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Religion Library: Protestantism

Beginnings

Written by: Ted Vial

Protestant communities share their Christian beginnings with every other Christian tradition, namely in the life and death of Jesus Christ and in the believing community he established. Nevertheless, they trace their contemporary roots to the corruption of the late medieval Roman Catholic church and to the desire to reform it. In its earliest movements, Protestantism was meant to be an internal renewal, not a new branch of Christianity.

The name "Protestant" was coined in 1529 when the Lutheran princes in Germany "protested" against the Diet of Speyer, a meeting that reaffirmed the condemnation of Martin Luther's teachings at the 1521 Diet of Worms. Protestantism today consists in a variety of western Christian traditions. It is estimated that there are currently between 33,000 and 39,000 Protestant denominations and sects. (There is no clear distinction between denomination and sect; the terms are largely linked to size, sects being very small.) Almost all are part of or offshoots from Lutheranism, Reformed Christianity, Anabaptism, the Baptist tradition, Anglicanism, Methodism, Restorationist churches, or Pentecostalism. And all ultimately trace their roots, some more directly than others, back to the reform begun in 1517 by Martin Luther.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a Roman Catholic monk trained as a biblical scholar and theologian. Through his reading of the letters of the apostle Paul he came to believe that salvation cannot be earned through good works, but consists of the free gift of forgiveness that no one can merit. The first principle of Protestantism was "justification by faith alone" (faith being trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of one's sins). For Luther the idea that he had nothing whatsoever to contribute to his salvation, that his fate was entirely in God's hands, came as a great relief. Though Luther had been a devout monk, he was never sure that he had confessed his sins enough and performed enough good works, and was in a constant state of anxiety about his salvation. He felt he was in far more reliable hands if his salvation was purely a gift from God.

One of the other beliefs to which this led Luther was belief in predestination, the idea that God has already decided at creation who will be saved. This belief did not originate with Luther. It is present in many earlier Catholic writers, including Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Luther simply linked his arguments regarding justification by faith with the teachings regarding predestination in ways that challenged the sacerdotalism of the Catholic Church.

There are varying understandings of predestination within Protestantism. Some Christians are more comfortable with the idea that salvation is in part the result of a free decision to accept God's grace, and thus they believe in some measure of free will. They are uncomfortable with the idea that there is nothing those who are damned can do. They feel this makes God out to be a monstrous tyrant. Arminians and Methodists, for example, and following them many Baptists and Pentecostal Charismatics, preserve some measure of human free will. Others, in the desire to preserve the absolute sovereignty of God, leave all matters of salvation and damnation in the hands of God.

 

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