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Religion Library: Protestantism


Written by: Ted Vial

All three—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—agreed on the main Protestant principles: justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and scripture alone as the final authority. They all felt it was important that the Bible, which had been available only in Latin, be translated into languages that Christians could read for themselves. All three expected the same Holy Spirit who inspired scripture as the word of God, and who changed the hearts of sinners to believe that their sins had been forgiven, to lead pious, saved Christians to a correct understanding of scripture. On this last point they were disappointed.

The fact that separate Protestant churches—Lutheran and Reformed—developed was troubling, and Zwingli and Luther met at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) to try to reach a common understanding that would unify the two churches.  They agreed on twelve points of doctrine, but could not agree on the thirteenth: what happened at the Lord's Supper. Luther argued that the body and blood of Christ became associated with the bread and wine, following a literal interpretation of the scripture passage, "This is my body, broken for you" (Matthew 22:19). Zwingli argued that Jesus was surely using a figure of speech, and that the bread and wine symbolized the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. He based his doctrine on John 6:63—"It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless." This failure to unify the Church in belief and practice regarding the Lord's Supper, based on differing interpretations of scripture, set something of a pattern for the division and diversification that has characterized Protestantism throughout its history. Particularly in America, where the government did not establish and defend a particular denomination as it did most places in Europe, the profusion of denominations and sects has been rapid and constant.

Study Questions:
1.     Who was Martin Luther? How did his training help to prepare him for the movement he would create?
2.     Who was Zwingli? How did he understand scripture?
3.     Who was John Calvin? What did he contribute to the Reformation?
4.     What theological doctrines did these three men share? Where did they differ?


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