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The basic doctrines of Protestantism at the Reformation, in addition to those of the creeds, were: justification by grace alone through faith alone; the priesthood of all believers; the supremacy of Holy Scripture in matters of faith and order. There has been variation in sacramental doctrine among Protestants, but the limitation of the number to the two "sacraments of the Gospel," baptism and Holy Communion, has been almost universal.

In theory Protestantism has stood throughout its history for a principle of protest that calls under judgment not only the beliefs and institutions of others but also one's own movements and causes. On those grounds, however, most students of Protestantism would recognize that the Protestant tradition has not been substantially more successful than have other faiths at remaining self-critical or at rising above institutional self-defensiveness.

Within the spectrum of non-Roman Catholic Western Christianity a great variety of doctrinal views and polities have been expressed. Not all Western non-Roman Catholic Christians have been ready to be included in Protestantism. Some Anglicans and Lutherans, for instance, have been so eager to stress their continuity with the historic Roman Catholic Church and their distance from extreme Protestantism that they have asked for separate designations. Courtesy suggests that such appeals be taken seriously; however, ultimately habits of speech and sociological usage tend to predominate and, despite their protestations, these groups are usually included in the Protestant cluster.

1. Teaching, worship, and organization


i) Justification by grace through faith.

The original Protestant leaders united in their contention that what separated them from the Roman Catholicism of their day was their teaching that man is justified by grace through faith. Devotion to this teaching has been central to Protestantism throughout its history. Although there have been subtle variations in the differing Protestant church bodies, a core of shared belief was at first easily discernible.

Concern for "justification" was related to the obsession that in the 16th century was often expressed in terms of finding oneself on good terms with God. The metaphors were drawn from the courts of law. Aware of its shortcomings, its ignorance, its sin, and its guilt, mankind saw itself standing before a bar of justice presided over by God. Without help, the individual could expect nothing but God's wrath and condemnation. This meant that he would perish everlastingly, and his present life would be full of torment. Yet the Bible also presented mankind with a picture of a loving and gracious God, who may very well desire happiness for all. The question then was: how could the individual be sure that God would reveal his gracious, and not his wrathful, side? How could he have the confidence that he was included in the positive loving action of God?

The teaching of the Reformers becomes most intelligible when seen against the Western Catholic doctrines (e.g., sin, grace, atonement), as they saw them. In the Protestant view the late medieval Catholic teaching held that a human being was brought back to God only when so much grace had been infused into his soul that he merited the favour of God. God could not have been expected to accept someone who was unacceptable, but he could impart something that would make humans acceptable. This something was grace, and its flow depended upon the merits of God's perfect Son, the man Jesus Christ. The church, according to medieval Catholicism, in a sense controlled the flow through the sacramental system and through its hierarchy.

To the Reformers the Roman Catholic sacramental system seemed to be part of a transaction that was always going on between man and God. In it, people made sacrifices designed to appease and please God. They would attend the mass, bring offerings, show sorrow, do penance--which might involve self-punishment or compensatory good works--until God would be gracious. The leaders of the church, from priests through bishops and popes, mediated the transaction. The Reformers believed that such an arrangement could easily be misused as a political instrument for forcing rulers to comply with the church's wishes and as a personal instrument for keeping people in uncertainty or terror. It was this vision of Catholicism that helped inspire the Protestant leadership to rebel and to define justification in other terms.

The terms for this Protestant teaching came from the Bible, especially from the New Testament, and even more so from the writings of St. Paul. In St. Paul they saw a religious hero and thinker who had endured a spiritual quest similar to their own. He could be described as having been brought up in a legalistic version of Judaism, a system in which he was constantly striving to please God by following his Law, particularly as set forth in the Old Testament through the Ten Commandments. Yet Paul failed and was assailed by doubts about his worthiness and his salvation. His conversion meant a radical turning and a free acceptance of God's favour "in Christ." This meant that in faith a person could be so identified with Jesus Christ that when God looked at him, he saw instead the merit that Christ had won through his self-sacrifice on the cross. God looked, in short, at the sinner; but he did not see the sinner. He saw his perfect Son. So he could declare the person righteous; he could justify him--even though the person was still a sinner. (see also Index: sin)

When taken out of the historical context of St. Paul's teachings in the letters to the Romans or the Galatians and transferred to their own times, the Reformers' teaching of justification relied heavily on the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, in effect, made Christ's action contemporaneous with the sinner's quest. God was working now on behalf of those in need. Through preaching, humanity learned of Jesus Christ's sacrifice and death. If the individual believed this historical narrative and, more importantly, if by the power of the Holy Spirit he believed that it was told and enacted for him, he stood before God in a new light. Grace was not infused into him to the point that he became acceptable and pleasing to God. Instead, while the individual was still a sinner, God accepted him favourably and justified him. Christ's death on the cross was then the only "transaction" that mattered between God and man. The sacraments reinforced the relation and brought new grace, but no pretense was made that the human subject had achieved satisfaction before God or produced enough merit to inspire God to act.

In the Reformers' view the new situation was one of freedom. Whereas Catholics constantly stood in fear as to whether they had provided enough merits, had achieved enough good works, or had pleased the church as God's bargaining agent, the Reformers' version had the believers standing before God completely freed of these nagging questions. They were liberated both from the terrors of sin, death, and the devil, on one hand, and, on the other hand, from the enslaving pride that went with the belief of human beings that they had achieved or at least had substantially cooperated in their own salvation.

This left the Reformers with a serious question, one to which their Roman Catholic opponents regularly referred. What had happened in this teaching of justification and freedom to the biblical accent on good works? Jesus himself, in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), was constantly preoccupied with the effort of making people better, of having them bring forth "good fruit." Even Paul shared such concerns. Had the Protestant movement slighted these concerns in its desire to free human beings from the necessity of merits and good works?

