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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions
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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Contrary to the negative implication of the word itself, Protestantism is a positive affirmation of religious belief based on the principles of the Reformation. As a system of teaching, worship, and practice, it is frequently described as any form of Christianity, which is not Catholic.
The name is derived from the protest of the Lutheran princes against a proposal at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 to restrict Lutheranism to places where it already had followers. The birthday of Protestantism is commonly taken as October 31,1517, the day Martin Luther nailed his theses, or propositions, to the church door at Wittenberg. By 1520, when Pope Leo X condemned Luther for teaching that the Roman Pontiff, successor of Peter, was not, in the person of St. Peter, appointed by Christ as His vicar over all the churches of the world, Protestantism was already spreading across Europe.
As the movement of secession from Rome, Protestantism may be viewed under three aspects:
Martin Luther was the first Protestant leader and, until his death in 1546, the mainstay of the Reformation. Modern Protestant churches, however, also derive from three other main sources: Anabaptists and Free Church Dissenters (1520); Henry VIII of England (1534); and John Calvin in France (1536). In spite of mergers, overlapping and borrowings from each other, todays multitude of Protestant churches and denominations still reflect characteristic elements traceable to the ancestry of each.
Lutheranism. For more than 400 years Lutheran teaching has remained the most uniform in the Protestant tradition and has drawn the greatest number of followers. The Lutheran spirit, with its stress on Gods mercy and its corresponding lack of emphasis on mans goodness and moral freedom, dominates the evangelical form of Protestantism.
According to the evangelical tradition, God has done everything for us; we need do nothing except give Him thanks. He has forgiven us, and we need only accept His remission with gratitude. He has come to us and reconciled us to Himself in the person of Christ the Savior, and nothing can happen to separate us from His goodness.
Priesthood. The Lutheran tradition stresses the universal priesthood of the laity. Every believer is said to have the power to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments, and any limitation of this power is considered contrary to Scripture. Lutheranism, however, does allow for the public ministry of a few whom the laity designate from their own ranks. This idea of the clergy was summarized by Luther:
We firmly maintain that there is no other word of God than the one all Christians are told to preach; there is no other baptism than the one all Christians may confer; there is no other remembrance of the Lords Supper than the one any Christian may celebrate; also there is no other sacrifice than the body of every Christian.
Eucharist. Evangelical Protestantism favors a literal understanding of Christs presence in the Eucharist. It differs from Catholic teaching but is much closer to it than the Calvinist or Free Church interpretation. The basic Augsburg Confession states, The true body and blood of Christ are truly present under the form of bread and wine, which supposes that bread and wine remain also with a mysterious presence of Christs Body and Blood. See MARTIN LUTHER.
Calvinism. The teachings of John Calvin, synthesized in his massive Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), are the basis of Reformed Protestantism, often simply called Calvinism. The Reformed Churches of Europe and America and the Presbyterian bodies in France, England, and the United States have given definite form to the Calvinist doctrine. Baptists also have been deeply influenced by Calvinism.
Salvation. The theory of absolute predestination is the hallmark of Calvinism. Some persons, it teaches, are eternally decreed for heaven and others for hell, regardless of their actions. Sin is considered a sign of preordained damnation and the punishment of sinners predetermined by divine justice. Many Calvinists today interpret this doctrine less rigidly and favor a more Lutheran stress on Gods mercy (grace in the Lutheran sense). They hold that the sinner must confidently hope that, in spite of his inability to avoid evil, God will finally save him through the merits of Christ.
Clergy. Reformed Protestants agree with the Lutherans in denying an ordained priesthood, but they differ in their explanation of the public ministry. Whereas Lutherans consider the ministry as belonging to all Christians and regard it as divine only in the sense that trustees are appointed to carry out the divine ordinances of teaching, baptizing, and giving the Lords Supper, the Calvinists make the ministry part of predestination. It is by vocation, wrote Calvin, that ministers are destined for preaching the Gospel and administration of the sacraments. Though often disregarded in practice, these conflicting views on the distinction between clergy and laity constitute one of the unsolved problems of modern Protestantism.
