The Reformation and Human Rights

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Damilola Makinde, who is completing her Masters in Human Rights law.

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The Reformation has had a foundational impact on much of our understanding of the individual, the Church and the state, and its relevance endures in its legacy – in changing the face of the Christian Church and in lending an ideological base to many of our modern institutions. 

Reformers held strong beliefs on the authority of scripture, and the need for all matters of faith and conduct to be understood within the context of the supreme authority of the Bible. The Reformation emphasised a direct correlation between the Bible and the content of belief, and from this, between the content of belief and the conduct of believers. Confidence in the Bible and the good news that it makes known proved to be the driving force of this movement. 

And still proves to be today. 

Halfway through my study of Human Rights, I have seen many parallels between evangelical thought (rooted in the Reformation) and the modern discourse on Human Rights. These parallels are interesting to explore, but are also instructive on how best to move on into the next 500 years as a people and wider society.

Similarities 

Martin Luther painstakingly sought to relate his condition of sinfulness to what is written of sin in scripture, and coming to understand how God justifies sinners released him into a freedom that changed the course of world events – the freedom of being right with God. A key task of the language of human rights is to put a name on the ills that befall our world and for this naming to be as precise as possible, understanding that the remedying of these ills can only follow an accurate diagnosis of the same.

Language and meaning were important in other respects during the Reformation – the Reformers were insistent that the Bible be understood in the vernacular, that the truth of God’s kindness in the person of Jesus Christ be publicised as widely as possible and made accessible to all, layperson or member of the elite. The description of human rights as ‘universal’ at once expresses that the origin of human rights that inheres in all people regardless of background, and also evinces the need for all peoples to claim their human rights and understand the discourse around it. 

That human rights are and should be universal places an onus on those shaping the form of human rights today to remember that what may often seem an academic pursuit (much like translating and relaying the message of the Bible), is actually of incredible practical consequence, and the fullness of what is envisaged in all our hopes and aspirations around human rights can never be realised unless the people human rights are meant to serve are indeed served and made central to them. 

Differences

While parallels abound, a critical point of divergence between the principles of Reformation thought and our understanding of human rights is that of authority. As stated above, the Reformation was propelled by the force of God’s unchanging word, and that clear foundation of Biblical authority grounded and enthused the tireless work of reformers as they faced alienation, excommunication and death from moving against the dominant narrative of their day. There is almost a comedic tragedy to be seen in how this has been upended in our thinking on human rights today – ‘human rights’ is itself the dominant narrative of the day, but the multiplicity of divergent conceptions underlying this means there is a limited coherence and effectiveness to this most laudable of pursuits. 

When engaged in a collective ambition, there is only so much that can be achieved without a thorough understanding of that which informs your quest. This is seen both in terms of providing an impetus for action but also in interrogating these actions, holding them accountable to a standard and prioritising the relationship between beginnings, means, and ends. This lacuna consistently plagues the ideology of human rights. The inability to name a clear authority that is not readily relativized is a temporary balm that may in fact lead to a long term impediment. 

Conclusion

The Reformation was a movement from authority to right doctrine. Human rights has doctrine but little authority. There are many ways in which modern understandings on human rights, oft taken for granted today, can be related to the bravery of Reformation thought. The machinery of human rights holds incredible potential for freedom for many in our world. It does seem, however, that a fundamental aspect of Reformation thinking has not carried into our modern understanding of human rights. Our world today is a very different one to that which was five hundred years ago, but a clear and stable authority is as much a need and a basis for effective change in this society as it was then. 

For those of us who believe in Jesus, we can fully engage in the challenges and joys of living in a global society, taking seriously the work and aims of human rights, utilising them from a clear understanding of God and His work in His world. All the while, we place our hope in Jesus, the source of the freedom that spurred the Reformation and ultimately underpins human rights law.