The literature of Protestantism is rich in its expression of answers to such questions. The Reformers were virtually unanimous: good works did not produce appeasement of God or salvation, yet they inevitably flowed from the forgiven heart and were always the consequence of the justified person's life. The Law of God could never be used as the saving path along which human beings walked, as a sort of obstacle path or road map to God. Instead, the Law of God measured human shortcomings and judged them. A gracious God acting through his Gospel brought human beings back to him.

The Reformers' vision of human beings implied in such teachings was doublesided. They believed that from God's point of view the justified person was so identified with Jesus Christ that he shared Christ's perfection. The same person, throughout all his life, left to his own devices or when seen by God apart from Christ's sacrificial work, remained a sinner. The difference came through God's gracious initiative; nothing that a person did started the process of his justification. To the eyes of many in subsequent generations the result was an apparently pessimistic and gloomy view of human potential in Protestantism. The will was bound, apart from God's loving activity. No merits or good works would satisfy God. Sometimes the phrase total depravity was used to describe the human condition, though it must be said that the term had connotations in the 16th century that were different from those that it has today. It was used not so much to provide lurid connotations for descriptions of the depth of sin but rather to describe its extent; man as a total being was in trouble. Even good works, piety, religiousness, and efforts, apart from justification by grace through faith, fell under God's curse. On the other hand, the justified sinner could be described in the most lavish terms, as one who could be "as Christ" or even sometimes "a Christ."

Those who have heard this Protestant teaching outlined through the centuries have regularly seen the difficulties it raises insofar as the portrait of God's character is concerned. Protestants never came up with logically satisfying answers to the resultant questions, though they were convinced that they were faithful witnesses to biblical teachings concerning the mystery of God's nature. The central question: if everything depended upon God's initiative and yet the majority of people are not saved, does this not mean that God is responsible for creating humans only to have them suffer; is he not guilty of the worst kind of cruelty by being the sole agent of their damnation?

In facing the question Protestant leaders differed slightly from each other. Some said that whenever people were saved, it was to God's credit; whenever they were lost, it was through their own fault. They were free to hear the Word; they were free to respond and accept the gift of grace in Christ; their own hardness of heart kept them from freedom and new life. Others ran the risk of presenting cruel pictures of God's nature and action in their interest to witness to his sovereignty and initiative. The view that God predestined some people to be saved and others to be damned was called "double predestination." Some theologians argued that God did this predestining before humans fell into sin; others saw it as a new act of God consequent upon man's fall. Those Protestant parties that were generally non-Calvinist in outlook were usually less systematic and less logical in their statements. The non-Calvinists taught a doctrine called "single predestination." They shared the Calvinists' affirmation of God's total responsibility for human salvation; but they tended to be silent or to relegate to the area of mystery and unanswerable questions the issue of how God could then be other than responsible for human damnation. In general the Protestants saw themselves to be more successful at preserving the teaching of God's sovereignty and the corollary of human helplessness than they were at making his character attractive to all. They saw themselves overcoming this problem in biblical terms by a stress on his loving relation to humanity in sending his own Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer on its behalf.

ii) The "priesthood of all believers."

If the teaching of justification had important consequences for the doctrines of God and of man in Protestantism, it was of at least equal import for any statement of the meaning of the church and especially of the relations between clergy and laity. The medieval system, sacramental and hierarchical, in effect gave the priests a monopoly in monitoring the transaction between God and man. The Protestant teaching of justification broke this down and the Protestant leaders reverted to what they held to be the biblical view, that all believers have a share in spreading the word of grace and the acts of forgiveness. The result was an emphasis not on the privileges of a priestly caste but rather on "the priesthood of all believers."

The Reformers viewed this teaching as based on the free-flowing sense of authority that existed between Christ and his Apostles, who had been pictured in the Gospels as being active apart from an elaborate clerical church order. At the same time they believed that their doctrine would effectively displace the Roman Catholic hierarchical thought and action. Now all people were to be enjoined to take responsibility for each other's salvation; any Christian could represent the needs of all others before God. Originally the priesthood of all believers was an enlargement of the view that all Christians had intercessory powers, that they could all pray for one another. But it came to refer to the Protestant view of an equality of status between clergy and laity and to the common calling of all Christians to be agents of God's Word and grace.

The affirmation of the priesthood of all believers had widespread implications in society. In Protestant areas and nations the privileges of the clergy were limited and the scope of lay activity enlarged. All believers shared a "vocation" (calling), and priestly vocations were not considered to be more meritorious or nobler than lay vocations. Monastic vocations were almost entirely swept away, and restorations of the monastic ideal have been rare and exceptional in Protestant history. Protestants kept, for the most part, a rite of ordination (though some Anabaptists dispensed with all acts that seemed to imply separation between a ministry of ordained persons and laymen) but did not regularly view it as a sacrament. That is to say, ordination conferred no special grace on men. In part a ministry was kept on a pragmatic basis; the clergy were to tend to the business of studying and preaching the Word, properly administering the sacraments, and caring professionally for the health of the church. A set-aside ministry was also derived from biblical precedent in the Book of Acts and early Christian letters. (see also Index: monasticism)

Protestants, while acknowledging their belief in the equality of laymen and clerics in the priesthood of all believers, have not always seen themselves as particularly successful in clarifying the laity's role. In most cases laymen were not to be the preachers in public worship, and administration of the sacraments usually remained in clerical hands. By demanding of preachers expertise at expounding the Bible, Protestants often have made educational requirements a basis for ordained ministry, at the expense of a full lay involvement. Yet their views did greatly enhance both the theological and practical status of laymen, when contrasted to the situation in medieval Catholicism.

