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Intro to Protestant Christianity
Monday, January 12, 2009


Initiation Rituals and Membership

Most, if not all Protestant churches require potential members to attend classes on religious instruction before becoming a member. This instruction usually includes Bible study, doctrinal study, and a short history of the church and its denomination.

Baptism differs sometimes significantly from denomination to denomination. This sacrament is depicted according to the denomination’s tradition and can vary from sprinkling water onto the individual from a baptismal font, to pouring water on the individual’s head, to full bodily immersion of the individual inside a baptistery or baptismal pool. While baptism is encouraged in Protestantism as an outward act of obedience and a willingness to demonstrate spiritual recreation of the soul, it is not viewed as essential for salvation by most Protestant churches. Baptism requires a personal confession that Jesus Christ is viewed as personal Lord and Savior and that the participant agrees to the teachings of the church of which he or she is joining. The communal dimension of baptism suggests that chaplains involve local church representatives in the sacrament.

Chaplains receive many requests from inmates to be baptized. Wherever possible, chaplains are encouraged to make the sacrament of baptism available for inmates. If chaplains feel uncomfortable baptizing inmates themselves, volunteer clergy or persons designated by the particular religious tradition of the inmates as being able to offer the sacrament of baptism are available.

Some Christian traditions hold to the practice of infant baptism. When a person comes of age and makes a personal confession, the individual is not baptized again, but instead is confirmed or makes a public profession of his or her faith before the congregation.

There are approximately one billion adherents worldwide.

History

Christianity is the name of the religion made up of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who believe him to be the Christ, or Messiah, sent from God for the salvation of his people.

Springing from Judaism, Christianity follows the teachings and example of Jesus and views him as the fulfillment not only of the promise of God’s deliverer, but also as the establishment of a new covenant between God and those who would seek after him.

Jesus did not refute the teachings of Jewish scripture but sought to bring into a sharper focus those tenets set forth in the covenant between God and the Jews. Jesus brought the concept that God’s people were not only those of the Jewish race but included all those – regardless of social or economic standing – who sought reconciliation and fellowship with God as well as all those who would respond to his seeking after them.

Christianity, although differing in many aspects of theology and doctrine, holds to the belief that Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, and his giving of the Holy Spirit are foundational to the faith.

The earliest followers of Jesus were initially part of Judaism but separated around 70 CE. By that time, non Jews or Gentiles, had also been included among the numbers of followers of the Way and in Antioch by the end of the first century were referred to as Christians.

The early centuries of Christianity witnessed diverse interpretations of beliefs which resulted in the formation of different groups within the faith. The Catholic Church quickly emerged as the dominant institution; however, other groups following the tradition of descent or the evangelical alternative continued to spread the teachings of Jesus. In 1054 the Great Schism (or Eastern Schism) divided the Roman Catholic Church of the West from the Orthodox Church of the East. A partial reconciliation resulted in the establishment of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church. Another separation occurred with the Protestant Reformation in 1529, when objections were raised regarding the teachings of the medieval Catholic Church.

Those who embraced the separation were referred to as Protestants. This name is actually a derivative of the verb protestare which means not simply to protest in the sense of to raise an objection, but denotes a broader connotation meaning to avow, witness, or confess. Protestants believed they were professing the pure teachings of the early church which had been viewed as obscured through medieval Catholicism. Protestantism has been referred to as the recovery of New Testament Pauline theology and, regardless of various denominational interpretations, established its doctrinal foundation on several basic tenets.

Arising from the Reformation were several liturgical and non-liturgical groups including the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans. The Anglican Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church upon the insistence of England’s King Henry VIII. As the message of the Reformation movement spread further westward through Europe, more divergent, groups emerged including the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Swiss Brethren, which later evolved into the Baptist, Quaker, and Presbyterian denominations.

In America, during the 17th and 18th centuries, these churches further divided along theological lines and produced denominations including Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, and Church of the Brethren among others. Many of these denominations saw impressive growth in America during the First and Second Great Awakening movements.

