What is Protestantism? What is its importance?

If Protestantism is important, it is clearly important to know what Protestantism is. The churches we today call ‘Protestant’ arose in Western Europe in the wake of the Reformation. Because these churches all emphasized to some degree the right of private judgment, Protestantism soon divided into a number of groups, which themselves divided into separate churches, whether national or independent. In the early years there were three broad streams of development, which we may characterize as the Lutheran, the Calvinistic or Reformed, and the Anglican.

Naturally, those who subscribe to a particular view maintain that it is the real thing, and there was always a tendency in the Sixteenth Century for these groups to regard each other with suspicion. This is where the language of Protestantism is so useful. Originally, ‘Protestant’ meant ‘Lutheran’: the word is a reference to an incident at the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529, when the Lutheran delegates presented a ‘Letter of Protestation’ against the decisions of the Catholic majority. It has come to be used as an umbrella term for distinguishing that part of the professing church which is neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. Admittedly, there is some controversy among church historians about how wide the net should be cast. For example, two of the contributors to The History of Christianity (Lion, 1977), argue that their particular subjects—Pentecostalism and the African independent churches—represent Christian traditions distinct from European Protestantism, even when those movements remain biblically orthodox. And I imagine those of us gathered here today would have great difficulties in admitting Unitarians to the ranks of Protestantism. However, these issues do not affect the main point: the Protestant churches are those which grew up as a result of the Reformation, and Protestantism is their unique contribution to the ongoing history of the church of God.

The value of the concept of Protestantism is that it emphasizes what we have in common, rather than those issues over which we differ. Now I am not saying that those issues do not matter. It is quite right that we should each be persuaded of our own opinions on potentially divisive issues such as church order, baptism, and the relationship of church and state. It is quite right that we should have our statements of faith that make clear where we stand, such as the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration. But as Protestants we have a broader loyalty. Take this, for example from the writers of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, explaining why they followed the order and wording of Westminster and Savoy rather than simply reissuing their own Confession of 1644:

One thing that greatly prevailed with us to undertake this work was not only to give a full account of ourselves to those Christians that differ from us about the subject of Baptism, but also the profit that might from thence arise, unto those that have any account of our labours, in their instruction, and establishment in the great truths of the Gospel; in the clear understanding, and steady belief of which, our comfortable walking with God, and fruitfulness before him, in all our ways, is most nearly concerned; and therefore we did conclude it necessary to express ourselves the more fully and distinctly; and also to fix on such a method as might be most comprehensive of those things which we designed to explain our sense, and belief of. [That is, they realized that the purpose of a Confession is not merely apologetic, but also didactic, and therefore they decided to compile a much more detailed confession than that of 1644, which was a brief apologetic statement, making public what they believed, and dissociating themselves from the continental Anabaptists.] And finding no defect, in this regard, in that fixed on by the Assembly, and after them by those of the Congregational way, we did readily conclude it best to retain the same order in our present confession; and also, when we observed that those last mentioned, did in their confession, for reasons which seemed of weight both to themselves and others, choose not only to express their mind in words concurrent with the former in sense, concerning all those articles wherein they were agreed, but also for the most part without any variation of the terms, we did in like manner conclude it best to follow their example in making use of the very same words with them both, in these articles, which are very many, wherein our faith and doctrine is the same with theirs. [That is, they approved of both the order and wording of the Westminster Confession. They saw that the Congregationalists had compiled the Savoy Declaration by amending the Westminster Confession, and resolved to do the same. In practice, Savoy was their base text, amended where they thought it necessary, with a few reversions to the wording of Westminster.] And this we did the more abundantly to manifest our consent with both, in all the fundamental articles of the Christian Religion, as also with many others, whose orthodox confessions have been published to the world on behalf of the Protestants in diverse Nations and Cities; and also to convince all, that we have no itch to clog Religion with new words, but do readily acquiesce in that form of sound words, which hath been, in consent with the Holy Scriptures, used by others before us; hereby declaring before God, Angels, & Men, our hearty agreement with them, in that wholesome Protestant Doctrine, which with so clear evidence of Scriptures they have asserted. Some things indeed are in some places added, some terms omitted, and some few changed, but these alterations are of that nature, as that we need not doubt any charge or suspicion of unsoundness in the faith, from any of our brethren upon the account of them. [That is, by using the same form of words as Westminster and Savoy, they were able to emphasize how much they all had in common.]

