How the Reformation Changed Society
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 Sarah Williams, who is Research Professor at Regent College in Vancouver.
If we believe that all human beings are created equal, that they are free to act according to conscience, to speak freely, to be treated fairly before the law; if we believe that rulers should obey the same laws as their subjects, that oppression should be resisted; that leaders should be held to account, that differences should be tolerated within civil society - then the reformation is something we must celebrate.
The 16th century reformation went far beyond correcting the doctrines of the church to address the fundamental shape and structure of the western world. It established the moral, philosophical and political foundations of the modern liberal tradition upon which our own society is built.
There were four dimensions to the reformation process. The Lutheran reformation brought the scriptures to bear on the relationship between the church and the state. The Radical reformation placed the vernacular Bible in the hands of ordinary men and women. The Calvinist reformation applied the scriptures to the laws and customs of daily life, and - by the end of the sixteen-century - the Catholic reformation heard the rebuke of scripture and put it’s own house in order.
In short, the reformation in all its varied expressions, was a great deal bigger than a brave monk nailing 95 contentious statements to a door in Wittenberg. This action on 31st October 1517 may have catalysed immediate events, but Luther and his fellow reformers had no idea just how momentous the consequences of their actions would be.
Many thinkers and writers from Jacob Burkhardt to Alexis De Tocqueville and Max Weber have pointed back to the reformation to find the roots of modern democracy and the idea of the modern participatory state. Luther in preaching justification by faith alone re-envisioned the meaning of a priesthood of all believers and centralised the liberty of individual conscience.
In place of mediating priests he put the gathered ecclesia - a voluntary community of unforced and free individuals who chose to associate on the basis of common beliefs and shared commitments.
This understanding of the individual as the primary building block of civil society and of society as a moral community in which all human beings share equally in the privileges and obligations of belonging, stripped away the suffocating hierarchy of clerical privilege and the treatment of the Bible as a possession of the elite subject to the whims and priorities of power.
By preaching that every individual - master and peasant, male and female, ordained priest and layman – had equal access to freedom in Christ, the 16th century reformers established the idea of Christian liberty as a fundamental spiritual, moral and political identity and they generated socio-political structures that protected these values through an essential commitment to equality as a right upheld in law.
Papally endorsed canon law was transformed to create a code founded on the assumption of the inherent moral equality of persons, and a theory of natural rights that were pre-social and decisive as the legitimating criterion for all social organisation.
This radical assertion of human freedom centralised the operation of the individual conscience as the glue of self-government over and against the mere imposition of authority from above. All these supposedly self-evident truths upon which our own society depends would not exist without the reformation.
Why is it then that we so often leave this profound Christian legacy out of the story of the west? Why has modern liberalism locked itself into conflict with Christianity and cut itself off from the source that gave it life in the first place?
The effect of modern liberalism’s amnesia concerning its roots has been to drain modern liberalism of its substantive framework of meaning, its moral content and its social and political vision. We are in danger, like the corrupted church that so offended Luther of erring against our roots and falling into our own kinds of heresy. We reduce liberalism to unimpeded market economics. We prioritise individual wants and preferences without reference to the common ends towards which they should rightly be directed.
We commit the heresy of reducing political philosophy to crude utilitarianism; the heresy of changing the meaning of the individual person-in-community into an atomistic unit of alienated autonomy. We neglect the habits of association, affiliation and communal reciprocity for which many of the reformers lost their lives, and retreat into the private sphere, leaving political and civic participation to an ambitions and power hungry elite. The individual conscience given liberty by the reformation is increasingly subjugated by a centralised and impersonal state.
These are the heresies that threaten to destroy our culture, just as corruption and spiritual elitism threatened to destroy the medieval church. It is time to take stock as we celebrate the 500th year anniversary of the reformation. We need to renew our understanding of the profound connection that exists between these momentous historical events and the values that we hold so dear in western culture. If we are to find the coherent moral vision that we so desperately need to meet the acute geo-political challenges facing us today, maybe we need another Reformation.
Sarah Williams is Research Professor in the History of Christianity, Regent College, Vancouver. This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct edition of IDEA magazine.