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Protestantism is a general grouping of denominations within Christianity. It generally refers to those that separated from the Catholic Church in the Reformation, their offshoots, and those that share similar doctrines or ideologies. It is commonly considered one of the three major branches of Christianity, along with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.



The term Protestant originally applied to the group of princes and imperial cities who protested the decision by the 1529 Diet of Speyer to reverse course and enforce of the 1521 Edict of Worms. The 1521 edict forbade Lutheran teachings within the Holy Roman Empire. The 1526 session of the Diet had agreed to toleration of Lutheran teachings (on the basis of Cuius regio, eius religio) until a General Council could be held to settle the question, but by 1529 the Catholic forces felt they had gathered enough power to end the toleration without waiting for a Council.

In German speaking areas the word Protestant still refers to Lutheran churches in contrast to Reformed churches, while the common designation for all churches originating from the Reformation is Evangelical.

In a broader sense of the word, Protestantism is the collective name for numerous denominations, of Western European origin, that broke with the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the influence of Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran churches, and John Calvin, founder of the Calvinist movement. A third major branch of the Reformation, which encountered conflict with both the Catholics and other Protestants, is sometimes called the Radical Reformation. Some Western, non-Catholic, groups are labeled as Protestant, even if the sect acknowledges no historical connection to Luther, Calvin or the Roman Catholic Church. These sundry groupings, i.e. Lutherans, Calvinists, and other sectarians, are characterized in part by a lack of apostolic succession, in the sense that their founders are not anointed successors of St. Peter.

Protestants are often considered to be another people 'of the book', in that they adhere to the text of the Bible, that they grew out of the enlightenment and universities, that they attracted learned intellectuals, professionals, and skilled tradesmen and silversmiths, that their belief is more abstracted than ritualized, and that the great dissemination of protestant beliefs occurred with the translation by Protestants into native tongues from Latin (Greek and Hebrew) with the new technology of the printing press. Protestants are also less fond of hierarchy, having relentlessly attacked the priestly cast and the Holy See's authority, and thus are closely associated with the local control and political democratization during the 16th and 17th century.

Origins of Protestantism

Protestants generally trace their separation from the Roman Catholic Church to the 1500's, which is sometimes called the magisterial Reformation because the movement received support from the magistrates, the ruling authorities (as opposed to the radical Reformation, which had no state sponsorship). The protest erupted suddenly, in many places at once but particularly in Germany, during a time of threatened Islamic invasion&sup1 which distracted German princes in particular. To some degree, the protest can be explained by the events of the previous two centuries in Western Europe.

Unrest in the Western Church and Empire, which culminated in the Avignon Papacy (1308 - 1378), and then the papal schism (1378-1416), excited wars between princes, uprisings among the peasants, and widespread concern over corruption in the monastic system. In addition, the humanistic Renaissance was stimulating an unprecedented academic ferment, with a concomitant concern for academic freedom. Earnest theoretical debates were ongoing in the universities concerning the nature of the church, and the proper source and extent of the authority of the papacy, of councils, and of princes. One of the most disruptive and radical of the new perspectives came first from John Wyclif at Oxford and then from Jan Hus at the University of Prague. Within the Roman Catholic Church, this debate was officially concluded by the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which executed Jan Hus, and posthumously burned Wyclif as a heretic. However, while Constance confirmed and strengthened the Medieval conception of church and empire, it could not entirely resolve the national tensions, nor the theological tensions which had been stirred up during the previous century. Among other things, the council could not prevent schism and the Hussite Wars in Bohemia.

To some extent, the protest began in earnest when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor at the University of Wittenberg, called for reopening of debate on the sale of indulgences. (Tradition holds that he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle's Church, which served as a pinboard for university-related announcements). Luther's dissent marked a sudden outbreak with new and irresistible force of discontent which had been pushed underground but not resolved.

Parallel to events in Germany, a movement began in Switzerland under the leadership of Huldreich Zwingli. These two movements quickly agreed on most issues, as the recently introduced printing press spread ideas rapidly from place to place but some unsolved differences kept them separate. Some followers of Zwingli believed that the Reformation was too conservative, and moved independently toward more radical positions, some of which survive among modern day Anabaptists. Other Protestant movements grew up along lines of mysticism or humanism (cf. Erasmus), sometimes breaking from Rome or from the Protestants, or forming outside of the churches.

After this first stage of the Reformation, following the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various groups in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere. The separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1536, brought England alongside the Reformation. However, change in England proceeded more conservatively than elsewhere in Europe and alternated between traditional and Protestant sympathies for centuries, progressively forging a stable compromise. Thus, the West was permanently divided into Catholic and Protestant.

Basic theological tenets

Four Latin slogans of the Reformation express some principal theological concerns of Protestantism, though they are not shared by all Protestants. See also five solas.

