Lutheran or Protestant?
Q: The question recently came up “are Lutherans really Protestants?” I have it in the back of my mind that I read somewhere that Lutherans are not Protestants. Could you please define the term “Protestant” (as it applies here) and answer the question? Thank you.
A: By original definition, Lutherans are the only “Protestants.” At the time they received the name, they were also the only “Evangelicals” (Gospel proclaimers), a name they’d chosen for themselves. In 1529 at the Diet (Imperial Assembly) of Speyer, legal restrictions were placed upon the Evangelicals. This included Martin Luther and those following his teachings on salvation by grace through faith alone.
The restrictions included the spread of Evangelical teaching, assembly, and other rights. Because of this, the Evangelical delegation filed a formal protest. When the protest was rejected, the delegation filed an appeal with the emperor. During this time, they were imprisoned for a time, late in 1529. Thus, “Protestant” comes from this specific protest, one lodged only by the Lutherans.
The Protestant title stuck, and later reformers tried to strengthen their case by joining themselves with this historic protest. Because so many people who taught radically different doctrine than the Evangelicals were claiming the name, the “Lutherans” largely rejected the Protestant title for themselves. As a matter of fact, the Lutherans often found themselves in closer agreement with the Roman Catholics with whom they had first disagreed than with these later theological movements.
Just as they lost exclusive claim to the Protestant title, so the Lutherans found many others later claiming to be Evangelicals because of political concessions granted to the Evangelical (Lutheran) movement. Because of this, while Evangelical often appears as part of various Lutheran church names, the movement generally has kept the name Lutheran as its identifier. This was not done so much to honor Luther, who roundly rejected such a thing, but to identify their teachings as the same as Luther’s.
As you see,“Evangelical” and “Protestant” — both nicely descriptive names — are rarely used by their original holder, the Lutheran Church, because of differences with others who later claimed them for themselves.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.