Protestant as one who confesses

Fred Sanders sheds some light on what “Protestant” means on the anniversary of the Protestation of Speyer, which was yesterday:

Today (April 19) is the anniversary of the 1529 Protestation of Speyer, which is generally regarded as the first time that the word “Protestant” was used to refer to a religious position distinct from Roman Catholicism. A coalition of German princes and leaders refused to abide by the imperial ban on Luther’s teachings, and called instead for the free spread of gospel teaching in their territories.

These days, in English at least, we sometimes hear that “Protestants” are by definition people who “protest,” that is, people defined by their disagreement with something, their dissent, their rejection of something. It is, in other words, considered a term that stands for nothing positive, but draws its meaning only by negation. . . .

The word seems to come from pro + testari, to testify forth, or to hold forth a position on something. Its primary historical meaning has been to assert, to maintain, to proclaim solemnly or state formally. . . .

So I protest against this bogus etymology, and I maintain that “Protestant” means something a lot closer to a word like “declare,” as in “having a message and sticking with it.” If you know Protestants who are mainly negative, blame them; not the word.

via Protestants, not Protesters | The Scriptorium Daily: Middlebrow.

Liberal theologians, such as Paul Tillich, use the term to argue that the essence of Protestantism is to protest all “static dogmas” and the like, in favor of  free form negation and openness to change.  Thus they justify their lack of beliefs and make themselves a tradition for it.  In reality, though, “protestant,” in the sense of the protestants at Speyer means pretty much the same as “confessional”!

HT: Joe Carter

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Stan J.

    I thought “prostestant” essentially signifies “we protest the authority of the Catholic magisterium.” Lutherans and Catholics already have settled dogmatic differences.

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html

  • Stan J.

    I thought “prostestant” essentially signifies “we protest the authority of the Catholic magisterium.” Lutherans and Catholics already have settled dogmatic differences.

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Does no one else have access to the Oxford English Dictionary? I mean, I don’t have one at home, but I have Web access to it through my library.

    Anyhow, you’d think that someone protesting a “bogus etymology” would, I don’t know, look up the actual one, and not just make an informed guess (“The word seems to come from pro + testari”). Yes, that is the etymology of the word “protest”. No, that is not the whole story. Here I will simply quote the beginning of the OED’s etymology section on the term:

    Apparently originally < classical Latin prōtestānt-, prōtestāns, present participle of prōtestārī (cf. protest), after either German protestieren (in the wording of the protest at Speyer: so protestieren und bezeugen wir hiermit öffentlich vor Gott, lit. ‘thus we protest and testify publicly before God’) or protestierend, adjective

    I mean, yes, the Lutherans that day were also, by their own words, testifying, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were protesting the Reichsacht against Luther’s teaching.

    Does that mean that Protestantism consists of nothing but objections, without its own positive teachings? Hardly. But then, I don’t actually know anyone, as Sanders apparently does, who believes “that ‘Protestants’ are by definition people who ‘protest,’ that is, people defined by their disagreement with something.”

    His is an odd complaint, at odds with the historical facts because of some connotations he would rather avoid.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Does no one else have access to the Oxford English Dictionary? I mean, I don’t have one at home, but I have Web access to it through my library.

    Anyhow, you’d think that someone protesting a “bogus etymology” would, I don’t know, look up the actual one, and not just make an informed guess (“The word seems to come from pro + testari”). Yes, that is the etymology of the word “protest”. No, that is not the whole story. Here I will simply quote the beginning of the OED’s etymology section on the term:

    Apparently originally < classical Latin prōtestānt-, prōtestāns, present participle of prōtestārī (cf. protest), after either German protestieren (in the wording of the protest at Speyer: so protestieren und bezeugen wir hiermit öffentlich vor Gott, lit. ‘thus we protest and testify publicly before God’) or protestierend, adjective

    I mean, yes, the Lutherans that day were also, by their own words, testifying, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were protesting the Reichsacht against Luther’s teaching.

    Does that mean that Protestantism consists of nothing but objections, without its own positive teachings? Hardly. But then, I don’t actually know anyone, as Sanders apparently does, who believes “that ‘Protestants’ are by definition people who ‘protest,’ that is, people defined by their disagreement with something.”

    His is an odd complaint, at odds with the historical facts because of some connotations he would rather avoid.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I think this is why the row a few weeks ago on this blog as to whether or not Lutherans were protestants. In a sense we are, we were perhaps the original. And there at the diet of Spiers there was a testifying aspect, we do have a positive theology. that is just it we aren’t to be defined by what we are against.
    But one thing I always have to ask myself when other “protestants” want me to join with them over something or other as well we’re all protestants, is what exactly do I have in common with you aside from this all but meaningless term?
    This was especially insidious during my time in the military. There they have the General Protestant worship services. Protestant all but becomes a denomination to its own, and though the chaplains are sponsored by many different church bodies, they are encouraged to shed what they can of any distinctive, and this almost always means giving any positive point of your theology.
    And in the end I’d ask the chaplains, so what do we have in common? What we don’t like Roman Catholics? I think I like their theology more than yours on many points. So how is our mutual distaste for Roman Catholic theology and practice, when we can’t even agree on which ones we don’t like and for what reasons, be any basis for church fellowship? and then the term does become defined by what it is against, and not what it is for.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I think this is why the row a few weeks ago on this blog as to whether or not Lutherans were protestants. In a sense we are, we were perhaps the original. And there at the diet of Spiers there was a testifying aspect, we do have a positive theology. that is just it we aren’t to be defined by what we are against.
    But one thing I always have to ask myself when other “protestants” want me to join with them over something or other as well we’re all protestants, is what exactly do I have in common with you aside from this all but meaningless term?
    This was especially insidious during my time in the military. There they have the General Protestant worship services. Protestant all but becomes a denomination to its own, and though the chaplains are sponsored by many different church bodies, they are encouraged to shed what they can of any distinctive, and this almost always means giving any positive point of your theology.
    And in the end I’d ask the chaplains, so what do we have in common? What we don’t like Roman Catholics? I think I like their theology more than yours on many points. So how is our mutual distaste for Roman Catholic theology and practice, when we can’t even agree on which ones we don’t like and for what reasons, be any basis for church fellowship? and then the term does become defined by what it is against, and not what it is for.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Okay, I want to clarify something I said before (@2): I don’t know anyone who believes that any Protestant denomination is “by definition people who ‘protest,’ that is, people defined by their disagreement with something.” Most Protestant denominations I can think of hold to positive teachings, not mere theological gainsaying.

