Reasons to Believe

The Distinctives of Protestant Christianity Part 1

I love history. For me, fiction and fantasy have never been as captivating and exhilarating as uncovering an accurate understanding of the significant events of the past. As an undergraduate student I had real difficulty in deciding whether to major in history or philosophy. I ended up taking the equivalent of a double major.

I am a passionate student of the history of Western civilization as well as the history of the United States, especially the American Civil War and World War II. This passion for history, however, sometimes poses problems when it comes to family vacations. My wife prefers excursions to Yosemite and Yellowstone whereas I enjoy trips to Washington, D.C., and Virginia.

One of the things that I appreciate most about my faith is its deep roots in history. To be a Christian is to know the person of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Yet being a believer also means being part of a great historical movement—a member of the dynamic and historic Christian church.

As a Christian, church history is therefore my history. Unfortunately, many believers today know very little about the history of their faith. Yet the church’s past teaches many critical lessons that today’s Christians could greatly benefit from. Remember the sober warning of the philosopher George Santayana:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Protestant Christianity

The three historic branches of Christendom consist of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The word “Protestant” when pronounced phonetically becomes “protest-ant.” Historically Protestant Christianity began as a protest movement. A group of Western Christians in the sixteenth century began disputing some of the beliefs and practices of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Clear precursors of the Reformation movement were found in such medieval theologians as John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and John Huss (1369-1415) who had likewise criticized certain church doctrines and practices one hundred years before.

However, the word “Protestant” can also be understood in a positive sense (“pro-testant:” one who testifies to the truth of Scripture). The origin of Protestant Christianity can be directly traced to the teachings and actions of both the sixteenth century magisterial Reformers—principally Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), John Calvin (1509-1564), and John Knox (1513-1572)—and the leaders of the Radical Reformation—particularly those who were called Anabaptist..

While Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox did not share complete doctrinal unity, they were united on three principle theological points. These positions have been called the theological characteristics of Protestant Christianity. Here are those uniting points enumerated:

  1. Justification by faith alone (sola fide)
  2. Scripture as the supreme authority in faith and practice (sola Scriptura)
  3. Priesthood of all believers

I will briefly explore these critical features in successive installments of this series.

The influential Reformation movement in Europe in the sixteenth century was initially intended only to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Ultimately it ended up dividing the Western church and birthing a theological expression of Christianity that sought greater continuity with the teachings of Scripture. Many scholars view the Reformation as signaling the beginning of the modern era in Western civilization.

Since evangelical Christians today are the historical heirs of the Protestant Reformation, they should know their history. For as one scholar aptly put it:

“We don’t live in the past, but the past lives in us.”

To read about the Protestant Reformation, I suggest beginning with two works by Yale historian Roland H. Bainton Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther and The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Subjects: Historical Theology

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.