If all believers were priests, then no single church could monopolize the mediation of grace, since Protestants saw that there were believers in all churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran or Calvinist or Anglican. As a result the teachings inherited from medieval Catholicism about the visible and the invisible church were called into question. To many Reformers, most notably Luther, the church was always visible because it was made up of people. But its limits and borders were invisible since one could not examine the heart of others to determine exactly who were the true believers and who were the faithless. This inability to define the boundaries of the church led other Reformers, among them Calvin, to continue to employ the distinction between a visible church and an invisible one, the latter referring to the people who were saved, even if they were in churches where full doctrinal purity had not been achieved. People see the visible, humanly organized church of Christ, but they cannot simply identify this with the Bible's one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, which is properly discerned only by God and hence invisible to humans. The visible church, in the Reformers' view, almost certainly contained a mixture of members of the invisible church, on the one hand, and hypocrites, or false believers, on the other. (see also Index: Anglican Communion)

iii) Authority of the Word.

Justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers were affirmations that challenged the inherited Roman Catholic views of authority because they seriously undercut the monopoly of the hierarchy in the system of grace. Downgrading the medieval system of authority left a vacuum that Protestantism hastened to fill. Full of variety and pluralism as the movement was from the first, it was rarely characterized by a love of anarchy or indiscipline, and the Reformers set to work at once to establish the locale and extent of authority in the church and the believer's life. Almost unanimously they saw final authority to reside in the Word of God, which tended in the minds of many to be simply equated with the Bible. The need of the Protestant movement to redefine authority enhanced its view of Scripture just as, one might argue, the rediscovery of scriptural teaching was seen to be the primary impetus behind the Protestant movement.

Later generations of Protestant thinkers sometimes resorted to scholastic philosophical definitions similar to those of the medieval Catholic theologians; in such definitions justification became the material (or substantive) principle of the Reformation, while the matter of scriptural authority became the equally important formal (or structural) principle. In some epochs debate about the nature of the Word of God or the Bible was even more preoccupying than was discussion of justification. Protestants often have portrayed medieval Catholicism as being a nonbiblical or even an antibiblical faith, one that denied the Bible to the laity. The expense of reproducing manuscripts led many libraries to chain books to the wall, and the Bible chained to the wall entered Protestant mythology as a symbol of the denial of lay access to the Bible in Roman Catholicism. In many circles Protestantism has been celebrated as a religion of the "open Bible" in opposition to the closed book of Catholicism.

Mythology aside, Protestants without exception concentrated on biblical teaching, and this led to a new passion for translating the Bible into the vernacular and disseminating it as widely as possible, an activity aided by the almost simultaneous invention of movable type and the resultant progress in printing technology. It was to be put into the hands of as many ministers and laymen as possible. Thus, they also had to be taught to read, and the Protestant movement claims some credit for hastening the modern impetus toward the ideal of universal literacy. While the Bible was ordinarily read in the churches and interpretation was shaped by the old and new traditions of these churches (Anglicans read the Bible's teachings on apostolic succession in a way different from that of Anabaptists, for example), what came to be called "the right of private judgment" was often exalted.

While Protestants could agree that the Word of God was authoritative in matters of faith and that the Bible as the book inspired by the Holy Spirit had unique status, they did not agree on all interpretations of the Scripture, nor did they unite in a single doctrine of scriptural authority. The Anabaptists, and later the Quakers, stressed an immediate experience of God and thus tended to qualify the importance of the Bible in shaping Christian life. But even among the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans there were differences of opinion about the Bible.

Latter-day Protestant Fundamentalists have argued that scriptural authority, if it is to be believable and if it is indeed the Word of an all-knowing, perfect God, dare not be described as including errors, even errors in historical or geographic detail. They have backed up this contention with citations from John Calvin and Martin Luther. At the same time, subsequent Protestant contenders for a more open and critical attitude toward biblical literature are equally capable of citing the Reformers--Luther, for example. Luther often spoke of the Bible as "the cradle in which Christ lies" and as a book that derives its authority from Christ and not from an a priori (presumed) doctrine of inerrant inspiration. Their argument concludes that Luther could quite freely relegate some books of the Bible to secondary status or criticize the argument of others, even as he could complain of Paul's grammar or illogical argumentation, and point to errors of detail. Part of the confusion on this matter results from the fact that the Reformers in their era did not see questions regarding truth in the same terms as they have been recognized in the later scientific world, and, also, they could accept the full and governing authority of the Bible without elaborating theories concerning its perfection in detail.

The unquestionable elevation of the Bible as the authority in matters of faith led to a corollary downgrading of other authorities in the church. The hierarchy, and especially the pope, were hardest hit, and papal authority was denied in almost every sector of Protestantism. In place of papal authority more regard came to be paid, at least by conservative reformers, to the Fathers (doctrinal teachers and interpreters) of the early church, who were sometimes cited in the confessional writings of the various Protestant bodies. The Fathers were revered as guides rather than as final authorities. Similarly, a critical attitude toward councils of the church came to prevail. On the one hand, it was widely asserted that councils can quite often and do err, and historical studies pointed to contradictions between various conciliar statements and to unsubstantiated assertions by past councils. On the other hand, many formulas and creedal statements of the ecumenical councils, particularly as these referred to the Trinity or to the Person and work of Jesus Christ, were highly regarded, and many Protestant churches took the chief creedal statements of past councils into their own official body of teaching. (see also Index: papacy, Church Father)

Canon law, the inherited body of legal materials that regulated faith and morals, quite naturally also suffered because of the high regard for the Bible. In most Protestant circles it was difficult to make legislation binding upon conscience unless it was based on clearly affirmed biblical legal teaching; more important, accent on the Gospel of grace led most Protestants to want to undervalue the whole role of law in the life of the church. At the same time, new church order soon developed, and it must be said that Protestants often acted as legalistically as did the Roman Catholics, whom they were repudiating. Most Protestant bodies, notably the Anglicans, developed their own versions of canon law or rules of church order and discipline.

iv) The ongoing reformation of the church.

