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The Many Flavors of Protestantism

Just how many varieties of Christianity did the Reformation spawn?

Jimmy Akin

Recently, friends called to our attention the existence of a new Facebook group, calling itself “Catholic Answers,” that serves as a forum to attack Catholic teaching as false and unbiblical. Its description page includes the group’s “one rule”:

Because all liars will have their part in the lake of fire (Rev 21:8), so, If a Roman Catholic decides to make the false claim that there are “x number of denominations”, they will be required to name them all, by name [sic].

The multiplication of Protestant denominations and sects following the Reformation is a common talking-point for Catholic apologists and often a sore spot for Protestants. It’s a licit point for Catholics to raise—after all, Christ came to build one Church whose members would live and believe in unity with each another, not many churches that disagree over important points of faith and morals. But it’s also one that should not be exaggerated.

In this excerpt from his new booklet, 20 Answers: Protestantism, Jimmy Akin takes a realistic look at the taxonomy of Protestantism and touches on the question of just how many denominations there actually are.

What are the different varieties of Protestantism?

There are many varieties of Protestantism, and they display an enormous amount of theological diversity. For this reason, it is almost always a mistake to speak of “the” Protestant position on any subject. Even the core distinctives on which Protestantism is based—sola fide and sola scriptura—are understood in markedly different ways. When we move to other doctrines, the diversity only increases.

There are literally thousands of independent Protestant denominations, and many more independent congregations. Catholic apologists have pointed to these numbers as illustrations of the tendency of Protestant principles—especially sola scriptura—to cause fragmentation and doctrinal confusion.

This is a valid point. However, sometimes apologists cite misleading numbers, claiming—for example, that there are something like 33,000 Protestant denominations. This number is given as the total number of Christian denominations in the World Christian Encyclopedia, but the methodology used to count them is flawed. It considers two groups to be separate denominations if they are in different countries, even if they are in communion with each other. Because the Catholic Church is found in many countries, the Encyclopedia counts Catholicism as being 242 separate denominations!

Even when denominations operate independently of each other, it doesn’t mean that they disagree theologically. A Presbyterian denomination in America may be totally independent of a Presbyterian denomination in Uganda, but they may have the same doctrinal views.

About half of Protestants worldwide belong to one of six major traditions—Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, or Pentecostals—with the remainder belonging to smaller traditions, including nondenominational groups.

These major traditions historically have all been Trinitarian in theology, and they broadly accept the results of the early ecumenical councils dealing with the Person of Christ. Use of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed is common in many of them, though some clauses (e.g., those regarding belief in the communion of saints, baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and especially the Catholic Church) may be understood in different senses.

Although the majority of groups stemming from the Reformation are Trinitarian, there are movements that reject this teaching. Whether Unitarianism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostalism fall under the definition of Protestant is open to debate.

Over time, a number of movements have emerged in Protestantism that cut across these traditions. By the twentieth century, many historic Protestant denominations had become more theologically liberal, though they still contained conservative congregations and individuals. In the 1920s, they came to be known as “mainline” Protestant churches, and they include representatives of all the major Protestant traditions except Pentecostalism.

Mainline denominations were criticized by more conservative ones, who came to be called “fundamentalists” because they favored The Fundamentals—a twelve-volume set of books advocating conservative positions. Over time, the origin of the term was largely forgotten, and today fundamentalist is a term used to refer to very conservative Protestants (as well as members of other groups and even other religions, e.g., “fundamentalist Muslims”). The term also has taken on negative connotations. If someone is called a fundamentalist, it suggests that he is doctrinally rigid and hostile to other viewpoints. For this reason, the term should be used only for those few Christians who apply it to themselves. Otherwise, it becomes an insult that adds more heat than light.

Because of the negative connotations the term acquired, conservative Protestants needed a different and more positive term for themselves, and in the United States they began to call themselves “evangelicals.” This can be confusing since the term evangelical has been used in other senses. In Europe, it is applied to mainline Protestant churches or, alternately, to anyone who strongly favors evangelism (i.e., preaching the gospel).

However, in the United States evangelical generally indicates a conservative Protestant who distances himself from the rigidity associated with fundamentalism, though the term is fluid and not all who identify themselves as evangelical fit this profile.


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