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Religion Library: Protestantism

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Ted Vial

Protestants believe in the God revealed in salvation history. This God is One, the only true God. Yet, most Protestant churches also embrace the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, formulated at the Council of Nicea in 325, which teaches that God is one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three Persons of the Trinity are distinct, but not separate; united in essence and purpose; each involved in the activities of creation, salvation, and sanctification.  The Father creates through the Word and by the power of the Spirit; the Son is sent by the Father and saves by becoming incarnate as a human, through the Spirit overshadowing Mary, and dying for our sin; and the Holy Spirit, who breathed over the creation and anointed the Christ, was also active in inspiring prophets and scripture writers, and is active now in bringing people to salvation, forming the Church, and enabling people to live lives pleasing to God and themselves.

This God is all-powerful, though the details in how Protestants think about this vary. While some believe that nothing whatsoever can happen without God's active, conscious decision to make it happen, most understand God's sovereignty to be compatible with human free will. Some explain this by teaching that God has both an active will, thus in some circumstances causing events, and a permissive will, in some circumstances allowing things to happen without direct divine involvement. All agree that everything that happens—even the worst events—can be redeemed, used by God to bring about an ultimate good.

Most Protestants also believe that Jesus is a divine-human being, and that what Jesus did—his life and works—can only be properly understood when viewed as the actions of a divine-human being. Most Protestants maintain the traditional Christian doctrine of the two natures of Christ (fully human and fully divine) defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. While it is difficult to conceive of a being who is both fully and genuinely human and fully and genuinely divine, many passages of scripture (e.g., John 1:14: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us") point to it clearly.

Most Protestants also maintain the traditional belief in Christ's substitutionary atonement. In other words, the way that Jesus saves humans is by taking up the punishment for sin, which is death, on their behalf. This is the supreme act of love: God suffering, laying down life, bearing shame, and embracing death.  Having paid the penalty and mended the relationship between humanity and God, Jesus can freely offer divine forgiveness.  Such a belief is related to a doctrine of two natures, fully human and fully divine. Jesus took on humanity because it is humans who have incurred an infinite debt for sin, and so humanity must pay it. But because the debt of sin is infinite, only an infinite being (a God) can pay it. Thus a God-man is in some sense necessary.


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