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Terrence M. Murphy
Lesson IX
The Origins of Protestantism
The origins of Protestant Christianity go back to the Reformation of the sixteenth
century, a widespread religious movement which occurred partly because of
dissatisfaction with the teachings and practices of the late medieval Church. Throughout
Europe, but especially in northern countries, religious reformers bitterly criticized
existing ecclesiastical policies and called for a return to the authentic teaching of the
Gospel. Similar calls for reform had been heard earlier in the Middle Ages, but the ideas
of the new generation of reformers differed more fundamentally from those of the official
Church. Furthermore, the prevailing political, social, cultural, and intellectual
circumstances of the sixteenth century made the moment ripe for change. Soon a schism
had resulted, with some European states lending official support to the Reformers and
others remaining loyal to the medieval church. New churches emerged and were known
initially by names such as "evangelical" (in Germany) and "reformed" (in Switzerland).
The term "Protestant" was introduced later. By 1530, however, the distinction between
Protestant and Catholic was becoming well established, and Western Christianity was
taking on its familiar denominational pattern. The schism of the sixteenth century did not
directly affect Eastern Christianity.
First among the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century was Martin
Luther. Luther was a German, born in the town of Eisleben in 1484 of peasant stock. In
1501 he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, originally with the intention of preparing for
a career in law. In 1505, however, after he had completed the Arts course, he suddenly
changed his plans. He entered the monastery of the Augustinian friars at Erfurt and
turned his attention to theology. This sudden change of direction on Luther's part has
sometimes been explained by a terrifying experience which he had when caught in a
thunderstorm. Fearing for his life, he evidently made a vow that if he survived the storm
he would become a monk. There may well be some truth in this story, but by itself it is
not enough to explain why Luther acted as he did. Separate evidence suggests that he
suffered from deep spiritual longings or anxieties which were not satisfied by the plan to
become a lawyer. The experience in the thunderstorm more likely acted as the catalyst in
a decision the roots of which lay much deeper in Luther's personality.
This interpretation of events is all the more convincing if we examine the nature
of Luther's spiritual anxieties. It is clear that as a young man he was deeply troubled by a
sense of his own unworthiness in the eyes of God. He saw himself as a sinner, worthy
only of condemnation and punishment, and he struggled to know how he could do
enough to make himself "just" or "righteous." Medieval religious doctrine held that
human beings were partly responsible for their own salvation, in the sense that they had
to respond to God's free grace by doing good works. In fact, the habit had developed of
weighing or measuring these good works against a person's sins as if each person had an
imaginary ledger or balance sheet. On the one side were the "merits" earned for good
works; on the other were the punishments incurred for sins. According to this view,
salvation was achieved when a person had compensated for his or her sins by performing
sufficient good works or undergoing adequate penances. Luther initially took this view of
things for granted and strived, like other devout Christians of the late Middle Ages, to
earn his salvation. A monastery seemed the best place to accomplish this, since monks
devoted their entire lives to penances and good works.
During his early years in the monastery, Luther was exceptionally zealous in
observing monastic discipline. He not only did all that was required of him but
voluntarily subjected himself to additional rigours to the point where his religious
superiors were concerned for his health and advised moderation. In spite of his penitential
lifestyle, however, Luther could not escape the spiritual turmoil that had led him to the
monastery in the first place. No matter how much he did, he could not feel righteous in
the eyes of God. This was not because Luther felt guilty about some particular offence
but rather because he felt that an enormous gulf separated him, an unworthy creature,
from God.
When Luther finally found a solution to his problem, it came not from the
monastic way of life but from his scholarly pursuits, especially his study of the Bible.
The writings of St. Paul, especially the Epistle to the Romans, proved crucial. In passages
such as Romans 1:17 ("The justice of God is revealed . . . for it is written the just man
shall live by faith"), Luther discovered a doctrine of salvation which seemed to differ
radically from that of the late medieval Church. According to Luther, this doctrine taught
that salvation was not achieved through good works but granted through faith, which is a
free gift of God. In other words, the reason why Luther could not do enough to save
himself was that no one could do enough to save himself. Salvation is not a reward for
good works but a gift of God.
This understanding of salvation is known as the doctrine of justification by faith
alone. It is one of the cornerstones of Protestant Christianity, and we shall return to it
under the heading of Protestant Doctrine.
As Luther was developing his new theological ideas, he also found himself drawn
into open controversy with the Church. The immediate occasion of the controversy was
the question of indulgences, in particular an indulgence which was being sold by Albert,
the Archbishop of Mainz, with the permission of the Pope. Luther objected not only to
the unseemly practice of selling indulgences but also to the very theory of indulgences.
This theory was intimately connected with the medieval idea that one had to earn
salvation by compensating for sins with good works and punishment. On the assumption
that most people would die without having fully paid the debt for their sins, the medieval
Church taught that the deficiency could be satisfied by undergoing further penances in
purgatory. All those who went to purgatory after death eventually got to heaven, but the
length of their suffering differed according to the number and magnitude of the sins for
which they had to make satisfaction. Yet, the medieval Church also taught that under
special circumstances, some or all of this punishment for sins could be remitted by the
Pope. Such remission was called an indulgence, and by Luther's time it could be applied
either to persons still living or to souls already in purgatory.
Luther's objections to the theory and practice of indulgences were expressed in his
famous Ninety-Five Theses, which he issued in 1517. These Theses are ninety-five short
statements touching on indulgences and related matters which Luther was prepared to
defend in debate with other scholars. The practice of posting such Theses was a common
practice in universities of that time, and Luther did not foresee that his gesture would
provoke a major controversy. But he had questioned a number of fundamental
assumptions, including the authority of the Pope to remit penalties other than those which
he himself had imposed. He had also expressed concern that indulgences were
encouraging spiritual complacency among ordinary Christians and distracting attention
from more important matters, such as works of charity.
