Archive for the ‘Protestant’ Category

Ellen G. White (1827-1915) was an American prophet who helped to establish the Seventh Day Adventist church, a Protestant church which now has 14 million believers worldwide. She was not its founder, but its first leading light. Adventists interpret the Bible according to her writings.

God sent White more than 2,000 visions so that she could tell Christians that Jesus will soon come back. That is what the Advent of “Adventist” means: when Jesus Christ will come back to judge the living and the dead on Judgement Day.

She was born in Maine at the north-eastern end of America, one of two twin sisters. When she was eight a stone struck her in the nose and she lay unconscious for three weeks. When she recovered she did not go back to school – she no longer seemed to have enough  intelligence.

Three years later she went with her parents to hear William Miller. He said that Christ would return in a few years on Tuesday October 22nd 1844. They became his followers.

The day came and went. Nothing happened. This was called the Great Disappointment. Miller lost most of his followers, but Ellen remained. She tried to make sense of what had happened. She prayed and read the Bible. Then one morning in December she received her first vision. She saw the Adventists on a journey to the City of God. Other visions followed. It helped to hold some of the Adventists together, the ones who later became the Seventh Day Adventists.

Other Adventists interpreted the Great Disappointment differently. Some of these became the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So how did the Adventists become the Seventh Day Adventists? Ellen married an Adventist preacher, James White. They both read “The Seventh Day Sabbath” by Joseph Bates and were persuaded that Christians, not just Jews, should observe the seventh day of the week, Saturday, as a day of rest and worship. Six months later God told her she was right in a vision.

Most Christians go to church on Sunday and see that as the day of rest. Sunday was when Jesus rose from the dead. But Bates pointed out that this change from Saturday to Sunday is no where mentioned in the Bible. Therefore it was instituted by man, not by Christ.

Her husband led the new church while she helped to guide it through her visions and writings. She saw the church grow from a few thousand to over 136,000. It now has over 14 million, most of them now outside of North America.

Of her many books the one to read, or read first, is “The Great Controversy” (1858). It is both history and prophecy: it details the history of the world from the year 70 to Judgement Day. It is her reading of Christian history and the book of Revelation in the Bible, painting history as a war between Satan and God. Like it or not, she says, we are fighting on one side or the other.

– Abagond, 2007.

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John Calvin (1509-1564) founded Calvinism, a severe form of the Protestant faith that took root in Switzerland, Scotland, America and the Netherlands. Even today those places still have a watered down sort of Calvinism. Presbyterian, Puritan and the Reformed churches grew out of Calvin’s teachings.

Calvin came a generation after Luther and Zwingli: he was only eight when Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door. But he took their thought and made it into a well-argued, rational system. You can read about it in his book, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”.

Calvin was born in France. He went to Paris to study to be a priest. He loved theology, Greek and Hebrew. But he found that the leaders of the Catholic Church were corrupt, its priests had little education and its believers just went through the motions.

In 1533 he turned against the Church and a year later he had to flee France. He first went to Basel, Switzerland. There he wrote his “Institutes”. In 1541 he came to Geneva, where he became the religious leader.

Like Luther he believed in sola scriptura and sola fide: that we are saved by faith, not works, and that all truth comes from Scripture, not from the mouths of popes or bishops.

And like Luther he believed that God had chosen whom he would save and send to heaven when he made the world. This is called predestination. But Calvin went further: he said that God has also chosen those who will go to hell; that we have no free will – how could we if God is all-powerful?

We are on our way to heaven or hell – God has already made his decision! God even wanted Adam to fall!

This was too much for most Protestants to take, even though no one had a good answer for Calvin’s well-reasoned arguments. It seems like a cruel doctrine, but since God is just everything is fine.

Really when you think about it, Calvin said, we should all go to hell. We have all sinned. Admit it. Christ died for our sins, but only for those who believe in him. And that belief, that faith, is only given to those whom God chooses. It is an act of God’s mercy. It has nothing to do with justice. None of us deserve it.

How to tell if you are going to heaven:

  • Confession of the faith
  • A Christian life
  • Love of the sacraments

Calvin recognized only two sacraments: baptism and communion. The other five sacraments, he said, are not in Scripture, therefore they were not instituted by Christ.

Calvin said that Christ is not present physically in the bread and wine of communion, as Catholics and Lutherans believed. Instead Christ sends the Holy Spirit into the believer when he takes communion.

Calvin allowed plain crosses in church, but none with Christ pictured on them. He allowed singing, but only psalms.

Calvin was influenced by Augustine, but he took his ideas on predestination much further.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546) founded the Protestant faith in 1517. It started when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of a church in Germany, protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church. This led to a hundred years of off-and-on religious wars that divided first Germany and then Europe in half. Protestants are now the second largest branch of Christianity.

Luther founded the first Protestant church, the Lutherans. His ideas were later developed by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland. It is their sort of Christianity that became common in the English-speaking world.

Luther was an Augustinian monk who felt he was not going to heaven. No matter how often he confessed his sins and did all the things a good Catholic should, he was not at peace. A friend of his told him to study Scripture. So he did and found his answer in Romans 1:17:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

We are not saved by our good works, but by faith, a faith which God gives us by his grace – his free and unmerited gift.

Yet at this very time the Church was selling indulgences to lessen the punishments of purgatory in the afterlife. Not only had the practice become corrupt, it was completely against Luther’s new understanding of the faith.

So to protest against indulgences he nailed to a church door his list of 95 reasons why they and the Church were wrong.

