Teologi & religion

Why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant’

I am very often called a ‘Protestant,’ mainly by American Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or Roman Catholics. But I have always rejected the term, and that is often perplexing to them. Since I am now a bit tired of explaining why, I have decided, after being encouraged, to just write a post about it.

Some (and mainly Americans) claim that ‘Protestantism’ (as it is often used these days) is, in some sense, a result of the Reformation. Baptists, for instance, who are undeniable part of so called modern ‘Protestantism,’ have their origin in the Anabaptist and radical reformations, yet these predates the Lutheran Reformation and are condemned by name in Confessio Augustana, art. 5, 9, 12, 16 and 17. These are ‘Protestants’ in the modern sense, yet to say that they are a result of the Reformation is, well, undeniably wrong, as they are condemned by it, and would therefore have to exist before or concurrent with it.

As for the use of ‘Protestant,’ allow me explain why this is an improper designation to use for Lutherans:

Some (American) Lutherans claim that “Lutherans were the original Protestants,” yet that is true only of German Lutherans in the Holy Roman Empire and perhaps their successors, yet I would say that this is dubious, as the term ‘Protestant’ is NOT, and have never been, a theological designation. It is a purely historical designation, and in its time it was political, not theological.

The origin of the name ‘Protestant’ was a protest not against any church body (so not against the Roman Catholic Church) but against the Holy Roman Emperor’s enforcement of the Edict of the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529, upholding the condemnation of Luther and Lutheranism in the Empire from 1521 (the Edict of Worms) and reversing concessions made to Lutherans at the first Diet of Speyer in 1526. Read more at Wikipedia, and in the included links. This decision was met by protest (hence the term ‘Protestant’) from “six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities,” according to Wikipedia. They didn’t protest the Catholic Church but the Holy Roman Empire, and the term wasn’t theological, it was political. It was a protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor (to use more modern terminology). To use a modern equivalent, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the US are ‘Protestants’ in the historic sense when they protested the HHS Mandate. The Wikipedia article notes: “During the Reformation, the term protestant was hardly used outside of German politics. People who were involved in the religious movement used the word evangelical (German: evangelisch).” Later, and gradually, the article notes, “protestant became a general term, meaning any adherent of the Reformation in the German-speaking area.” Note when it says that it was a general term it was general in the German-speaking area, and not in Lutheranism as such. It was, and remains, a political term, confined to the German situation.

It is understandable that many American Lutherans call themselves ‘Protestants’ (and underline that “Lutherans were the original Protestants”), as German Lutheranism has had a strong influence on American Lutheranism, more so, it seems, than Scandinavian Lutheranism (which is to be expected, the population of Germany far outnumbering the population of Scandinavia). Scandinavian Lutherans did not call themselves ‘Protstants,’ and I never will call myself that. In Norway we generally call ourselves ‘Lutheran’ or ‘evangelical Lutheran’ (no. evangelisk, not to be confused by the Norwegian evangelikal, used of the modern Evangelical Protestants) or often simply ‘Christians,’ though I find that to often be misleading. If someone asks me what I am, I don’t say simply ‘Christian,’ as I do not want to be put in the same box as Reformed, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics. I would rather be mistaken for a Roman Catholic than for an Evangelical.

Scandinavia was never part of the Holy Roman Empire and as such the edicts mentioned didn’t apply to us. Historically, no Scandinavian Lutherans called themselves ‘Protestants,’ and it is an entirely historically contingent term. In fact, in Scandinavia we had the reverse. Here, the Reformation wasn’t ground up, as in Germany, but top-down, as in England, introduced by the rulers (though the process was more ‘ecclesially willed’ in Sweden, then in Denmark-Norway, AFAIK). So the ‘Protestants’ in Scandinavia were Roman Catholics protesting the religious politics of the King (Gustav I in the Swedish Empire, Christian III in Denmark-Norway).

So the historical designation ‘Protestant’ doesn’t refer to me, or to many Lutherans, therefore ‘Lutherans were the original Protestants’ is simply not true of Lutheranism as such, only of German Lutheranism (and, arguably, only for those six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities, and their subjects, who uttered their political protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor).

