Religion: INTRODUCTION Protestant(General)
Protestant, Religion Protestant, Protestant Religion. Christianity. INTRODUCTION (General):
Just as the disciples of Christ were only belatedly called Christians, so too those who supported the Reformation were called Protestants only from 1529 onwards. This was the date of the second diet of Speyer, when five princes of the holy Roman empire and 14 free cities “protested” against the decision taken three years earlier which had granted the princes (or cities) the right to decide as sovereigns what the religion of their subjects should be. In support of their stand they affirmed: “In matters which concern the honour of God and the salvation of our souls, every individual must stand alone before God and give an account.” Until then the Protestants had been called by different names – Lutherans, Evangelicals, Huguenots. The term “Protestantism” has more than a negative side to it. Rather, it is an affirmation of the freedom of faith.*
One might think that Protestantism arose out of a challenge to the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, such as the sale of indulgences, the second-rate quality of the lower clergy or the dissolute life-style of the higher clergy. But these abuses had been denounced already for over a century. Hence, the Reformation would have been original only in succeeding, at least partially, where others had failed. But at a more profound level, the Reformation criticized the importation of the Roman tradition into the gospel, such as the doctrines of purgatory, Mariology, the veneration of saints and the power of the clergy. Even here Protestantism is not wholly original, for it owes something to humanism, which commended a return to the primary documents – in this case, the holy scriptures. Many humanists, however, did not become Protestants; the most famous example was Erasmus (1467-1536).
The development of Protestantism
The real originality of Protestantism lies in its fresh reading of the Bible, which led Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian monk and theologian, to claim that Christians are “justified”, i.e. they become righteous in the sight of God, not by their works and the merits which derive from these, but by God’s grace* alone, received in faith and not by means of works (see justification). Even if human beings or the individual conscience approves these works, God in his holiness cannot accept them as righteous, for human beings are sinners through and through, and their works are evil (see sin). Only the redeeming work of Christ is pleasing to God, and in his grace God “reckons to us” the righteousness of Christ. Our righteousness is therefore external (forensis), for we are not its source, which does not mean that it is unreal, for God does accomplish what he tells us and promises to us in his creative word. Having become good trees, by grace alone, we bear good fruits, in so far as we continue to have faith in Christ crucified and raised. In turn, this faith is not a work; it is a gift of God, awakened in us by the Holy Spirit.*
Protestantism thus developed a new understanding of faith. Faith is not primarily intellectual assent to doctrines which the church,* its councils and the pope formulate. First and foremost, faith is a personal bond of trust in Christ and recognition of the rightness of the judgments which God pronounces on sinful human beings. At least in the beginning, Protestants unanimously recognized the ancient ecumenical symbols or creeds,* and even drew up their own doctrinal confessions of faith: Augsburg confession (1530), confession of La Rochelle (1559 and 1571), Scots confession (1560), second Helvetic confession (1560), Westminster confession (1646), etc. But these confessions are not standards with absolute authority. Only holy scripture – in so far as, in Luther’s words, it is the bearer of Christ – has the force of the ultimate standard or court of appeal (norma normans); the confessions are standards only to the degree that scripture confirms them (norma normata).
Polemics naturally accused the Reformation of moral laxity because of its claim that works do not save. This censure is unfounded. While works cannot produce salvation,* they are nonetheless an essential to demonstrate that we have not received the righteousness of Christ in vain – or as the Heidelberg catechism (1563) says, to give evidence to God of our gratitude. This is the true basis of a rigorous Protestant ethic.
This ethic is all the more rigorous in that while Roman Catholic tradition progressively reduced good works to prayer, pilgrimages, charitable gifts, etc., Protestantism for both Luther and Calvin re-
established the dignity of work* in the world, hence Luther’s struggle against monastic vows, in which he saw a flight from Christian responsibilities in the world, the city and the family. Hence also Calvin’s doubtless bolder initiatives to encourage trade and industry. Calvin’s exegesis of relevant Old Testament passages clearly shows that they condemned loans at exorbitant interest rather than loans at interest rates that were intended to increase production. The clerical profession has no pre-eminent status for Christians; those who work to ensure a livelihood for their family, the prosperity of their town and help for the deprived are as worthy of respect as the minister entrusted with the proclamation of the word of God. One’s trade, according to Luther, is also one’s calling or vocation.*
This rehabilitation of secular work led certain sociologists and historians, especially Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905), to look for the origins of the capitalist quest in the Protestant ethic. But one must note, as Weber explicitly does, that it was the puritan spirit which above all provided the religious foundations and created the necessary mental attitudes for capitalist enterprise, at least in its beginnings. This thesis continues to find critics, who so far have managed only to clarify a thesis which in its essentials retains its full value.