In the following years Luther went further. He taught two things that became the root of all Protestant thinking:

  1. Sola fide: “faith alone” is all that you need to be saved. You do not get to heaven by good works, you get there by faith in Christ.
  2. Sola scriptura: “scripture alone” is all you need to reach the truth. You do not need popes or bishops to tell you what to think.

Luther was declared a heretic and brought to Worms before the emperor, his princes and a representative of the pope. They tried to get him to back off. He refused. So they condemned him.

Luther’s friends got him into hiding at the castle of Wartburg. There he translated the Bible into German.

Luther translated all the books of the Bible, but he said that some books were not sacred: they were good to read, but should not be used to argue doctrine. These became the books of the Apocrypha:

  • Old Testament: Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
  • New Testament: James, Jude, Hebrews, Revelation

As it happens, Maccabees and James supported Catholic ideas of purgatory and good works.

Melanchthon, who came after Luther, restored the New Testament but kept Luther’s Apocrypha for the Old Testament.

Luther’s ideas divided Germany. It led to years of war with neither side able to win outright. Nine years after Luther’s death it was agreed that each German prince could choose the religion of his own subjects.

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Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was a Swiss priest who became one of the three founding influences of the Protestant faith, along with Luther and Calvin.

His ideas went further than Luther’s and after his death were made more sensible and intellectual by Calvin. Zwingli brought Zurich, Berne and Basel into the Protestant fold, but through Calvin his influence is far greater still: in much of the English-speaking world today his ideas have become simple common sense.

Zwingli held the Bible and his interpretation of it above everything. If he could not find it in the Bible, then it had to go. The Bible holds the Christian faith in all its purity. Everything else added to it in the centuries since are corruptions.

So Zwingli did away with things like pilgrimages, fasting, the mass, divine sacraments, altars, images and even music from his church.

Zwingli, the son of a well-to-do family, received a good, humanist education and became a priest. He taught himself Greek and read the New Testament in the original as well as the Church Fathers and the great works of Greece and Rome. Erasmus was his hero. He learned Hebrew as well. He read the Bible in the humanist manner he was taught at school: in the original tongues and depending chiefly on his own reason and judgement.

Humanists, above all, think for themselves. “Man is the measure of all things,” they say. Things have to make sense. Seeing is believing. Burying something in a lot of long words or saying “It has always been done this way” does not wash with them. Reason and individual judgement matter above all.

So in this spirit Zwingli read the Bible for himself. Where his interpretation did not agree with that of the Church, he was right, the Church was wrong. He persuaded not just himself but all of Zurich.

Together they went forth to purify the faith of altars and images, of holy sacraments and all the other corruptions that had built up over the centuries. Monasteries were closed, the state took the Church’s land. The gold cups that once held the blood of Christ were made into money. Priests began to marry – even Zwingli himself. His new wife gave birth less than a month later (chastity, like humility, was not one of his strong points).

But in a matter of years it all sank into war. Not just Catholic against Protestant, but in time even Protestant against Protestant. Zwingli himself fell in battle at the age of 47.

Zwingli left the Protestant world divided: Luther said that the bread and wine at church becomes – physically – the body and blood of Christ. Christians had believed this since the time of Christ. But Zwingli said no, it was still just ordinary bread and wine – it only represented the body and blood of Christ, it did not become the real thing.

That this might seem a senseless dispute today, even to Christians, shows better than anything the effect Zwingli has had.

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Protestants make up the second largest branch of Christianity. About one Christian in three is Protestant. It is the most common form of Christianity in northern Europe, North America, Australia and the south and east of Africa. Protestants do not belong to one single church but to thousands of independent churches.

Some consider Anglicans, Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses to be Protestants. They have all been heavily influenced by Protestant thought but are not Protestants. To call them that would be to stretch the word to the breaking point.

Protestant ministers are called pastors. Their holy book is the Bible. They do not cross themselves. Some churches do not allow their members to smoke or drink. Protestants have no monasteries, monks or nuns. Poverty is not a virtue but, if anything, a moral failing. Their church buildings and services are plain.

By the 1500s the Catholic Church had grown so corrupt that it cried out for change. In 1517 Luther began a protest movement that in time led to whole countries breaking away from the Church. This led to a hundred years of war off and on that tore Europe apart and ended in a draw in 1648. The religious map of Europe has barely changed in the centuries since though religion itself has been withering away.

Two important beliefs distinguish Protestants from most other Christians:

  • Sola fide (“faith alone”): all you need to be saved and go to heaven is faith in Christ. You do not need to do good works, you do not need any sacraments (apart from baptism), just faith. Of course, someone who leads a sinful life could not possibly have true faith.
  • Sola scriptura (“scripture alone”): all religious truth is found in Holy Scripture. You do not need a church to tell you what it means or add anything more. If you pray and have true faith, the Holy Spirit will guide you to the true meaning of Scripture.

The effect was to cut out the middle men from religion: the pope, the bishops and the priests. Given the state of the Catholic Church in the 1500s it was obvious that they could no longer be trusted to guide men to heaven.

So now people read Holy Scripture for themselves and made up their own minds. They joined the church that seemed best or even started churches of their own.

In America, where most Christians are Protestants, this all seems perfectly natural and obvious. But in the history of Christianity it was something new, if only because sola scriptura was not really possible on a mass scale before the invention of printing and cheap books.

The Protestants removed the following books from Holy Scripture: Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach and Baruch. They also removed chapters 13 and 14 of Daniel and parts of Esther. They do not consider these books to be the Word of God. They are called the Apocrypha.

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