“Doctrine on Fire:” An Introduction to Protestantism:
One of the most famous works on the origins of Protestantism began with this literary portraiture: “The man who thus called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of the saints. He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist. For this young man was Martin Luther.”1
The late Dr. Roland Bainton’s magnus opus on the Reformation, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther rightly centers the Protestant faith on the extraordinary person of Martin Luther. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Martin Luther (1483-1546) to the Reformation and, thus, to Protestantism. There were other important figures of course. There was Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the Archbishop of Canterbury who compiled the Book of Common Prayer, a notable achievement in history which incorporated plenty of Scripture into the week-to-week services of the English Reformed Church There was, of course, John Calvin (1509-1564) of Geneva and John Knox (1513-1572) of Scotland. There were lesser-known but quite notable figures of Protestantism such as Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) the priest-turned-pastor of Grossmünster in Zürich. One of the most influential pastors and theologians to shape much of Protestantism also suffers from name recognition: Martin Bucer (1491-1551) of Strasbourg.
Remarkable historical events movements are frequently associated with the remarkable leaders who prompted them. Protestantism is no different. Whether it is the preeminent names of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer, or whether other names such as George Whitfield, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, Richard Baxter, Thomas Watson, Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, the Rev. Billy Graham, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Dr. D. James Kennedy, or a host of others, there is no denying that certain figures stand out in the history of Protestantism and its continuing development. Yet, beyond the leaders, behind the biographies, there was always the idea. “Theology on Fire” was the title of a J.I. Packer article on the Puritans. Such a title is appropriate to introduce the question, “What is Protestantism and Why is it Important?” The answer, in a phrase, is embedded within Dr. Packer’s thoughtful phrase. Protestantism is an idea, maybe even, “an idea on fire.” This “idea on fire,” leads us to consider not merely “a Man” but the “Movement.”
Protestantism is a Movement: The History of Protestantism
Protestantism may be thought of in terms of history, but it is also a matter of the individual believer and her response to God. Protestantism is a movement within the broader Church of our Lord Jesus Christ that is fueled by a preeminent concern for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ according to Scripture. The theological basis for the relationship is “justification by faith, through the grace of God, in Jesus Christ, according to the Scriptures, and all to the glory of God.” The five “Solae” articulate the powerful doctrines that fuel the Protestant faith: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. Carefully followed, the five Solae kept the movement on the “right road, faithful to the Word and faithful to the Reformation of the Church.”2
Protestantism is both an ecclesial movement of the Church, and a devotional urge within the believer. Historically, that which may be called “the Protestant faith” emerged from perceived and undeniable abuses within the Roman Catholic Church during the late fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries in the British Isles and Northern Europe. The “protests” against both teaching and praxis was not limited to Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists. Even the Roman Catholic Church responded to the “Protestants” with a “Counter-Reformation” to bring transformation.
The term, Protestantism, remains a historical reality as the movement has retained its basic tenets but taken new forms in the Global South and the Global East. Protestantism is a personal response to either self, or a specific Christian community, with its basic concern for personal salvation through Christ according to the Scriptures The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) is an appropriate description of the heartbeat of the Protestant faith for a given community (i.e., a denomination, a local church, or even a national body) as well as for the individual.
Almost one billion people, at this writing of this article, belong to that vital part of the Christian faith called Protestantism. The word is, of course, from the word “protest.” And while “protest” harkens back to Luther—to John Wycliffe of Oxford and John Hus of Bohemia before Luther (and even to other similar leaders and groups before those “morning lights of the Reformation”)—the meaning of Protestant was, is, and will, no doubt, continue to be, an impulse in the Church for reform. Protestantism that began in England in the 15th century and in Western Europe in the 16th century was not merely about reform from undeniable abuses of faith and practice within the remnant of the medieval Church, that is, the Roman Catholic Church.
Protestantism Is a Message: The Reformation and Protestantism
As we have said, one cannot separate Protestantism from Martin Luther. And it follows logically that one cannot separate Martin Luther from the Reformation. The Reformation began with "the morning star of the Reformation," John Wycliffe (1320-1384) of Oxford. Wycliffe and his band of preachers, called Lollards, were concerned that the people of England were not hearing the word of God in the common tongue. Indeed, stained-glass windows and passion plays were the primary way that people received the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Middle Ages in England. While this was undoubtedly sufficient in some cases to convert the soul, it was altogether insufficient to grow the soul. In this sense, then, the Great Commission was not being fulfilled in the British Isles.
