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The Protestant Churches

The Protestant Churches are one of the main groups of churches or branches in Christianity. The Protestant Churches developed because of a split from the Roman Catholic Church that occurred during the sixteenth century in Europe — a period known as the Protestant Reformation. The split occurred primarily over issues of doctrine (belief), especially the issue of Justification by faith versus Justification by faith plus works. Some of the main Protestant church denominations today include the Lutheran Church, Anglican Communion and the Baptist Church.

Definition and origins - Reformation

The term Protestant originally applied to the group of princes and imperial cities who protested the decision by the 1529 Diet of Speyer to reverse course and enforce the 1521 Edict of Worms. The 1521 edict forbade Lutheran teachings within the Holy Roman Empire. The 1526 session of the Diet had agreed to toleration of Lutheran teachings (on the basis of Cuius regio, eius religio) until a General Council could be held to settle the question, but by 1529 the Catholic forces felt they had gathered enough power to end the toleration without waiting for a Council.

In a broader sense of the word, Protestant began to be used as the collective name for a sudden movement of separation from the Roman Catholic Church, the beginning of which is ordinarily connected with the public disputes raised by Martin Luther. Later, John Calvin, French theologian of the Swiss, Zwinglian, Reformed churches, figured prominently in a movement that embraced a wider, more international diversity of churches. A third major branch of the Reformation, which encountered conflict with the Catholics, as well as with the Lutherans and the Reformed, is sometimes called the Radical Reformation. Some Western, non-Catholic, groups are labeled as Protestant (such as Quakers, for example), even if the sect acknowledges no historical connection to Luther, Calvin or the Roman Catholic Church.

In German speaking and Scandinavian lands, the word Protestant still refers to Lutheran churches in contrast to Reformed churches, while the common designation for all churches originating from the Reformation is Evangelical.

As an intellectual movement, Protestantism grew out of the Renaissance and universities, attracting some learned intellectuals, as well as politicians, professionals, and skilled tradesmen and artisans. The new technology of the printing press allowed Protestant ideas to spread rapidly, as well as aiding in the dissemination of translations of the Bible in native tongues. Nascent Protestant social ideals of liberty of conscience and individual freedom were formed through continuous confrontation with the authority of the Bishop of Rome, and the hierarchy of the Catholic priesthood. The Protestant movement away from the constraints of tradition, toward greater emphasis on individual conscience, anticipated later developments of democratization, and the so-called Enlightenment of later centuries.

Basic theological tenets of the Reformation

During the Reformation several Latin slogans emerged illustrating the Reformers' concern that the authorities of the Church had distorted the message of justification before God and salvation in Jesus Christ. The Reformers believed it was necessary to return to the simplicity of the Gospel in terms of the issues designated by these slogans.

The Solas

There were five Solas, four discussed here. The fifth, Soli deo gloria (to God alone the glory), was intended to underly the other four. These slogans essentially became rallying cries to challenge the problems the Reformers believed they had identified, they are:

  • Solus Christus: Christ alone.
The Protestants characterized the dogma concerning the Pope as Christ's representative head of the Church on earth, the concept of meritorious works, and the Roman idea of a treasury of the merits of saints, as a denial that Christ is the only mediator between God and man.
  • Sola scriptura: Scripture alone.
Protestants believed that the Roman Catholic church obscured the teaching of the Bible, and undermined its authority, by following Tradition regardless of whether it over-ruled or added to the doctrines of Scripture.
  • Sola fide: Faith alone.
The Protestants characterized the Roman Catholic concept of meritorious works, of penance and indulgences, masses for the dead, the treasury of the merits of saints and martyrs, a ministering priesthood who hears confessions, and purgatory, as reliance upon other means for justification, in addition to faith in Christ and his work on the cross.
  • Sola gratia: Grace alone.
The Roman Catholic view of the means of salvation was believed by the Protestants to be a mixture of reliance upon the grace of God, and confidence in the merits of one's own works performed in love. The Reformers posited that salvation is entirely comprehended in God's gifts, (i.e. God's act of free grace) dispensed by the Holy Spirit according to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ alone. Consequently, they argued that a sinner is not accepted by God on account of the change wrought in the believer by God's grace, and indeed, that the believer is accepted without any regard for the merit of his works - for no one deserves salvation.

Naturally, it proved easier to advocate separation from the Catholic Church, than to form a single, positively united alternative. On the theological front, the Protestant movement soon began to coalesce into several distinct branches. One of the central points of divergence was controversy over the Lord's Supper.

Real presence in the Lord's Supper?

Although early Protestants were in general agreement against the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, which teaches that the substance of the bread and wine used in the sacrificial rite of the Mass is transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ (see Eucharist), they disagreed with one another concerning the manner in which Christ is present in Holy Communion.

  • Lutherans hold to an understanding closest to that of Real Presence (often characterized by critics by the term, "consubstantiation"), which affirms the true presence of Christ "in, with, and under" the bread and wine. Lutherans point to Jesus' statement, "This is my body", while refusing to delve past Christ's words in order to describe just how this takes place. Lutheran teaching does, however, insist that Christ is present physically, rather than in a purely "spiritual" sense.
  • Reformed teaching concerning the Lord's Supper ranges along the continuum from Calvin to Zwingli. The Reformed closest to Calvin emphasize the real presence, or sacramental presence, of Christ, saying that the sacrament is a means of saving grace through which the believer actually partakes of Christ, "but not in a carnal manner". Zwinglians deny that Christ makes himself present to the believer through the elements of the sacrament, but affirm that Christ is united to the believer through the faith toward which the supper is an aid (a view referred to somewhat derisively as memorialism).
  • A Protestant holding a popular simplifiction of the Zwinglian view, without concern for theological intricacies as hinted at above, may see the Lord's Supper merely as a symbol of the shared faith of the participants, a commemoration of the facts of the crucifixion, and a reminder of their standing together as the Body of Christ.

