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Religious liberty and the Reformation

The Reformers laid the theoretical grounds for religious freedom


A statue of Martin Luther in Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons

Religious liberty and the Reformation
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One of the contested legacies of the Reformation era is the matter of religious liberty, which in human history has been shown to be rare, tenuous, and urgently worth preserving. Christendom had already split in the medieval period, with the Great Schism of 1054 dividing the Orthodox east from the Catholic west. Five centuries later Western Christianity would divide further, as Lutherans, Reformed, Anabaptists, and others distinguished themselves from Roman Catholicism.

Reformation disputes turned on doctrinal controversies over justification and sacraments, but disagreements over ecclesiology and political power were part and parcel of the 16th century and these also fueled institutional disintegration and reformation.

Given the received wisdom from the Middle Ages, which stressed the necessary connection between religious conviction and the use of coercive force, it was seemingly unavoidable that theological disputes would involve the use of force and the authority of governments. Indeed, the threat of imprisonment, punishment, and even execution hung in the air as Martin Luther uttered these powerful words in 1521: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”

Luther’s convictions quickly inspired others to stand by their own consciences and understanding of the Bible, and just as quickly there were as many religious opinions and theological views as there were princes, priests, and theologians. These movements tended to coalesce around powerful personalities and brilliant minds as well as economic and political centers of power. The magisterial reformers emphasized the legitimate power of civil authorities, while many Anabaptist and radical reformers viewed temporal authority with greater suspicion and even outright disdain.

It is appropriate to credit many of these radical figures with an insight into the spiritual nature of faith, which all sides recognized cannot be coerced. And more than insight, many Anabaptists paid for their convictions with their lives, executed on charges of heresy and apostasy as well as insurrection and rebellion. And so while we can point to figures who argued for religious toleration and peace, we can also acknowledge that the Reformation era manifested a wide variety of attempts to reconcile duties to God and neighbor with political and ecclesiastical power.

Even if many of the more radical thinkers in the Reformation emphasized the independence and inviolability of conscience, other movements, notably Lutheranism and Calvinism, tried to do justice to the role of religion in promoting social order and peace. In some way, each favored government establishments of some kind. But even in these attempts we can see the beginnings of structural changes that would manifest in more robust expressions of religious freedom. Wherever the church and the civil polity are distinguished, even if only conceptually, the theoretical grounds for religious liberty are in place.

The American experiment in ordered liberty stands as a unique enterprise arising out of these centuries of conflict and discord.

Various traditions would take different paths to recognizing the political priority of what Os Guinness has called “soul freedom.” Many of these paths are soaked in the blood of political and religious conflict. Each confessional tradition has had to reckon in its own way with the dangers of hypocrisy, apostasy, and social disorder on the one side, and coercion, tyranny, and oppression on the other.

The American experiment in ordered liberty stands as a unique enterprise arising out of these centuries of conflict and discord. Many who traveled to North America from Europe were motivated by their religious convictions, seeking freedom to live according to their consciences in a new land. But the temptation to impose uniformity with coercive force is always at hand, and many of those seeking freedom quickly used that opportunity to oppress others.

In the era of the American Founding, Presbyterians changed their confessional standards to reflect the reality of disestablishment of religion at the federal level enshrined in the Bill of Rights. In the late nineteenth century Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck argued for a revision of the Belgic Confession, as the Dutch Reformed tradition grappled with the difficulty of realizing a free church. Many today, inspired by visions of unity and order in a long-lost Christendom, see such efforts to codify religious liberty in political and ecclesiastical institutions as mistaken.

Religious liberty in the modern world is undoubtedly a key legacy of the Reformation, one worth celebrating and honoring. But it is also a legacy that is constantly under threat, one that must be defended anew with each generation, and that must ultimately prove its worth as a foundation for social flourishing.

As the Apostle Peter puts it, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). In the same way, religious liberty must not be a pretext for sin and lawlessness, but rather a precondition for true faith and faithfulness toward God. May God help us.


Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.


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