Protestantism sought to reform the church from within but failed in this respect because of the intransigence of popes and the holy Roman emperor. The Protestant churches were compelled to constitute themselves as separate churches. But even before the schism* was completed, they evolved an ecclesiology different from Rome’s. For a start, they asserted that the pope and even councils could be mistaken, that scripture remains the supreme arbiter, that it has a clarity of its own and that its obscure parts are clarified by its more self-evident passages. This was in embryo the modern idea – accepted by Protestantism and in large measure by Roman Catholic theologians today – that there is a canon within the biblical canon.*
Furthermore, while the Roman Catholic Church maintained that there is no church except where there are priests ordained by a bishop who is within the apostolic succession and in communion with the pope as the successor of Peter, the Reformation maintained that the church exists wherever the word of God* is rightly proclaimed and where the sacraments* instituted by Christ (i.e. only the two sacraments of baptism* and the Lord’s supper, or eucharist*) are administered in agreement with the gospel. The church is a community of sinners who have been forgiven and, prompted by the Spirit, are brought together by the word of God.
Patently in its definition of the church, Protestantism gave pride of place to the event by which the people are brought together through the word, as compared with the institution as a socio-historical phenomenon. This is not to claim that Protestantism rejected all ecclesial institutions. As the schism moved towards its completion, it adopted a variety of institutional forms in its various denominations, but all of these institutions were marked by their collegial character and by the increasing role of the laity* in the government of the church (see church order).
Defining faith as a relation of personal trust in the Lord meant depriving the church of its power as an institution. No longer did the church mediate and dispense salvation, even as a secondary cause. Its one role is to proclaim and bear witness to the salvation which God effected in Christ, and to do so in the most varied ways – by preaching, administering the sacraments and declaring forgiveness (no longer itself doing the forgiving), and by mutual aid, service and the care of souls. Thus the church was made subordinate to the redeeming work of Christ, and ecclesiology depended on Christology. The church is a second reality. But it is not a secondary one, for it is and remains the Body of Christ, and all whom God has justified are brought into the church (in particular, by baptism); this body is called to grow in unity* and holiness.* Though the church has a divine foundation, it is not in itself a divine reality, and as an earthly institution it has its limitations. God alone knows who the true believers are; it is not up to the ecclesiastical institution to make this decision. This view explains why the practice of excommunication* eventually lost a great deal of its significance in the churches of the Reformation.
The ecclesiastical dispute with Rome has naturally been accompanied by a profound difference in regard to the ministry (see ministry in the church). That the ministry is an essential is not disputed in churches which resulted from the Reformation. But pastors are not priests, in that they have no special character or power which would distinguish them from laypeople. In principle, although pastors are ordained to their ministry, laypersons can carry out the same activities if the occasion arises and if they are called upon to do so by the constituted authorities. Already in 1520 Luther framed the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, stating that all baptized Christians “can pride themselves on already being priests, bishops and pope”. But he added, “It is not appropriate for each person to fulfill the same office”, because of his concern for order and his respect for each person’s calling.
The question of the nature of the ministry remains a stumbling block in the ecumenical dialogues begun some decades ago between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Difficulties over the mutual recognition of ministries remain a serious barrier in the quest for unity. The three confessions have been able to reach agreement on recognizing baptism, which in any case may be validly administered by a layperson, according to the Roman Catholic Church. But in regard to the Lord’s supper (or eucharist), there is no such recognition. According to present Roman Catholic teaching, there are certain values in the Lord’s supper celebrated in the Protestant churches, but the Lord’s supper is defective because it is not presided over by a minister considered validly ordained in the apostolic succession. Hence intercommunion* and a fortiori intercelebration are not possible. Rome does extend, within certain limits, eucharistic hospitality to baptized Protestants, but this is a one-way hospitality.
The current stage of the problem is found in connection with the 1982 WCC Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,* prepared by Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians. This document clearly shows that there has been some convergence on questions of ministry, but some responses still pose a continuing deadlock: Protestantism cannot give up its concept of the priesthood of all believers, nor can it acknowledge that its ministers have an intrinsic power to effect sacraments.
To sum up so far, one can define Protestantism in the three classic formulas: sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola scriptura (scripture alone) – to which Calvin liked to add soli Deo gloria (to God alone be glory).