Protestantism

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Webster's Dictionary [1]

(n.) The quality or state of being protestant, especially against the Roman Catholic Church; the principles or religion of the Protestants.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [2]

is the advocacy of the authority of the Sacred Scriptures above and without any other. The Romanist and Jew hold to tradition (q.v.) as having the warrant of authority, but the Protestants refuse to yield to any arguments not clearly and directly drawn from the sacred Word of God. There arise, of course, various questions as to what this Word is, and how it is to be interpreted. In regard to the former, the Protestant holds that the Holy Bible is composed only of the canonical writings of the Old and New Testament, (See Canon), while the Roman Catholics also ascribe canonical authority to the so-called Apocrypha of the Old Testament. SEE APOCRYPHA.

The right of interpretation the Roman Catholic Church claims to be hers alone, while the Protestant Church concedes this right in a stricter sense to every one who possesses the requisite gifts and attainments, but in a more comprehensive sense to every Christian who seeks after salvation, proceeding upon the principle that Scripture is its own interpreter according to the analogia fidei. (See Interpretation).

With this is connected the assumption of the Roman Catholic Church that the Vulgate version, which it sanctions, is to be preferred to all other versions as the authentic one, and is thus to a certain extent of equal importance with the original, while Protestants regard the original only as authentic.

The object of Protestant Christianity is freedom from that ecclesiasticism which the primitive Church was unacquainted with, and which owes its origin and development to the mediaeval Church. "The Reformation, viewed in its most general character," says Ullmann (Reformers before the Reformulation, 1, 13), "was the reaction of Christianity as Gospel against Christianity as law." It is therefore inconsistent for Anglican High- churchmen and their followers on this side of the Atlantic to assert that Protestantism is simply negative, It is positive as well, for it not only discards one interpretation of Christianity, but espouses another. It denies the right of the Church to stand in authority of the individual, but it gives a circumscribed and well-defined liberty to the individual not absolute license. "The liberty which the Reformers prized first and chiefly," says Prof. Fisher (Hist. of the Ref p. 9), "was not the abstract right to choose one's creed without constraint. but a liberty that flows from the enforced appropriation by the soul of truth in harmony with its inmost nature and its conscious necessities." The nature of Protestantism, the essence of Protestantism, the principle of Protestantism, is freedom, but freedom only from the restraints of man, from a tyranny of conscience, from all systems which had( previous to the great Reformation been imposed upon man without any divine warrant.

It is freedom on the basis of obedience to God and to his holy Word. It is that freedom which consists in the cheerful and ready obedience to the divine Word and to the divine Will. It is the freedom of the republic, and not the license of the commune; it is the liberty of common-sense, and not the enthusiasm of the idealist. "The principle of Protestantism," says Dr. Schaff, "is evangelical freedom in Christ, its aim to bring every soul into direct relation to Christ. Romanism puts the Church first and Christ next; Protestantism reverses the order. Romanism says, Where the Church is (meaning thereby the papal organization), there is Christ; Protestantism says, Where Christ is, there is the Church; Romanism says, Where the Catholic tradition is, there is the Bible and the infallible rule of faith; Protestantism says, Where the Bible is. there is the true tradition and the infallible rule of faith; Romanism says, Where good works are, there are faith and justification; Protestantism says, Where faith is, there are justification and good works. Romanism throws Mary and the saints between Christ and the believer; Protestantism goes directly to the Saviour. Romanism proceeds from the visible Church (the papacy) to the invisible Church; Protestantism from the invisible Church, (the true body of Christ) to the visible; Romanaism works from without, and from the general to the particular; Protestantism from within, and from the individual to the general. Protestantism is a protest against the tyranny of man on the basis of the authority of God. It proclaims the Bible to be the only infallible rule of Christian faith and practice, and teaches justification by grace alone, as apprehended by a living faith. It holds up Christ as all in all, whose word is all-sufficient to teach, whose grace is all-sufficient to save. Its mission is to realize the universal priesthood and kingship of all believers by bringing them all into direct union and fellowship with Christ" (Christian Intelligencer, Jan. 14, 1869). Dr. Hagenbach objects to this reduction of Protestantism to one fundamental principle, and offers three as its basis viz. (1) the real principle, living faith in Christ; (2) the formal principle, the authority of the Scriptures as a rule of faith; (3) the social principle, forming a community, of which Christ is the individual head, and of which all the members are priests unto God (see Theol. Studien t. Kritiken, January, 1854, art. 1). In this division every essential characteristic of Protestantism seems to have been considered by this master theologian.