Eucharist. The Calvinist tradition subscribes only to a spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The teaching, as set out in the Presbyterian confession of faith, states that after the prayer of consecration the elements remain in substance and nature as they were before, truly and only bread and wine. Efforts to reconcile the Calvinist with the Lutheran stand on the Eucharist led to the Formula of Concord in 1577. It attested to the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament but described it as not a special presence different from His general presence in all creation. See CALVIN, JOHN.
Anglicanism. As it name implies Anglican Protestantism is distinctively English. In the United States it is more commonly known as Episcopalianism because of its emphasis on the office of the bishop (in Latin, espiscopus). The Anglican Church stems from Henry VIIIs Supremacy Act of 1534, which made the head of state the supreme head of the Church of England. It was firmly established by Queen Elizabeth in 1563, when her parliament made the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion binding on all citizens under heavy penalties. Anglicanism denies the primacy of the pope and gives the bishops final authority under the civil ruler. It differs from Lutheranism and Calvinism in demanding, at least in principle, a direct succession of bishops from the apostles. See ANGLICANISM; EPISCOPALIANS; HENRY VIII; SUPREMACY, ACT OF.
Church-State Relations. The Anglican tradition calls for close ties between church and state, with the latter supreme. It is based on a theory, known as Erastianism, that since the Old Testament magistrates held power in spiritual and temporal affairs, the civil ruler of a Christian state should also be its ecclesiastical head. Article 37 of the Thirty-nine Articles declares that the political sovereign has ultimate authority over all ecclesiastical persons and all church affairs. Though modified in the United States, this concept of state rights in church matters has influenced many Protestant denominations. See THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES.
Liturgy. Unlike Protestantism on the Continent of Europe, the Anglican system has always stressed the liturgy and external ritual. The Book of Common Prayer and a concept of the Eucharist as sacrifice-never completely absent in Anglicanism-kept alive a liturgical worship influencing every branch of Protestantism. See BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER.
Methodism. Anglican traditions are also found among the Methodists. John Wesley, their Anglican founder, challenged the historic episcopate by consecrating bishops (for America) without having himself been made a bishop. Methodism differs from its parent denomination by placing less emphasis on the liturgy and by rejecting its concept of a state church. Methodist-Episcopal churches however, have existed for more than 200 years, and efforts to heal the original schism are actively promoted in England and the United States. See METHODISTS, WESLEY, JOHN.
Anabaptists. Dissatisfaction with Lutheran and Calvinist policies on the Continent and with Anglicanism in England stimulated the Anabaptist and Free Church forms of Protestantism.
Basic teachings. In Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries, the Anabaptist movement rejected infant baptism. They said that those baptized before the age of reason had to be baptized again. (The prefix ana means again.) Behind their teaching was a denial of the Catholic teaching on the nature of the sacraments. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments give grace as long as the required conditions are met. The qualities or merits of either the one receiving or the one administering the sacrament do not affect its intrinsic, or built-in, power to perform the function for which Christ instituted it.
Applying their theory to the Eucharist, the Anabaptists held that the presence of Christ was either purely symbolic, or merely commemorative, or an internal experience in no way related to a physical reality other than the bread and wine.
Substitute for Liturgy. Ascetical practices took the place of liturgical observances for these groups. Simplicity of food and clothing, pacifism, and more recently, abstention from smoking, alcohol, and gambling are a part of their tradition. This influence is evident in a large segment of modern descendants, including Baptist, Mennonites, Brethren, and Adventists. See ADVENTISTS; ANABAPTISTS; BRETHREN, MENNONITES.
Free Church Dissenters. The English equivalent of the Anabaptist dissent assumed equally radical positions in theology and went even further in opposition to ecclesiastical authority, probably in reaction to the national church policies of Anglicanism. Variously called Congregationalism or the Free Church system, the main feature is the self-government of each local church and independence in doctrine and worship. Baptists and others have adopted the same principles. Unitarians and Universalists, denying the Trinity, are in the Free Church tradition of regarding doctrine as relatively unimportant. The Quakers, formed later, dispense with all ecclesiastical structure and authority, appealing only to the Inner Light in the soul. See CONGREATIONALISTS, QUAKERS, UNITARIAN.
