Four Misconceptions of Protestantism

In the first chapter of his book, The Spirit of Protestantism, Robert McAfee Brown identifies four common misconceptions about Protestantism.

Robert McAfree Brown, born 1920, was a Professor of Religion at Stanford University from 1962 to 1976. After teaching at Stanford University, Professor Brown also taught at the University of Berkeley until 1984. Aside from his academic career, he was also involved in civil rights issues and opposition to the Vietnam War. Robert McAfree Brown died in 2001.

The First Misconception

According to Brown, Protestantism is often considered a negative religion. As he says, people believe that Protestants “may not be sure of what they are for, but they are very sure of what they are against.” People believe that Protestantism, as its name suggests, is mainly focused on protesting against this or that.

Brown thinks that this is an error. Although the root of the word Protestantism is, in fact, “protest,” he points out that protesting need not be a negative activity. According to Brown, the verb “to protest” is derived from the Latin pro-testari, which means “to testify on behalf of something.” Thus, to protest is not only to be against something, it is also to be for something. The Protestant Reformers were certainly against various doctrines of the Roman Catholics, but this opposition was a result of their own positive beliefs. It was not merely a negative protest.

The Second Misconception

Not only do people conceive of Protestantism as a negative religion, but they also view it as merely a diluted form of Roman Catholicism. Protestantism shares many of the same traditions and beliefs as Roman Catholicism, but it also differs in fundamental ways. In general, Protestantism has fewer traditions and doctrines than the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, while there are seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism, Protestants only believe in two of these sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist.

Whether Protestantism is viewed as a diluted version of Roman Catholicism or whether Roman Catholicism is viewed as a bloated form of Protestantism is a matter of viewpoint. Protestants believe many of the doctrines of Roman Catholicism are unwarranted additions to the Christian faith. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, believe that Protestantism has eliminated important features of the Christian faith.

The Third Misconception

The third misconception results from treating Protestantism as if it is merely believing a certain set of doctrines. Brown argues that “God does not give us doctrines. He gives us himself in Jesus Christ, and the doctrines are no more than our way of attempting to think through what that gift means.”

Religious doctrines are important tools, but should be considered means rather than ends. Protestantism is more than just a set of doctrines to assent to, it is the commitment of oneself to God.

The Forth Misconception

Although Protestantism is not merely giving assent to a set of religious doctrines, it is not merely “the right of private judgment” either. According to Brown, Protestants themselves often believe that Protestantism is about this right of private judgment. They believe that Martin Luther and other Reformers freed Christianity from the dogmatism of the church.

These Protestants believe, Brown says, that “Christians no longer have to believe what the church tells them. They can believe what their own private judgment tells them, and nothing must be allowed to violate the integrity of that judgment.”

Brown claims this attitude of “anything goes” is incorrect. Firstly, Martin Luther and other Reformers did not see themselves establishing a new faith. Their protest against certain doctrines of the Roman Catholics was not based on their private judgment, but on their understanding of the Bible. They believed Roman Catholicism had strayed from the pure Christian faith.

Secondly, Brown argues that it is not important what we believe about God, but what God believes about us. According to Brown, “the right of private judgment, then, refashions God on our terms” instead of us refashioning ourselves to God’s terms.