Luther, therefore, soon found himself at the centre of a storm. He was attacked
and criticized from several quarters, as official efforts were mounted to silence or
discredit him. In 1518, he was called to an interview with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal
ambassador to Germany, and in 1519 he participated in a momentous debate with the
theologian John Eck. The more Luther was attacked, however, the more he recognized
the extent of his disagreement with the medieval Church. Soon he was questioning not
only indulgences and the theory of salvation which lay behind it but also the authority of
the Pope and the teachings of the Church regarding the sacraments. Finally in 1520,
Rome ordered Luther to recant or face excommunication. He refused and was thereupon
summoned to appear at the imperial parliament (or diet) meeting in the city of Worms. At
the Diet of Worms in 1521, the civil authorities of the Holy Roman Empire declared
Luther a heretic and an outlaw. Meanwhile, Pope Leo X issued a decree formally
excommunicating him.
If events had followed the normal course, Luther would subsequently have been
arrested and imprisoned, possibly even put to death. As a condition of his appearing at
Worms, however, he had been guaranteed a safe return, and on his way home he was
spirited away to a hiding-place on the orders of his ruler, the Elector Frederic of Saxony.
Frederic's decision to protect Luther and to turn a blind eye to evangelical reforms was
crucial, for other German princes soon followed his example. With the tacit permission,
and in some cases the active support, of the civil authorities, the evangelical churches
began to take shape. Gradually they developed new patterns of organization, new forms
of worship, and new confessions of faith. Among the most conspicuous reforms were the
introduction of married clergy, the elimination of episcopal authority in many regions, the
translation of the Bible and the liturgy into German, and the transformation of the
medieval Mass into Protestant "service of the Word."
So far our discussion of the origins of Protestantism has been limited to the career
of Martin Luther and the birth of the Lutheran Church: Protestantism, however, differs
from both Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy in that it does not consist of a single
church but of a whole family of churches or denominations. Indeed, not only is there
more than one Protestant Church, there is more than one type of Protestant Church. The
element of variety within the Protestant tradition, moreover, goes back to the sixteenth
century. Not all Protestant denominations have been in existence that long, but within a
few years of Martin Luther's break with Rome (1521) at least two other forms of
Protestantism had made their appearance.
One of these appeared in Switzerland, specifically in the German-speaking city of
Zurich. The leader of the Reformation there was Ulrich Zwingli, who was an exact
contemporary of Luther. Zwingli had been ordained as a priest in the medieval Church
and had held a series of pastoral offices, culminating in his appointment as public
preacher in the cathedral church at Zurich. In the meantime, however, he had shown signs
of increasing dissatisfaction with the teachings of medieval Christianity. There is little
evidence in his case of a profound emotional struggle such as Luther had experienced,
but recent developments in scholarship, especially the ideas of the humanists, influenced
him deeply. In keeping with his desire for reform, Zwingli adopted a unique style of
preaching aimed at making the Bible better known among the laity. He also began to
develop theological ideas, including a doctrine of justification by faith, which were very
similar to Luther's.
Zwingli and his followers challenged religious practices and obligations which
seemed to have no warrant in Scripture. These included clerical celibacy, compulsory
fasts, and the veneration of holy images. Tensions with the official Church soon reached
the breaking point, and in 1523 a public debate was arranged before the Zurich town
council to decide which side the civil authorities would support. Zwingli emerged as
victor, and the council passed a resolution ordering that henceforth only "scriptural"
doctrines and practices would be permitted in Zurich. This was tantamount to a
declaration in favour of reform. The authority of the local bishop was overturned, and
through a series of innovations a Protestant Church took shape. The type of Protestantism
that emerged from these developments in Switzerland is known as the Reformed
Reformed Churches soon grew up elsewhere in Switzerland as well as in other
parts of Europe. We cannot review each of them here. Eventually, however, Geneva, a
French-speaking city, emerged as the most important centre of the Swiss Reformation,
overshadowing even Zurich. The instigator of the Reformation in Geneva was William
Farel, but leadership soon passed to John Calvin. Calvin, like Farel, was a refugee from
France. He is famous both as a great theologian and a great organizer. His finest
theological work is the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which treats all the major
points of Christian doctrine in the light of Reformation principles. His blueprint for
church government is contained in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541. Calvin
rejected episcopal church government in favour of a presbyterial system which brought
clergy and lay elders together in a governing body known as the Consistory. He also
made explicit (not merely implicit) adherence to the doctrines and moral teachings of the
Church a condition of church membership and tried to fashion in Geneva a society which
visibly reflected the standards of Reformed Christianity. Many Reformers from other
parts of Europe came to study in Geneva, and the ideas of Calvin eventually proved
crucial to the development of Protestantism in countries such as Scotland and Holland. In
Scotland, the main Protestant denomination is Presbyterianism, whereas in Holland it is
the Dutch Reformed Church. Both, however, belong to the Reformed or "Calvinist"
The other type of Protestantism which emerged in the 1520s is known as the
Radical Reformation. It differs more from medieval Christianity than do other types of
Protestantism, and in some ways it even differs from other forms of Protestantism more
than they do from Roman Catholicism. The Radical Reformation is more important for
the novelty of its ideas than for the number of adherents it attracted.