The Reformation leaders quickly began to formulate their doctrines into a system of theology. Luther and Calvin almost immediately felt the need to defend their doctrinal positions. Luthers earliest writings include treatises on faith, grace, and free will, as well as the means of attaining salvation. Calvins Institutes of the Christian Religion were written to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology.
Protestant theology would have been very sketchy, however, if Luther and Calvin alone had developed it. They were more interested in clarifying their own doctrines than in developing their beliefs. Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) was the first real Protestant theologian. He produced two works, the Confession of Augsburg and the Apology, a defense of the Confession. His immediate purpose was to reconcile Lutheran and Calvinist teaching, but his books became the foundations for a speculative exposition of Protestantism. During the seventeenth century, however, Scripture itself as explained by Protestant divines became the infallible authority of a rigid teaching that left little room for personal initiative and speculation. See AUGSBURG CONFESSION, MELANCHTHON, PHILIPP.
Rationalism. The rise of deism (a philosophic theory rejecting supernatural revelation) and rigid scriptural orthodoxy led Protestants to the most serious crisis of their history. They had to find a basis for religious certitude outside the Roman papacy and beyond the Bible, which the rationalists had brought under destructive critical attack.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the philosopher of Protestantism, supplied the answer by stating that mans ultimate religious authority is his own intellect. The inner voice of reason is always his surest guide. The direct influence of Kantian ideas was to stimulate what has since become known as rationalism. See KANT, IMMANUEL.
Rationalism, as understood in Protestant theology, assumes that mans natural reason without divine guidance is competent to judge all truth, including revealed truth. Outstanding among its leaders were David Strauss (1808-1874), Albrecht Ritschl (1851-1930). Strauss reduced the Gospel narrative of Christs life to a tissue of legends borrowed from pagan mythology. The only idea of incarnation he would accept makes all of humanity divine. Ritschl went back to Kant and used his theories to explain Christianity as that which gradually and inevitably makes possible a practical ideal of life, lived according to reason. Harnack restored Protestant acceptance of the Gospels as first-century productions but denied their historical validity whenever they treat of miracles and the supernatural. See HARNACK, ADOLF.
Religion of Feeling. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), although equally dissatisfied with the supernaturalists, opposed the rationalists. He attacked both groups by denying the suppositions on which they based their arguments.
Arguing against supernaturalism, he said Christianity is an inward state of self-consciousness, not something to be received from the outside on authority. Against rationalism, he held that religion is a feeling of the heart, and emotion that does not depend on the working of the mind. The feeling, he added, is not merely personal; it is also a social experience.
Schleiermachers religion of feeling has been extremely influential. His monumental Der Christliche Glaude (Christian Faith) is regarded as one of the best expressions of Protestantism. See SCHLEIERMACHER, FRIEDRICH.
New Orthodoxy. The most creative force in Protestant theology in the middle of the twentieth century has been the rise of a new orthodoxy. Building upon the progress of biblical scholarship in the past century, its ideal was a return to the position of the original Reformers.
It leaders have discovered in the Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) a compromise between rationalism and supernaturalism without the resort to Schleiermachers escape in feeling. What matters, according to Kierkegaard, is not the content of Christianity but the fact of being a Christian. Dogmas and doctrines are secondary, leaving the essence of being a Christian a blind faith, entrusting ones whole life to God in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth in Europe and Paul Tillich in the United States have been leading exponents of this trend in Protestant thought. See BARTH, KARL; KIERKEGAARD, SOREN; TILLICH, PAUL.
Important Doctrines. Because Protestant culture is so fluid and varied it is not easy to define its elements. Contrast the uncompromising supernaturalism of conservative Lutherans with the Unitarians, who place only slight emphasis on the supernatural; the sacramentless Quakers in silent meeting houses with the highly liturgical Episcopalians. Within this conflicting variety they still remain Protestants.
The preservation or assimilation of thoroughly Catholic ideas and practices also makes it difficult to isolate Protestantisms characteristics. Within a few months of Pius XIIs mitigation of the Eucharistic fast in 1953, many of the Anglicans followed the norms set down by the Holy See. Discussions of the liturgical movement in Protestant churches rely almost exclusively on Catholic sources and authorities. Such dramatic instances, though admittedly rare, illustrate the general principle that many Protestant characteristics are still being drawn from Catholicism.