So, John Wycliffe set about to change that. He not only preached the Bible in the English language of the people, but he also sent out his Lollards across the land, replacing the traveling passion plays, with evangelistic messages. A fire began to blaze across the realm: the flame of revival.3 This powerful movement was picked up by leaders on the continent. One of those leaders was a Roman Catholic priest by the name of John Hus. Hus ministered in Bohemia, the modern Czech Republic. He preached in the tongue of the people in the advanced doctrines that he found in the Bible such as salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. While Wycliffe and Hus were the morning stars of the Reformation, Martin Luther was the exploding nova of the Reformation. Aware of his work building on the labors of those before him, Luther wrote,
“St. John Huss prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia, ‘They will roast a goose now (for ‘Huss’ means ‘a goose’), but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will endure.’And that is the way it will be, if God wills.” [LW 34:103]
Dr. Martin Luther was a professor of Bible and theology at Wittenberg when he began to understand the doctrines of grace. Specifically, he found in the book of Galatians that we are not justified by works of the flesh but only by faith. There were other necessary reforms that needed to be made in the Roman church of the day. Luther set out to do just that with his 95-Theses nailed to the church door at Wittenberg, a sort of 16th-century Facebook.
Aided by the printing press of Gutenberg, Martin Luther’s doctrine begin to spread throughout the continent. Others assimilated the teachings of Luther into their own national churches. Thus, we see the ministry of John Calvin in Geneva. Calvin, perhaps more than any other reformer of the era, systematized and appropriated the doctrines of grace into the Genevan church and even the Genevan political, economic, and governmental processes. In this sentence, we see that the Reformation was the explosion of Protestant thought. It is at this point that we should consider what the Protestant thought is made of and how it differs from the Roman Catholic doctrines of the day.
What is the Biggest Difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism?
Protestant thought centers upon the divine revelation of Almighty God in his word, the Holy Scriptures. Furthermore, Protestantism insists that each and every believer should be grounded in that Word and have access to that Word. Whereas Roman Catholic clergy performed the service of the Mass with an emphasis upon “Ex opere operato,” from the work worked. Protestant ministers conducted worship services that centered in the Word preached and Sacraments administered according to the faith of the believer. In its most severe interpretation, not altogether unjustified with the state of the medieval Church, this doctrine meant that the efficacy, or power, of the Sacraments were tied to the action of the priest. Such a view was repugnant to the renewed spirit of Martin Luther, Calvin, and others. Not only did this mean that the Roman Catholic priest reserved a power that the Reformers ascribed only to Christ, but that the people were dependent upon the Roman priesthood for the dispensing of God’s grace.
From this one “protest,” the Reformed churches exalted the Word above the one who dispensed it, whether by preaching or through the Word made visible, the Sacraments. A thorough systematic theology would follow from this singular idea: that the believer, by virtue of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ has essential access to God without the need of a priest.
There is continuity and discontinuity from the medieval Roman Church to the modern Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church did not remain as it was. Today’s Protestant believer must be careful to recognize the enormous strides made within the Roman Catholic Church and the common heritage that all Western Christians have. That being said, differences remain on how God’s grace is appropriated by a believer. Grace comes as a gift in both major Christian groups but is accessed through the “Magisterium” of the Roman Church, the hierarchy of the clergy, or for Protestants through a personal relationship with God through Christ. This difference has proved to be both a strength and a source of continuing dispute within the larger Protestant movement.
Why Are There So Many Protestant Denominations?
There are two major reasons for Protestant denominations. The first reason is that if Protestantism is a movement and not a “replacement church” for the existing church of the day—and we posit that this is precisely what Protestantism is, a movement—then the application and appropriation of this movement must by its own emphases be nationalized. This is to say that Protestantism, with its stress on the preeminence of the Word of God for all that is vital in faith and life, as well as the Great Commission being realized by the services of the Church conducted in the common language of the people, was bound to flourish in national communities. Thus, we see the Dutch Reformed Church tracing its roots to the Protestant faith coming to the Netherlands. Anglicanism and Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism, along with Baptists, thrived as offshoots of the Reformation in the British Isles. Even in the United States, today, the major Protestant dominations and traditions are remnants of British, Dutch, or German settlers who transported their faith across the Atlantic Ocean and settled in on the coasts, plains, and mountains of the New World.