It is also notoriously difficult to describe. It had no single founder, no stable
organization, and no comprehensive body of doctrine. It was composed of a variety of
sects which often differed widely from one another. Some Radicals were characterized by
their eschatological concerns. The so-called "Zwickau prophets," for example,
proclaimed the imminent end of the world, claiming that this had been specially revealed
to them in visions and dreams. Other Radicals combined demands for religious reforms
with revolutionary political activities. One such man, Thomas Muntzer, led a disastrous
uprising of peasants during the Peasants' War of 1525. He was captured, tortured, and
beheaded. Still other Radicals were pacifists, who refused to fight on any account and
offered only passive resistance to persecution. Perhaps the most important group were the
evangelical Anabaptists, who first appeared in 1523 as dissenters from Zwingli's reform.
Among their leaders were Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. This group, like many other
Radicals, rejected infant baptism. In their view, baptism was a sign of church
membership, and church membership required the sort of deliberate commitment of
which only adults were capable. The Church itself they saw as voluntary rather than a
compulsory society and argued for the separation of Church and State. In this they
differed from both the Catholics and the mainstream Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli,
and Calvin. They are often numbered among the earliest advocates of religious liberty.
Inspired by the example of the first Christians, the evangelical Anabaptists established
pacifistic communities, separated from the world. Their descendants, including the
Mennonites and Hutterites, still adhere to this sectarian pattern of life.
Lesson X
Protestant Doctrine
In this lesson, our task is to describe Protestant doctrine. Since there are many
different Protestant denominations, and since they do not all believe the same things, this
is not as straightforward as it might seem. Nevertheless, there are certain crucial
teachings, formulated at the time of the Reformation, which are accepted by most if not
all Protestants, and it is on these that we shall concentrate.
We may begin with the doctrine known as justification by faith alone or
salvation by grace alone. Martin Luther was the first to state this doctrine clearly, and it
will help to understand it if we keep his personal experience in mind. The problem with
which Luther struggled was the problem of how he could make himself worthy in the
eyes of God. He was profoundly conscious of his sinfulness and wanted to transform
himself from a sinner into a "righteous" or "just" man. The theological term used for such
a transformation or transition was "justification," meaning "to make just." At first, in
keeping with the prevailing ideas of medieval Christianity, Luther tried to justify himself
by doing good works. Finding no assurance in this, however, he eventually rejected the
idea that salvation could be earned through meritorious deeds in favour of a doctrine
which he discovered in the writings of St. Paul. This is the doctrine of justification by
faith alone. In its simplest terms, the doctrine states that God grants salvation as a free
gift, not as a reward for good works. No one can ever deserve to be saved, since left to
his/her own devices every human being is a helpless sinner. If a person achieves
salvation, it is not by his/her own efforts but purely and entirely by the mercy of God.
Protestants also refer to this doctrine as the doctrine of salvation by grace alone because
grace is the word used to denote the free, unmerited gift of God.
This essential Protestant doctrine of salvation is almost startling in its simplicity.
Once the basic teaching is understood, however, additional more subtle points may be
noted. The first of these is that the doctrine of justification by faith alone implies a very
pessimistic view of human nature. Protestants take original sin very seriously. They
believe that as a result of the sin of Adam every human being is born both guilty and
corrupt. In this respect, their position is very similar to that of Roman Catholics.
Protestants tend to disagree with Catholics about the extent of the corruption of human
nature. Catholics teach that human nature is weakened and impaired but not rendered
incapable of cooperating with God. Without divine assistance, human beings can do
nothing towards salvation; but they can respond actively to God's help. Protestants
generally believe that human nature is so corrupt as to be rendered morally impotent. Not
only do human beings require God's help but they must rely completely on him for their
salvation. According to the Protestant conception, the initiative in matters of salvation
lies entirely with God.
The second additional point concerning the doctrine of justification by faith
centres around the meaning of faith. A common misunderstanding is to interpret the
doctrine to mean simply that it is what one believes rather than what one does that counts.
Luther and other Protestant theologians do attach considerable significance to a person's
interior disposition, but the doctrine of justification does not state that faith or belief in
revealed truth is the only accomplishment (or "work") that you have to perform to earn
salvation. Rather, it asserts that faith, like salvation itself, is not a human accomplishment
but a gift of God. For faith, as for everything connected with salvation, human beings rely
on God. Furthermore, faith is not thought of merely as intellectual assent to specific
propositions - e.g., Jesus is the Son of God made man, or Jesus rose from the dead. It may
include these things, but it is more fundamentally an attitude of trust in God. Martin
Luther would have said that a person has faith when he acknowledges the total
inadequacy of his own moral efforts and recognizes that he must rely instead on the
mercy of God.
The third and final point to be made about the doctrine of justification by faith
alone concerns the relationship between faith, justification, and good works. One of the
earliest and most serious criticisms of the Protestant doctrine proposed by Catholic critics
was that it separated salvation from morality. By saying that a person can never earn
salvation through good works, it seems to encourage moral indifference. A person could
say: "since it is all up to God, there is no point in my making an effort." Or "I can do as I
please and God will still save me." This is not at all what Martin Luther and other
Reformers had in mind. They regarded good works (i.e., moral behaviour) as an essential
part of the process of salvation but insisted that these were the result rather than the
cause of justification. In the late medieval conception, salvation was granted as a reward
for good works. In the view of the Reformers, good works were the sign of a person
being saved. First God granted the gift of faith. Then faith opened the way to
justification. Finally, justification resulted in a person doing good works. Since the good
works flowed from God's gifts, however, man could take no credit for them.
We cannot discuss classic Protestant doctrines such as justification by faith alone
without confronting the question of what basis Protestants have for their teachings. We
have already seen that Orthodox Christians believe that their Church rests on "Holy
Tradition," whereas Roman Catholics appeal to the double authority of Scripture and
Tradition. The Protestant position differs from that of both Orthodox and Catholics but is
more easily understood by contrast to the Catholic view, which it was intended to refute.