The church that is to be judged not by the pope but by a normative Bible, that is grounded in a priesthood of all believers and critically affirmative of Church Fathers and councils, and that rejects inherited codes of canon law differed vastly from medieval Catholicism. In few respects did it differ more than in its establishment of the principle of an ongoing reformation. While most of the Reformers, once established, tended to resist extensions of reformation that would jeopardize their status and definition, almost all Protestants, at least nominally, assented to the idea that ecclesia reformata semper reformanda--i.e., that the church was always reformed and always in need of further reformation. The Protestant movement, then, was conceived as an unfinished product, constantly to be judged by a reading of the Bible, its polity continually subject to debate, its policy open to ongoing appraisal and change. It was in that climate that the sacramental teaching of Protestant churches was argued and developed.

v) Emphasis on the sacraments.

On few points did Protestants disagree more than in their interpretation of the sacraments, but they did unite in their rejection of some aspects of Roman Catholic teaching. Since attack on the sacramental-hierarchical system of salvation was at the heart of their reform, almost nothing of it survived intact. In place of the churchly system the new accent fell on limiting sacramental teaching to those acts clearly commanded by Christ and connected with his promise in the Scriptures. One can argue that, since "sacrament" was not a biblical term, the debate had to do simply with definitions. Most Protestants defined sacraments, then, as acts that impart grace and the new life. They must combine the Word of God and some visible means (like bread, wine, and water); they must have been established by God and instituted by Christ. On these terms, five of the seven chief Roman Catholic sacraments failed to meet the definitional tests: marriage, ordination, confirmation, penance (now called repentance), and extreme unction (now called anointing of the sick). Not in every case did Protestants abolish these acts from their rites, but they ruled them out as sacraments. Thus the Protestant teaching on marriage was normally as "high" as Catholic doctrine and may be considered quasi-sacramental. But it was seen chiefly as a civil act blessed by the church, and it did not convey grace to the participants, nor was there a visible "means."

Though Protestants--with a few exceptions, chiefly Anabaptist and Quaker--had little difficulty limiting the number of sacraments and perpetuating a high regard for those that survived the change in definition, they were far apart in their understandings of what went on in sacramental acts. Basically three views were debated. To the "right," as one might call it, was the Lutheran view, which critics considered as being quite close to Roman Catholicism. Luther seemed to bring with him something of a medieval worldview, in which symbols of the material world were transparent to another invisible, divine order. This attitude made it possible for him to make much of the material objects in the sacraments. When he connected them with biblical words, he was able to say of bread and wine that these are the body and blood of Christ, and of baptism, that it effected a change in the believers' status before God. (see also Index: Eucharist)

At the "left" was the view of Huldrych Zwingli and other Swiss Reformers, who accented the spiritual side and downgraded the material. In some respects they shared more of what has come to be considered a modern view of matter and spirit, in which the symbols were opaque, disengaged from an invisible "other order." Such teaching meant that what mattered most in the sacraments was the following of Christ's commands, the reminiscence of his participation in the world of his disciples, and the spiritual intentions brought to the acts of believers. For Zwingli the bread and the wine were symbols that merely represented the body and blood of Christ, and baptism was more a sign of a Covenant with God than a supernatural imparter of grace. Between the Lutheran and Zwinglian views were Calvinist and Anglican attitudes and definitions. All Reformers agreed, however, in their criticism of the Roman Catholic teaching called "transubstantiation," which held that the actual "substance" of the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper was turned into the body and blood of Christ. But they did not agree over the alternatives to that teaching, and debate over the sacrament did as much as any other theological factor to contribute to internal Protestant division.

vi) Relationship between the community of the baptized and the political community.

Equally varied were the attitudes toward civil authority among the various Protestant parties. Martin Luther expressed what in theory could have been a most radical theological view of the separation of civil and religious realms through his doctrine of "the two kingdoms." He could reduce his teaching virtually to an aphorism: God's Gospel ruled in the churchly realm and his Law ruled in the civil society. To rule the church by the Law or the civil realm by the Gospel would be to bring legalism to the sphere of grace and sentimentalism into the orbit of justice and thus dethrone God and enthrone Satan. In practice, however, the Lutheran Reformation worked to keep its ties to the civil order and was the established religion wherever it predominated in Germany and Scandinavia. In many territories princes actually took on the superintending roles that bishops had known in Roman Catholicism.

John Calvin made less of a theoretical effort to separate civil and religious realms. Under his plan Geneva was to be a theocracy in which the saints would rule. God's covenanted community was to be based on his Law, as revealed in the Scripture. Consequently, no detail of civil or community life was too remote, too secular, or too petty to escape inclusion by the Calvinists in the ecclesiastical sphere of supervision or regulation. Zwingli taught a variation of this version, one that asked the Christian to be a zealot or patriot in the civil society--a teaching that he confirmed with his blood, for he was killed in battle in 1531. In the Anglican approach there was also no attempt to separate the civil and religious realms; in England the church was given the mandate to press conscientious matters upon the sovereign and other civil authorities. These established Protestant views were to be subverted or countered by radical Reformers who did want a separation from civil spheres. These views were also constantly revised with the rise of the modern secular state.

vii) Modes of expression of the ideas of the magisterial Reformers and their successors.

Protestantism was forced to find means to propagate and sustain itself through time. Reformers had removed many of the inherited props or means and developed, within a century, parallel structures of most of those that had been repudiated along with Roman Catholicism. Lacking papal authority, canon law, and "international" connection with civil authority (as there had been in the old Holy Roman Empire), along with the binding power of church councils or a single philosophy on the basis of which to argue their case, they came up with alternatives or surrogates for most of these, though the new systems were more varied than the at least nominally homogeneous Catholic skein.

