AskDefine | Define protestant

Dictionary Definition

Protestant adj
1 of or relating to Protestants or Protestantism; "Protestant churches"; "a Protestant denomination"
2 making a protest [syn: protesting(a)]


1 an adherent of Protestantism
2 the Protestant churches and denominations collectively [syn: Protestant Church]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Protestant



  1. of greater quality or merit.
    • a protestant effort
    • protestant work ethic




  1. Protestant (person)




Extensive Definition

Protestantism encompasses the forms of Christian faith and practice that originated with the doctrines of the Reformation. Protestant doctrine, in contradistinction to that of Roman Catholicism, rejects papal authority and doctrine, and is also known in continental European traditions as Evangelical doctrine. It typically holds that scripture (rather than tradition or ecclesiastic interpretation of scripture) is the only source of revealed truth, and also that salvation can be achieved through God's grace alone. The key tenets of Protestantism are outlined in the Five Solas.
The word Protestant is derived from the Latin protestatio meaning declaration which refers to the letter of protestation by Lutheran princes against the decision of the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which reaffirmed the edict of the Diet of Worms against the Reformation. Since that time, the term Protestantism has been used in many different senses, often as a general term to refer to Western Christianity that is not subject to Papal authority. This usage is imprecise. There are many non-Roman Catholic, non-Eastern Orthodox communions that long predate the Reformation (notably Oriental Orthodoxy). The Anglican Church, although born of the Protestant reformation, differs from the reformation principles of most other Protestants and is referred to as a middle path—a via media—between Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines. Other groups, such as the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, reject Protestantism as a deviation from true Christianity, while perceiving themselves to be restorationists.

Major groupings

The churches most commonly associated with Protestantism can be divided along four fairly definitive lines:
  1. Mainline Protestants—a North American phrase—are those who trace their lineage to Luther, Calvin, or Anglicanism. These groups hold the doctrines of the Reformation. They include such denominations as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists.
  2. Anabaptists are part of a movement that developed from the Radical Reformation. Today, denominations such as Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, Brethren, Mennonites and Amish eschew infant baptism and see baptism as aligned with a demonstration of the gifts of the spirit.
  3. Restorationists are a more recent movement beginning with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Restorationists may not consider themselves Protestants. Nevertheless, they do not recognize papal authority, and so they are most commonly deemed Protestants by those who include them among Christian denominations.
  4. Nontrinitarian movements reject the doctrine of the trinity. Today, they include such denominations as the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians, Christadelphians and some Quakers.


Protestants often refer to specific Protestant churches and groups as denominations to imply that they are differently named parts of the whole church. This "invisible unity" is assumed to be imperfectly displayed, visibly: some denominations are less accepting of others, and the basic orthodoxy of some is questioned by most of the others. Individual denominations also have formed over very subtle theological differences. Other denominations are simply regional or ethnic expressions of the same beliefs. The actual number of distinct denominations is hard to calculate, but has been estimated to be over thirty thousand. 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 share common beliefs in the major aspects of the Christian faith, while differing in many secondary doctrines. There are "over 33,000 denominations in 238 countries" and every year there is a net increase of around 270 to 300 denominations. According to David Barrett's study (1970), there are 8,196 denominations within Protestantism.
There are about 800 million Protestants worldwide, among approximately 1.5 billion Christians. These include 170 million in North America, 160 million in Africa, 120 million in Europe, 70 million in Latin America, 60 million in Asia, and 10 million in Oceania.
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. Only general families are listed here (due to the above-stated multitude of denominations); some of these groups do not consider themselves as part of the Protestant movement, but are generally viewed as such by the public at large:

Theological tenets of the reformation

The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Protestant Reformation and summarize the Reformers' basic theological beliefs in contradistinction to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. The Latin word sola means "alone," "only," or "single" in English. The five solas were what the Reformers believed to be the only things needed in their respective functions in Christian salvation. Listing them as such was also done with a view to excluding other things that hindered salvation. This formulation was intended to distinguish between what were viewed as deviations in the Christian church and the essentials of Christian life and practice.
The Protestants characterize the dogma concerning the Pope as Christ's representative head of the Church on earth, the concept of meritorious works, and the Catholic idea of a treasury of the merits of saints, as a denial that Christ is the only mediator between God and man.
Protestants believe that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church obscure the teachings of the Bible by convoluting it with church history and doctrine.
Protestants believe that faith in Christ alone is enough for eternal salvation as described in , whereas Catholics believe that the phrases "faith without works is dead" (as stated in ) and "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (); points to the justified person needing to persevere in charity. Protestants, pointing to the same bit of scripture, believe that practicing good works merely attest to one's faith in Christ and his teachings.
Protestants perceived Roman Catholic salvation to be dependent upon the grace of God and the merits of one's own works. The Reformers posited that salvation is a gift of God (i.e., God's act of free grace), dispensed by the Holy Spirit owing to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ alone. Consequently, they argued that a sinner is not accepted by God on account of the change wrought in the believer by God's grace, and that the believer is accepted without regard for the merit of his works — for no one deserves salvation.
All glory is due to God alone, since salvation is accomplished solely through his will and action—not only the gift of the all-sufficient atonement of Jesus on the cross but also the gift of faith in that atonement, created in the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. The reformers believed that human beings—even saints canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, the popes, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy—are not worthy of the glory that was accorded them.

Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper

The Protestant movement began to coalesce into several distinct branches in the mid-to-late sixteenth century. One of the central points of divergence was controversy over the Lord's Supper.
Early Protestants generally rejected the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, which teaches that the bread and wine used in the sacrificial rite of the Mass lose their natural substance by being transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. They disagreed with one another concerning the manner in which Christ is present in Holy Communion.
  • Lutherans hold to the Real Presence as Consubstantiation (although some Lutherans disapprove of the term "Consubstantiation" because of misunderstandings, it was Philipp Melancthon's term used with Martin Luther's approval), which affirms the physical presence of Christ's true Body & Blood supernaturally "in, with, and under" the Consecrated Bread and Wine. Lutherans point to Jesus' statement, "...This IS my body...". According to the Lutheran Confessions of Faith the Sacramental Union takes place at the time of Consecration, when Christ's Words of Institution are spoken by the celebrant. Lutheran teaching insists that the Consecrated Bread & Wine ARE the truly abiding and adorable Body & Blood of Christ in a Sacramental Union, while also affirming the Lord's Supper ranges along the continuum from Calvin to Zwingli.
  • The Reformed closest to Calvin emphasize the real presence, or sacramental presence, of Christ, saying that the sacrament is a means of saving grace through which only the elect believer actually partakes of Christ, but merely WITH the Bread & Wine rather than in the Elements. Calvinists deny the Lutheran assertion that Christ makes himself present to the believer in the elements of the sacrament, but affirm that Christ is united to the believer through faith—toward which the supper is an outward and visible aid, this is often referred to as dynamic presence.
  • A Protestant holding a popular simplification of the Zwinglian view, without concern for theological intricacies as hinted at above, may see the Lord's Supper merely as a symbol of the shared faith of the participants, a commemoration of the facts of the crucifixion, and a reminder of their standing together as the Body of Christ (a view referred to somewhat derisively as memorialism).
  • The churches of the Anglican Communion do not have a single understanding of the Eucharist, and there is no official doctrine common to Anglicans on the question. Some hold to understandings like those of Lutherans, Calvinists, or Zwinglians, while others hold doctrines very similar (or even identical) to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Historically, the Church of England was opposed to the doctrine of transubstantiation, as described in the twenty-eighth of the 39 Articles.
In Protestant theology, as the bread shares identity with Christ (which he calls "my body"), in an analogous way, the Church shares identity with Christ (and also is called "the Body of Christ"). Thus, controversies over the Lord's Supper may seem to be only about the nature of the bread and wine, but are ultimately about the nature of salvation and the Church; and indirectly about the nature of Christ.


Contrary to how the Protestant reformers were often characterized, the concept of a catholic, or universal, Church was not brushed aside during the Protestant Reformation. To the contrary, the visible unity of the Catholic Church was an important and essential doctrine of the Reformation. The Magisterial Reformers, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli, believed that they were reforming a corrupt and heretical Catholic Church. Each of them took very seriously the charges of schism and innovation, denying these charges and maintaining that it was the medieval Roman Catholic Church that had left them. Because of this the fundamental Unity of the Catholic Church remained a very important doctrine in the churches of the Reformation. Dr. James Walker wrote in "The Theology of Theologians of Scotland":
''The visible church, in the idea of the Scottish theologians, is catholic. You have not an indefinite number of Parochial, or Congregational, or National churches, constituting, as it were, so many ecclesiastical individualities, but one great spiritual republic, of which these various organizations form a part. The visible church is not a genus, so to speak, with so many species under it. It is thus you may think of the State, but the visible church is a totum integrale, it is an empire. The churches of the various nationalities constitute the provinces of this empire; and though they are so far independent of each other, yet they are so one, that membership in one is membership in all, and separation from one is separation from all... This conception of the church, of which, in at least some aspects, we have practically so much lost sight, had a firm hold of the Scottish theologians of the seventeenth century.''
Wherever the Magisterial Reformation, which received support from the ruling authorities, took place, the result was a reformed national church envisioned to be a part of the whole visible Holy catholic Church described in the creeds, but disagreeing, in certain important points of doctrine and doctrine-linked practice, with what had until then been considered the normative reference point on such matters, namely the See of Rome. The Reformed Churches thus believed in a form of Catholicity, founded on their doctrines of the five solas and a visible ecclesiastical organization based on the 14th and 15th century Conciliar movement, rejecting the Papacy and Papal Infallibility in favor of Ecumenical councils, but rejecting the Council of Trent.
Today there is a growing movement of Protestants, especially of the Reformed tradition, that reject the designation "Protestant" because of its negative "anti-catholic" connotations, preferring the designation "Reformed," "Evangelical" or even "Reformed Catholic" expressive of what they call a "Reformed Catholicity" and defending their arguments from the traditional Protestant Confessions.

