New Characteristics of Christianity Theological Change

Catholicism offered a metacredence good that interjected complex and complicated intermediaries between God and the faithful; it also claimed exclusive rights to define the conditions of salvation for all Christians. By contrast, Protestantism—in its original form as well as in the numerous splinter groups that subsequently developed—contained an essential simplification, which was that Christ was the only intermediary between man and God. Protestants hold that God's word is revealed in the Bible, which can be read and interpreted by each and every individual without the intervention of priest or cleric. Luther stripped the belief system down to the Apostle's Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer, along with three sacraments: baptism, the Eucharist, and penance. Not all reform sects agreed on the nature and scope of doctrine, but the essential principle of "no intermediary except Christ'' was common to all Protestant variations of belief. "Every man a priest'' is more than a catch phrase, for Protestants believe that neither priest (in the conventional sense) nor pope is necessary to interpret the conditions of salvation. This fundamental idea—the elimination of intermediaries between God and man—is central to understanding the evolution of Christianity in its various Protestant forms.

Luther's initial and fundamental change in the religious product led to ever-changing belief systems that varied from the evangelical, ultra-conservative (sometimes literal) interpretations of the Holy Bible to extremely individualistic interpretations. The principal early Protestant denominations were Lutheran, Calvinist (i.e., Reformed Protestant), and Anglican. Almost immediately factions arose between and within these churches that placed the members of each on the "left" and on the "right." On this development, historian Steven Ozment declares:

The division within Protestant ranks that is so striking to us today began almost immediately with the Reformation's initial success. Luther nailed his famous theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, and before a decade had passed he faced determined Anabaptist, Spiritualist, and Zwinglian competitors. Each took inspiration from his movement, while at the same time decrying its corruption and declaring independence from it. Here began the unending line of would-be reformers of the Reformation, who have ever since confronted the original and later versions of Protestantism with their own, allegedly truer interpretations of Holy Scripture.3

Thus Christianity, a religious product that had been monopolized for more than a millennium, eventually splintered into myriad consumer products offering various kinds of appeal to diverse consumer groups.

While individual precepts differed among all sects—Anabaptists did not believe in infant baptism, for example—the idea that each Christian was, to a greater or lesser degree, a unique individual capable of directing his own salvation was the essential revolutionary change of Protestantism. Some of the defining characteristics of both sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism included the following:

• Justification by faith alone: Good works (acts of Christian charity, devotion, etc.) offer no guarantee of salvation. Salvation can only be assured through a deep-seated and unwavering faith in the divinity and mercy of Christ.

• Scriptural authority: The word of God is revealed in the Bible, which is the supreme authority in all spiritual matters. The word of man, expressed through the teachings of the Catholic Church, is flawed and imperfect.

• Priesthood of all believers: Every believer, lay or clerical, can and should have a personal relationship with God. The priest was stripped of his role as special intermediary between God and man. The Bible should be made available to all believers in their own language. Since priests no longer have a special role, they need not be bound by special rules, such as celibacy.

• Fewer sacraments: Luther confined sacraments to only those outward signs that were personally instituted by Christ, which included baptism and the Eucharist, but excluded confirmation, penance, matrimony, ordination, and extreme unction.

• Denial of transubstantiation: Luther and others denied that eucharistic bread and wine are actually transformed into Christ's body and blood.

While differences existed on many minor points of doctrine (e.g., existence of the Trinity, adoration of saints, number of sacraments, predestination), a major difference between Protestant religions that was of economic consequence concerned forms of organization.

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