Most notable among the structural necessities was the formulation of "confessions," or creedal statements--and Protestants met frequently and regularly to write them--by which they could define their positions for the benefit of their adherents and their opponents. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), Reformed documents such as the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) and the Westminster Confession (1646), Anglican affirmations such as the Thirty-nine Articles (1563), and Anabaptist confessions such as that of Dordrecht (1632), all gave evidence of the Protestant impulse to define their positions. The Protestant leaders recognized that their movement could not long exist or continue with the fervour and ferment of first-generational impulses. (see also Index: confession of faith)

Confessions of the church appealed to the minds of theologians, the administrative passions of leaders, and the legalistic spirit of those who would impose them as doctrinal standards, but they did not warm believers' hearts. Thus, Protestant leaders had to concern themselves with the affective side of church life in order to hold the attention of masses of people and to give them opportunity to express their faith and life in God. The chief instruments to achieve these aims were liturgies and hymns. The inherited liturgies included much of the Roman Catholic sacramental teaching. As such they were given over too much to an accent on the sacrificial character of the mass and thus had to be purged. Conservative Reformers retained the shell, or outline, at least, of these formulas for worship, though they took great pains to bring both these outlines and the nuances of expression into line with what they considered to be a more evangelical teaching. Since worship is perhaps the chief public expression of gathered Christians, all Reformers had to give attention to its detail.

Luther initiated the process with his Formula Missae ("Formula of the Mass") of 1523, a service that retained the Latin language; but he soon devised (in 1526) a Deutsche Messe ("German Mass"), a vernacular and folk expression of greater informality. At about the same time Zwingli was producing a Reformed order with two liturgies for the Word and the Lord's Supper in 1525, soon to be followed by Martin Bucer's work on Psalms and church practice in 1539 and Calvin's Form of Church Prayers in 1542 and 1545. The Anglicans were preserving stately forms of worship used in subsequent centuries, chiefly in The Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and 1552, and in Scotland John Knox helped formulate Presbyterian worship in The Forms of Prayers in 1556. (see also Index: Presbyterian churches)

While Protestant orders were somewhat less ceremonial than the Roman Catholic liturgies they replaced, the human impulse to routinize ceremonies prevailed, and almost everywhere these forms for worship took on a more or less formal character. They differed from Catholicism chiefly in their elevation of the act of preaching the Word of God. Preaching was viewed as the means of grace whereby men were encouraged to repent and accept the grace of God through faith in Christ, just as the sermon was used to shape the community and give guidance. For some this accent on preaching meant a downgrading of the Lord's Supper; for others there was to be a parity, with the sacrament providing a necessary parallel means of conveying grace. Communion "in both kinds," with reception of both bread and wine, prevailed (whereas in the Catholicism of the era of the Reformers the cup was withheld from the laity), and, except in Anabaptist circles, the Catholic practice of infant baptism by means other than total immersion was retained. The Protestants, for the most part, took over existing Roman Catholic church buildings for worship, or they met in academic or civil halls or homes; but as time passed, they also took responsibility for erecting church buildings.

Hymnody played a major role in giving voice to Reformation sentiment, never more successfully than in Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," which came to be called "the battle hymn of the Reformation." The Genevan Reformation and the Presbyterian churches tended to prefer simple and sometimes stolid hymnody in the form of rephrased and parsed psalms, such as The Genevan Psalter of 1562. The rejection of hymns and attention to sung versions of Scripture also prevailed in early Anglicanism, not so much because of principle but because of the failure of Anglican Reformers to devote themselves to the propagation of their movement through song. The great tradition of Protestant hymn writing developed later, in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Liturgies and hymns appealed to the heart and soul, but Protestant theologians also addressed the mind through an impressive outpouring of works in systematic theology and dogmatics. Calvin was the supreme systematizer of first and second generation Protestantism, and his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) is a classic on even the shortest shelves of Christian doctrinal literature. Luther was, of course, a first-rate theologian, but he made considerably less effort to be systematic, and his scores of volumes of theology usually grew out of comments on issues that agitated him or inspired or disturbed his movement at any moment. His disciple and colleague Philipp Melanchthon, in the Loci Communes of 1521, was much more concerned with systematic discipline.

In the 17th century the Protestant movement tended toward more rigid doctrinal expressions, as individuals interpreted the confessional statements of the earlier century with an almost fanatic attention to detail. Huge works of Lutheran and Reformed dogmatics poured forth from presses, most of them based on a kind of Protestant reversion to the type of scholastic philosophy that had prevailed in the late medieval period. Leaders in the period of Lutheran orthodoxy were Martin Chemnitz (1522-86) and Johann Gerhard (1582-1637); Reformed Orthodoxy was marked by the scholarship of Theodore Beza (1519-1605) or, in England, men like William Perkins (1558-1602). The ponderous and often lifeless writings of lesser orthodoxists than these were often expressions of internecine Protestant warfare. Debates raged over the sacraments, over the two natures of Christ, over the relations of ecclesiastical and civil realms, and over the part man played in salvation. Almost never did these debates lead to concord, and despite occasional irenic figures, such as Georg Calixtus (1586-1656) or Hugo Grotius, Protestantism was fated to remain divided, at least until the ecumenical movement in the 20th century began to produce new amity and common purpose or assent. (see also Index: Reformed church)


The interpretation of Protestantism up to this point has been, with only a few noted exceptions, based on the majority view among the 16th-century Protestant movements. No single term adequately covers the Lutheran-Calvinist-Anglican complex, though "magisterial," "establishment," "mainline," "conservative," and "classical" have frequently been applied to these movements. Of considerable parallel significance was the Protestant activity of another, and even more complicated, cluster of movements, for which also no single term can be agreed upon. Some historians speak of "the radical" Reformation or "the left wing of the Reformation"; others have concentrated on components, such as the Anabaptist-sectarian or the spiritual-mystic or the rationalist-unitarian versions. In almost every case, these were the expressions of the economically and socially deprived classes in the 16th-century societies, though their latter-day heirs have sometimes known or sought the favour of civil authority and social arbiters.

