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In my book "Catholicism for Protestants" I attempted to help Protestants better understand the Catholic Church and Catholic teaching by answering common questions Protestants ask. In this article I will attempt to help Catholics better understand Protestantism by giving a brief overview.
The above timeline chart can look intimidating at first glance, and while it is a useful reference, it's not all that important that it be memorised. It's more for reference sake to help the reader understand where the various Protestant movements began and how they eventually formed the various denominations within Protestantism today. The most important thing Catholics should understand about Protestantism is that it's not a monolith. There are currently thousands of Protestant denominations, affiliations and sects. Open up any phone book and you're sure to spot dozens of them right there in your own town. However, what is also important to understand about Protestants is that, like Catholics, they accept the Trinity. This is what distinguishes them from other religions that reject the Trinity but still cling to a "Christian" identity. Often such religions are mistaken for Protestant denominations. They are not. Rather, they are separate religions all together. Since there are so many Protestant (Trinitarian) denominations that numbering them would be impossible here, I'll list the more popular non-Trinitarian (non-Protestant) religions instead. For example; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) do not believe in the Trinity, therefore they are not Protestant. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witness) do not believe in the Trinity, therefore they are not Protestant either. Oneness Pentecostals (unlike regular Pentecostals) reject the Trinity as well, therefore they are not Protestant. Christian Scientists reject the Trinity and are therefore not Protestant. These are some of the larger non-Trinitarian (non-Protestant) religions in North America. It is helpful to understand that these are separate religions all together, and are not merely "denominations" of Protestant Christianity.
By now you can see the Trinity is the key to the whole thing. The Catholic Church makes it clear that Protestants are united to Catholics by virtue of our common Trinitarian baptism (Catechism 232-233, 265, 813, 818, 1271), as well as our common Trinitarian belief. This means we both understand God the same way. We may have differences about many different things, but the most important things we have in common. Beliefs about Jesus Christ, his divinity, incarnation, sinless life, and atoning death, all stem from the Trinitarian understanding of God. When people believe in the Trinity, their beliefs about these things will be held in common. They may disagree about small details, but the basic premise of everything in regards to God and the Gospel will be essentially the same. However, when people do not believe in the Trinity, other basic beliefs about God and the Gospel will change as well. So to summarise, Protestants and Catholics hold the Trinitarian belief in common, and for this reason, the Catholic Church demands that Protestants be respected with the titles of "Christian" and "brothers" in the Lord (Catechism 232-233, 818, 1271).
Here we see that the Catholic Church most plainly defines the word "Christian" with belief in the Trinity (Catechism 232, 1223). Indeed, the word "Catholic" was also used around the end of the first century to differentiate between those Christians who held to the "whole and complete" (i.e. "catholic" and "Trinitarian") faith of Christianity, versus those that were sectarian and followed beliefs that were either exclusive or novelty. Again, it all centred around the Trinity. Those who held to the Trinitarian belief in God were called "Catholic Christians," and those who rejected the Trinity were called something else. So we should see Protestants as holding on to the core of catholic theology by retaining their Trinitarian belief system. We could call them "catholic," with a small "c," because they at least retain this core Catholic teaching. However, they "protest" various other Catholic beliefs (such as the sacraments, the communion of Saints, the papacy, etc.), and because of this we call them Protest-ants, meaning "those (small "c" catholic Christians) who protest."
It's important to get a full grasp of this, because you must understand that if a Protestant seeks to enter the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church will refuse to baptise him/her. Why? Because according to Catholic teaching, he (or she) has already received a Catholic Christian baptism, even though it wasn't performed by a Catholic priest or within the Catholic Church (Catechism 1272). Protestant baptisms are fully recognised, because they are Trinitarian you see. So the shocking truth is that every single baptised Protestant out there, because of his/her Trinitarian baptism, already has one foot into the door of the Roman Catholic Church. He/she may not be a member of the Catholic Church. Indeed he/she may not be in "full communion" with Rome, but he/she does have the right to enter into full communion (join) the Roman Catholic Church without being "re-baptised." I say this as a practising Catholic who was baptised in the Lutheran Church. My wife, who is also Catholic, was baptised in the Methodist Church. Neither one of us were "re-baptised" upon entering the Catholic Church. We simply supplied our certificates of Protestant baptism to our local Catholic parish, and "presto!" they registered us as having already received the Catholic sacrament of Christian baptism. This process has been repeated millions of times, with millions of other Protestant converts to Catholicism. From there we went on to receive the Catholic sacraments of reconciliation, confirmation and first communion.