In Christian theology, as the bread shares identity with Christ (which he calls, "my body"), in an analogous way the Church shares identity with him (and also is called "the Body of Christ"). Thus, controversies over the Lord's Supper only initially seem to be about the nature of bread and wine, but are ultimately about the nature of salvation, and therefore secondarily about the nature of the Church.

Later development - History of Protestantism

Protestants can be differentiated according to how they have been influenced by important movements since the magisterial Reformation and the Puritan Reformation in England. Some of these movements have a common lineage, sometimes directly spawning later movements in the same groups.

Pietism 17th Century - Methodist movement 18th century

The German Pietist movement together with the influence of the Puritan Reformation in England in the 17th century were important influences on John Wesley and Methodism, as well as through smaller, new groups such as the Quakers.

The practice of a spiritual life, typically combined with social engagement, predominates in classical Pietism, which was a protest against the doctrine-centeredness Protestant Orthodoxy of the times, in favor of depth of religious experience. Many of the more conservative Methodists went on to form the Holiness movement, which emphasized a rigorous experience of holiness.

Evangelicalism 18th Century

Beginning at the end of 18th century, several international revivals of Pietism (such as the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening), took place across denominational lines, which are referred to generally as the Evangelical movement. The chief emphases of this movement were individual conversion, personal piety and Bible study, public morality often including Temperance and Abolitionism, de-emphasis of formalism in worship and in doctrine, a broadened role for laity (including women) in worship, evangelism and teaching, and cooperation in evangelism across denominational lines.

Pentecostalism 20th Century

Pentecostalism as a movement began in the United States early in the 20th century, starting especially within the Holiness movement. Seeking a return to the operation of New Testament gifts of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues as evidence of the "baptism of the Holy Ghost" became the leading feature. Divine healing and miracles were also emphasized. Pentecostalism swept through much of the Holiness movement, and eventually spawned hundreds of new denominations in the United States. A later "charismatic" movement also stressed the gifts of the Spirit, but often operated within existing denominations rather than coming out of them.

Modernism 20th Century

Modernism, or Liberalism, does not constitute a rigorous and well-defined school of theology, but an inclination of some writers and teachers to integrate Christian thought with the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. New understandings of history and the natural sciences of the day led directly to new approaches to theology. See also: Modernist Christianity

Fundamentalism 20th Century

In reaction to liberal Bible critique, Fundamentalism arose in the 20th century, primarily in the United States and Canada, among those denominations most affected by Evangelicalism. Fundamentalism placed primary emphasis on the authority and sufficiency of the Bible, and typically advised separation from error, and cultural conservatism, as important aspects of the Christian life.

Neo-orthodoxy 20th century

A non-fundamentalist rejection of liberal Christianity associated primarily with Karl Barth, neo-orthodoxy sought to counter-act the tendency of liberal theology to make theological accomodations to modern scientific perspectives. Sometimes called Crisis theology, according to the influence of philosophical existentialism on some important segments of the movement; also, somewhat confusingly, sometimes called neo-evangelicalism.

Neo-evangelicalism mid 20th Century

Neo-evangelicalism is a movement from the middle of the 20th century, that reacted to perceived excesses of Fundamentalism, adding to concern for biblical authority an emphasis on liberal arts, co-operation among churches, Christian Apologetics, and non-denominational evangelization.

Ecumenism 20th Century

The ecumenical movement has had an influence on mainline churches, beginning at least in 1910 with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. Its origins lay in the recognition of the need for cooperation on the mission field in Africa, Asia and Oceania. Since 1948 the World Council of Churches has been influential. There are also ecumenical bodies at regional, national and local levels across the globe. One, but not the only expression of the ecumenical movement has been the move to form united churches, such as the Church of South India, the Church of North India, The United Church of Canada and the Uniting Church in Australia. There has been a strong engagement of Orthodox churches in the ecumenical movement.

Protestant denominations

Protestants often refer to specific Protestant churches and groups as denominations to imply that they are differently named parts of the whole church. This "invisible unity" is assumed to be imperfectly displayed, visibly: some denominations are less accepting of others, and the basic orthodoxy of some is questioned by most of the others. Individual denominations also have formed over very subtle theological differences. Other denominations are simply regional or ethnic expressions of the same beliefs. The actual number of distinct denominations is hard to calculate, but has been estimated to be over thirty thousand. Various ecumenical movements have attempted cooperation or reorganization of Protestant churches, according to various models of union, but divisions continue to outpace unions. Most denominations share common beliefs in the major aspects of the Christian faith, while differing in many secondary doctrines.

Please note that only general families are listed here (tens of thousands of individual denominations exist):

  • Anabaptist and Baptist
  • Anglican / Episcopalian
  • Calvinist / Reformed and Presbyterian
  • Lutheran
  • Methodist / Wesleyan and the Holiness movement
  • Pentecostal and Charismatic

Number of Protestants

There are about 590 million Protestants worldwide. These include 170 million in North America, 160 million in Africa, 120 million in Europe, 70 million in Latin America, 60 million in Asia, and 10 million in Oceania. 27% of all Christians today are Protestants.

Well-known Protestant and Anglican religious figures

Some of the well known 16th century Protestants include:

Some of the well known Protestants from the 17th to 19th centuries include:

Some of the more recent well known Protestants include:



Defense of Protestant Christianity

Criticisms of Protestant Christianity


Return to Denominations


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