Protestants claim that ultimately there is only one source or standard by which
Christian truth is to be judged. That source is the Bible (Scripture). Although the Bible
may be read and understood in the Church, by the community of believers, the Church
has no special authority to interpret it or add to it. The authority of Scripture is both
absolute and unique and takes precedence even over the most solemn declarations
contained in tradition. This principle is known as the doctrine of the sole authority of
Scripture (in Latin, sola Scriptura).
Like the doctrine of justification by faith, it was first formulated by Martin
Luther. In the course of his controversy with the medieval Church, Luther questioned not
only particular teachings (indulgences, purgatory, justification by good works) but also
the authority by which they were asserted. Tradition, as expressed in the decisions of
popes and councils, seemed to him in many cases to have obscured or distorted the
message of the Gospel. Against the authority of the Church, he took his stand on the
Bible and the Bible alone. Thus at the Diet of Worms, he declared that he would not
recant because his conscience was "captive to the Word of God." His declaration reads in
part as follows: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by evident
reason (for I put my faith neither in Pope nor Councils alone, since it is established that
they have often erred and contradicted one another), I am bound by the scriptural
evidence which I have adduced . . . ."
Luther's principle of sola Scriptura was eagerly embraced by the other
Reformers, and it remains to this day a cornerstone of Protestant belief. But although
virtually all Protestants accept the basic principle, they do not always agree in the way
they interpret or apply it. Moreover, divisions do not always follow denominational lines.
Often they occur between members of the same denomination.
All Protestants accept, for example, that the Bible contains revealed truth, but
there is wide disagreement on whether this means simply that the basic content of
Scripture is divinely revealed or whether it means that every word is inspired by God.
Closely related to this issue are the problems posed by modern Biblical scholarship. The
basic premise of modern Biblical criticism is that the Bible can and should be interpreted
like any other book. But as critical methods of this sort have been applied, it has become
clear to many that not everything in the Bible can be taken at face value. Protestants who
are committed to the belief that every word of the Bible is inspired by God resist this
conclusion and continue to interpret Scripture literally. They are often called
fundamentalists. Others accept that the revealed Word of God has been expressed
through human and therefore fallible means. For them, it is not the exact words of
Scripture which are decisive but the reality to which these words point. A strong case can
be made that the latter are closer than the former to the spirit of Martin Luther.
So far we have examined the Protestant doctrines of justification by faith alone
and the sole authority of Scripture. Another crucial teaching of the Reformation is
found in its insistence on the sovereignty of God. To be "sovereign" means to exercise
autonomous power. The sovereignty of God, therefore, means that God is absolutely free
to do as he wills. He can never be obliged to do anything, and human beings have no
right to demand that he act as they expect him to act.
The Protestant Reformers certainly did not invent this doctrine, but they asserted
it more categorically than did most of their predecessors. The sovereignty of God was for
them very closely linked to justification by faith alone. As we have seen, this doctrine
taught that no one could claim salvation as a right, as if God owed it to him for his "good
works." God is merciful and grants salvation to undeserving sinners, but he does so
freely. Justification is an act of his sovereign will.
The sovereignty of God is also closely related to the doctrine of predestination,
which states that by an eternal decree God has chosen those on whom he will bestow the
gift of salvation. The Reformers thought that this doctrine was well attested in Scripture,
beginning with the account of Israel's election as the "chosen people." Although predestination is repugnant to the modern frame of mind, with its emphasis on human
freedom, the Reformers actually saw it as a source of comfort and assurance. For them, it
meant primarily that God chose sinners for salvation in spite of their unworthiness.
Sinners could therefore trust in the mercy of God rather than in their own inadequate
The doctrine of predestination, however, also has negative implications. If God
chooses some people for salvation, then presumably he rejects others. Furthermore, if his
decree of election is sovereign and therefore independent of any consideration of human
merit, God's choice seems arbitrary and unjust. This difficulty is one with which
Protestants have struggled throughout their history. At least three basic positions have
been proposed to deal with it. The first states simply that God has decreed that all will be
saved. This view, called universalism, avoids the problem of God arbitrarily embracing
some and rejecting others, but since it declares that all are saved by divine decree it
seems to leave no room for human freedom. The second asserts that God chooses some
for salvation and "passes over" the rest. This position, often referred to as simple
predestination, avoids stating that God actively rejects some people, but it appears to do
so only by evading the question. The third declares that God predestines some people for
salvation and others for damnation. This is called double predestination, and it is
essentially the version taught by Luther and Calvin. They defended it largely on the
grounds that all men deserve damnation. Thus when God chooses to condemn some of
them, he acts justly; when he decides to redeem others, he acts mercifully. Either way
mankind has no grounds for complaint.
This severe doctrine was accepted and even carried further by many of the heirs
of the Reformation. English Puritans, for example, taught not only that each person is
predestined to heaven or hell but also that it is possible to tell who is numbered among
the elect and who among the reprobate. This could be done by looking for signs (a visibly
upright life) of the working of the Spirit. This approach did much to foster intolerance.
Some Protestants, however, have rejected the doctrine of predestination.
Arminius, a Dutch theologian of the late sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, is
famous for having done so. His ideas were summarized in the Arminian Articles of
1610, and ever since the term "Arminianism" has been used to describe opposition among
Protestants to the doctrine of predestination. John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of
Methodism, was an Arminian, in the sense that he believed that God's grace was
available to all.
Lesson XI
Protestant Church Government and Worship
Unlike Orthodox and Roman Catholics, Protestants do not generally insist that a
particular form of ecclesiastical organization is essential to the Church. Most Protestants
believe that in order to have a true church, the only requirements are that the authentic
Word of God is proclaimed and the genuine sacraments are duly administered. This may
occur within the framework of various forms of church government.