So with this knowledge, it should change the way we Catholics think of Protestants. They are, in a sense, catholics (small "c") in diaspora. They retain the core of the Catholic Christian faith, but they are no longer fully within the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
Sometimes I use an old Catechism from the 1950s to teach my children. In this old family Catechism there is a wonderful illustration of a sheep pen with many sheep inside. Jesus stands at the door of the sheep pen, calling his sheep in. The sheep pen is labelled "The Catholic Church." Outside the sheep pen are many more sheep. These too are Christians, but they are not protected like those in the pen. While they graze in open fields, seemingly free from every constraint, wolves are watching them nearby, and dangerous thunderstorms approach on the horizon. Yes, these are Christians who believe in the Trinity, but they simply do not have the same protection as (large "C") Catholic Christians who are safe within the Catholic Church.
So if Protestants are really (small "c") catholic Christians who just protest certain teachings of the Catholic Church, then what are we to think of their various churches and houses of worship? There can only be one Church right? Yes, that is true. There is only one Church founded by Jesus Christ -- the Catholic Church -- and it is whole and complete (undivided) in and of itself. This is why the Catechism refers to Protestant churches primarily as "communities" of like-minded Protestants (Catechism 819). The term "churches" is reserves specifically for the Eastern Orthodox, who are essentially Catholic in a full sense, having only a political dispute with Rome. Sometimes the different rites within the Catholic Church are also called "churches," but again, the word "churches" is always reserved for those retaining all of the original teachings and sacraments of the universal Catholic Church. The Catechism does recognise the work of the Holy Spirit within Protestant communities, but at the same time, it does not regard them as "churches" in the proper sense of the Greek word ecclesia (ἐκκλησία). This is because they were not founded by Jesus Christ in the first century and they lack the fullness of the sacraments that Christ gave to his Church. Only the Church founded by Jesus Christ in the first century has all of the sacraments and therefore can rightfully be called "church" ecclesia (ἐκκλησία). So what are Protestant "churches" then? As I said above, they are man-made communities of like-mined Protestants -- organisations, societies or clubs. God can use them, and indeed he does use them, in the salvation of souls, but they are not part of the actual "church" ecclesia (ἐκκλησία) founded by Jesus Christ, and they lack the fullness of faith and sacraments that God intended us to have.
So then, what are we to make of the historic teaching that "outside of the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation?" The Catechism tells us that this means everything we know about God, Jesus Christ and salvation comes to us through the Catholic Church. When we are baptised in the name of the Trinity, we ALL enter the Catholic Church; fully if we are Catholic, and partially if we are Protestant (Catechism 846). The Catholic Church gave us the Bible. Without the Catholic Church, the Bible simply would not exist in its current form. The Catholic Church alone is the only Church that has maintained the teaching on the Trinity and the Gospel unchanged for 2,000 years. Only the Catholic Church preserved the message of Jesus Christ through the Middle Ages. Everything the Protestants have, that makes them Christian, especially Trinitarian baptism, comes to them directly through the Catholic Church, whether they realise it or not. When they are baptised in the name of the Trinity, they effectively take their first step into the Catholic Church, whether they realise it or not. Protestants can deny this from now until the end of time and it makes no difference. The historical and spiritual truth is what it is, regardless if they accept it or not. That being said, no person could be saved if, knowing that the Catholic Church is the true Church, he/she chooses to remain outside of it anyway. In other words, God holds us accountable for what we know (Catechism 847). If you know the Catholic Church is the one Church established by Jesus Christ, then you're accountable for what you know. You must join her, or face eternal judgement for failing to. If however, you are ignorant (or unconvinced) of this truth, then God simply holds you accountable for what you know. Most Protestants are ignorant (or unconvinced) of this truth. That however does not excuse them from seeking to learn the truth, as every honest person should always seek to learn truth.
