One meaning of the term "Protestant" is "a church drawing its roots from the Reformation and the denominations of the Reformers in particular". I have also seen the term extensively used to mean "a modern non-Catholic non-Orthodox western denomination" with 'modern' meaning dating back no earlier than roughly the time of the Reformation and 'western' generally meaning embracing western scholasticism and enlightenment thinking in general. I have recently been told that the latter meaning is "just wrong". Is the latter definition 'wrong' in some fundamental way and what reasons are there to use or avoid using it? If it is wrong, what term (not "modern non-Catholic non-Orthodox western denomination" please, that's just way too long) would be better for this broader usage?

  • Related Question: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/17518/…
    – kutschkem
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 13:15
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    The label you are looking for is not very helpful, imo. Instead of saying something about the grouped denominations, it would just be describing what they are not.
    – kutschkem
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 13:27
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    Since the Enlightenment was post-Reformation and mostly a work of deists, I don't know why there would be any reason to define Protestantism as "embracing Enlightenment thinking." Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 16:26
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    To the question, as a Protestant Christian I would quite object to being called "non-orthodox" (smile). I agree with @kutschkem, define yourself, if you must, by what you are, not by what you aren't.
    – user32
    Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 18:59

4 Answers 4


Your question is a good one, but it is slightly misguided. You are seeking a precise definition for a term which does not have one. The word Protestant can mean different things depending on the context in which it is used. When used in a historical context, it may be used to strictly refer to those involved in the Reformation and to the churches that they directly founded. However, it is also perfectly legitimate and acceptable to use the term Protestant to refer to any Christians or Churches that espouse the same principles as the original Protestant reformers.

The biggest commonality among Protestants is that they denounce the universal authority of the Papacy. Beyond that, the term Protestant is much like the term Christian. It essentially applies to anyone who chooses to apply it to themselves. In that sense, I do think that you were using the term appropriately, as long as you only intended it in a loose way. It would be wrong to correct someone's use of the term by suggesting that the term can only legitimately be used in a historically precise way.

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    Protestants don't in general denouce the authority of the Pope, in the sense that they think its a bad thing; they are perfectly happy for the Pope to be the head of the Catholic church. They just don't recognise him as having any authority over them. Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 14:50
  • @DJClayworth Fair enough. I changed to "univeral authority" to be more precise... Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 14:53
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    If the criterion is to not recognize the universal authority of the papacy, then wouldn't the Eastern Orthodox count as Protestant? Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 14:48
  • @AndreasBlass That's a good point, since clearly they wouldn't call themselves that. However, technically I didn't say that non-papacy was the definition of Protestant, I was just saying that they all shared that commonality. My original point still stands--loosely speaking, the term Protestant describes any group that applies the term to themselves. Since Eastern Orthodox don't call themselves Protestant, they aren't. Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 16:44
  • Generally speaking, though, I'm sure most people would raise an eyebrow, at anyone claiming the title of Protestant, if their church was founded prior to The Reformation. Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 16:45

Humans love to categorise things, and we normally think of categories as dividing things up with borders between the categories. But that isn't actually how we normally do conceptualise our categories - instead we categorise things according to their likeness to archetypes or prototypes, the central most typical examples of a category. The borders between categories are very often hard to determine, but the centres are easy to recognise, which means that your definition is far from ideal because it's all about borders. There's little debate about the most archetypal Protestant churches and the most un-Protestant churches, but it's those in between that are harder to categorise.

The archetypes for Protestantism are the original reformers, people like Luther and Calvin. There are so many attributes that we could describe them with. Here are some I think are most useful for our present day categorisation of Protestants:

  • an acceptance of the old ecumenical creeds
  • a focus on the Bible
  • a rejection of salvation by works
  • a rejection of the supreme authority of the Catholic Church
  • a focus on personal response to the gospel

Now some of these aren't as relevant today for categorising Protestant churches. Many Protestants have so little contact with Catholics that they aren't really consciously protesting the Catholic Church. We wouldn't want to make that a border of Protestantism because it would keep out many churches that should be included.

The family tree model of denominations doesn't perfectly categorise churches, because sometimes churches break with history. Pentecostals are generally firmly within Protestantism, but Oneness Pentecostals reject the Trinity and are not considered to be Protestant. There will be other churches which do not formally commit to any type of Christology. There are probably many Protestants which (perhaps unknowingly) cross the Chalcedonian division. Making the old creeds a border won't work for every case, but making it an archetype does.