Radical Reformation

Unlike mainstream Evangelical (Lutheran), Reformed (Zwinglian and Calvinist) Protestant movements, the Radical Reformation, which had no state sponsorship, generally abandoned the idea of the "Church Visible" as distinct from the "Church Invisible". For them, the Church only consisted of the tiny community of believers, who accepted Jesus Christ by adult baptism, called "believer's baptism". Others believed that the Church could not be defined as anything more than a single congregation meeting together for worship at one time in a single place. The Radical Reformation thus did not believe that the Magisterial Reformation had gone far enough. For example, radical reformer Andreas von Bodenstein Karlstadt referred to the Lutheran theologians at Wittenberg as the "new papists". It was exactly because the Reformation still strongly defended the visible unity of the Catholic Church that they were criticized by the Radical Reformers and vice versa.

Movements within Protestantism

Pietism and Methodism

The German Pietist movement, together with the influence of the Puritan Reformation in England in the seventeenth century, were important influences upon John Wesley and Methodism, as well as through smaller, new groups such as the Religious Society of Friends ("Quakers") and the Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut, Saxony, Germany.
The practice of a spiritual life, typically 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. Many of the more conservative, Methodists went on to form the Holiness movement, which emphasized a rigorous experience of holiness in practical, daily life.


Beginning at the end of eighteenth century, several international revivals of Pietism (such as the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening) took place across denominational lines, largely in the English-speaking world. Their teachings and successor groupings 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 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.


Adventism, as a movement, began in the United States in middle nineteenth century. The Adventist family of churches are regarded today as conservative Protestants.

Modernism, Sunderianism and Liberalism

Modernism, Liberalism and Sunderianism do not constitute rigorous and well-defined schools of theology, but are rather an inclination by some writers and teachers to integrate Christian thought into the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. New understandings of history and the natural sciences of the day led directly to new approaches to theology.


Pentecostalism, as a movement, began in the United States early in the twentieth 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" or to make the unbeliever believe 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 by coming out of them.


In reaction to liberal Bible critique, fundamentalism arose in the twentieth 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 an important aspect of the Christian life.


A non-fundamentalist rejection of liberal Christianity, associated primarily with Karl Barth, neo-orthodoxy sought to counter-act the tendency of liberal theology to make theological accommodations to modern scientific perspectives. Sometimes called "Crisis theology", according to the influence of philosophical existentialism on some important segments of the movement; also, somewhat confusingly, sometimes called neo-evangelicalism.

New Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism is a movement from the middle of the twentieth century, that reacted to perceived excesses of Fundamentalism, adding to concern for biblical authority, an emphasis on liberal arts, cooperation among churches, Christian Apologetics, and non-denominational evangelization.


Paleo-orthodoxy is a movement similar in some respects to Neo-evangelicalism but emphasising the ancient Christian consensus of the undivided Church of the first millennium AD, including in particular the early Creeds and councils of the church as a means of properly understanding the Scriptures. This movement is cross-denominational and the theological giant of the movement is United Methodist theologian Thomas Oden.


The ecumenical movement has had an influence on mainline churches, beginning at least in 1910 with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. Its origins lay in the recognition of the need for cooperation on the mission field in Africa, Asia and Oceania. Since 1948, the World Council of Churches has been influential. There are also ecumenical bodies at regional, national and local levels across the globe. One, but not the only expression of the ecumenical movement, has been the move to form united churches, such as the Church of South India, the Church of North India, The US-based United Church of Christ, The United Church of Canada and the Uniting Church in Australia. There has been a strong engagement of Orthodox churches in the ecumenical movement, though the reaction of individual Orthodox theologians has ranged from tentative approval of the aim of Christian unity to outright condemnation of the perceived effect of watering down Orthodox doctrine.
In 1999, the representatives of Lutheran World Federation and Roman Catholic Church signed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, apparently resolving the conflict over the nature of Justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation, although some conservative Lutherans did not agree to this resolution. On July 18, 2006 Delegates to the World Methodist Conference voted unanimously to adopt the Joint Declaration.

Founders: the first Protestant major reformers and theologians

(in alphabetical order by century.)

Fourteenth century

  • John Wycliffe, English reformer, the "Morning Star of the Reformation".

Fifteenth century

Sixteenth century

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