Protestantism refers to the third branch of Christianity after Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. It is comprised of various denominations or groups each with their own set of traditions. This set of traditions is oftentimes unique to a denomination in terms of beliefs, organization and customs making it separate from other Protestant denomination. This makes Protestantism seem splintered when compared with the very organized structure of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. But one common belief among Protestant denominations is that man can find salvation not through good actions but solely by his faith in Jesus Christ.
The first Protestants come out from Europe in the 16th century in what is now called the Reformation. The actual word “Protestant” was originally coined when five princes of Germany sought reform in the Roman Catholic Church at the Diet of Speyer in 1529. They released a statement pronouncing unity against Roman Catholicism. Later in that century, the word was begun to be used to refer to two factions of reformation that broke away from Roman Catholicism: Lutheranism, founded on Martin Luther’s teachings, and Reformed, founded on the philosophies of Huldrvch Zwingli and John Calvin (McKim, 2005).
Zwingli and Calvin headed the Protestant movement in Switzerland while John Knox for Scotland. In England, a middle fusion of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism was created in what is now called Anglicanism or the Church of England. From these major groups or denominations, a lot of smaller groups broke away and presently continue to happen as the movement expanded around the world. By tradition, the origins of Protestantism is traced back to October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic priest that time, posted the “95 Theses” on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
The theses condemn aspects of the Roman Catholic Church that he believed to be not founded on Scripture particularly concerning absolution, confession and indulgences. Roman Catholics believe on indulgence as the complete or initial reduction of mortal chastisement owed for sins previously forgiven in confession. The growing practice of selling indulgences was regarded with huge skepticism since it symbolized a monetary transaction instead of an authentic repentance of the person. Luther viewed this as a serious desecration of the real purpose of confessing one’s sins and doing penance.
He asserted that Catholics were fallaciously taught that forgiveness can be obtained by paying for indulgences. The Castle Church where Luther nailed his 95 Theses possessed one of the continent’s biggest collections of religious relics at that time. It was maintained that time that viewing these sacred relics gives the onlooker some indulgence in purgatory. The collector of the relics, Frederick III of Saxony, allowed the religious to view the relics once a year and visitors offered donations for the church’s preservation and receive indulgences in return.
Another Dominican priest, Johan Tetzel, started to sell indulgences to help in a campaign to help fund St. Peter’s Basilica’s renovation in Rome. When these devout Catholics went to confess their sins, they handed over their indulgences and asserted that they did not have to repent because the indulgence document already guaranteed the forgiveness of their sins. This angered Luther and obliged him in exposing the deception by composing the 95 Theses, which was originally intended to be presented in public debate at the University of Wittenberg.
That day on October 31, 1517, was the day when Martin Luther spoke to the Roman Catholic authorities with his reform appeals and introduced his theses. He also asked them to order the members of the clergy to bring an end to the wrongful practice of selling indulgence. The church authorities did not take any action and this led Luther to circulate his work in private. His 95 Theses proliferated swiftly and printing began in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel. All of a sudden the content of his work reverberated all over Germany and beyond, having acquired a growing recognition in a short p of time.
Luther’s work echoed with believers not considering social status, wealth or class. The Roman Catholic Church released a response and identified errors in Luther’s work but the damage was already done. The Wittenberg chapel started to celebrate Lutheran services in 1522 instead of the Holy Mass in Roman Catholicism. Martin Luther quickly became popular mainly because of the common sentiment of Roman Catholic believers that time that they were not satisfied with the dishonesty and materialistic cravings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
Starting in 1525, other principal European cities like Strasbourg, Nuremberg and Augsburg, officially joined the Reformation movement. Soon after, other principal German states like Saxony, Brandenburg and Hesse joined the movement. Denmark established its first Protestant church in 1357 and Sweden followed in 1539. Meanwhile, the final attempt to formally reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church fell short at the Colloquy of Regensburg in 1540 (Iserloh, 1968). The founding of Protestantism was then regarded as fully accomplished.
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