vernacular enhanced the delivery and acceptance of the sermons, to say nothing of the rest of the service. Because of this serious change, access was granted not only to the highly educated members but also to the general population. Luther also reduced the established seven sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Infant baptism was considered God's grace reaching out to the newborn, and as such, a symbol of unconditional love. Congregational participation in worship was encouraged, particularly through the singing of the liturgy and of hymns, many of which Luther himself wrote.
Luther became obsessed about what to do to get deliverance from an angry god. According to a popular story, in 1505 he was returning from school and was thrown from a horse during a thunderstorm. Terrified, he promised St. Anne, the patron saint of minors, that he'd become a monk.
It is estimated that Lutheranism throughout the world constitutes the largest of the churches to come out of the Reformation. Lutherans number about 70 million worldwide, with approximately 10 million in the United States and Canada.
John Calvin (1509–1564) was the leading French Protestant reformer and the most important second-generation figure of the Reformation. A highly educated man, Calvin studied Greek, Hebrew, and Latin in order to improve his studies of the Scriptures. As such, he tilted toward humanism and rebelled against conservative theology. In 1533, he experienced, in his words, a “sudden conversion” and turned all his attention to the cause of the Reformation.
Because of internal religious strife in France, Calvin went to Basel, Switzerland. The same thing eventually happened in Switzerland that happened in France, and he was expelled from the country. Years later, he returned to establish the Geneva Academy for the training of ministry students. In the mid-1560s, he produced what became his masterpiece, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” which systematized Protestant thought and became the single most important statement of Protestant belief. In the book, which he finished in 1536 and later revised and supplemented, he diverged from Catholic doctrine by rejecting papal authority. He also explained his positions on justification by faith alone and predestination.
What has come down as Calvinism is a philosophy that expressed the sovereignty of God's will in predestination. Calvinism held that those God specifically elects are saved and that individuals can do nothing to effect this salvation. The term “Calvinism” is also used as a system of doctrine accepted by the Reformed churches, such as Presbyterianism.
Central Beliefs and Holy Writings of Protestantism
Jesus Christ and the Bible formed the authoritative base of the faith. The Protestant churches were organized with biblical supremacy. They believed in what might be called a democracy of believers — every Christian could communicate directly with God without having to go through the intermediary of a priest or saint. Thus, the Protestant principle is that the church is not God, nor are priests, pastors, or ministers; only God is God and He alone should be worshipped.
The Reformation rebelled against what was called “fixed prayer,” prayers that had been composed by others to be remembered by rote and later regurgitated at the appropriate time and place. Freedom from the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church was emphasized, and people were encouraged to pray frequently and directly from the heart and not the head. Protestants recognize two sacraments: baptism and Holy Communion (the Eucharist). There have been variations in sacramental doctrine among Protestants over the years, but these two have become virtually universal.
The New Testament, especially the letters and writings of Paul, captured the Protestant sense of having discovered a religious hero, a mentor who exemplified their philosophy. Paul was brought up in one strict faith. He tried to please God, but failed. Then he went through a period of self-doubt about his worthiness. Protestants saw Paul's conversion through an epiphany with Jesus and his acceptance of Christ as a savior as the perfect example of the Protestant theology of justification by grace through faith. In other words, God didn't have to be satisfied to forgive and accept.
The literature of the Reformers shows that they did not believe that good works by themselves produced God's appeasement or salvation. Rather, good works inevitably flowed from the forgiven heart and were the consequence of the person's life. The law of God measured human frailties and judged them.
The other side of this belief presented Protestant leaders with a dilemma: When people were saved, it was to God's credit; when they were not, it was their own fault — it couldn't be both ways. Some leaders saw themselves solving the problem in Biblical terms by stressing God's loving relationship to humanity in sending his own Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer on their behalf.
One might say that the Protestant ethic formed what was later referred to, particularly in the United States, as the work ethic. High value was given to honesty, hard work, and thrift. In the Calvinist view, these attributes were seen as the underpinnings of eternal salvation. Sociologists have argued that the Protestant ethic contributed significantly to the beginning and later development of capitalism.
Diversification of Protestantism into Modern Society
Protestantism increased the importance of the laity. In most denominations, they exercise more control over the hiring and firing, if necessary, of their pastor. They have a hand in church policy and offer advice on secular concerns. They also help lead worship and get involved in many other activities of the church. Some of the laity even participate in various church conferences, where they help set policy. Protestantism has led the way in providing women with the ability to become ministers. Today, in many of the denominations, there are even female bishops.
Protestantism became strong in northwestern Europe, England, and English-speaking America. Through the missionary movement, it spread to all parts of the world and joined Roman Catholicism as a minority presence in Asia and Africa. Protestantism became part of the history of the North Atlantic nations. While there are more Protestants than Catholics in the United States, Catholicism is the single largest church.
The Protestant heritage of separation led to diversity, which in turn contributed to the vast array of denominations within it.