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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?

  • Oops, I deleted the comment you linked to before I saw you were trying to reference it. – curiousdannii Mar 25 '15 at 9:30
  • Related Question: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/17518/… – kutschkem Mar 25 '15 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 Mar 25 '15 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." – Mr. Bultitude Mar 25 '15 at 16:26
  • Why the non-orthodox part? Greek Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox are still Catholics, just not Roman Catholics. – Andrew Apr 27 '15 at 18:10
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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. – the dark wanderer Apr 27 '15 at 22:09
  • @thedarkwanderer You're most welcome! – curiousdannii Apr 28 '15 at 1:29
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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. – DJClayworth Mar 25 '15 at 14:50
  • @DJClayworth Fair enough. I changed to "univeral authority" to be more precise... – Steven Doggart Mar 25 '15 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? – Andreas Blass Apr 8 '15 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. – Steven Doggart Apr 8 '15 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. – Steven Doggart Apr 8 '15 at 16:45
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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 Mar 25 '15 at 15:21
  • @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 Mar 26 '15 at 21:22
  • The link is broken. Also an (additional) reference from a different site would be nice. – user2864740 Apr 1 '15 at 3:59
  • Not all protestants use the five solae. Anglicans have – crownjewel82 Apr 8 '15 at 14:03
  • (Hit enter by mistake) Anglicans have a different protestant history and both Anglicans and Methodists stand on a combination of scripture and tradition. – crownjewel82 Apr 8 '15 at 14:06

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