Romanists charge against Protestantism that its resistance of dogmatism makes it synonymous with scepticism (q.v.) and unbelief. This is very unfair. Protestantism reposes implicitly on what it believes to be the divine authority of the inspired writers of the books of Holy Scripture; whereas scepticism and unbelief acknowledge no authority external to the mind, no communication superior to reason and science. Protestantism, although by its attitude of independence it seems similar to the other two systems, is really separated by a difference of kind, and not merely of degree. "The spiritual earnestness which characterized the Reformation," says Farrar (Crit. Hist. of Free Thought, p. 7), "prevented the changes in religious belief from developing into scepticism proper; and the theology of the Reformation is accordingly an example of defence and reconstruction as well as of revulsion." Protestantism was a form of free thought, but only in the sense of a return from human authority to that of Scripture. It was equally a reliance on a historic religion, equally an appeal to the immemorial doctrine of the Church with Roman Catholicism, but it conceived that the New Testament itself contained a truer source than tradition for ascertaining the apostolic declaration of it.

Some writers Romanists, and even some within the Protestant fold, but hardly of the faith have declared "Protestantism a failure." They have attempted to show that its territory is principally within the limits it acquired in the period of the great Reformation, and that its prospects for extension are lessening every day. Macaulay has treated this question in a spirited essay. in which with certain reasons which are pertinent and valuable is coupled a singular denial that the knowledge of religion is progressive, or at all dependent upon the general enlightenment of the human mind. Apart from his paradoxical speculation on this last point, his statement of the grounds of the arrest of the progress of Protestantism, though eloquent and valuable, is quite incomplete. The principal causes of this arrest have been thus ably pointed out by Prof. Fisher (Hist. of the Ref. p. 415 sq.):

(1.) The ferment that attended the rise of Protestantism led to a crystallizing of parties, and thus incited to raise a Barrier in the way of its further progress.

(2.) The political arrangements which were adopted in different countries, in consequence of the religious division, all tended to confine Protestantism within the limits which it had early attained.

(3.) The want of the spirit of propagandism. Romanism is always aggressive; Protestantism, generally speaking, maintains only that which comes within its sphere.

(4.) The counter-reformation of the Romish Church and its avowed determination to remove gross abuses have stayed but too often the step of aggression from the Protestants.

(5.) The disjointed condition of Protestantism; its constant warfarings of brother with brother; the absence of a tolerant spirit for difference of opinion in non-essentials, have facilitated the advance of their common enemy, still further strengthened by perfect organization.

(6.) The inability of Protestantism to turn to the best account the wide diversity of talents and character which is constantly developing in evangelical Christianity. In Romanism Ignatius and Bellarmine can labor side by side. In Protestantism Wesley and Whitefield must become the founders of new sects.

(7.) The disposition of races. Montesquieu, in his Esprit Des Lois, remarks that Protestantism is prevalent in Northern, Catholicism in Southern Europe, and explains most judiciously, "C'est que les peuples du nord out et auront toujours un esprit d'independance et de liberte, que n'ont pas les peuples du midi."

If Protestantism be a failure, it has its failure in its successes. These are well set forth in the following extract from Prof. Fisher's address at the Evangelical Alliance Congress in 1874:

" (1.) Its whole character is favorable to civil and religious freedom and the promotion of the multiplied advantages which freedom brings in its train. Under Roman Catholicism man was deprived of his personal rights; under Protestantism he regained them. The progress of civilization, in the long course of history, is marked by the growing respect paid to the rights of the individual, and the ampler room afforded for the unfolding of his powers, and for the realizing of his aspirations. There was something imposing in those huge despotisms Egypt, Assyria, Balylon, Persia in which a multitude of human beings were welded together under an absolute master. Such empires were an advance upon a primitive state of things, where every man's hand was against his neighbor. Yet they were a crude form of crystallization, and they were intrinsically weak. The little cities of Greece, with their freer political life, and the larger scope which they allowed for the activity and the culture of the individual communities of citizens proved more than a match for the colossal might of the East. Among the Greeks and Romans, however, although governments of law had supplanted naked force, the State was supreme, and to the State the individual must yield an exclusive allegiance. It was a great gain when the Christian Church arose, and when the individual became conscious,of an allegiance of the soul to a higher kingdom an allegiance which did not supersede his loyalty to the civil authority, but limited while it sanctioned this obligation. But the Church itself at length erected a supremacy over the individual inconsistent with the free action of reason and conscience, and even stretched that supremacy so far as to dwarf and overshadow civil society. It reared a theocracy, and subjected everything to its unlimited sway. The Reformation gave back to the individual his proper autonomy. The result is a self-respect, an intellectual activity, a development of inventive capacity and of energy of character, which give rise to such achievements in science, in the field of political action, and in every work where self-reliance and personal force are called for, as would be impossible under the opposite system. In the period immediately following the Reformation signal proofs were afforded of this truth. The little states of Holland, for example, proved their ability to cope with the Spanish empire, to gain their independence, and to acquire an opulence and a culture which recalled the best days of the Grecian republics. They beat back their invaders from their soil, and sent forth their victorious navies upon every sea, while at home they were educating the common people, fostering science and learning, and building up nunivel sites famous throughout Europe. England, in the age of Elizabeth, proved that the native vigor of her people was reinforced in a remarkable degree by the stimulus derived from the peculiar genius of the Protestant religion. It was the period when she was acquiring her naval ascendency; the period, likewise, of Shakespeare, Bacon, and Raleigh. Who can doubt that the United States of America are, not indeed wholly, but in great part, indebted for their position, as contrasted with that of Mexico and the political communities of South America, to this expansion of the power of the individual, which is the uniform and legitimate fruit of Protestant principles?

" (2.) The spirit of Protestantism favors universal education. The lay Christian, who is to read and interpret the Scriptures, and to take part in the administration of government in the Church, must not be an illiterate person. Knowledge, mental enlightenment, under the Protestant system, are indispensable. The weight of personal responsibility for the culture of his intellectual and spiritual nature which rests on every individual makes education a matter of universal concern. Far more has been done in Protestant than in Roman Catholic countries for the instruction of the whole people. It is enough to refer to the common-school system of Holland and of New England, and to Protestant Germany, to show how natural it is for the disciples of the Reformation to provide for this great interest of society.

"The free circulation of the Bible in Protestant lands has disseminated an instrument of intellectual as well as of religious improvement, the good effect of which is immeasurable. As a repository of history, biography, poetry, ethics, as well as a monitor to the conscience and a guide to heaven, the Bible has exerted an influence on the common mind, in all Protestant nations, which it would be difficult to exaggerate. The practice of interpreting the Bible and of exploring its pages for flesh truth affords at mental discipline of a very high order. How often have the Scriptures carried into the cottage of the peasant a breadth and refinement of intellect which otherwise would never have existed, and which no agency employed by the Roman Catholic system, in relation to the same social class, has ever been able to engender!

" (3.) That Protestantism should be more friendly to civil and religious liberty than the Roman Catholic system would seem to follow unavoidably from the nature of the two forms of faith. Protestantism involves, as a vital element, an assertion of personal rights with respect to religion, the highest concern of man. Moreover, Protestantismn casts off the yoke of priestly rule, and puts ecclesiastical government, in due measure, into the hands of the laity. As we have already said, it is a revolt of the laity against a usurped ecclesiastical authority: The Church of Rome teaches men that their first and most binding duty is to bow with unquestioning docility and obedience to their heaven-appointed superiors. How is it possible that Protestantism should not foster a habit of mind which is incompatible with a patient endurance of tyranny at the hands of the civil power? How can Protestantism, inspiring a lively sense of persona rights, fail to bring with it, eventually at least, a corresponding respect for the rights of others, and a disposition to secure their rights in forms of government and in legislation? How can men who are accustomed to judge for themselves and act independently in Church affairs manifest a slavish spirit in the political sphere? On the contrary, the habit of mind which the Roman Catholic nurture tends to beget leads to servility in the subject towards the ruler as long as an alliance is kept up between sovereign and priest. It is true that the Church of Rome can accommodate itself to any of the various types of political society. Her doctors have at times preached an extreme theory of popular rights and of the sovereignty of the people. While the State is subordinate to the Church any form of government may be tolerated; and there may be an interest on the part of the priesthood in inculcating political theories which operate, in their judgment, to weaken the obligations of loyalty towards the civil magistrate, and to exalt by contrast the divine authority of the Church. When the civil magistracy presumes to exercise prerogatives, or to ordain measures, which are deemed hurtful to the ecclesiastical interest, a radical doctrine of revolution, even a doctrine of tyrannicidle, has been heard from the pulpits of the most conservative of religious bodies. Generally speaking, however, the Church of Rome is the natural ally and supporter of arbitrary principles of government.