The Church. Protestants in general admit that Christ started a religious movement. They question, however, whether any visible church has the right to consider itself the representative of God and as having been given an exclusive commission by Him to lead men to their destiny.
Nevertheless, since the rise of the movement to reunite all the Churches, Protestant theologians have sought a way that will lead beyond mere cooperation among the non-Catholic sects. Accordingly, the World Council of Churches is working toward a true unity which will make it clear to the whole world that as there can only be one body to Christ, so there is only one body which is the Church of His people.
Their earnest desire is to discover the nature of the church that Christ founded. Some believe the church to be visible and its doctrinal unity definable; their problem is to identify the limits within which the church must be united and beyond which differences are permitted. Others believe the church to be purely spiritual, a community known only to God; their need is to find ways of giving visible expression to a presumed invisible unity among divided Christians. The majority seem to hold the church to be visible but having no doctrinal limits, so that anyone who calls himself a Christian can be a member, no matter what he believes and practices. Many also conceive the church to be not yet really founded but still in the process of formation.
The Protestant concept of the Churchs role in religious society leads to its rejection of the papacy. If the Church has no right to consider itself the representative of God, then no person within it can be accepted as the visible Vicar of Christ.
Revelation. Among the Protestants who accept revelation as Gods miraculous intervention in human history, opinion differs on where to find it and how to discover its meaning. They agree in general, however, that the Holy Spirit is the final and sufficient source of a personal knowledge.
Some explicitly teach that Christians are individually taught by the Spirit of God, so that they are slaves to no one as they study the Scriptures. Others are more general. Deep within us all, they feel is an amazing sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a divine center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. In either case, each man has within him all the light to believe what is necessary for his salvation.
Others accept revelation only in the earthly sense of natural reflection and insight derived from the human mind. For them, all creeds pass beyond reason and experience; personal revelation is considered to be the best clue to the nature of God and mans relations with Him.
Faith and Sacraments. The Protestant faith is based on the concept of a justification that requires no assistance from visible sources but relies directly and solely on God.
Even where Protestants believe in sin and justification in the supernatural sense of these terms, they do not accept that habitual condition of soul which Catholic theology calls sanctifying grace. Hence they see no need for sacraments in the Catholic sense that would grant, restore, or increase supernatural life. Assuming that once a sinner, always a sinner, they hold that the merits of Christ are only attributed in an external way to a sinner, covering him as a garment does, but not changing him in the depths of his own soul.
Most Protestant bodies retain baptism and the Lords Supper but call them ordinances to distinguish their idea of a sacrament from the concept defined by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Council declared that through the sacraments of the New Law, grace is conferred by the rite itself. Protestant Christianity, on the contrary, commonly holds that the faith and good dispositions of the recipient, or for infants the faith of their parents or sponsors, produce the salutary effects in the soul. See TRENT, COUNCIL OF.
Blessed Mother. Three levels of thought are found concerning Marys place in Protestant Christianity. Many Episcopalians and others show a devotion to the Mother of Christ that is almost entirely Catholic. At the other extreme, a few Protestant equate Marian piety with pagan mythology. Apollo has no revelatory significance for Christians, says the American theologian Paul Tillich, and the Virgin Mother Mary reveals nothing to Protestants.
The most accepted tradition of Protestantism, however, is that which considers Mary the most honorable of women but a victim of sin like the rest of mankind and, consequently, not the Mother of Divine Grace. Protestant objections to the veneration of Mary are generated from their concept of Christ.
In proportion as Christ is believed to be the incarnate Son of God, Marys role in Protestant worship is enlarged. Some call her the Mother of God and the first Christian. Others consider her an example of how to love Christ, and some believe, as did Luther, that she is the most blessed among women and the ideal of the human race.
The privileges accorded Mary, however, are influenced by a reluctance to accept any intercessor, or mediator, between God and man. The Protestant theory of a justification, which sees the merits of Christ as covering the sinfulness of man, creates another block to the acceptance of Mary as intercessor. The role of the saints and even the concept of holiness as belonging to an individual is incompatible with this theory.
