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What Is Protestant Theology?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Protestant theology is a catchall term for new churches and religious groups that splintered away from the Catholic Church in Western Europe. The start of the Protestant revolution is attributed to German theologian Martin Luther in the 16th century, though it is not marked by the fact people rebelled against Catholicism at all, but rather because it was so successful. The term protestant dates to the ‘letter of protestation’ sent to the Diet of Speyer by Lutheran Princes in 1529. Since Luther, the term has come to include all non-Catholic practitioners as diverse as Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists and Quakers.

While the Catholic Church had been looking within itself via the Jesuits and the humanist leanings of Erasmus, the first split came in 1517 when Luther posted his 95 theses on a church door. Luther began by protesting against the sale of indulgences, whereby rich people could buy certificates that shortened the amount of time they spent in purgatory and, thus, eased their path to heaven. Luther believed that only God could grant salvation.

Luther was able to thrive and develop his theologies because of Elector Frederick of Saxony’s protection. His success allowed other theologians such as Jean Calvin, the Anabaptsists and Huldrych Zwingli to develop their own theologies. Protestantism’s long-term survival is owed to the willingness of states such as England to break away from the Catholic Church, even if such breaks were for non-religious reasons.

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As a result of the diversity in origins and beliefs, there is no one singular Protestant theology. Instead, there are differing ideas surrounding key tenets of Christian belief. They center on the Eucharist or mass, the nature of salvation and the sacraments.

The Catholic Church believes in the idea of transubstantiation during mass. This means the bread and the wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ. Protestant theologians nearly universally disagree with this. Luther and Calvin believed in consubstantiation, whereby the bread and wine only turn into the body and blood of Christ when consumed. Zwingli, on the other hand, believed Christ was being symbolic during the Last Supper.

All of the original Protestant theologians believed that St. Augustine of Hippo was correct in believing in original sin. Luther believed that all a person needed in order to get to heaven was faith alone or sola fide in Latin. He also believed that good works were essential to gaining God’s grace. Some Protestants, such as Calvin, believed in predestination. This meant that God had already decided the chosen and life’s choices made no difference to who was saved and who was damned.

The Catholic Church believed there were seven sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, Holy Eucharist and penance. The other three were extreme unction or last rites, holy orders and marriage. Anglican Protestant theology often holds all seven, but places extra importance on baptism and Holy Eucharist because they were ordained by Christ.

Luther, on the other hand, was more flexible and believed that a sacrament absolves sin, so only baptism, Holy Eucharist and the last rites should count. Other traditions hold that there are no sacraments or that they are symbolic only. Others, such as the Baptists and Anabaptists, have created new sacraments for their churches.

While there are numerous minor ideas and controversies in Protestant theology, it is worth noting that all churches believe in the primacy of the bible. This is known in Latin as sola scriptura. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, places Church tradition as being equal to the scriptures.

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