Last summer, I received an essay from a friend—a leading Evangelical intellectual—who said that the label Protestant should fade out in favor of the label Evangelical because, in part, Protestant was “negative.”
In many people’s minds, it certainly is. It sounds like it is about dissent and disagreement. It evokes images of picketers carrying poorly made signs back and forth in front of a factory. Indeed, it sounds disagreeable.
More recently, another friend published an engaging account of his exploration of Catholicism. The book is Jon Sweeney's Almost Catholic, and you can read an excellent review of it on my wife LaVonne’s blog.
The book is a good read, but its argument rests in part on his contrast between the “universal” character of Catholic faith and the negative Protestant alternative:
To be Protestant is to define yourself as protesting against certain forms of religion. ... there is little need for Protestants anymore. What are we still protesting? The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a European event.
So many seem to think that the essence of being Protestant is to conscientiously object to what is or was Roman Catholic. A little history and a little linguistic research shows Protestant to be a much more positive word, referring to what the original Protestants stood for rather than what they stood against.
Sweeney rightly ties Protestant to the Second Diet of Speyer (1529), and the response of the German evangelical princes to its decision to restrict their freedom. But he misleadingly labels Protestant “a political moniker,” when the cultural context thoroughly mixed religion and politics. The word religion certainly existed, but it remained for the Enlightenment to create it as a distinct category of thought and experience. Sixteenth-century people were more likely to think in concrete terms of the overlapping authorities of king and pope, bishop and prince, priest and magistrate. Neither religion nor politics was an abstract category for them.
What do the major historians of Protestantism say? Like almost all their colleagues, John Dillenberger and Claude Welch link the origin of the word Protestant to the ‘Protestation’ of the German evangelical estates in the second Diet of Speyer. But they see in that term “the duality of protest and affirmative witness.” That protest, they write, was
from the standpoint of affirmed faith. Few churches ever adopted the name “Protestant.” The most commonly adopted designations were rather “evangelical” and “reformed.” ... [W]hen the word Protestant came into currency in England (in Elizabethan times), its accepted significance was not “objection” but “avowal” or “witness” or “confession” (as the Latin protestari meant also “to profess”).
That meaning lasted for another century, say Dillenberger and Welch, and it referred to the Church of England’s
making its profession of the faith in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. Only later did the word “protest” come to have a primarily negative significance, and the term “Protestant” come to refer to non-Roman churches in general.
Writing about the second Diet of Speyer, the esteemed Luther biographer Roland Bainton called the word Protestant
unfortunate as a name because it implies that Protestantism was mainly an objection. The dissenters in their own statement affirmed that “they must protest and testify publicly before God that they could do nothing contrary to His word.” The emphasis was less on protest than on witness.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, traces the history of the term. From 1529 until 1547, Protestant was limited to the sphere of German politico-religious life, identifying those princes who followed Luther or Zwingli and who in 1529 “issued a protestatio, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared.” The term entered English in 1547, when the officials who were organizing the coronation of Edward VI listed “in order the procession of dignitaries through [London].” There, in that list, was a place for “‘the Protestants,’ by whom they meant the diplomatic representatives of [the] reforming Germans.”
When Edward VI was crowned, the word still had a positive connotation. On the CultureVulture blog for the Guardian, Sean Clarke notes that it was 60 years from the introduction of Protestant in English until its first use in the extended sense of "object, dissent, or disapprove.” That (according to the Collins Etymological Dictionary) was first recorded in English in 1608. The Online Etymological Dictionary places the first use of protest to mean “statement of disapproval” in the year 1751—another century and a half. Through much of that history and well after, protest continued to mean “avow,” “affirm,” “witness,” or “solemnly proclaim.”
Poor, misunderstood protest has had a history something like that of another word—apology. That word has gone from its positive, head-held-high sense of “a formal justification or defense” (as in “the essay was an apology for capitalism”) to something tinged with shame and remorse (“a statement of regret or request for pardon”).
We need to recover the positive sense of protestant. It denotes things that we stand for: the authority of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. It’s a matter of principle. And because it is about standing for truth, Catholics can be protestants too.
Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Enlarged Edition, Beacon, 1985)
John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development (Scribner’s, 1954)
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (Viking, 2003).