On the other hand, this is not to say that church government is unimportant to
Protestants. Many Protestant denominations are distinguished largely by their
ecclesiastical organization (or "polity"), in fact some derive their names from their
systems of church government. This is true, for example, of Episcopalians, Presbyterians,
and Congregationalists. Many Protestant denominations, however, have argued that the
polity which they employ is closest to the one found among the Christian communities of
the New Testament. Fidelity to New Testament practice has often been combined with
other principles (including ""apostolic succession" and "freedom from undue authority")
to justify one or another system of church government.
Three basic forms of polity have been adopted by Protestants over the centuries.
These are the episcopal, the presbyterial, and the congregational systems.
The episcopal method of church government is essentially the one already used
by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. It is based on the authority of bishops,
who are distinguished from and set over ordinary pastors. Among Protestants, Anglicans
(called "Episcopalians" in the United States) and some Lutherans (e.g., in Sweden) use
this system. Even within these denominations, however, different interpretations of the
basis of episcopal government are proposed. Some adherents insist on a strict theory of
"apostolic succession," which reserves to bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, the
right to govern the Church and the exclusive power to ordain to the ministry. Carried to
its logical conclusion, this approach would deny the validity of the orders of Protestant
ministers in other denominations who have not received ordination at the hands of a
bishop. Many Anglicans and Lutherans, however, do not accept so strict a view of
apostolic succession. While affirming the value of episcopal government to the Church,
they nevertheless recognize the validity of orders among other Protestants.
Methodists in the United States also have bishops as part of their church
government. These Methodist bishops, however, are not bishops in the full sense that
Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Scandanavian Lutheran bishops are. In most episcopal
churches, bishops have special powers of both jurisdiction and orders; that is, they have
unique administrative and sacerdotal (priestly) functions - including the power to ordain.
Among American Methodists, bishops are distinguished from other pastors only by their
administrative functions. They are in reality "superintendents," a name which has
frequently been applied to them.
Even in Protestant denominations where genuine episcopal government has been
retained, such as Anglicanism and Scandanavian Lutheranism, it has been modified by
the introduction of representative or democratic principles. Unlike the Orthodox and
Roman Catholic churches, where virtually all authority rests in episcopal hands, these
Protestant denominations have introduced synods or assemblies, consisting of both lay
and clerical representatives, who share power with the bishops. This sort of arrangement
is sometimes called "constitutional episcopacy."
The second form of church government found among Protestants is the
presbyterial system. This is closely associated with the Reformed tradition
(Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, etc.) and owes much to the organizing genius of John
Calvin. There are no bishops in the presbyterian system. No distinction is made between
bishops and pastors (presbyters), on the grounds that no such distinction can be found in
the New Testament. Moreover, pastors or clergy exercise joint authority with laymen in a
series of representative bodies ascending from the level of the local congregation to that
of the national church. This representative quality as well as the role accorded to laymen
are characteristic of presbyterial church government.
The Presbyterian church in Canada provides a good example of this system. It
employs governing bodies (or "church courts") at four levels. These are the Kirk Session
(local congregation), the Presbytery (district), the Synod (regional), and the General
Assembly (national). There is a Presbytery for Newfoundland, for instance, which
includes representatives from each of the Presbyterian congregations in the province.
Then there is a synod of the Atlantic Provinces, comprising several presbyteries,
including the one for Newfoundland. There are several such synods throughout the
country. The highest governing body, the General Assembly, exercises jurisdiction for
Canada as a whole. Each of the four church courts includes both lay and clerical
representatives. The lay representatives must always be at least equal in number to the
clerical delegates.
The third form of Protestant church government is called congregational. The
basic principle behind this system is the autonomy of each congregation. Every local
church is regarded as a gathered community of believers who have Christ as their only
head. It is governed through "church meetings" between pastor and members. The
emphasis is on freedom, both from individuals who might exercise superior jurisdiction
(such as bishops) and from higher councils (such as synods, assemblies, and
conferences). "Fellowship" is maintained among the various congregations through
associations, but these are essentially fraternal organizations, which deal with matters of
mutual concern but lack the power to compel individual congregations.
Congregationalists are the most obvious case of a Protestant denomination which
employs congregational church government. A more familiar example in Atlantic
Canada, however, is provided by the Baptists. There are a few Baptist congregations in
Newfoundland and a large number in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Most (though not
all) belong to the Atlantic Baptist Convention, although it must be stressed again that this
body does not possess the kind of authority vested in Presbyterian Synods or similar
bodies in other denominations. There is also a Baptist Federation of Canada to which
most Atlantic Baptist congregations belong.
Before leaving the topic of Protestant church government, a few words must be
added about the Protestant understanding of holy orders. Protestants have inherited from
Martin Luther a special doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers." This teaching states
that all Christians, whether clerical or lay, may pray to God on behalf of their fellows and
declare to others the message of God's forgiving love. When this principle was originally
formulated, it was intended to contradict the medieval conception of the priest as the
unique intermediary between God and man, with the lay person as the more or less
passive recipient of grace communicated in this way. The "priesthood of all believers"
does not mean, however, that each believer can approach God privately and individually
without relying on the ministrations of the Church. The vast majority of Protestants not
only insist on the necessity of the visible Church (organized religion) but also maintain
the distinction between clergy and laity.
The way in which most Protestants understand this distinction, however, differs
somewhat from the traditional Orthodox and Catholic view. Because Orthodox and
Catholics see ordination as a sacrament, which confers on its recipients a special grace
not enjoyed by laymen, they tend to think of it as creating a class of persons basically
different from lay Christians. Protestants generally do not regard ordination as a
sacrament. For them, it does not involve the conferring of a special grace but is rather a
process by which the Christian community authorizes a person from its midst to exercise
the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Clergy are distinguished from laity not by unique or
intrinsic powers, but simply by the special functions which they are authorized to
Just as there are a variety of systems of church government among Protestants,
there are also different approaches to worship. Worship in most Protestant denominations
contains the familiar ingredients of Word and Sacrament. Whereas Roman Catholics have
placed greater emphasis on the sacraments, however, Protestants have tended to
emphasize the proclamation of the Word. Furthermore, the Protestant understanding of
the sacraments differs substantially from the Roman Catholic view. The extent of these
disagreements varies from one Protestant denomination to another.