But what about the more modern use of the word ‘Protestant’? Well, that is even more problematic. Many today simply say ‘Protestant’ every time they speak of a Christian who isn’t Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Oriental Orthodox (or perhaps Old Catholic, if they know of their existence). But that means that it has become utterly useless as a term. It doesn’t say anything about what we believe, only who we aren’t subject to. It doesn’t tell you anything about the person who is given the title. It just tells you what he isn’t. I know Lutherans (especially Americans) who time and time again has to explain that yes, they do believe in the real presence or yes, they have liturgy, because they get lumped together with everything from Pentecostals to Adventists. When Anabaptists, who are opposed to the Lutheran Reformation, are called ‘Protestants,’ we see that it has lost its meaning.

I am a non-Swede. I do not live in Sweden, and have never lived there. But non-Swede is not therefore a useful word to use about me. People from, say, southeast Asia are also non-Swedes but I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with people from southeast Asia. To illustrate the point, consider these two sentences: “As a Norwegian, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with southeast Asians.” Or: “As a non-Swede, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with non-Swedes.” The second sentence is utterly nonsensical an that tells us the uselessness of ‘non-Swede.’

So to with the word ‘Protestant’ (as many use it). I have fare more – theologically, liturgically, sacramentally, and ecclesially – in common with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than I have with Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc. To use the same kind of sentence, I would have to say, “As a Protestant, I have far more in common with Roman Catholics than I have with Protestants.” It shows how useless the term is. But it goes beyond this.

To use a word – ‘Protestant’ – to denoted some kind of unity between me and these ‘Protestants’ over and against Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics isn’t just useless and bizarre, it is misleading and, quite frankly, deceitful. It makes it look like there is some kind of unity between these so-called ‘Protestants,’ when, quite frankly, no such unity exists. It thus serves to cover up the fact that there is more unity between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than there has ever been between Lutherans and, say, Evangelicals, Pentecostals or Baptists. To use ‘Protestant’ in this modern sense is basically to lie and deceive.

And that is why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant.’

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3 thoughts on “Why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant’”

  1. I can understand you do not want to be put in the same box as Reformed, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics, when asked if you are a Christian. Saying you would rather be mistaken for a Roman Catholic than for an Evangelical lets me know you are like many protestants and Roman Catholics believing in the Trinity, something what the first and ancient Baptists did not. My generation of Baptists may have been one of the few last non-trinitarian batpists, having my fellow brethren and sisters seen transferring to other non-trinitarian denominations when we found the pressure of the Southern Baptist Union and its trinitarian Baptists becoming to strong. Also the Jews who want to accept Jeshua as the Messiah have that problem how to call themselves and often do not want to use the name Christian (also because most often they still consider themselves Jew) or Protestant to denote they do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church nor to trinitarian Messiancs.

  2. Like you show in your phrasing “‘Protestants’ in Scandinavia were Roman Catholics protesting the religious politics of the King (Gustav I in the Swedish Empire, Christian III in Denmark-Norway).” what is in a word, because who is the protester and what is protested against as well what makes a protestant. In many countries it has become a common view to consider “protestants” those who are not inline with the “Catholics” (being the Roman, Old, Charismatic, Eastern, Orthodox Catholics and the Lefebrists a.o. similar Latinist groups).

  3. Yes, and that is exactly why it has become a meaningless term. It is no more useful than calling myself a European or a Westerner. It doesn’t say anything about my actual identity, it just tells you what I’m not. And it also, as I’ve already noted, confuses people into thinking that I am basically an Evangelical or a Calvinist. when I am much closer to Roman Catholics. I am basically a Lutheran version of an Anglo-Catholic (in communion with the Church of England through the Porvoo Communion), and when I move to England this autumn I will seek out an Anglo-Catholic parish (affiliated with the Society of Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda and Forward in Faith, FiF).

    The term ‘Protestant’ is a political term, not a theological one, it just referred to specific Lutherans in Germany and wasn’t used for Lutherans outside the German areas of the Holy Roman Empire, and its universal use for anyone who isn’t Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Charismatic Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Orthodox Catholics, Lefebrist, etc. is by and large a modern American Evangelical phenomenon.

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