And again, there are many Protestanty churches which no longer give much focus to the Bible. Some reject it's inspiration or infallibility, which means it is much less useful. Others prioritise new relevation over scripture. You can see that the border here would be hard to define, but as a central feature, still is effective.

So I would say that Protestantism refers to churches which are clustered around the archetypal Protestants: Luther and Calvin. What that refers to is fuzzy, but the definition is actually quite precise. (Lexicography is hard you guys!)

  • +1 for an actually expert answer; I wasn't expecting that. The linguistically critical analysis here is what really makes the answer shine. Commented Apr 27, 2015 at 22:09
  • @thedarkwanderer You're most welcome!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 1:29
  • Insistence of acceptance of the old ecumenical creeds would exclude Methodism, which states: "Unlike some churches that require affirmation of a strict list of beliefs as a condition of membership, The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church." Do you consider Methodism outside of Protestantism? Commented Jan 22 at 14:34
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    @DanFefferman Of course Methodism is Protestant! They still teach Nicene theology, they're just saying they don't make formal acceptance a membership requirement. Which is the case for lots of other Protestant churches too.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jan 22 at 21:00

The latter (the broad) definition is wrong because it results in a heterogeneous set of groups that have nothing in common, and majority of them having no connection to the Reformation. Historically, Protestantism and the Reformation cannot be separated.

For a reasonable definition we must examine what is common to Protestants, and how much of that is needed to keep the term "Protestant" descriptive. The five solas are common to all Protestants according to my perception. They represent the core positions of the Reformation. The solas are:

  1. Bible alone the final and complete authority.
  2. Salvation by grace alone.
  3. Salvation through faith alone.
  4. Salvation in Christ alone.
  5. The glory of God alone.

Further information about the five solas.

Would this be broad enough? It would be necessary to compromise one or two of these to widen the definition.

  • Hmm... i'll agree for this is true for most; but I have seen a (very weird) pastor in a protestant church proclaiming that "if you are born and raised in a christian house you are a christian and thus automatically saved" no need for faith or grace. But I don't think there are many of those.
    – Barnstokkr
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 15:21
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    @Barnstokkr If that pastor really meant it, it is what is written in 2 Timothy 4:3-4: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.". But I could give him the benefit of doubt; perhaps he was trying to say that children born into a Christian house are already in the faith, the doctrine which some Protestants use to defend infant baptism. Neither is universally accepted among Protestants.
    – Juhani
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 21:22
  • The link is broken. Also an (additional) reference from a different site would be nice. Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 3:59
  • Not all protestants use the five solae. Anglicans have Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 14:03
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    @crownjewel82 You mean that Anglicans dissent from the 5 solas? Googling I found this
    – Juhani
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 16:50

It depends. Strictly speaking historically, the term Protestant arose due to the official Protest filed with the 1529 Imperial Diet (council) at Speyers, where Ferdinand, brother of the Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire had arbitrarily revoked the limited freedom of religion that had been established by the Imperial Diet a few years earlier in 1526. This was done via a "Letter of Protestation", and those who signed it thus were protestants, "those who protested". All those who signed this letter were adherents of the Wittenburg Reformation where Martin Luther was the key figure, and thus to be precise both historically and theologically the term "Protestant" applies solely to Lutherans.

To the Emperor there was little difference between those who followed Luther and those who followed John Calvin, so the term came to be used more broadly. To Rome all the new groups including the radicals who were condemned by Luther and/or Calvin were just rebels; the critical item in their view was that all of the new sects protested against the power of the Pope, and so they applied the term "Protestant" to all Christian groups in western Europe that were not obedient to the Pope. And even though the formation of the Church of England was a political matter rather than a doctrinal one, the term was extended to include them.

It was Rome's understanding of the term that prevailed over time, in some degree in order to keep things simple. That was the motivation of governments which found themselves with subjects and citizens who adhered to different sects; it was easier to have just two labels -- Catholic and Protestant -- regardless of how useless the term Protestant was as far as agreement on doctrine was concerned.

So there are really two answers to the question: in general society, the proposed definition works just fine, while theologically it makes no sense at all since it covers everything from the conservative Reformation of the Lutherans (who kept everything not contrary to the Gospel) to the radical Anabaptists (who threw out everything since the end of the book of Acts.

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