Like the writers of those fine words, by identifying ourselves as Protestants, we stand with those with whom we are in agreement in all fundamentals. The very concept of Protestantism teaches us to make much of our agreements, and little of our differences.


What is important about Protestantism?

So we identify ourselves as Protestants; but what then are those elements that we have in common, which give us this common identity? To answer this question, we need to go back to the very beginning, to the Reformation itself. What was the issue that led to the formation of Protestant churches distinct from Catholicism or Orthodoxy?

The late medieval Catholic Church was manifestly corrupt. Devout Catholics were as aware as the Reformers of the need to clean up their Church. When the Reformers got into their stride, they were trenchant critics of the corruptions of the Church. But that was not the issue that led to the Reformation, or the issue that gave the Reformers a common identity, however much they might differ over other matters. No, the Reformers’ charge against the Catholic Church was quite specific: the Church was in the wrong because it had got the doctrine of redemption wrong.

Broadly speaking, the Roman Catholic Church taught—and still teaches—justification by faith and works. Faith is necessary for salvation, though a fairly nugatory idea of faith, the giving of assent to the doctrines taught by the Church; but faith is not enough. To faith must be added works of devotion and charity, which will gain the attention of God, and earn the right to salvation. Martin Luther was brought up within that system; as a devout monk he tried to earn his salvation by means of that system; but he remained in the Slough of Despond, well aware that his sins were unforgiven, and his conscience unquiet.

His personal struggles centred on the concept of the ‘righteousness of God’: he had to teach Paul’s letter to the Romans as part of his academic duties. Luther explained what happened next:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the righteousness of God’, because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous… Night and day I pondered until…I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.

In 1517 the Dominican Tetzel arrived in a German state adjacent to Wittenberg, where Luther was teaching and pastoring the Castle Church. Tetzel was selling indulgences. Catholics were being told, in effect, to forget works of devotion and charity; all they had to do was pay some money to the Church, and they would be issued with a passport to heaven. The doctrine of justification by faith and works, wrong from the start, had now sunk to this level of corruption. What was Luther to do when the members of his church began to say they had no need of repentance and faith, because they had bought one of Tetzel’s indulgences? Luther’s personal crisis had become the crisis of the whole western church. He requested a debate with Tetzel; driven by the new technology of printing, soon the whole of Europe knew. The issue was not the corruption of the Catholic Church, but the question how a person can get their soul saved.

And this is the issue that dominated debate in the following years. One doctrine, for example, dominates Calvin’s Institutes; and it is not, as some would have us believe, the doctrine of predestination, to which he devotes just four chapters, tucked in at the end of his discussion of salvation. His consideration of justification by faith is half as long again—which in turn is part of an extended discussion of faith which takes up about a quarter of the massive tome. Clearly justification by faith lies at the centre of his teaching.

This surely was what the compilers of the 1689 Confession had in mind when they described their work as in agreement with the earlier confessions in ‘all the fundamental articles of the Christian Religion’, which they go on to define as ‘wholesome Protestant Doctrine’. The three dissenting denominations, as they were known, did not agree on the relationship of church and state, church order, baptism, or even the precise terms in which they expressed their covenant theology; but they were totally in agreement in preaching the same gospel of salvation by grace, and justification by faith. We cannot claim to be Protestants unless we believe and teach the same ‘wholesome doctrine’.

Now let us get one thing clear. None of this means that these other doctrines do not matter. We are to search the Scriptures, and using our right of private judgement, believe and practise what we find there. There is no such thing as secondary, optional truth: all truth is compulsory. However, while we are in this life, our understanding of God’s truth will always be partial; and therefore we are to know our own minds, but to keep our opinions to ourselves when necessary, as Paul explains in Romans 14. But the gospel itself is non-negotiable. Our Protestant forefathers defied the Church of Rome in order that they might preach ‘Their Gospel of redemption,/Sin pardoned, man restored’ (Edward Hayes Plumptre), and we honour their memories and prove ourselves their heirs by proclaiming the same message.


How well have Protestants kept what is important?