The "radical" Reformation was radical in that it deliberately chose to repudiate as much as possible of traditional Roman Catholicism in various acts of "restitution" of what it held to be the obscured and eclipsed but true original apostolic church. The "conservative" or "magisterial" Reformation, on the other hand, tended to keep whatever it could of the medieval ecclesiastical tradition and to affirm continuities in the life of the church wherever possible.

The varieties of radical expressions are rich and bewildering. They grew in virtually every Protestant land, sometimes as an extension of the logic of the conservative Reformation but more often as original movements bearing a logic of restitution all their own. The radical Reformation also occurred in Catholic territories, such as Italy, where the mainline Protestant movement never knew much success. In Lutheran circles men like Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer set out, in Luther's prime years, to shatter much of what he wanted to retain and to carry reform in new directions. Debates over the Lord's Supper and baptism led to new radical movements in Switzerland, southern Germany, and Bohemia-Moravia. In Strassburg a significant group of radicals, including Kaspar Schwenckfeld, Melchior Hofmann, and Sebastian Franck, gathered around 1529. The north of Germany and the Netherlands were havens of early Anabaptism (re-baptism), and in the southern Netherlands Menno Simons spread the movement that has come to be called Mennonitism. In Poland and eastern Europe the radical Reformation often took spiritualist and unitarian (anti-Trinitarian) turns, as it did in Italy. "Radical reform" was also behind some of the Puritan and separatist movements in England. Because they were by nature competitive, free-formed, and varied, it is difficult to generalize about the radical Reformation movements, but some assertions common to major segments are possible, and the study of these movements is important because of the role they were to play in shaping modern Protestantism, especially as it developed in North America.

i) The gathered church.

The radical Reformers were united in their opposition to established Protestantism's view of ecclesiastical continuity with the church of Christ in every age. The mainstream Reformers were radical in their rejection of what they regarded to be false teaching in the medieval church and almost never had kind words to say about any of its forms. But they did believe that God had kept a body of faithful teachers and respondents through the millennium or so after what they considered to be the "fall" of the church during the closing years of the Roman Empire, and this view of the succession of believers was integral to their doctrine of the church. Just as emphatic was rejection of this view in radical circles. Some radicals were willing and eager to trace a kind of continuity from John the Baptist down to the 16th century, but it was significant that they found virtually every evidence of true faith only in the sectarian movements that had separated themselves from official Roman Catholicism or that were condemned, harassed, and persecuted by Catholics. Among these were the Waldensians (a medieval religious movement espousing voluntary poverty and lay preaching); the Albigensians, also called Cathars (medieval sect espousing dualism and asceticism); some forms of Spiritual Franciscanism (branch of the Franciscan order espousing poverty); and other reform movements of the Middle Ages. Just as often, however, radicals taught that the true church had died not long after Christ and had to be restored as if from the foundation itself. (see also Index: Waldenses)

The repudiation of continuity was paralleled by rejection of a tie between the civil and ecclesiastical realms. The bond between these two, in the era of the Roman emperor Constantine (d. 337), was viewed by the radical Reformers as the root of the church's fall and later vicissitudes or death. From that experience, it was argued, the church ought to have learned not to let the spiritual infection of political authority prevail nor to permit any one to be regarded as a member of the church without an explicit personal affirmation of faith. In a widely used phrase, the church was to be "the believer's church," made up of assenting and consenting people of decision who chose to respond to God's Covenant. This view appeared in contrast to the view held by those who argued that baptism of infants, who of course could not make personal decisions, conferred church membership and that, thus, virtually entire populations of territories could be members.

The keystone of the concept of the believer's church is that people voluntarily choose to be members. No one can be coerced into it nor can one become a member automatically, as it were, through a sacramental act. It was on this ground that infant baptism was condemned by almost all radical Reformers. A result of this accent on voluntarism has been a strong stress on the will of the believer and the giving of a voice to all believers in the questions of the governance and destiny of the church.

The theological counterpart to the teachings that disengaged radical Protestantism from Catholic continuity or established life was the view that no human authority determined modes of church life. The church is Christ's, and not man's. As such it seeks to transcend territorial, racial, and ethnic bounds in theory, even if it is rarely consistent or successful in practice. As Christ's church it is capable of representing him fully in each place, and thus local governance or authority, and even autonomy, was universally stressed.

The radical Reformation almost always restored the sense of an apostolate (missionary outreach), whereas the conservative Reformers had often neglected the importance of a sense of witness and missionary activity, and some of them had even ruled it out from the church's present-day mandate. Anabaptists and spiritualists and "free" church (non-state) advocates tended to be missionary, even if this meant a kind of subversion of established Protestant churches, filled as these were--in radicals' eyes--with unbelievers or inadequate believers.

ii) Relationships between church and state.

Churches as disengaged as these were from established structures were in principle devoted to, and in practice successful in adhering to, ideas that called for sharp distinctions between Christian and non-Christian, sacred and secular, religious and worldly life. This is not to say that radicals took no interest in the civil or social realm; they often did, indeed. But they brought a special viewpoint. They were "eschatological"; that is, they almost always were moved by dramatic views of the future, in which Christ would come again or the Kingdom or Day of the Lord would be announced to change everything. Worldly conditions were temporary and were judged by the saints as ephemeral and corrupting, even if they found it necessary to live with or to employ earthly instruments in the meantime. At the same time, for the sake of the freedom and purity of the believer's church, its members advocated separation from the civil realm, permitting no intrusion by civil authorities in church affairs and seeking no direct involvement in administration of the state by ecclesiastical figures.