The Bible. Protestant concentration on the bible has done much to encourage the serious study of the Scriptures in Western Christianity. From the very beginning, great emphasis was placed on study, reading, and understanding of the words of Scripture. One of the first tasks of their reformers was to provide many copies of the Bible translated into the language of the people. These translations, as well as a large number of commentaries and explanations, were quickly made available through the use of the comparatively new printing press. The preaching of Reformation days also drew heavily on the inspired word, with the result that the Bible was more widely read and discussed than ever before.
This interest in Scripture continues in current Protestant teaching. Missionaries entering a new field, for example, immediately have the text of Scripture translated into the language of the people among whom they work. In church schools the main textbook is not a catechism, or manual of doctrine, but a copy of the Scriptures. In the field of publication most books prepared under church auspices deal with biblical subjects in one way or another.
Research into the Bible. Protestant writers have made major contributions to three fields of biblical study: archaeology, the studies of literary forms, and an increased emphasis on the text of Scripture as divinely revealed.
In archaeology, the studies and excavations of William E. Albright, G. Ernest Wright, and James Pritchard have increased our knowledge of biblical times. The scientific discoveries of these archaeologists have contributed greatly to our understanding of the text of the Bible, clarifying and confirming its historical references. Their studies and writings have done much to establish the belief in Protestant circles that God entered human history in a special way in the days of the Old and New Testaments. See ALBRIGHT, WILLIAM.
In recent years great attention has been given to literary forms and figures of speech used by the men who wrote the various books of the Bible. Although they wrote under the inspiration of God, the words and forms of expression they used were of their own choice. A careful study of the literary style of these writers has increased our understanding of what they wrote and the message they wished to deliver.
The most important result of such studies is a greater respect for the Bible as a revelation from God. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth has written much on the meaning of revelation. His ideas have revolutionized Protestant thinking and created widespread interest. It is his opinion that a message from God comes to man through the words of Scripture, but the message is not always the same for everyone. The words are the same, of course, but the power of God adapts the message for different people in different circumstances.
Present trends. In addition to the need for unity among Christian churches in the mission field, there is a growing realization that all churches must unite in their struggle against those who attack or ignore all forms of revealed religion. It is quite obvious that coordinated action would be more successful than divided and even contradictory activity.
An outstanding feature of modern Protestantism is a sincere desire to end the discord among the many denominations and reach agreement regarding Christs teaching. This ecumenical (worldwide) movement, as it is called, has become significant only during the present century. It has, nevertheless, already achieved substantial progress and support.
A major factor in promoting unity was a recognition that missions to non-Christian were seriously harmed by the disagreements among Christians themselves. Another contributing factor was a desire to close ranks against the mounting aggressiveness of irreligious forces in the modern world.
The current trend of the ecumenical movement is not simply to define areas of agreement and disagreement but to search for solutions to problems, which cause or perpetuate disagreement. The World Council of Churches, an organization which operates in 40 countries and counts nearly 200 Protestant and Orthodox bodies as members, is particularly active in seeking to remove the underlying causes of division. Two schools of thought, however, still complete. Some seek no more than friendly coexistence of Christian denominations and cooperation in social and welfare matters. Others work and pray for an eventual unification in a single institution of all Christians, including Catholics. See ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT, WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES.
Hopes for Reunion. Relations between Protestants and Catholics entered a new phase during the pontificate of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) This new relationship was deepened during the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John in 1959. His purpose in calling the Council was to effect a renewal of the Church and ultimately, the reunion of all Christians. See JOHN XXIII.
Augustin Cardinal Bea, the renowned Jesuit scholar, was appointed to head the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity. One of the most significant aspects of the Council was the presence of Protestant and Orthodox observers at its public sessions.
The Council was reconvened by Pope Johns successor, Pope Paul VI, and it is evident that the work toward unification of Christians will be continued. See BEA, AUGUSTIN, PAUL VI, VATICAN COUNCIL II.
For further information read PROTESTANT REFORMATION; PROTESTANTISM, EXPANSION OF; PROTESTANTISM IN THE UNITED STATES, REFORMATION IN ENGLAND.
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