RELIGION LIBRARY

Protestantism

Beliefs

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

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.

Since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, some Protestants have rejected the idea that Jesus is God, and some have rejected the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. Unitarians, for example, conclude that both make no sense. They, along with some liberal Protestants from other denominations, tend to see Jesus solely as an emissary from God, a human model of sacrifice and service, and the most effective teacher on morality.

Protestants have traditionally believed in the existence of a devil, not as a metaphor for evil but as an actual being who, in conjunction with his emissaries—demons or dark angels—deceives humans and tempts them into sin. The fall of Lucifer, Satan, preceded the fall of humans. When he refused to submit to God's authority, he was cast out of heaven, where he continually tries to thwart God's purposes by creating chaos and tempting humans away from God. Protestants believe that even these attempts to obstruct God's will are in fact used by God to further God's plans, and at the end of history Satan will be defeated. Similarly, angels are beings sent by God to do God's work, to protect humans, and to counteract the activities of the devil. All of these—devil, demons, angels—are created beings, not divine beings, and have their existence in God's purposes.

Today, many Protestants retain traditional beliefs in the devil and in angels. For others, angels seem either uncomfortably pre-modern, or simply have no relevance to their belief system, and the devil is a only symbol of evil. Surveys show that increasing numbers believe in angels (and heaven) but reject belief in the devil (and hell).


Study Questions:
1.     How is the Trinity central to Protestant traditions?
2.     How do different Protestants define divine sovereignty?
3.     According to Protestants, what is the nature of Jesus Christ and why is it important?
4.     Do Protestants believe in divine beings other than God? Explain.

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