Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
Was Protestantism born at the Reformation, around the 1520s, when Rome condemned Luther and Zwingli? This is not at all obvious and other dates have, with good reason, been suggested.
In 1529 German princes who supported Luther “protested” against a decree of Emperor Charles V which demanded their submission. They were therefore described as “protestants”; this name goes back to the beginning of the Reformation. The word “Protestantism”appeared later in the course of the 17th century. First people talked about ‘Protestants” and then about “Protestantism, which leads one to wonder: if there have been protestants since 1529, then when did Protestantism appear? Four answers have been given to this question.
For the first, Protestantism was born of the failure of the Reformation. Originally the ptoestants wanted a renewal of the whole of Christendom. That didn’t happen, a which led them in the course of the 16th century to give up their original plan in order to create and organise a protestantism alongside and in opposition to Catholicism.
Others reckon that it was in the 17th century that the Churches which arose from the Reformation discovered their closeness and wove between them links strong enough to justify the shared label “Protestantism”. Initially very different, not to say opposed, they drew together in alliance in order to face the catholic counter-offensive of which the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 is an illustration.
In third place, people have maintained that protestantism did not truly arise until the end of the 18th century. The Reformation is its prehistory, setting off a long gestation which reaches its term at this particular moment. If the Lutherans and the Reformed of the 16th and 17th centuries engaged in polemic against the Catholicism of their day, they were, nevertheless, very close to it. They had similar ideas and conceptions, ways of behaving and thinking that were almost identical, as well as related forms of piety. They were dissident Catholics, not really protestants, still catholic even though dissident.
Several factors gave rise to the passage from the Reformation to protestantism: the development of historical and literary criticism affected the reading and the interpretation of the Bible; society became secular and a “Christian polity” which intermingled closely church and state no longer appeared either possible or desirable; people became more interested in “religious feeling” than in doctrinal strictness. These changes brought about the emergence of a religion distanced and different from that of the Reformation era, even if there were some continuities; the fundamental principles remained, but they were applied differently.
As for the fourth response, there had always been protestant currents, first in the Bible, then in Christianity. In Israel, in the New Testament, throughout Church history a dynamic, prophetic and protesting faith had constantly opposed an authoritarian, dogmatic and clerical religion. If Protestantism had given rise to separate and distinct Churches only in the 16th century, in fact it had existed before then in various forms. Far from creating or inventing it, the Reformation was one of its manifestations, perhaps the most important, among others which went before and which followed it.
These four responses are not mutually exclusive. They can be combined by saying that Protestantism is a religious and spiritual movement with many origins and reappearances. It was there before the 16th century; at the Reformation it broke with Catholicism; it underwent a profound transformation at the end of the 18th century and it continues to renew itself today. It goes endlessly through new births.