  • Solus Christus : Christ alone.
Only Christ is a mediator between God and man (1 Ti 2:5
Against the Catholic orthodoxy that Tradition (1 Cor 11:2
 ; 2 Thess 2:15
), the teachings of the College of Bishops united with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome (Mt 16:18
), shares primacy with Scripture for the handing-on of doctrine, Protestants argue that the Bible is the only rule of faith (Gal 1:8
). This doctrine is connected with the doctrine of private interpretation of the bible.
In contrast to the Roman Catholic concept of meritorious works (cf. Jam 2:24
 ; 1 Cor 13:2
), of penance and indulgences, masses for the dead, the treasury of the merits of saints and martyrs, a ministering priesthood who hears confessions, and purgatory (Mt 5:26
), the Protestants argued that every believer is a priest and obtains reconciliation with God through faith in Jesus Christ, alone (Rom 3:28
 ; Eph 2:8-9
  • Sola gratia : Grace alone.
Against the Roman Catholic view that faith and works necessarily occur together and that works flow from faith (cf. Jam 2:26
 ; Gal 5:6
), the Reformers posited that salvation is a gift from God dispensed through Jesus Christ, regardless of merit - for no one deserves salvation. The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, posits that salvation is not dispensed through Jesus Christ, but was effected by Jesus Christ, on the Cross at Calvary.

Lord's Supper

From the beginning, Protestantism was in agreement against the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, which teaches that the substance of the bread and wine used in the sacrificial rite of the Mass is exchanged for the substance of Christ's body and blood (see Eucharist). However, they disagreed with one another concerning the manner in which the believer is united with Christ through the Eucharist. The Lutherans held to a theory called consubstantiation, which affirms the true presence of Christ in, with, and under the bread. The Reformed according to Zwingli see the Lord's Supper as a memorial ceremony, denying the substantial presence of Christ but affirming that Christ is united to the believer through faith (a view referred to somewhat derisively as memorialism). The Calvinists affirm the real presence of Christ in a manner different from Lutherans, saying that the Church has a new identity from Him in a manner analogous to naming the bread "my body", effecting a spiritual union with the Church, symbolized and given by means of the bread, by the Holy Spirit, through faith, but without changing the bread into Himself.

Major influences on the development of Protestantism

Protestants can be differentiated according to how they have been influenced by important movements since the magisterial Reformation and the Puritan Reformation in England. Some of these movements have a common lineage, sometimes directly spawning later movements in the same groups.

Holiness movement and Pietism

The Holiness movement in the 17th and the 18th century, began after the English Puritan Reformation, joined on the continent of Europe the German Pietist movement, and returned to Britain in a changed form through John Wesley and the Methodist Church, as well as through smaller, new groups such as the Quakers. The practice of a spiritual life, often combined with social engagement, predominates in classical Pietism, which was a protest against the doctrine-centeredness Protestant Orthodoxy of the times, in favor of depth of religious experience.


Beginning at the end of 18th century, several international revivals of Pietism (such as the Great Awakening), took place across denominational lines, which are referred to generally as the Evangelical movement. The chief emphases of this movement were individual conversion, personal piety and Bible study, public morality often including Temperance and family values, and Abolitionism, de-emphasis of formalism in worship and in doctrine, a broadened role for laity (including women) in worship, evangelism and teaching, and cooperation in evangelism across denominational lines.


Pentecostalism as a movement began in the United States early in the 20th century, starting especially within the Holiness movement. Seeking a return to the operation of New Testament gifts of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues as evidence of the "baptism of the Holy Ghost" became the leading feature. Divine healing and miracles were also emphasized. Pentecostalism swept through much of the Holiness movement, and eventually spawned hundreds of new denominations in the United States. A later "charismatic" movement also stressed the gifts of the Spirit, but often operated within existing denominations rather than coming out of them.


Liberalism is a label for various attempts to accommodate the doctrine and practice, especially of the main branches of the Protestant churches, to the principles of the Enlightenment. These adaptations achieved critical momentum at the end of the 19th century in the Modernist movement and the historical critical Bible exegesis.


In reaction to liberal Bible critique, Fundamentalism arose in the 20th century, primarily in the United States and Canada, among those denominations most affected by Evangelicalism. Fundamentalism placed primary emphasis on the authority and sufficiency of the Bible, and typically advised separation from error, and cultural conservatism, as important aspects of the Christian life.


Neo-evangelicalism is a movement from the middle of the 20th century, that reacted to perceived excesses of Fundamentalism, adding to concern for biblical authority an emphasis on liberal arts, co-operation among churches, Christian Apologetics, and non-denominational evangelization.

Protestant denominations

Protestants often refer to specific Protestant churches and groups as denominations to imply that they are differently named parts of the whole church. Some denominations, though, are less accepting of others, and some are so unorthodox as to be questioned by most. But there are also denominations where the theological differences are very small. Other denominations are simply regional expressions of the same beliefs found in other places under other names. The actual number of distinct denominations is hard to calculate, but has been estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Various ecumenical movements have attempted cooperation or reorganization of Protestant churches, according to various models of union, but divisions continue to outpace unions. Most denominations claim to have a certain unity with other groups of Christians, but contain doctrines which fundamentally contradict each other.

Protestant families of denominations

Please note that only general families are listed here (tens of thousands of individual denominations exist):

Well-known Protestant religious figures

Related topic


  • 1 See How the Reformation Happened by Hilaire Belloc, pp. 48 ff. inter alia.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 15:36:55
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55