First of all: Evangelical or Protestant? The two terms are synonymous and interchangeable. However, whereas Protestant infers a reference to the Reformation of the 16th century, evangelical refers rather to the Bible or even to history, in the sense of the Christian communities of the primitive church. So what sense is there in being Protestant or evangelical five hundred years after the great Reformation and two thousand years after the primitive church? Why is Protestantism – especially through the charismatic and pentecostal churches – expanding so much today?
Here are two of the possible reasons. First, the deep feeling of freedom that emerges from a personal, simple and direct faith, based exclusively on the Bible, released from the intermediation of structures of power and freed from the weight of ritualism. Second, the great value accorded to the individual lay conscience, that chooses and decides without being imposed upon, and practises the ethics of responsibility.
Protestants are defined as “the people of the Word”: they hold that the Holy Scriptures represent the only and unequalled source of revelation and authority for both the single believer and the Church as a whole. The Bible is thus considered the living Word of God, nourished by the Holy Spirit, who enlightens the believer as he reads it. Its importance is therefore considered to be absolutely superior to that of any dogma, tradition, or teaching. As already in Luther’s day, the fact that the Bible is removed from clerical monopoly and placed in the hands of the “people” – who are encouraged in every way to read and study it for themselves – has enormous consequences, not only as regards literacy and the acquisition of culture, but above all as regards the capacity for and independence of critical judgement.
Protestantism’s prophetic message is that God has first place in everything. On one hand this message is expressed as an invective – a protest, along the model of the Old Testament prophets – against the practices and doctrines of the Church of Rome, which, according to the Reformers’ judgement, obscure the sovereignty of God by rendering the church and its dogmas absolute and asserting the infallibility of its leadership. On the other hand, Protestantism’s message exhorts the believer to be faithful and give witness (pro-testari, declare publicly) to God’s saving grace.