Martin Luther, for instance, introduced many liturgical reforms. Among the
most important changes he made were the translation of public worship into the
vernacular language, the introduction of German hymns (many of which he composed),
and the abolition of the portion of the Mass (the "canon") which contains references to
the Eucharist as a sacrifice. (As we shall see below, the conception of the Mass as a
sacrifice is one of the principle differences between the Catholic and Protestant doctrines
of the Eucharist.) The abolition of the canon, moreover, which in the Middle Ages had
been the most prominent part of the service, had the effect of shifting attention to the
Scripture readings and sermon.
In spite of these major changes, there were other ways in which Luther adhered
closely to traditional forms. He continued for many years to refer to the Eucharistic
celebration as the "Mass." He also retained the wearing of special vestments by the
clergyman, the use of religious images and incense, and practices such as kneeling during
certain parts of the service. Lutheran churches in most parts of the world have carried on
these customs, although in some areas, such as South Germany, simpler forms of worship
have been adopted.
The worship services which developed in the Reformed tradition differed much
more sharply from medieval practices, although here, too, there were variations. Zwingli,
the Reformer of Zurich, took perhaps the most drastic approach, not only simplifying the
service but also eliminating music and religious images. Such practices were regarded as
"unbiblical" and as distractions. John Calvin at Geneva did not go so far. He allowed
music, for example, although only metrical psalms, quite unlike the popular tunes
employed by Luther. His basic approach reflects the same desire for simplicity which is
evident throughout the Reformed tradition.
Still other Protestant denominations have emphasized not only simplicity but also
spontaneity. Broadly speaking, Baptists and early Congregationalists fit into this
category. Religious devotion for them is an emotional experience which can easily be
stifled by formality. To one degree or another, therefore, they rely on extemporaneous
rather than fixed prayers.
Changes in worship introduced by Protestants have often led to changes in church
architecture. The emphasis on the proclamation of the Word, for example, has frequently
resulted in the pulpit being placed in a more prominent location, thus replacing the altar
as the focus of attention. Meanwhile, the rejection of the idea that the Eucharist is a
sacrifice has meant that altars have given way to simple communion tables. Opposition to
ornate decoration and the use of images has produced plainer buildings. Again, the
degree to which this is the case varies between and even within denominations. Some
groups, however, such as New England Congregationalists (Puritans) have even insisted
on whitewashed walls and clear glass windows.
The importance which virtually all Protestants attach to the proclamation of the
Word in worship is closely related to the fundamental Protestant doctrine of justification
by faith. Protestants believe that the Word has the power to evoke faith in the hearer and
that it is therefore the means by which justification is conferred. The essential content of
the Word (or the "message of the Gospel") is the forgiving love of God, which leads
sinners to rely on divine mercy rather than on their own works. This reliance on God
instead of self is a large part of what Protestants mean by "faith."
The emphasis on the power of the Word is also seen in the Protestant approach to
sacraments. Sacraments, in fact, are seen as a symbolic way of conveying the message of
the Gospel. They complement oral proclamation (i.e., reading of Scripture and
preaching). To the extent that they, too, evoke faith, they are seen as efficacious by many
Protestant theologians. The Protestant understanding of sacramental efficacy differs
sharply from the Roman Catholic view. Catholics have traditionally stressed the intrinsic
or objective power of the sacraments to cause grace. In their view, this power does not
depend on the disposition of the recipient (see Lesson VII). Precisely because of the
strong connection which Protestants make between Word and faith, however, their
understanding of sacraments as the symbolic presentation of the Word demands the
active involvement of the recipient. The sacraments are seen as a personal transaction
between man and God, whereas the Catholic approach appears in Protestant eyes too
mechanical. Recent developments in Roman Catholic sacramental theology have tended
to soften this distinction.
Luther taught that for something to qualify as a sacrament it must meet three
criteria. First, it must have been instituted by Christ according to the testimony of
Scripture; it must involve a clear sign; and this sign must convey the message of the
Gospel (i.e., the promise of the forgiveness of sins through divine mercy). Only two
ceremonies seemed to him to meet these criteria - namely, Baptism and the Lord's
Supper. The vast majority of Protestants accept this conclusion. Many of the other five
sacraments (e.g., ordination and matrimony) recognized by Roman Catholics are retained
by Protestants as religious ceremonies, but they are not regarded as sacraments. A few
Protestant denominations, such as the Quakers and the Salvation Army, have no
sacraments at all.
In their understanding of particular sacraments Protestants disagree not only with
Roman Catholics but also with one another. The subject of infant vs. adult baptism, for
instance, has been a very divisive issue among Protestants. The Lutheran and Reformed
traditions have continued the practice of infant baptism. This appears at first to be
inconsistent with the close connection which they draw between the sacraments and
personal faith for it is hard to imagine in what sense an infant can be said to have faith.
Martin Luther answered this difficulty, however, by insisting that faith is a gift of God,
who can grant it to infants as well as adults. He also appealed to the idea that children are
nurtured and sustained in their faith by the adults who bring them to baptism and by the
believing community as a whole. Calvin took a similar approach, but for him the Biblical
concept of covenant was crucial. He argued that the children of believers were heirs of
the new covenant and ought to be brought to baptism in the same way that the children of
Abraham were brought to circumcision as heirs of the old covenant.
