Last time in my series on the denominations within Christianity I spoke about the Eastern Orthodox. Before I move on to speak about the next major denomination (Lutherans), I would like to say a bit about Protestantism in general, under which fall Lutheranism and many other denominations . The title “Protestant” refers to one who believes in Jesus Christ and is baptized, but does not accept all the teachings of the Catholic Church. A Protestant community of Christians would trace their origins to the Reformation in the 1500s.
In 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and priest, spoke out in debate against the Church – initially on the selling of indulgences, one of several corrupt practices occurring in the Church at the time. Luther and his followers, taking a different stance on many theological issues, obtained the political support of various princes of the German empire against the Catholic Church. In 1526, the German imperial parliament issued a decision permitting each individual government/princedom to decide for itself to remain Catholic, or follow the teachings of Luther. This decision was cancelled just a few years later in favor of the Catholic faith. Followers of Luther and other reformers together “protested” against the decision. Hence the name, “Protestant.”
While there are many differences between Catholic and Protestants, we hold many fundamental beliefs in common. We are all Christians. We believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. We believe in the Holy Trinity, and we generally accept all the beliefs professed in the Nicene Creed that we say at Mass every Sunday. We both celebrate the major feasts of Christmas and Easter, and we both believe in the importance of helping those in need and bringing about greater social justice.
The major differences between Catholics and Protestants stem from two Protestant teachings known as “Sola Fidei” (salvation by faith alone) and “Sola Scriptura” (the Bible alone is the sole rule of faith). Pertaining to Sola Fidei, Luther believed that our human nature became totally corrupted as a result of original sin, while Catholic theology teaches that our human nature was only greatly weakened. While this difference might seem small, it’s an important distinction. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that our justification comes through Jesus Christ. “Justification” refers to the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our right relationship with God.
Luther and the early Protestants reasoned that since our human nature was totally corrupted due to original sin, our good works could do nothing to help us on the way to salvation. Only faith would lead to our being justified in Christ. Even though works of charity and celebrating the sacraments are good things, they, according to early Protestant theology, do not help us get to heaven; only faith.
However, it is not Catholic belief that we save ourselves by our good works. Rather, we as Catholics understand that our justification by Christ renews and sanctifies us. We are not totally corrupt, but by cooperating with God’s grace through faith and works, we are continually transformed. Good works flow from our faith and can help us on the way to salvation. Interestingly, back in 1999, through ecumenical dialogue, the Catholic Church and World Lutheran Federation made a joint declaration resolving their differing understandings of justification from the time of the Protestant Reformation. Next time, I’ll say a bit about Sola Scriptura.