Because such a large number of radicals believed that Christ's new order was imminent, they generally took a negative view of most human means of facing problems. Many of them advocated a rejection of warfare and saw in the Gospels a support of pacifist positions. The modern "peace church" witness of Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers was born of this impulse. Paradoxically, there were other radicals (such as Müntzer) who on occasion saw violence and warfare as legitimate means for them to help hasten Christ's new order.

iii) Church discipline.

Separation between the church and the world and membership based on clear commitment made it possible for radicals to insist on higher standards of church membership and stricter means of church discipline than could their magisterial counterparts. Social control was more feasible in these smaller and well-defined groups than in the established churches, and "the ban," as a form of excommunication, was the instrument which supported discipline. The use of the ban meant expulsion from the congregation of believers and, with it, social exclusion. The ban was not conceived as merely a punitive measure; brotherly admonition and discipline were to continue, with the hope that the wayward could be rescued. (see also Index: church and state)

iv) Believers' baptism.

A special word must be said concerning baptism since it gave its name Anabaptism to part of the movement and was one of the radicals' most dramatic points differentiating them from the rest of Protestantism. Infant baptism, from the radicals' viewpoint, cheapened the standard of church membership and was not clearly designated or foreseen in the New Testament documents that chartered the church. Michael Sattler (c. 1500-27), Menno Simons, and Balthasar Hubmaier (1485-1528) led the opposition to infant baptism. Radicals would follow Jesus, who underwent baptism as an adult, and they also would be "buried" (in water) with him, as St. Paul said baptized people would be. "New birth" would come from this act, and the reborn believers would restore the church.

v) Doctrine of the ministry.

The concept of ministry was also changed more drastically in radical groups than in the more established Protestant circles. When priests became Lutherans, Calvinists, or Anglicans, there could be a rather subtle transition in their calling. The Anabaptists and spiritual Reformers, however, wanted a clean break with the past. The minister was viewed chiefly as a prophet, not as priest. As an agent of a new order, anticipating Christ's fulfilled Kingdom, he was not to care about earthly prerogatives or routines. Some men, such as Menno Simons, believed that the only way to take on the new ministerial vocation was to repudiate their Roman Catholic ordination. But such conversions from Catholic to radical clergy were rare, and the radical wing of the Reformation more frequently expressed its views on the ministry by simply placing a low valuation on ordination. The classical Reformers wanted university-trained, theologically expert ministers. The radicals, on the other hand, permitted laymen to be ministers: leaders such as Kaspar Schwenckfeld and Konrad Grebel (c. 1498-1526) were probably never ordained.

vi) The suffering of persecution.

The radical Reformation and the believer's church were made up of people who were prepared to suffer for their faith at the hands of both civil authorities and Catholic and other Protestant ecclesiastical leaders. The story of the rise of Anabaptism is one of persecution, of exiles and fugitives, and of a pilgrim church. The story of the rationalist form of Reformation, as in the case of Michael Servetus (anti-Trinitarian; c. 1511-53), often ended in something that can be called a Protestant Inquisition, in which men died for their ideas. Though some erratic personalities may have revealed a desire for martyrdom, more characteristic were those who upheld the idea of patterning one's life after Jesus, the great example. He had not known status or security and was eventually condemned to death; how could his true followers evade a similar path?

vii) Doctrinal variations.

Doctrinal varieties among the radicals were many, and it is hardly fair to cluster the various emphases. Certain features stand out, however. First of all, the role of Christ, central to Protestant Christianity, shifted subtly but significantly. The emphasis on Christ's priestly work, in which he brought sacrifice for men before the altar of God, was displaced by a new regard for his prophetic role. He had thundered against the powers of religion and civil society, against established forces, and against the rich; so would his followers. He was seen less as an agent in a divine-human transaction culminating in death on the cross as a sacrifice, and more as the supreme exemplar and leader.

The radicals spoke critically of scholastic philosophy and the intellectualized theology built upon it, and therefore they displayed a distaste for the more arcane expressions of classical theology. Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) in Poland and Michael Servetus in Strassburg became shapers of modern Unitarianism. They believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was an unscriptural abstraction and that simple monotheism could best be protected if Christ were not defined as a full expression of the Godhead. Unitarianism remained a distinctly minority emphasis in the radical Reformation. The Bible was usually highly regarded, but whereas the magisterial Reformers tended to see it in the context of tradition, the radicals stressed contemporary personal experience and often allowed for or claimed new special revelation. (see also Index: Reformation)

2. Protestantism's influence in the modern world


Protestantism eventually became the majority faith throughout northwestern Europe and in England and English-speaking America. From there, in the great 19th-century Protestant missionary movement, it was carried into all parts of the world, joining Roman Catholicism as a minority presence in Asia and Africa and at the same time also establishing beachheads in largely Catholic Latin America. It is impossible to separate Protestantism from the general history of the North Atlantic nations, where it was firmly established for centuries and where its "free" churches or, after "separation of church and state," its voluntary churches, still predominated.

Thus it is possible to speak of Protestantism's contribution to modern nationalism. It shared in shaping this force initially by helping bring to an end the Holy Roman Empire, which was disintegrating already at the time of the Reformation but which finally collapsed in 1806. The old corpus Christianum (Christian body; i.e., Christian society) did not survive; the presence of Protestantism spelled the doom of an international, transterritorial, unified Christianity under one head. Protestantism's desire to cultivate literacy and to spread regard for the vernacular served to remove the Latin linguistic bond of older Christendom and to encourage the rise of national boundaries based on languages. All but the radicals tended to make much of loyalty to the existing state, and Protestants often provided an ideological base for each new state as it rose to self-consciousness--as was the case in Prussia or in the United States.


