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.
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