The other reason for the proliferation of sub-groups within the larger Protestant movement has to do with the Protestant doctrinal, if not cultural, instinct. The doctrine that emphasized a personal relationship with God through Christ, without the necessity of a church hierarchy, was often used to promote a continued reformation within a Reformation. A central concept of the Reformation had been (and remains) ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). However, some, then and now, use this individualized tenet of Protestantism to divide from existing communities. Often, the division is consenting and even healthy, giving even more expressions of faith to a community. Other times, the splintering reveals a possible germ of revolt that was embedded within the sons and daughters of Luther.
Evangelicals and Protestantism
It is interesting that as Dr. Martin Luther received his doctorate at Wittenberg University, he vowed, with the other graduates, “I swear to defend evangelical truth vigorously.” We, thus, see that “evangelical” was a word already in use by Luther and others well before October 31, 1517 (the date when Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door at Wittenberg). Evangelical is an English word derived from the Greek, Evangel. This good biblical word is one employed to describe the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ: that what God has required, God has supplied, in Christ Jesus. This is what Luther vowed to defend, even before his own personal reformation.
Evangelical is, first and always, one who declares the Gospel, the Evangel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Protestantism is essentially evangelical in its theology and practice. Protestant thought is concerned with the fulfilling of the Great Commission in the world according to the Scriptures. So, the evangel of God is the living legacy of Protestantism. The phrase became more particularly associated with enthusiastic movements like Methodism during the eighteenth-century Wesleyan evangelical revivals and the First Great Awakening in America with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. The term was increasingly used to describe those Protestants most active in missions, preaching for personal renewal, and for responding to the “cultural mandate” (bringing every area of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ).4
Protestantism is a Mosaic
I recall Dr. D. James Kennedy (1930-2007) saying that the Lord gave us denominations so that diverse people can access the Gospel at various stages in life. For example, one person is wounded and is drawn to the healing liturgy of the Anglican church. Another person has been burned by an autocratic and authoritarian religious background and is drawn to the representative community life of a Presbyterian church. Yet, another, destitute and out of place in many suburban churches (however faithful they may be in trying to welcome him) finds the message of Christ in a Pentecostal street mission. I believe that both biblical truth and our own experience validate Dr. Kennedy’s assertion.
I think of the Church, the Bride of Christ, like a beautiful mosaic. There are thousands of embedded pieces of divinely wrought glass, every color in the broad spectrum, embedded within the clay of the earth where we now reside. The cuts are as varied as the colors. To be sure: there is one Light. But as the Light is dispersed through the prism of our cultures, our communities, and our very lives, a vibrant profusion of faith erupts in celestial celebration. This is the Church of our Lord across the globe and throughout the ages.
There is unity in the diversity, commonality in the differences, and a singular faith within the countless saints. This structure and that shape, this shade and that tint, are together—carefully, artfully, providentially—placed into the mosaic. When you stand back you gain perspective. You step away further. The odd assortment of colored glass and stone has intention and purpose. For, now, you can see. The mosaic is a picture of Jesus. Some might call me Pollyanna for viewing the Body of Christ this way. But to examine the idea of Protestantism (which may exist in every branch of Christianity), noting its adaptability, consistent growth, and universal appeal is to acknowledge the vitality of Jesus Christ alive in the world today.
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute, is a long-time Presbyterian minister, Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R, author of more than thirty books, composer, and educator. Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.
1. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton.
2. “The ‘Solas’ of the Reformation,” The Lutheran Ministerium and Synod-USA (blog).
3. The English Reformation by Arthur Geoffrey Dickens.
4. The “Cultural Mandate” is most associated with the theological commitments of Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and D. James Kennedy. This view has remained a strong part of the Reformed Tradition within Protestantism. The Cultural Mandate is based upon Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion.’” An example of viewing world history through the lens of the Cultural Mandate is found in D. James Kennedy, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Thomas Nelson, 2008).
1. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World AD 1900-2000 by David B. Barrett.
2. The History of Christian Doctrines by Louis Berkhof.
3. Romans: Justification of Faith (Romans 1-4) by J.M. Boice.
4. Sermons on Galatians by John Calvin.
5. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. Vol. 2 by Justo L. Gonzales.
6. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins.
7. Galatians by Martin Luther, edited by Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer.
8. Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark A. Noll.
This article is part of our Denomination Series listing historical facts and theological information about different factions within and from the Christian religion. We provide these articles to help you understand the distinctions between denominations including origin, leadership, doctrine, and beliefs. Explore the various characteristics of different denominations from our list below!
Catholic Church: History, Tradition & Beliefs
Baptist Church: History & Beliefs
Presbyterians: History & Beliefs
Mennonites & Their Beliefs
United Methodist Church: History & Beliefs
Seventh-Day Adventists & Their Beliefs
Lutheran History & Beliefs
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