On the other hand, many descendants of the Radical Reformation, as well as
denominations such as the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ, insist that only adult
baptism, carried out by total immersion, is valid. They argue that this is the only form of
baptism found in the New Testament. Furthermore, they think of baptism as a sign of a
faith which is already inwardly present. Since faith requires the sort of deliberate
commitment of which only adults are capable, only adults may be admitted to the
sacrament. This entire approach is closely related to the conception of the Church as a
"believers' church," made up only of truly committed Christians. Baptism is seen as the
means of initiation into this exclusive community. In the Lutheran and Reformed
traditions (as in Roman Catholicism) the Church is seen as a "mixed society" containing
both zealous and lukewarm Christians. The assumption in these traditions, however, is
that membership in the Church will lead one to a deeper commitment.
With respect to the Lord's Supper, two main issues have been objects of concern
among Protestants. The first is the medieval conception of the Eucharist as a reenactment of the sacrifice of the Cross. Protestants are unanimous in rejecting this idea.
They insist that Christ's sacrifice was offered once for all and does not need to be
repeated. They also feel that the conception of the Eucharist as a sacrifice encourages the
tendency to view the Mass as a "good work" - i.e., as something which man offers to God
in the expectation of reward. Protestants see the Lord's Supper as a "calling to mind" or a
"making present" of Christ's sacrifice but not as a "re-enactment" of Calvary.
The second controversial issue is the question of the presence of Christ in the
Eucharist. Again, we find that Luther took a relatively conservative approach. Although
he rejected the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation he still taught real presence. In
other words, he disagreed about the mode but not the fact of Christ's presence. Instead of
the bread and wine ceasing to be bread and wine and becoming the body and blood of
Christ, Luther believed they remained bread and wine and became the body and blood of
Christ as well. This view was subsequently called consubstantiation. Lutherans still
adhere to real presence, although the impact of the doctrine has not been the same in
Lutheran as in Roman Catholic piety. Lutherans do not reserve the sacrament or venerate
the Eucharistic elements in the same way that Catholics do (see Lesson VII).
In the Reformed tradition, we find two main positions on Eucharistic presence.
One was set forth by John Calvin, the other by Ulrich Zwingli. Calvin rejected real
presence in the traditional sense but taught that the benefits of Christ's body and blood, if
not the body and blood as such, are present in the Lord's Supper. Zwingli, on the other
hand, saw the bread and wine as mere symbols of Christ's body and blood. He refused to
interpret the words "this is my body" literally, insisting that they meant "this signifies my
body." Zwingli's view of the Lord's Supper as a symbolic memorial has predominated
over Calvin's within the Reformed tradition, and it is also the one generally accepted by
the "free churches," such as Baptists and Congregationalists.
Lesson XII
Anglicanism: A Special Case
In Lesson IX, we identified three distinct Protestant traditions which developed
out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. They are the Lutheran, Reformed, and
Radical traditions. A fourth tradition with roots in the sixteenth century is Anglicanism.
There is wide disagreement, however, even among Anglicans themselves, as to whether
Anglicanism should be classified as "Protestant" or not. Partly for this reason, we shall
treat it as a special case.
The Anglican tradition, embodied first in the Church of England, emerged when
King Henry VIII rejected papal jurisdiction over England. As is well known, the
immediate occasion for this step was Pope Clement VII’s refusal to annul Henry's
marriage with Catherine of Aragon. Henry wished to take a second wife in the hope that
she would bear him a son. After securing the submission of the English clergy, he not
only had his first marriage declared invalid but also secured the passage through
parliament of the first Act of Supremacy. The Act of Supremacy declared that the King,
rather than the Pope, was head of the Church in England.
Although these measures were very important, they constituted a revolution in
government and ecclesiastical administration rather than in doctrine. The changes
introduced by Henry VIII had little to do with matters of faith. The King was himself
theologically conservative and had earned a reputation as an opponent of Martin Luther
and other continental Reformers. Towards the end of his reign, his traditional opinions
were very much in evidence--for example, in the Six Articles which were made law in
1539. These articles, or doctrinal guidelines, endorsed six medieval doctrines and
practices which were hotly contested by Protestant Reformers: transubstantiation, the
distribution of the Eucharist to the laity in one kind (i.e., Eucharistic bread but not wine),
clerical celibacy, monastic vows, confession of sins, and private Masses. The Six Articles
were enforced under penalty of death.
In spite of Henry's conservatism, there were a few respects in which the
continental Reformation had an impact on England even during his reign. For example,
English Bibles were placed in all the churches. Furthermore, the ideas of Luther found
favour among an influential circle of churchmen associated with Cambridge University.
This group met frequently at the White Horse Tavern to discuss the new theological ideas
which were circulating in Europe. The group included William Tyndale, who translated
the Bible into English, and Thomas Cranmer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury
under Henry.
Henry VIII died in 1541 and was succeeded by the young Edward VI. During
Edward's reign, the Reformation in England advanced rapidly. An Act of Uniformity
was passed in 1549, ordering that henceforth worship be conducted in accordance with
the Book of Common Prayer, whose author was Thomas Cranmer. The Book of
Common Prayer was a unique attempt to modify the liturgy of the medieval church in the
light of Reformation principles. When the first edition of 1549 was criticized by
continental Reformers for not going far enough, it was replaced by a new edition (1552)
containing more extensive revisions.