The answer to this question has to be: not very well. The history of Protestantism since the Reformation has been one of repeated decline and revival. Supposedly Protestant churches have sunk into a legalistic morality, a passive quietism, a dry scholasticism, a vacuous emotionalism, and so forth; and they have had to be rescued from these by the phenomenon we know as revival. These things have happened even where the churches have sound principles, sound bases of faith, and sound ministers. While there is no room for complacency, perhaps we have to admit that decline is inevitable, because churches, even good Protestant churches, are made up of sinners!

What happens in revival, indeed, what happened at the Reformation itself, which thereby qualifies as the greatest revival of all time, is that many people all rediscover the biblical, Protestant doctrine of salvation at the same time.

The Methodist revival of the Eighteenth Century will serve as an example. Whitefield and Wesley had each rediscovered, independently, the New Testament doctrine of salvation by grace. Their emphases were slightly different. Whitefield concentrated on the necessity of the new birth. He is supposed to have been asked why he was always preaching on ‘Ye must be born again’, and to have answered ‘Because you must.’ Wesley concentrated on the truth of justification by faith, for which he was shut out of many Anglican churches until he had become old and venerable. But what is surely significant is that the authorities did not know that what the Methodists were teaching was good Reformation doctrine—and the official teachings of the Church of England.

Or take this, from Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, published in 1742, just as the Revival was getting under way (the Wesleys were converted in 1738). The speaker is Parson, an Anglican curate, discussing with a bookseller (that is, a publisher) the possibility of publishing his sermons:

‘Sir,’ answered Adams, ‘if Mr Whitefield had carried his doctrine no farther than you mention, I should have remained, as I once was, his well-wisher. I am, myself, as great an enemy to the luxury and splendour of the clergy as he can be. I do not, more than he, by the flourishing estate of the Church, understand the palaces, equipages, dress, furniture, rich dainties, and vast fortunes, of her ministers. Surely those things, which savour so strongly of this world, become not the servants of one who professed his kingdom was not of it. But when he began to call nonsense and enthusiasm to his aid, and set up the detestable doctrine of faith against good works, I was his friend no longer; for surely that doctrine was coined in hell; and one would think none but the devil himself could have the confidence to preach it. For can anything be more derogatory to the honour of God than for men to imagine that the all-wise Being will hereafter say to the good and virtuous, ‘Notwithstanding the purity of thy life, notwithstanding that constant rule of virtue and goodness in which you walked upon earth, still, as thou didst not believe everything in the true orthodox manner, thy want of faith shall condemn thee?’ Or, on the other side, can any doctrine have a more pernicious influence on society, than a persuasion that it will be a good plea for the villain at the last day. ‘Lord, it is true I never obeyed one of thy commandments, yet punish me not, for I believe them all?’ ‘I suppose, sir,’ said the bookseller, ‘your sermons are of a different kind.’ ‘Aye, sir,’ said Adams; ‘the contrary, I thank heaven, is inculcated in almost every page, or I should belie my own opinion, which hath always been, that a virtuous and good Turk, or heathen, are more acceptable in the sight of their Creator than a vicious and wicked Christian, though his faith was as perfectly orthodox as St Paul’s himself.’ ‘I wish you success,’ says the bookseller, ‘but must beg to be excused, as my hands are so very full at present; and, indeed, I am afraid you will find a backwardness in the trade to engage in a book which the clergy would be certain to cry down.’ ‘God forbid,’ says Adams, ‘any books should be propagated which the clergy would cry down; but if you mean by the clergy, some few designing factious men, who have it at heart to establish some favourite schemes at the price of the liberty of mankind, and the very essence of religion, it is not in the power of such persons to decry any book they please; witness that excellent book called, A Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Sacrament; a book written (if I may venture on the expression) with the pen of an angel, and calculated to restore the true use of Christianity, and of that sacred institution; for what could tend more to the noble purposes of religion than frequent cheerful meetings among the members of a society, in which they should, in the presence of one another, and in the service of the Supreme Being, make promises of being good, friendly, and benevolent to each other? Now, this excellent book was attacked by a party, but unsuccessfully.’

