On the eve of Reformation Day 2014, it is appropriate to point out that the Protestant Christian movement among the Albanians cannot be interpreted properly without understanding Protestantism in general. People tend to act upon the basis of what they believe, and the actors of the Albanian Protestant movement, both foreign missionaries and local Albanians, were no different. Their actions for both God and the Albanian nation were informed and inspired by their beliefs. Sometimes their religious beliefs dominated their actions; other times their nationalist beliefs dominated their actions. In most cases, however, their religious and nationalist sentiments were intertwined, in varying proportions, and their activities served both causes, whether directly or indirectly. In Albania, Protestant theology lent itself naturally to nationalistic priorities such as egalitarianism, education, literature distribution, and spiritual literacy among common people.
Protestantism, as its root implies, is connected historically with protest. In the Middle Ages, certain Roman Catholic clerics and scholars considered many teachings of their church to have degenerated into heresy, opposing the plain teachings of the Bible. When their appeals for reform from within their church were denied, they protested, as Martin Luther did by nailing his famous Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenburg’s Castle Church on October 31, 1517. Thus they became known as Protestants. Luther wrote in 1522, “If you read all the annals of the past, you will find no century like this since the birth of Christ.” Historian Philip Schaff called the Protestant Reformation “the greatest event in history,” second only to the introduction of Christianity .
When the Protestant Reformation swept Europe, both the Western Church and the Eastern Church viewed it as a new Christian sect threatening their authority. Emerging fifteen centuries after the birth of the church, they argued, Protestants could not be a true church. Protestants replied that the truest church is that which is most faithful to the Scriptures, not that which can be traced back to Peter and Pentecost. They taught that theological and spiritual fidelity was a greater sign of authenticity than their opponents’ alleged formal, legal continuity that was already dubious, as evidenced by the East-West church schism made final in 1054.
The Protestant Reformation evolved in the context of complex political circumstances in Europe. Its theology, unlike Roman Catholic theology, was not settled by one universal authoritative person or body, because there was no Protestant equivalent to a pope or patriarch. Its leaders were theologians like Martin Luther (Germany), John Calvin (France), and Huldrych Zwingli (Switzerland). Although they and other Protestant scholars had differences in theological interpretations, they agreed on important, foundational doctrines that are well articulated by five Latin phrases called “the five solae.” The Reformers argued that these doctrines were as old as the New Testament itself, not new to the sixteenth century. Centuries before the Protestant Reformation there had been other groups and leaders preaching these very doctrines, such as the Waldensians, Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. The “five solae,” alternatively known as Protestantism’s five pillars, describe universally-accepted points of theological unity among Protestants and distinction from Catholics and Orthodox. They are the theological grounds for Evangelical Christian missionary efforts and are indispensable to the understanding of Protestant missionary activity among the Albanians.
Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
The core issue of the Protestant Reformation was authority. Who or what was the ultimate authority on matters of faith and religious practice? The Reformers taught that it was Scripture alone, not the words of any church, priest, pope, council, or tradition. Consequently, if the Scriptures were the ultimate authority, people needed access to it. The era of printing had recently been brought to Europe by Johannes Gutenberg (who, like Scanderbeg, had died in 1468), making Sola Scriptura more than a mere theological concept. It had practical possibilities for the common man. William Tyndale (1494-1536), English Protestant Bible translator and eventually a Christian martyr, replied to the objections of a Roman Catholic opponent by quipping, “I defy the Pope and all his laws … if God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.” Centuries later, this doctrine would be a core theological basis for the founding of Protestant Bible societies such as the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). That is, if the Bible is the divine authority for matters of life, faith, and eternity, then it should be distributed universally. Missionaries of the American Board “believed in true Protestant fashion that people, women as well as men, ought to be able to read the Bible in their own languages.”
Solus Christus (Christ alone)
One of the debates between the Roman Catholic church and the Protestant reformers concerned the phrase Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“Outside the church there is no salvation”). The Protestant reformers taught that salvation was offered on the basis of Christ alone, specifically his sinless life, sacrificial work on the cross, and resurrection. This salvation in Christ alone did not depend upon one’s standing in a particular church denomination. Protestants believed that the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ was the sufficient and exclusive grounds for a sinner’s justification. This doctrine provided a new understanding of spirituality for Albanians in the nineteenth century dwelling in a context where the official religions were connected to political agendas with clerics claiming authority to excommunicate or pronounce eternal damnation (a context which prompted Pashko Vasa to preach “Albanianism” as the religion of Albanians).
Sola Gratia (Grace alone)
Protestants emphasized Scriptural teachings that no one can fulfill the righteousness required by God’s law. All men are sinners, deserving eternal punishment and unable to justify themselves in the court of a holy God. Salvation was taught to be a legal transaction on behalf of the sinner called “justification”: Jesus took on the sins of the world and was punished for their sins. Whereas Catholics also believed in justification by grace, they did not believe it was by grace alone , mixing justification and sanctification together.
Sola Fide (Faith alone)
Protestants taught that the justification offered by grace alone was received, or appropriated, through faith alone, not through a combination of faith and works. This doctrine was “the very soul of evangelical Protestantism” and contrasted sharply with the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as defined by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which viewed justification as conditional upon good works and which, to some degree, evaluated one’s faith in Christ by their submission to the Roman Catholic church. Good works, Protestants argued, were the necessary evidence of justification, but not in any way the cause of it. In mathematical formulas, the Roman Catholic formula could be described as Faith in Christ + Works = Justification whereas the Protestant formula would be Faith in Christ = Justification + Works. Protestants taught that faith was like a hand receiving the gift of God’s grace which produced good works in a process called sanctification, which was distinct from justification.
Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be glory)
Protestants emphasized that because creation and salvation came wholly from God, all glory belongs to God, to the exclusion of mankind’s self-glorification and pride.
Protestantism was born in Europe nearly 500 years ago at a time when people desired enlightenment. It resulted in smaller Christian denominations emerging from the weakening Roman Catholic denomination. Likewise, Protestantism came to the Albanians at a time when they desired enlightenment and were poised to emerge from the dominance of a weakening Ottoman Empire.
The influence of Protestant theology and its associated cultural ramifications upon Albanian society is a topic that has not yet been researched adequately and warrants further studies. The Institute for Albanian and Protestant Studies exists to promote the discovery of Albanian and Protestant history and thought, and continues its aims to evolve into a mature resource for future researchers.
 Philip Schaff. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 7 of 8. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1996 (originally published 1888), p. 1-2.
 Foxe, John. Actes and monuments of these latter and perillous dayes … London: John Day, 1563, Book III, p. 570.
 Putney, Clifford. The Role of the American Board in the World: Bicentennial Reflections on the Organization’s Missionary Work, 1810-2010. Edited by Clifford Putney and Paul T. Burlin. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012, p. xx.
 The Roman Catholic Council of Trent anathematized this doctrine in Session VI, January 13, 1547, Canon 9.
 Schaff, Philip, ibid., pp. 20-23.