Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Putting the Protest Back into Protestant

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Putting the Protest Back into Protestant

Article excerpt


When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on 31 October 1517, he did so in protest at abuses in Catholic theology and practice. Contemporary times, too, call for protest. The first "protest" concerns the revitalization of education and an increased commitment to intellectual excellence. The second "protest" concerns a recovery of Luther as a figure of protest. While scholars have tamed Luthers dangerous doctrines, the popular imagination still perceives him as an urban legend who spoke truth to power. An expansive notion of scholarship on Luther is required in order to approach a Luther who continues to inspire people around the world. The third "protest" is a critical protest of Luther's religious intolerance, specifically his anti-Judaism. Christian theologians must acknowledge Luther's anti-Judaism as central to his theology and radically revise this legacy to promote justice in inter-religious relations.


The term "protest" was first used by a group of German nobles in 1529. Summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor to an Imperial Diet in the town of Speyer on 15 March, the electors and princes of the Empire gathered to discuss the instability with which the Reformation threatened Christendom. On the agenda was the mandate of the previous Imperial Diet of 1526, also held in Speyer. At this earlier meeting, the decision reached stipulated that individual princes could support reform movements in their respective territories. But by 1529, times had changed. Emperor Charles V was preoccupied with military defence against the encroaching Turkish army, which would advance to Vienna later that year. While political peace was threatened by imminent invasion, religious unity was frayed by the progress of the reform movement. Both politics and religion would be addressed at the Second Diet of Speyer.

Charles V was unable to attend the Diet, and sent his brother Ferdinand, king of Bohemia and Hungary, in his stead. Ferdinand was not amenable to reconciling the diverse religious factions in the German states. From the start of the Diet to the resulting declaration on 19 April, the Catholics swayed the political majority. The final decision forbade any further development of the Reformation. The imperial ban would be placed on perpetrators of the Reformation, a decision reinstating the ban imposed on Luther by the Edict of Worms in 1521. Speyer II, in effect, rescinded Speyer I, and adding to the restrictions explicitly excluded Zwinglians and Anabaptists from any religious toleration. This state of religious affairs would remain in effect until the matter was to be definitively decided by a general council called by the pope. Such a council was rumoured for 1530, but as history would have it, the Council of Trent was opened on 15 December 1545, only two months before Luther's death on 18 February 1546.

The Protestant princes were shocked by Speyer II's direct threat to the reform movement. They gathered together and composed two documents. The first, a "Letter of Protestation" from 20 April 1529, was signed by four of the nobles. This letter was eventually acknowledged by Ferdinand who rejected its content at the final meeting of the Diet on 24 April. The second document was a lengthy legal appeal, the "Instrumentum Appellationis," issued on 25 April. This text was signed by the elector of Saxony, among other dukes, and representatives of 14 imperial cities. From this time on, the reform movement would be labelled "Protestant" because of the wording at the end of the document, in which the nobles and city agents announced their protest at the Diet's decision. (1)

Since 1529, then, the term "Protestant" has come to be identified with the reform movement that eventually emerged as an independent Western Christian confession. The Council of Trent, conducted in three separate sessions between 1545 and 1563, would be credited historically with excluding the Protestant Reformation from the purview of Catholicism. …

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