Some Distinctive Protestant Beliefs

What do Protestants believe? And how do those belief commitments show themselves in the values and actions of Protestant communities? How do Protestant ideas manifest themselves? The historical narrative already presented has highlighted at least some of the main themes of Protestant belief, while hinting at an endemic diversity that is essential to the movement's origins and development. This chapter explores some of the beliefs that have been characteristic of Protestantism throughout its history and briefly describes some of the more distinctive ideas and emphases of the various groups within the movement.1

Yet it is not enough simply to describe these ideas. A deeper question must be addressed: What difference do they make? What role have they played in shaping Protestantism, in aiding or hindering its advance, and in determining its characteristic concerns? Ideas shape actions and attitudes. In this chapter, we examine the ways in which specific Protestant ideas have influenced the development of the movement.

One of those beliefs has already been considered in great detail in the previous chapter—the fundamental, identity-giving Protestant emphasis on the supremacy of the Bible, traditionally stated using the Latin slogan sola Scriptura. While this "scripture principle" is not intended to exclude other theological resources, it makes absolutely clear that scripture is the ultimate foundation and the final court of appeal for Protestant belief and action. Other resources may be useful and helpful; they do not, however, possess the same weight as scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this position well:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture; to which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (I, 6)

It is important to appreciate from the outset that the Protestant strategy of prioritizing an engagement with the Bible has led to a multiplicity of belief outcomes. In one sense, "Protestantism" designates a way of doing theology rather than any given set of possible or specific outcomes. The question of which is the "right" interpretation of the Bible raises a series of fundamental issues about who has the authority to make such a judgment—about who owns Protestantism. There is no equivalent within Protestantism of the pope, the Vatican, or the "Congregation of the Faith"—to mention the centralized authorities within Catholicism—even though individual denominations, organizations, societies, and networks recognize certain "authority figures" within their own ranks. It is clearly inappropriate to try to homogenize this complex picture or impose a doctrinal uniformity upon the components of global Protestantism when this clearly does intellectual violence to them.2

In general terms, Protestantism reaffirmed the core beliefs of Christian orthodoxy as these were set out by the Council of Chalcedon (451), particularly the "two natures" of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. Although the Reformation of the sixteenth century subjected the entire gamut of Christian belief to critical reexamination in the light of biblical foundations, these two core areas were found not to require reformation by the mainline reformers.

Nevertheless, some radical reformers, regarding these beliefs as being inadequately grounded in the Bible, spawned movements, however small—such as evangelical anti-trinitarianism—at this early stage. A reaffirmation of the core dogmatic beliefs of the early church may be characteristic of Protestantism, but it has never been univocal. A significant minority—and they cannot be dismissed as a "lunatic fringe"— have had other views. The radical wing of the Reformation argued, not without reason, that mainline reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin had been inconsistent and failed to apply their biblicist reforming agenda to all areas of the church's life and thought. If the use of the term "radical" implies that there were obvious limits to the application of the sola Scriptura principle overlooked by those in this camp, it must be noted that they merely advocated consistent usage of the principle. The category of "radical Protestant" is thus more than a little problematic, its legitimacy depending on whose perspective is taken.

It is, of course, possible to argue that the anti-trinitarian movements of the sixteenth century were not Protestant. Such an argument, however, introduces a prescriptive component into any account of the movement, by which the agendas of power groups intrude into a serious historical investigation of what, as a matter of fact, Protestants actually believed.

The present chapter is deliberately subtitled "Some Distinctive Protestant Beliefs" to make the point that, while Protestants share certain core beliefs with other styles of Christianity, there are points at which they diverge. C. S. Lewis offered an image that may be helpful at this point. In his influential Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that we think of a great house in which a large hall has a number of rooms leading off to its sides. The hall is the Christian faith, and the rooms are its different constituent elements—Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and so forth.

In one sense, Protestantism belongs to Lewis's broad category of "mere Christianity" in that it shares the core beliefs of Christianity as a whole—such as belief in God, the hope of heaven, and so on. Our concern in this chapter is to explore the rooms leading off from this hall that contain beliefs specific to Protestantism, or versions of more general Christian beliefs that are held in a specific form within Protestantism. To understand Protestantism, it is important to understand at least some of these beliefs. This chapter identifies and explores some—but not all—of these beliefs as a means of grasping what Protestantism is all about.

In the previous chapter, we noted that diversity has arisen within Protestantism as a result of differing approaches to biblical interpretation, or because of multiple outcomes of essentially the same approach. The agreement of all Protestant groups on the priority of the Bible does not—and indeed could not—lead to a homogeneity of interpretations. The importance of this becomes clear at many points throughout this chapter.

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