So now that we have defined who Protestants are in relation to Catholics -- they are (small "c") catholics in diaspora -- it may now be helpful to understand who they are in relation to each other. The subject of the Protestant schisms (Reformation) can be a confusing one, namely because there are so many Protestant denominations, in what seems like an intricate web of lineage and pedigree. To simplify, we could break it down like this. It all began with two root schisms in the 16th century...
The German Schism -- began with Martin Luther between AD 1517 to 1520. This Augustinian monk's break with the Catholic Church was primarily doctrinal in nature, and initially revolved around the issues of purgatory and justification, but quickly devolved into an attack on the sacraments and the hierarchy of the Church. Tradition came under fire too, and even the Scriptures themselves became subject to Martin Luther's revision. (He altered the wording of one text to fit his theology, and moved entire books out of the established canon of Scripture.) From this German schism came three great movements within Protestantism that primarily took root on the mainland continent of Europe: Lutheranism in 1517, the Anabaptist movement in 1525 and Calvinism in 1536.
The English Schism -- England would have initially seemed like the most unlikely place for a Protestant schism to begin. England was known as "Mary's Dowry" prior to the Reformation Era, due to its staunch defence of Catholicism and long history of profound Catholic devotion. Politics alone would give birth to the English Schism but within a generation it would devolve into a doctrinal break very similar (though not identical) to the German Schism. King Henry VIII believed he desperately needed a male heir to the throne in order to prevent another civil war in England. He would do literally anything to produce that male heir. Unfortunately, his lawful wife (Catherine of Aragon) was unable to birth a son. Henry requested an annulment from Rome. It was denied. So in AD 1534 he took matters into his own hands. He declared himself the governor of the Church of England (effectively the English "pope") and annulled his own marriage. Henry made no further changes to the Church of England, other than demand that everyone within swear their allegiance to him as their new spiritual head. Thus Henry's Protestantism looked very much like Roman Catholicism with the exception that the pope was replaced with the king of England. What followed over the next generation was an era of religious nastiness. Henry's son only reigned for a short time, before he was replaced by his first daughter through Catherine of Aragon. Queen Mary was a Roman Catholic who attempted to restore England to full-communion with the real pope in Rome. However, she bitterly took vengeance against her father's Protestant supporters, thus earning the epitaph "Bloody Mary." Her cruelty eventually led to a coup that landed Mary's half-sister, Elizabeth I (Henry's second daughter through his second wife Anne Boleyn) on the throne. Queen Elizabeth I was a Protestant who had her father's Act of Supremacy restored, making herself the new governess ("female pope") over the Church of England. She was heavily influenced by the continental Protestantism of the German Schism. When she assumed the throne she likewise was very cruel to her half-sister's Catholic supporters, even more so actually, thus earning her the epitaph "Bloody Bess." Between Mary and Elizabeth, a great deal of both Catholic and Protestant blood was spilt in England. What was the final result? Roman Catholicism was essentially made illegal in England for about three centuries. The English Schism likewise resulted in three main Protestant Movements -- Anglicanism in 1534, Puritanism in 1558 and Methodism in 1738.From these two schisms, and their subsequent schism/branches (fractures), come all the main Protestant denominations we have today. As followers of these two schisms intermingled, new denominations were born from a merger of beliefs. For example, as English Puritans intermingled with German Anabaptists, the Baptist and Congregationalist churches were formed in 1607. The Baptists went on to further divide in subsequent centuries: Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, the National Baptist Convention in 1915 and the American Baptist Church in 1924. Many other Baptist churches continued to splinter out. Also from the Baptists came the Adventist churches in 1844 and the Churches of Christ in 1801.