Another phenomenon which occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century America was the emergence of new religious groups. Centering mainly on individualistic scriptural interpretation and joining in the societal millennial fever experienced at the turn of the century, these groups developed theologies and doctrines which differed sometimes greatly from generally accepted Christian doctrine.

One of the most significant changes in the last quarter century is the deep polarization that has occurred within Christianity. On the one side are those who are characterized as liberal, progressive, or mainline and on the other side are those who are called conservative, traditionalist, evangelical, or fundamentalist. These divisions have at times become more significant than divisions caused along denominational lines.

A parallel shift in emphasis is seen in a moving away from the denominational level to the congregational level. The identification of churches with their denominations is minimized; what becomes important is the local congregation in a specific community. In addition, congregations are assuming functions which used to belong to centralized denominational offices. These shifts are also reflected in the theological beliefs and experiences. Individual belief systems have become more determinative than denominational expressions of faith. This has resulted in a decline in membership of many mainline denominations and a rapid increase in growth of membership of loosely structured denominations and non-denominational, independent churches.

Theology

Due to the large variety of Christian churches which have been identified under the general rubric of Protestant Christianity, or general Christian, it is extremely difficult to come up with a set of theological statements with which all Protestants would agree. Even the following statements will vary in interpretation among the different Protestant faith groups.

The Trinity

The basic underlying belief of Christianity is the belief in the Trinity, that there is one God who subsists in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Since each person of the Trinity has the same essence, God is described as one. Christians believe that the concept of the Trinity is implicit in the Old Testament and becomes more explicit in the New Testament of the Bible. The classic definition of the Trinity is that God is one in essence and three in person.

Many different explanations have been given to describe this seeming paradox. For example, water has three physical characteristics, solid, liquid, and gas, but has only one chemical formula. Ice, water, and steam all share the same ingredients but have three different functions. In the same manner is this true of the Trinity, the explanation goes, that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit all have the same essence but function in distinct roles. Ultimately, however, the belief in the Triune God, the three-in-one, is a confession, a statement of faith, not provable fact. God is Creator (Father), Redeemer (Son), and Sustainer (Holy Spirit).

The Supremacy of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior

Jesus is the central focus as redeemer and savior. Protestants stand on the scriptural teaching that an individual’s belief in Christ’s sacrificial atoning death and his physical resurrection from the dead are essential for salvation (Romans 10:9-10). The Old Testament points forward to the coming of Jesus Christ and the New Testament is a fulfillment of his coming and how this has worked out in the early New Testament church.

The Scriptures

Protestants rely on the Holy Bible as the source for all teachings and doctrines practiced in the church (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Old Testament consists of 39 books and the New Testament has 27 books. Many translations of the Bible are in existence today. For centuries, the most widely accepted translation was the King James Version, a translation authorized by the English monarch James and was first published in 1611. A number of churches believe that the King James Version is still the only acceptable Bible. The best selling translation today is the New International Version, first published in 1978.

Scriptural interpretation varies greatly among Protestants. The evangelical or fundamentalist churches believe in a literal interpretation of Scripture, while the progressive, liberal churches believe that Scripture is historically influenced which requires an understanding to see what biblical truth is portrayed in a particular passage of Scripture.

Justification by Faith

Protestants believe that an individual receives forgiveness from sins and experiences a newness of life from God through acceptance by faith and not merited by works or personal achievement (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Salvation and Eternal Reward

Protestants believe that God seeks individuals for fellowship. However, human beings through sin have alienated themselves from their Creator. Those who accept God’s grace receive salvation, or deliverance, from eternal damnation, the penalty of rejecting God ultimately resulting in spiritual death. God’s reward to the repentant faithful is his abiding presence with us and the promise of eternal life (Romans 6:23, John 3:1-6).