    But as to the group of Protestants as a whole, as Bror notes (@3), there really is nothing to them except that they aren’t Catholic. (To be fair, I’d wager that not a few theologically ignorant folks would likewise define Catholicism as “not-Protestant Christianity”.) And it’s quite likely, as happens in such situations, that there is more disagreement between two Protestant groups than there is between any one such group and the Catholic church.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Okay, I want to clarify something I said before (@2): I don’t know anyone who believes that any Protestant denomination is “by definition people who ‘protest,’ that is, people defined by their disagreement with something.” Most Protestant denominations I can think of hold to positive teachings, not mere theological gainsaying.

    But as to the group of Protestants as a whole, as Bror notes (@3), there really is nothing to them except that they aren’t Catholic. (To be fair, I’d wager that not a few theologically ignorant folks would likewise define Catholicism as “not-Protestant Christianity”.) And it’s quite likely, as happens in such situations, that there is more disagreement between two Protestant groups than there is between any one such group and the Catholic church.

  • Stephen

    I’m not sure a lot of people in the bible-belt identify with the label “protestant” as much as they do “Christian” which means “not Catholic” and probably not sacramental at all. In that sense I suppose the label “Christian” has a negative association I had not thought of until now. Beyond that, people that are not mega-church evanglicals mostly go by denominational affiliations and see themselves more or less as brand identitites. Lutherans too. I have friend who is a Lutheran Navy chaplain walking a fine line between all that. He sure has stories to tell. The distinctions he finds are extremely pronounced. I don’t know ho whe does it, and I mean that on many levels. Pray for the military chaplains.

    An even worse definition I’ve read for protestants that I once saw put forward on First Things, the blog Joe Carter writes for, is the idea that protestantism, with Lutheranism in particular, is essentially a “critique” of Catholicism. This, to me, is so deeply and insidiously pejorative coming from Catholics, describing Luthers action on the Wittenberg door and all the subsequent events that followed by the fact that what developed “isn’t Catholicism” and yet is still beholding to it in one way or another, as if to say it is some kind of prodigal that has yet to learn its lesson and make its way home. I think the idea of this critique comes from Weber, but I may be wrong about that.

    The transcending of “static dogma” in Tillich is not completely unfounded in a certain sense. I’m reminded of the post discussed a couple months earlier from Pastor Hansen’s blog about Catholicism’s trust in church teaching “about” God – dogma is everything. The papal office, and likewise the personification of the Church in the person of the pope and his infallable teachings, is the mark of the true church. Trust the teaching of the church, the pope and whatever claims he makes. His authority is part and parcel of the divine authority. Anything outside of that is, at best, “critique.” Or dissent, or “protestari.” That’s a nice way of saying the negative “not the true church.”

    Lutheranism, on the other hand, teaches faith in Christ alone. We do not trust in the dogma, but in the one about whom the dogma teaches us to put our trust. That is the essence of the Solas – Christ alone. And that is also thoroughly positive doctrine.

  • Stephen

    I’m not sure a lot of people in the bible-belt identify with the label “protestant” as much as they do “Christian” which means “not Catholic” and probably not sacramental at all. In that sense I suppose the label “Christian” has a negative association I had not thought of until now. Beyond that, people that are not mega-church evanglicals mostly go by denominational affiliations and see themselves more or less as brand identitites. Lutherans too. I have friend who is a Lutheran Navy chaplain walking a fine line between all that. He sure has stories to tell. The distinctions he finds are extremely pronounced. I don’t know ho whe does it, and I mean that on many levels. Pray for the military chaplains.

    An even worse definition I’ve read for protestants that I once saw put forward on First Things, the blog Joe Carter writes for, is the idea that protestantism, with Lutheranism in particular, is essentially a “critique” of Catholicism. This, to me, is so deeply and insidiously pejorative coming from Catholics, describing Luthers action on the Wittenberg door and all the subsequent events that followed by the fact that what developed “isn’t Catholicism” and yet is still beholding to it in one way or another, as if to say it is some kind of prodigal that has yet to learn its lesson and make its way home. I think the idea of this critique comes from Weber, but I may be wrong about that.

    The transcending of “static dogma” in Tillich is not completely unfounded in a certain sense. I’m reminded of the post discussed a couple months earlier from Pastor Hansen’s blog about Catholicism’s trust in church teaching “about” God – dogma is everything. The papal office, and likewise the personification of the Church in the person of the pope and his infallable teachings, is the mark of the true church. Trust the teaching of the church, the pope and whatever claims he makes. His authority is part and parcel of the divine authority. Anything outside of that is, at best, “critique.” Or dissent, or “protestari.” That’s a nice way of saying the negative “not the true church.”

    Lutheranism, on the other hand, teaches faith in Christ alone. We do not trust in the dogma, but in the one about whom the dogma teaches us to put our trust. That is the essence of the Solas – Christ alone. And that is also thoroughly positive doctrine.

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