Protestant attitudes toward the arts have been ambivalent and therefore have produced mixed results. For the most part, Reformed and spiritualist Protestants have been uneasy about the arts, fearing lest the symbol be confused with the reality--and lest, therefore, the symbol be idolized and the reality forgotten. Thus Calvin and Zwingli found little place for the visual arts, though Luther showed interest and was a friend of some artists of his time, including Lucas Cranach. Luther also revealed a more affirmative attitude toward music than did the Swiss Reformers, though through the centuries most of Protestantism encouraged the use of music. When Protestant historians want to point to past glories in the aesthetic realm, they cite men like John Milton in literature, Rembrandt in painting, and Johann Sebastian Bach in music, though such a group has few heirs in more recent centuries.


While it is clear that Protestantism by nature had to allow for great variety, not all Protestants have rested content with division and separation. They were caught between two biblical mandates. One commanded them to seek the truth and not to express full fellowship with those they considered to be in error. The other stressed the values of Christian unity as a witness in the mission of the church and as a foretaste of the eschatological, or fulfilled, life of Christians when, all agreed, they will all be one. The ferment of the 16th century and the doctrinal formulations of the 17th century led to ever-increasing divisions and hardening of lines or positions. The 18th-century Enlightenment, which in its British and German forms lived off and fought against Protestantism just as the French forms similarly related to Roman Catholicism, tended to breed a spirit of consensus. The Enlightenment placed an exceedingly high value on toleration of differences even as its spokesmen worked for agreement on doctrines based on a search for what they viewed as natural in reason and law. Such a tendency inevitably served to minimize doctrinal differences among Protestants. (see also Index: ecumenism)

The 20th century, however, has seen more effort toward producing consensus than did the previous three and a half centuries. The modern ecumenical movement, today thoroughly Protestant- Catholic-Orthodox in its outlook, was first born and institutionalized on Protestant soil by men who saw the mission of the church frustrated by competition and division. Beleaguered, huddled together like sheep in a storm, to use a familiar picture, they sought each other's company.

At the same time modern transportation and communication techniques effectively reduced their world and made uniting symbols accessible. A theological recovery was fused with a new vision of common tasks to produce a Protestantism eager for common statement and often for common action in an ecumenical era. The ecumenical movement has led to denominational mergers and to conciliar organizations, on both confessional and transconfessional lines.

In the meantime, the openness of Roman Catholicism, particularly exemplified in the career of Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), led to new amity and concord between Protestants and Roman Catholics. In the last third of the 20th century both of the old warring parties, without formally repudiating their polemical positions of the 16th century, have tended to move beyond their terms and to find new bases for meeting. Modern Catholic biblical commentators speak in what sounds much like Protestant terms of grace and faith. Protestants have new appreciation for a Roman Catholic view of the interconnectedness of the components of the church. More and more, Protestants view the Scriptures as rooted in a tradition and tradition as rooted in the Scriptures. Thus they have a new sympathy for Catholic views of tradition--even as some Catholics criticize unreflective responses to ecclesiastical authority on coercive lines in their own communion. Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, generally spatially quite separated, have begun to understand each other through agencies and organizations such as the World Council of Churches. (see also Index: Bible)


In the latter half of the 20th century many heirs of Protestantism, among them the philosophical theologian Paul Tillich, began to speak of "the end of the Protestant era," or of the times as being "post-Protestant." This does not mean that they all wavered in their faith in Protestantism's general witness. Tillich, for one, argued that "the Protestant principle" of prophetic criticism had to be included in any authentic expression of church life and that it was a genuine value in the secular world. But these thinkers believed that the cultural dominance of Protestantism on its own historic soil was waning.

From the Renaissance onward and increasingly during the Enlightenment the adherents of Protestantism saw their thought-world repeatedly challenged on many fronts. During the 19th century, with the rise of industrialism and urbanization, a changing world presented new problems to societies and cultures shaped by traditional Protestantism. Meanwhile, ideologues, some of whom were avowed "god-killers," rose up on Protestantism's territory to challenge its deepest beliefs: the economic theorist Karl Marx, the evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, and the philosophical nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche, to take only three examples, were thoroughly at home with the Protestant experience and were able to use it as a foil to develop many of their own views.

In the 20th century Protestantism has become uncertain about its "foreign mission" of expansion in a postcolonialist, anti-imperialist world. The modern appreciation for values in non-Christian religions has led many Protestants to adopt positive attitudes toward these at the expense of the desire to extirpate or displace them with an expanding Protestantism. Totalitarian forces, particularly in Nazi Germany, absorbed some Protestant emphases and changed them beyond recognition, or they persecuted those Protestants who radically opposed suppression.

The attractions of modern life, secularization, and a crisis of faith all have contributed to a general Protestant decline, beginning with a measurable decrease in church membership, first on the Continent in the 19th century and then in England around the turn of the century. Therefore, while huge majorities of the population (as in Scandinavia and England) are baptized members of established Protestant churches, only a small percentage of these are attendants at worship services or responsive to the disciplines and mandates of the church. Those who use church attendance and support of ecclesiastical appeals as indicators of Protestant fortunes unite with those who see that Protestant dogma no longer defines belief, and its divisions no longer excite Western man--and then note the end of the Protestant era.

On the other hand, Protestantism is deeply integrated into so many elements of Western culture that it can be expected to continue to assert subtle influence. It has experienced ebb and flow or revival and decline periodically and now may be going through an extended period of decline. Yet even to speak in these terms may betray a Western provincialism that does not do justice to major trends. Countering all phenomena that elicit words about decline are at least two forces. One is the strength of conservative and evangelistic forms of Protestantism: Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, and Fundamentalism. While historical antecedents of these movements were often world-denying, sectarian, and withdrawn, late 20th-century versions include men and women eager to shape their surrounding culture. They give evidence that they may be doing so, or may begin to do so, in forms that not many would have foreseen a few decades ago.

The other compensatory force is the growth of Protestantism in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and many parts of Asia. Some of these new Protestant churches have begun to take indigenous forms that have little to do with the forms initially introduced by missionary forces and to witness far beyond Protestantism's conventional Western bases. (M.E.M.)


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