Sacraments/Ordinances

Protestants acknowledge one source of God’s grace, that being the Word, which may be manifested in such ways as preaching/proclamation, active ministry, and the sacraments. Sacraments or ordinances are best described as the Word of God made visible. Protestants generally believe in two ordinances for which there is scriptural evidence of them being established and practiced by Jesus himself, namely Baptism (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29).

Baptism is a rite of purification by water, a ceremony invoking the grace of God to regenerate the person, free him or her from sin, and make that person a part of the church. Formal baptism is performed by immersion, pouring or sprinkling, depending on the tradition. Baptism can be performed on babies or can be postponed until the person is relatively mature and can make a formal confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of his or her life.

The Lord’s Supper includes the elements bread and wine (grape juice in some traditions). Partaking of these elements, the believer is united in some form with Christ and with other members. Much difference of opinion exists with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Some believe that a change occurs by which the body and blood of Christ join with the bread and wine; others believe that no such change takes place, but that there is a union with Christ and each other; still others believe it is an occasion to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some Protestants use unleavened bread, others use raised bread. In addition, some Protestants use wine while others use unfermented grape juice. All Protestants receive both elements. The frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper among Protestants ranges from weekly to once a year.

The Church

Protestants believe that God indwells believers through the Holy Spirit. Where God’s people gather together for worship or service, there is fellowship with God and with each other. The church, like a body, functions with the cooperation of its combined members. Protestants likewise believe that God has empowered the church with gifts that when performed properly edify and equip the church for ministry (Matthew 16:1-8; Ephesians 2:19-22).

Priesthood of All Believers

Protestants hold fast to the scriptural teachings found in 1 Peter 2:9. Each individual has access to God the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation, revelation of and understanding God’s divine will, etc. are sought and attained on a personal level.

Eschatology or Doctrine of the Last Things

Probably nowhere is the Protestant branch of Christianity more divided than on this subject of eschatology. The last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, is the key to understanding the different, viewpoints. Much emphasis is made on the interpretation of the thousand year reign of Christ (Revelation 20), the events surrounding that reign and the interpretation of Biblical prophecy. There are basically three major views on the thousand year reign of Christ, called the Millennium.

One view is that certain prophesied events need to happen before a literal thousand year reign of Christ (premillennialism) is ushered into history. Upon completion of the thousand year reign, judgment will come. Many different interpretations of this view exist among the more fundamentalist and evangelical churches. Another view is that the thousand year reign of Christ is symbolic (amillennialism) of the period of time between Christ’s first and second coming. A third view is that the church is victorious in the world today and that the church will usher in a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment (postmillennialism).

The whole subject of the end times is very popular today among Protestant Christians. Many books of theology are written on the subject and currently a whole series of novels are written around the theme and the various aspects of the literal thousand year reign of Christ.

Calendar of the Church Year

The liturgical calendar is followed in some form by many of the Protestant churches which have a liturgical background, such as the Lutheran Churches, Episcopalian Churches, Presbyterian Churches, Orthodox Churches, Methodist Churches, and others.

The Church Year consists of two nearly equal halves: Festival Time, from Advent through Pentecost, and Non-festival Time, the post-Pentecost season. The festival time of the year is itself divided into two cycles: the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons) and the Easter cycle (Lent and Easter seasons). Easter, which can fall anytime between March 22 and April 25 (the first Sunday after the full moon t.hat falls on or after the vernal equinox – the only remnant of the Jewish lunar calendar), is the central festival of the Christian year. The lectionary covers a period of three years, reflecting the readings from the three synoptic gospels-one each year.

Festival Time: Christmas and Easter Cycles 

The Church Year begins with the season of Advent, a word from Latin meaning coming. Advent is observed on the four Sundays before Christmas. It is a time of expectation, hope, and preparation for the coming of Christ, not just at Christmas, but, especially for the first three weeks of Advent, at the end of time. The first Sunday links with the final Sundays of the previous church year in giving a glimpse, indeed a warning, of the end of the world. The second and third Sundays focus on the ministry of John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus. The fourth Sunday brings the believers to the brink of Christmas as we learn about Mary and Joseph and Jesus’ divine heritage.

