A gracEmail subscriber asks, “What exactly does ‘Protestant’ mean? I’ve always been taught that I am neither Protestant nor Catholic but only a ‘Christian.’ Can you help clear this up?”
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Originally the word “Protestant” referred to followers of the 16th century reformers Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, whose work many celebrate the last Sunday each October. The noun is formed from the Latin verb protestari meaning “to make a declaration.” The Reformers “declared” that God justifies sinners by grace through faith, that all believers are God’s holy priesthood and that Scripture takes precedence over all other religious authorities.
At that time, those declarations distinguished Protestants from Roman Catholics (also from Eastern Orthodox), who taught that God’s grace is mediated only through sacraments validly administered only by their own priests, and who regarded the Church’s oral tradition as equal in authority with the written Scriptures. Most people today use “Protestant” to refer to any Christian who is not Roman Catholic or (Eastern) Orthodox. Anglicanism straddles two of these categories since it combines Protestant content and Catholic forms.
However, we might also define a Protestant church as one which descended from the original Protestant Reformers. Strictly speaking, many non-Catholic churches today are not “Protestant” in this sense. Those include numerous Bible churches, independent churches, charismatic churches, “restoration” churches (Churches of Christ, Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ), “adventual” churches (Advent Christian and Seventh-day Adventist), and a variety of independent, nondenominational congregations.
Unfortunately, many Christians through the years have imagined that their churches have no historical roots in earlier Christian history, but they have fooled no one but themselves. We cannot skip over the past 2,000 years as if they had not transpired. Far wiser to study our roots, acknowledge those earlier streams which flowed into our own religious movements, and humbly accept our identity as part (but not all) of God’s “true church” on the earth.