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Our great debt to the Reformation

The Protestant movement pushed God’s Kingdom forward

Tourists and others sit near a statute of Martin Luther in Dresden, Germany. Associated Press/Photo by Matthias Rietschel

Our great debt to the Reformation
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Protestants honor Reformation Day on October 31, which celebrates the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. But the whole world owes the Reformation a debt of gratitude.

Arguably, Protestantism created modernity. That’s either a blessing or a curse, depending whom you might ask. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox critics fault Protestantism for modernity’s failures, including radical autonomous individualism, rabid secularism, ideological extremisms, and hedonism. Humanity would be more in sync with its Creator if Christianity had remained moored to the authority and continuity of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, they say.

These Catholic and Orthodox arguments have some traction, but they are far from the whole story. By stressing humanity’s direct access to God and the Bible, stressing salvation through faith alone, and also uplifting non-ecclesial vocations and marital life, Protestantism ennobled and liberated much of humanity. Modern literacy, modern science, modern markets and capitalism, constitutional democracy and human rights were all advanced by the Reformation, and in a decisive way.

Martin Luther likely had few of these eventual developments in mind when he nailed those 95 theses to the church door. Perhaps he would have been discomfited by some of these consequences, had he known. But by his own admission, he was but a worm who was a tool of God’s Providence. No human being can, in any age of history, fully appreciate how God is using him or her to advance divine justice and righteousness.

Luther’s insistence on human direct access to God through Christ dethroned the medieval church’s grasping after inordinate spiritual and temporal power. His stress on direct reading of the Bible by laity in their own language facilitated mass literacy, in order that the Bible might be read. His translation of the Bible into German, amid endless pamphleteering, helped launch modern publishing. His departure from the celibate priesthood, and his wife’s departure from the convent, into a happy marital union, elevated marriage, and family, into godly estates no less than celibacy.

His stress on scholarship and translation from original sources, accompanied by rational discernment apart from direct ecclesial control, contributed to a broadening of scientific analysis and discovery, with free inquiry. His affirmations of professions outside the church dignified labor, trade, and finance, further enabling modern markets. His stress on private conscience and rejection of unquestioned ecclesial authority undermined political and ecclesial authoritarianism. After the Reformation, there was increasing expectation that governance was no longer the exclusive preserve of a favored few but now was a project involving all God’s creatures.

The Reformation was and remains a ceaseless dynamo, always swirling, generating endless energy and production with unforeseen consequences still unfolding.

After the Reformation, across decades and centuries, entire cultures were increasingly empowered by literacy and knowledge, expectations of political authority and economic prosperity, a sense of progress through scientific and technological discovery, a deliverance from superstition and captivity to a perceived invisible world, a growing awareness of human equality with consequent responsibilities, an appreciation for emerging nation states accountable to populations, and, above all, a confidence in God’s direct love for and relationship with all who call upon Him.

The Reformation was and remains a ceaseless dynamo, always swirling, generating endless energy and production with unforeseen consequences still unfolding. The 19th and early 20th century historian Henry Adams in his famous memoir wrote of “the Dynamo and the Virgin,” the latter representing the medieval order stressing submission and stability, the former representing industry, prosperity, science, and revolutionary progress. There was great beauty and mystery in the latter, but the former offered vast material improvements for millions.

So, the Reformation was not just for Protestants, who are maybe one seventh of today’s global population, but offered a dynamic social and economic boost to the whole world, all of which has been touched by science, technology, mass literacy, and the hope of self-rule and equality. Today’s “postliberal” critics lament these developments, which they fear freed humanity from an organic community under God mediated by the church. They are partly right but mostly wrong. Amid continued tares among the wheat, the Reformation pushed God’s Kingdom forward.

The Reformation not only brought salvation, the Bible, and direct knowledge of Christ to millions, it advanced what Christ commends: alleviating poverty, hunger, illness, and oppressions of all sorts. Its insights were not invented but discovered, usually against much resistance, within the Bible and the church’s historic teachings.

Historian Alec Ryrie called Protestantism above all a “love affair with God,” preoccupied with how to know Him better, especially through His Word. He also cited the “restless Protestant conscience” that never accepts the status quo but always strives for reform. And he noted: “Protestants love to argue. The world we live in is the world their arguments made.”

Those arguments must continue, and it is good that we celebrate Reformation Day in that light.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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