Traditionally there are three liturgies of Christmas: Christmas Midnight, Christmas Dawn, and Christmas Day. The midnight and dawn services focus on the story in Luke’s Gospel, so beloved by Christians, of the simple birth in a barn of the Savior, the annunciation of the angels to the shepherds, and the shepherds’ adoration of the Christ child. The Christmas Day Eucharist explores the mystery of the Word made flesh, Jesus, as expounded upon by the evangelist in the so-called Prologue of John. John states that this Word was present, not just at his incarnation, but in the beginning, as the means whereby God created the universe. Then, because of sin, God sent the Son, the Word, into history as Savior, to win God’s children and the world back from eternal death. The Christmas season extends into one or two more Sundays, the first focusing on the Holy Family, the second revisiting the Prologue of John from Christmas Day.

The season of Epiphany follows. Because of the movable date of Easter, the number of Sundays in this season varies from between four and nine. Epiphany is rich: it was originally a unitive festival combining the celebration of Jesus’ birth, the visit of the Magi from the East, Jesus’ baptism, and his first miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana, signaling the beginning of his earthly ministry. Today the Epiphany festival (January 6) deals just, with the visit of the Magi. The following Sunday tells of Jesus’ baptism, and only in one of the three years of the three-year lectionary (Year C) is the story of Jesus’ first miracle read. The Epiphany season then tells stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, including the calling of the first disciples. The season concludes with the festival of the Transfiguration, the disciples’ mountain-top vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah.

Next, the season of Lent is observed, a word whose original meaning was spring. In the same way that the earth is renewed in spring, Christians are to focus on rebirth and renewal during forty days. These forty days do not include the six Sundays, which are still observed as weekly celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection. The traditional discipline of Lent includes prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent points not so much to Good Friday, but points more precisely to the baptismal waters of Easter Vigil. Lent was originally a time of preparation for converts (catechumens) who were to pass through death into life with Christ through baptism. Thus the liturgy of these Sundays focuses less on the Passion (there is Holy Week for that) than on the spiritual journey in the context of God’s redemptive act in Jesus. Lent begins with the most penitential day of the year, Ash Wednesday, when ashes are smudged on the participants, foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Another formula may also be used, “Repent from your sins and believe in the Gospel.”

The final week of Lent is called Holy Week, or as St. Augustine called it, the Great Week. It begins with The Sunday of the Passion/Palm Sunday. As its double name indicates, the focus is on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his passion and death. Church members gather, as did Jesus’ disciples, outside the walls of Jerusalem for the beginning of the liturgy, then move into the church singing Hosannas to the King. Yet, just as happened 2000 years ago when nearly everyone deserted Jesus on Maundy Thursday, the liturgy abruptly shifts to the complete recitation of one of the synoptic Passions, according to Matthew, Mark, or Luke.

At the end of Holy Week comes the Triduum, the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection from Thursday evening until Easter Sunday evening. This is the heart of the Church Year. As with the Epiphany festival, Christians originally celebrated this event as a unitive festival, later separating the events into only individual liturgies.

The Triduum begins with Maundy Thursday. Maundy is the English form of the Latin mandatum, or commandment. Jesus commands his followers this night to “love one another as I have loved you.” In the evening’s liturgy, three special signs of God’s love and grace are given: personal assurance of forgiveness, mirroring the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and concluding the Lenten period of repentance; the washing of the feet, reenacting what Jesus did for his disciples that night; and the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, since it was on that night that Jesus changed a simple meal into an eternal banquet, a foretaste of the never-ending feast to come.

The Good Friday liturgy has three main elements: first and foremost, the entire Passion story from St. John’s Gospel is read, as has been done since earliest times. St. John’s passion emphasizes the glory of the crucified Jesus, triumphant even in death. Second, the Church offers solemn (meaning elaborate, formalized) prayers to God: prayers for the Church and its leaders, for the people of God, for those separated from the faith, and for the world. The prayers are summed up by the archetypal prayer, the Our Father. Finally, the cross is brought to the altar in procession, and Christians meditate on the inestimable love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus.

The Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday is the climax of not only the Triduum but of the entire Church year. It is the oldest, richest, and most elaborate of liturgies. In it the church experiences with Christ the passage from death to life. The Vigil is made up of four parts.

In the first, the Service of Light, the new fire is blessed from which the new Paschal Candle is lighted. The people are led into the darkened church by the pillar of fire just as the children of Israel were led through the desert after their escape from Egypt. Then, in the magnificent Easter Proclamation, the church praises God for the light of Christ.

The second part of the vigil consists of up to twelve readings from the Old Testament that emphasize God’s saving mercy to the Israelites. These readings sum up the church’s understanding of God’s redemptive power for the people of the covenant, and in the stories’ rich imagery the prefiguring of Jesus’ death and resurrection is also seen. One of the stories is the Exodus from Egypt and how God threw the Egyptians into confusion in the Red Sea while safely leading the children of Israel through unharmed. The symbolism of water and drowning to sin are at the root of the Christian theology and Baptism.

The third part of the vigil picks up on the theme of water in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The Easter Vigil was the original time for new Christians to be baptized in the early Church. In Baptism, the believers die with Christ to be raised with him to eternal life. At this point in the liturgy, all baptized Christians are called upon to renew their own baptismal vows.

Finally, the first Eucharist of Easter is celebrated (traditionally some time after midnight of Easter Day). Believers rejoice with the Church Eternal that the Risen Christ gives himself to them in the sharing of his body and blood. Easter Day continues the celebration and begins a season of 50 days: a week of weeks culminating in Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Easter is the reason Christians began to worship on Sunday, or the Lord’s Day, as the perpetual weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Alleluia, not heard since before Ash Wednesday, returns as a persistent refrain today and throughout the season. The 40th day of Easter is Ascension Day, when Jesus disappeared from earthly sight so that he could send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost to inspire and guide the Church.

Non-Festival Time: The Time between Pentecost and Advent

Pentecost both concludes the 50 days of Easter and also names the entire second half of the Church Year. Once again, due to the movable date of Easter, the post-Pentecost season, like the Epiphany season, varies in length, from between 23 and 28 Sundays. The first Sunday after Pentecost always celebrates the Holy Trinity and the last Sunday of the post-Pentecost season (and of the entire Church Year) is the Feast of Christ the King. In this longest season of the year, rather than focusing on specific events in the life of Christ, the Church follows the most ancient practice of semi-continuous reading from one Gospel writer. The Old Testament reading is chosen to reflect the Gospel, while the second Readings are semi-continuous writings from the Epistles. Each year, one of the three synoptic gospels is followed: Matthew in Year A, Mark in year B, and Luke in year C. The Gospel of John is read from time to time in all three years, especially during Lent and Easter, and five passages from John 6, the Bread of Life chapter, are read during the Mark year to supplement that shortest Gospel.

In addition to the Sunday and festival calendar, also called the temporal cycle, the church observes numerous Lesser Festivals and commemorations, known as the sanctoral cycle. There are Lesser Festivals devoted to certain events in Jesus’ life and to the Apostles and earliest martyrs, which have been observed since earliest times. For example, in the churches which trace their roots back to the Protestant Reformation, such as Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches, Reformation and All Saints (at the end of October and the beginning of November) often displace one or two normal Sundays. Other heroes of the faith down through the ages have been added to church year calendars as commemorations from time to time, allowing the church to give thanks for these witnesses of the faith as Christians seek to emulate their trust in God. It is traditional to commemorate such believers on the day of their death, their heavenly birthday.

In observing the Church Year, Christians affirm that the eternal God is with them also in time, hallowing their daily lives. God broke into time and history in Jesus, the Son of God. The Sundays and seasons are marked with confidence that Christ will be with his followers “until the end of the age.”