This is a fascinating passage, reflecting the views of an intelligent and educated Anglican layman. The book that Adams commends, and which indeed Fielding admired, A Plain Account of the Nature and End of the Sacrament, is by Benjamin Hoadly. It argues that Holy Communion is not a mystery in any sense, but merely a commemoration of the death of Christ. But the main point of interest here must be Adams’s view (which is presumably that of his creator) of Whitefield, and specifically of the doctrine—admittedly not fully understood—of justification by faith. Fielding has no grasp of the fact that this is not a novelty invented by Whitefield, but the historic doctrine of Protestantism. And if a man such as Fielding could be in such ignorance, it must be because he had been ill taught by the churchmen of his day.

So the history of Protestantism, in the broadest sense, gives no ground for pride. The churches have repeatedly betrayed their heritage, and been repeatedly called back to the truth by times of revival. That is why revival was the only hope of the church in the Eighteenth Century, and is the only hope in the Twenty-first.


Why is Protestantism important today?

All this helps us to see why Protestantism is as important today as it was in the Reformation, and in all the ages in between.

First, by identifying ourselves as Protestants, we declare how we stand together on all the essentials of the Christian faith; and we do it, not by ignoring our differences and pretending we are all saying the same thing, in the manner of the ecumenical movement, but by magnifying the things we have in common, precisely because they are the great things, the things that a person needs to know in order for their soul to be saved. What is more, we identify not only with each other, but with all our brothers and sisters from the past who have believed and proclaimed these same truths. By calling ourselves Protestants, we are declaring that we teach the same way of salvation as was proclaimed by Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Wyclif, Hus, Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, Owen, Bunyan, Wesley, Whitefield, and countless other giants of Christian history. Truly we are ‘compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), and our Protestantism is the declaration before God, the churches, and the world, that we stand on the same ground as these giants of the faith.

This unity is a precursor, almost we might say a precondition, of times of blessing for the churches. Hear the Lord himself at prayer: ‘Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.’ (John 17:20, 21) Note the connection between the two clauses: That they all may be one…that the world may believe.

Second, by identifying ourselves as Protestants, we specifically commit ourselves to the doctrine that made the Reformation, justification by faith alone. Luther believed that the doctrine of justification by faith was the mark of a standing or falling church. Where the doctrine was taught and believed, the church was standing; where it was not taught, the church was departing from the grace of God. Luther was right. This is the message that the whole world needs to hear. Moral exhortation will not make men and women better; emotional spiritualities will not bring them nearer to God; but the gospel of God’s grace will show them that they are lost sinners, deserving of hell, and yet with a way to escape. That way is the way of justification ‘by faith without the deeds of the law.’ (Romans 3:28) If we want sinners to be saved, if we want the churches to be built up, this is the message we must proclaim.

Of course, in our churches, we have a responsibility to teach ‘all the counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27). We have doctrinal standards, and it is right that we should adhere to them, and teach them to others. But let us be quite clear about this: no one was ever saved by being a Presbyterian rather than an Anglican, or by practising believers’ baptism rather than infant baptism. Men and women are saved by hearing the gospel of peace: ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!’ (Romans 10:13-15) We prove ourselves Protestants by making that our priority.

Third, by identifying ourselves as Protestants, we admit the manifold failings of Protestant churches and denominations. We have not lived up to the standards laid down for us by Scripture and our spiritual forefathers. We have needed, and we still need, the empowering of the Spirit of God, that our generation might be like Luther’s generation or Whitefield’s generation, when countless numbers heard the message of salvation for the first time, believed it, and were saved. Revival is the hope of the churches then as now.

But note this. How and where God revives his churches is an act of his sovereign grace. We achieve nothing by looking back, and trying to reproduce the conditions of the past. We know what the revivals of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries looked like, when large numbers gathered to hear great preachers. God can work in that way again; but he is sovereign, and is under no obligation to do so. The means of communication available to us have changed immeasurably in the past half-century, and he may choose to use one of those means to revive his church. Remember that the Reformation itself was largely spread by a new and revolutionary technology, the printed word accomplishing more in a few years than the written word had done for many centuries. Perhaps somewhere even now our God is preparing the Wesley of television, or the Whitefield of the internet. That is his right. Our part is to cry to him for the outpouring of his Spirit, to hold fast to the truths that we have received from the Scriptures and from our fathers. Our part is to ‘Proclaim “salvation from the Lord/For wretched, dying men”’ (Watts), and in that way to prove ourselves true Protestants.


Paper by the Rev. Philip Tait given at the Autumn Conference of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, Stockton-on-Tees, on October 24, 2015