Cranmer, who continued to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury, was also the
author of new doctrinal standards, known as the Forty-Two Articles.
replaced the conservative Six Articles of Henry VIII and reflected very clearly the
influence of continental Reformers. They emphasize the unique authority of Scripture as
well as the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They also recognize only two
sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
In 1553 the English Reformation was abruptly interrupted by the premature death
of Edward VI and the succession of Queen Mary. Mary (known as "Bloody Mary") was
the daughter of Henry Vlll's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and a devout Catholic. She
returned England temporarily to papal jurisdiction and actively persecuted the leaders of
the English Reformation. Cranmer was among those put to death during her reign.
Mary, however, was succeeded in 1558 by Elizabeth I, the daughter of Anne
Boleyn. Elizabeth not only reintroduced the Reformation but also placed it on a stable
and permanent footing. We can identify three key measures enacted during her reign. The
first was a new Act of Uniformity (1559), enforcing the use of a slightly revised Book of
Common Prayer. The second was another Act of Supremacy, establishing the monarch as
the "Supreme Governor" (Henry VIII had claimed the title "Supreme Head") of the
Church in England. The third was the adoption of revised articles of religion. These new
articles were essentially an edited version of Cranmer's Forty-Two Articles, in which the
number was reduced to thirty-nine. The Thirty-Nine Articles remain the official
doctrinal standard of the Church of England to this day.
It is impossible to define Anglican doctrine in simple terms, since there are many
shades of opinion among Anglicans. In fact, comprehensiveness - the ability to include a
variety of beliefs within a single denomination - is one of the chief characteristics of
Anglicanism. Generally speaking, however, Anglicans seek to blend the principles of the
Reformation with traditional elements.
The comprehensive and moderate character of Anglican doctrine is reflected even
in the Thirty-Nine Articles (see Leith, Creeds of the Churches, pp. 266-281). Article VI,
for example, asserts that "Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation" and
expressly rejects the idea that anything not found in the Bible should be laid down as
obligatory. This is essentially in keeping with the Reformation doctrine of the sole
authority of Scripture. Without contradicting this, however, Article XX declares that the
Church has the authority to regulate worship and to settle disputed points of faith. Even
though it adds that the Church must not define anything contrary to Scripture, this article
makes greater allowance for the teaching authority of the Church than most Protestant
confessions do. Confidence in the essential agreement between tradition and Scripture is
also evident in Article VIII, which embraces not only the Apostles' Creed but also the
Nicene Creed (i.e., the Constantinopolitan Creed). It is the traditions of the early Church,
however, which the Thirty-Nine Articles, like Anglican teaching in general, emphasize.
Medieval doctrines, such as belief in purgatory and transubstantiation, are rejected on the
grounds that they have no basis in Scripture (see Articles XXII and XXXVIII).
A more modern indication of basic Anglican doctrine may be found in the socalled Lambeth Quadrilateral. This declaration was drawn up in 1888 at an
international conference of Anglicans and consists of four principles which were
considered prerequisites to union with other Churches. The four principles include the
affirmation that Scripture includes everything necessary for salvation, acceptance of the
Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed as statements of faith, recognition of two sacraments
instituted by Christ, and continuance of episcopal church government.
Episcopal church government is one of the key traditions which Anglicans
preserve from the early Church. Not only was it included in the Lambeth Quadrilateral
but its importance has been confirmed by subsequent Lambeth Conferences. This is
another point, however, on which we find different interpretations among Anglicans
themselves. Some Anglicans regard the historic episcopate as necessary to the "being" or
"essence" of the Church, while others merely assert its value to the Church's "well being".
Similarly, there are those who insist on a strict theory of apostolic succession, virtually
identical to the theory maintained by Orthodox and Roman Catholics, whereas others
take a more flexible view. The former do not recognize the validity of non-episcopal
ordination (i.e., ordination in most Protestant churches); the latter insist that the validity
of such ministries has been acknowledged by the Church of England from the outset.
Yet regardless of these opposing positions, episcopal church government is a
basic feature of Anglicanism. Furthermore, Anglican bishops have both priestly and
administrative functions. Their priestly functions can be seen, for example, in the fact that
they alone may ordain clergy. Their administrative powers are similar to those of
Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops, for they too exercise jurisdiction over dioceses.
In modern Anglicanism, the authority of bishops is limited by the role of representative
assemblies, called "synods" or "houses of deputies." But this arrangement modifies
without overturning the episcopal system.
Worldwide Anglicanism is organized in a series of autonomous national churches,
including the Anglican Church in Canada. No one of these churches exercises jurisdiction
over the others. The Lambeth Conferences, mentioned above, are international gatherings
which serve as the highest advisory body for worldwide Anglicanism. Their function is
advisory, however, rather than legislative. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate
of the Church of England, and Anglicans everywhere pay him special respect. His
position, however, is in no way comparable to that of the Bishop of Rome. Anglican
church government is more like the Orthodox system with its family of autocephalous
churches than it is like Roman Catholic polity.
The form of worship for Anglicans is laid down in the Book of Common Prayer.
This was produced by translating into English and modifying the liturgical books of the
medieval Church. Some ceremonies were omitted, while others were simplified. The
daily offices of the medieval church, consisting chiefly of the recitation of the psalms,
were retained, but they were reduced in number to two and altered to include the reading
of lessons from Scripture. They are generally referred to as morning and evening prayer,
and they form a distinctive part of Anglican worship. The medieval Mass meanwhile was
transformed into a communion service, with all references to sacrifice removed. Holy
Communion is usually celebrated by Anglicans in connection with morning prayer. It
used to take place only a few times a year, but in the twentieth century there has been a
tendency for it to occur more often. The Eucharistic service is in general far simpler than
in Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, but this is another area where practice varies
widely among Anglicans. The Anglican churches continue to use a liturgical calendar,
with feast days for saints, but the names of saints not mentioned in the New Testament
were removed during the Reformation. Each national Anglican church has its own Book
of Common Prayer, but these differ from one another mainly in detail.