In North America, most Protestant denominations stem from the English Schism, either directly as in the Methodists and Pentecostals, or indirectly as in the Baptists, Adventists and Churches of Christ. Most of them, either directly or indirectly, can trace their origins back to King Henry VIII, his two competing daughters and the Church of England. There are of course many Protestants in North America that stem from the German Schism too, but these are much smaller in number compared to those that stem from the English Reformation either directly or indirectly. That being said, both the English and the German schisms can lay claim to the Baptists, Congregationalists, Adventists and Churches of Christ.
Today, knowing the origin of Protestants is only helpful to a small degree. This is because with the 20th century came the influence of Modernism, and with that, so it would seem, all of Protestantism has been divided into two camps -- Conservative and Liberal. Now when I say "Conservative and Liberal" I don't mean this in a political sense, though that could play a role too. I am primarily speaking of the religious sense. So when I say "Conservative Protestant" what I mean by that is a Protestant who adheres to Protestant Christianity as was historically taught in the past. Thus what they are "conserving" is their historical Protestant belief system. When I say "Liberal Protestant" what I mean by that is a Protestant who does not adhere to Protestantism as was historically taught, but rather clings to innovation and novelty in beliefs and practises, in keeping with the times and the spirit of the age. In this sense, Conservative and Liberal Protestants can be likened to Traditionalist and Modernist Catholics. Conservative Protestants being similar to Traditionalist Catholics and Liberal Protestants being similar to Modernist Catholics.
What exists today is really quite a shuffle in religious demographics among Protestants. Most of the newer Protestant denominations (generally Baptist, Evangelical and Pentecostal) tend to be fairly Conservative, while the older Protestant denominations (such as the Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist for example) often tend to be fairly Liberal. Over the last 40 years a sizable shift has taken place, as many Protestants have left their older Liberal denominations in favour of newer more Conservative ones. Conservative Protestants tend to have a lot more in common with Catholicism, especially on social issues, but ironically these tend to be the most susceptible to anti-Catholic propaganda. So reaching them can be a challenge. This is where good apologetics plays a role at breaking down artificial barriers between Catholics and Protestants.
In the end, apologetics can only go so far. The way to reach Protestants is through relationships. Relationships are the best way to generate conversions. While that should be our desire, it shouldn't be our primary focus. Rather, our primary focus should be toward building good friendships and breaking down artificial barriers between us. After that, we should just let the Holy Spirit do his work. Usually, once artificial barriers are broken down with good apologetics, and strong friendships are created, these Protestants tend to become our strongest allies in reaching out to more Protestants. Conversions to the Catholic Church tend to just happen on their own, by the power of the Holy Spirit, here and there as God wishes. There is no need to force the issue, and quite often, trying to force it can drive people away.
I'm often asked by Catholics if they should study Protestant beliefs systems to better prepare for their questions. My answer is always the same -- "NO!" That is more trouble than it's worth and will be completely unproductive. You see Protestants do not have monochrome beliefs. They are a very eclectic people. There are thousands of Protestant denominations, affiliations and sects, each denoted by its own beliefs system. Trying to master them all would be impossible! I tell Catholics that the best thing to do is study and know your own Catholic Christian faith. When I say "study and know," what I mean by that is never stop learning! Keep digging into your Catholic Bible and Catechism until the day you die. Do Catholic Bible studies. Take Catechism classes. Dig, dig, dig into the Catholic Christian faith! If you want to memorise some things, memorise verses that Protestants have difficulty with. You'll find them here in the apologetics section of this blog, or in my books, or on many other Catholic apologetic websites. Nothing is better than knowing your own faith. In the end, this is the ONLY thing that will prepare you to answer a Protestant's questions when he (or she) asks.
I hope this introduction to Protestantism has been helpful. Understand that this is just a brief overview, but by reading it, you're probably more educated on Protestantism than the average Catholic. The most important things to remember are that Protestants are our "separated Christian brethren," and that the best way to reach out to them is to know your own Catholic Christian faith, and know it well, then don't be afraid to intermingle and build some relationships.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'
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