Thursday, May 18, 2006

Biblical Protestantism: Part 1 Definition

I want to try to suggest that to be truly biblical, evangelicals need to be Protestants. This is part 1 of a short series.

Let me begin by defining terms. The word “Protestant” has very negative connotations nowadays. The word is perceived to refer to a narrow, bigoted intransigent mindset. This is partly because the troubles in Northern Ireland have often been reported by the media in terms of the tensions between Protestant and Catholic factions.

This is unfortunate. The word did not originally mean to protest against something so much as to speak up for ones views. Word first used in the context of the Reformation, at Holy Roman Empire’s Diet of Speyer in 1529. The diet had been called to discuss the religious and political issues that had been raised in Germany by the reforming activities of Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli. The princes and city representatives who supported reform found themselves in a minority. But they united behind a “Protestatio”, affirming their shared reforming beliefs. For some years, the word “Protestant” simply meant Germans who supported the Reformation. Only later was the term applied to Reformed people in general. For that reason, Dairmaid MacCulloch, in his Reformation, Europe’s House Divided (Penguin History, 2004) prefers the word “evangelical”, arguing,

That word has the advantage that it was widely used at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangeluim. (p. xx)

Macculloch makes a helpful point here. The Evangelical movement clearly had its origins in Reformation.

Words do change their meaning over time. The word “Protestant” in English usage, was redefined along nationalistic lines. The original, religious meaning of the word was gradually chipped away. As a result of the Reformation in England, the whole country was regarded as “Protestant” over and against the Catholic countries of continental Europe. This was so much so that Christopher Hill could write that, ‘After 1688, “the Protestant interest” and “England” came to be used as interchangeable terms’. (P. 56 Puritanism and Revolution, Penguin, 1990). Elsewhere, Hill recounts this anecdote to illustrate his point,

The word ‘protestant’ in this context came to have political, or nationalistic, significance. When Nell Gwynn was mistaken by a hostile crowd for King Charles IInd’s French mistress, she said reassuringly, ‘Be silent good people, I am the protestant whore’. What mattered was her patriotism, not her theology. (p. 297, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution, Allen Lane Penguin Press, 1993)

We need to recapture the original meaning of the word “Protestant”. As Nick Needham points out, we should not ashamed to be Protestant Evangelicals,

The term “Protestant” has often been completely misunderstood as meaning simply a negative protest against Rome. Originally, however it had a far more positive meaning; to “protest” was a transitive verb which meant to declare, to affirm, to set forth a position. (It survives in this meaning when a person “protests his innocence” or a lover “protests his love” for his beloved.) The first Protestants were not only protesting against medieval Catholic errors; they were also “protesting the gospel”, declaring the positive truths of Scripture which medieval Rome had neglected, obscured, distorted, or denied. It is therefore in correct that the term “Protestant” would loose its meaning if Roman Catholicism either reformed itself or ceased to exist. As long as there is a gospel, there is something to protests – to declare, affirm, and set forth to the world.(P. 137, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part Three, Renaissance and Reformation, Grace Publications, 2004)

In this sense we must be biblical Protestants, as was the apostle Paul who wrote,

Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace. (Philippians 1:7) [epmasis added]

He urged to Philippians to join in with this “protestant” ministry,

Only let your conversation be as it becomes the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). [emphasis added]

Jude too was a good biblical protestant,

Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that you should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. (Jude 3)
For more in Biblical Protestantism visit this website: Protestant Truth Society


Eduardo said...

I don't think that the term "Protestant" implied a positive affirmation of Reformed beliefs. I know the position you describe is taken by some Reformed apologists, but the "Protest" of the Evangelical princes on the Diet of Spira was just that: a protest or remostrance against unjust preference towards Roman Catholicism.

However, I enjoyed your post very much.

Exiled Preacher said...


Thanks for your comments.

The Diet of Speyer in 1529 overturned the Diet agreed at the same location in 1526. The earlier diet guaranteed some liberty of religion for reformed Christians in Catholic territories. The "Protest" document signalled disagreement with the conclusions of the 1529 Diet. But it also set forth the doctrines agreed by the reformed leaders in a positive way.

Guy Davies

Jonathan Hunt said...

methinks you doth protest too much... ;-)

no, seriously, very interesting and I look forward to part two!

Exiled Preacher said...

You can never protest too much, in the original meaning of the word! 8-)