The prevailing sentiment, the instinctive feeling, in that Church is that the body of the people are incapable of self-guidance, and that to give them the reins in civil affairs would imperil the stability of ecclesiastical control. To this reasoning it is often replied by advocates of the Roman Catholic system that Protestantism opens a door to boundless tyranny by leaving the temporal power without any check from the ecclesiastical. The State, it is said, proves omnipotent; the civil magistrate is delivered from the wholesome dread of ecclesiastical censure, and is left free to exercise all kinds of tyranny, without the powerful restraint to which he was subject under the mediaeval system. He may even violate the rights of conscience with impunity. The State, it is sometimes said, when released from its subordinate relation to the Church, is a godless institution. It becomes, like the pagan states of antiquity, absolute in the province of religion as in secular affairs, and an irresistible engine of oppression. It must be admitted that Protestant rulers have been guilty of tyranny; that, in many instances, they cannot be cleared of the charge of unwarrantably interfering with the rights of conscience, and of attempting to govern the belief and reculate the forms of worship of their subjects in a manner destructive of true liberty. The question is, whether these instances of misgovernment are the proper fruit of the Protestant spirit, or something at variance with it, and therefore an evil of a temporary and exceptional character. The imputation that the State, as constituted under Protestantism, is heathen depends on the false assumption that the Church and the priesthood, as established in the Roman Catholic system, are identical, or so nearly identical that one cannot subsist without the other. It is assumed that when the supervision and control which the Church of Rome aspires to exercise over the civil authority are shaken off, nothing is left but an unchristian or antichristian institution. The fact that a layman can be as good a Christian as a priest is overlooked. The Christian laity who make up a commonwealth, and the Christian magistrates who are set over them, are quite as able to discern and quite as likely to respect personal rights, and to act for the common weal, as if they were subject to an organized priesthood. Since the Reformation a layman has been the head of the English Church and State, and civil magistrates in England have borne a part in ecclesiastical government. Without entering into the question of the righteousness or expediency of establishments, or broaching any of the controverted topics connected with this subject, we simply assert here that the civil government of England is not to be branded as unchristian or antichristian on account of this arrangement. As far as the administration of public affairs in that country has been characterized by justice and by a regard for the wellbeing of all orders of people, the government has been Christian as truly Christian, to say the least, as if the supremacy had been virtually lodged with the pope, or with an aristocracy of priests.

"History verifies the pi position that Protestantism is favorable to civil and religious freedom. The long and successful struggle for independence in the Netherlands, the conflict which established English liberty against the despotic influence of the house of Stuart, the growth and establishment of the Republic of the United States, are events so intimately connected with Protestantism, and so dependent upon it, that we may point to them as monuments of the true spirit and tendency of the Reformed religion. Tht igiuos pThat e persecution has darkened the annals of the Protestant faith, and that the earliest leaders in the Reformation failed to recognise distinctly the principle of liberty of conscience, must be admitted. But Protestantism, as is claimed at the present day both by its friends and foes, was illogical, inconsistent with its own genius and principles, whenever it attempted to coerce conscience by punishing religious dissent with the sword and the fagot. Protestants illustrate the real character and tendency of their system by deploring whatever acts of religious persecution the predecessors who bore their name were guilty of, and by the open and sincere advocacy of religious liberty. Liberty of thought and freedom of speech and of the press, however restricted they nay have been by Protestants in times past, it is the tendency of Protestantism to uphold."

See Schenkel, Das Wesen des Protestantismus (2d ed. Schaffh. 1862); Frank, Gesch. der prof. Theol. (Leips. 1862-65, 2 vols.); Wylie, Hist. of Prof. (Lond. 1874 sq.); Gieseler, Ecclesiastes Hist. iv. 131 sq.; Hase, Ch. Hist. p. 437 sq.; Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctr. (see Index).

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [3]

The name given to a movement headed by Luther in the 16th century, in protestation of the supremacy in spiritual things claimed by the Church of Rome, and made on the ground of the authority of conscience enlightened by the Word of God, conceived of as the ultimate revelation of God to man.

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