Friday, September 7, 2018

The Reformation

It is better that all of the peasants should be killed rather than that the sovereign and magistrates should be destroyed, because the peasants take up the sword without God’s authorisation.

-        Martin Luther

‘The decline of Christian unity,’ writes Frank Furedi, ‘coincided with a powerful momentum for national territorial centralisation.’

In certain aspects, the Reformation did not create a new reality; instead, it accelerated (and offered a vehicle for) processes and changes that were already taking place.  Even in the late fifteenth century, state centralization was taking hold in France – Germany and Italy remaining quite decentralized.

Decentralized, but after the Reformation secular power no longer had to compete with the Church as a governance institution.  Within forty years of Luther’s taking hammer and nail to the church door, the Diet of Augsburg declared that Germany was irreparably divided into Catholic and Protestant states. 

…there can be no doubt…that as a result of the Reformation, the embryonic centralising states, both Protestant and Catholic, gained enhanced political power and control.

The loss of the Church as an institution with the authority to pass judgement on secular leaders would prove to be one of the key events leading to the formation of what we know as the state.

Casey offers predecessors to Luther.  Wycliffe offered that only Scripture was authoritative; he also attacked private property.  On the latter, the “Spiritual” Franciscans held the same view regarding property.  Had this view held sway, the Church could never find its expression in worldly matters; science would have been stopped.

Regarding property, Wycliffe was even more radical than these Franciscans: the Franciscans were addressing Church property; Wycliffe was considering all property – none to be held privately by anyone.  “…no one while in mortal sin has a simple right to any of God’s gifts.”  That “simple right” being all that stood between man and a quick trip to the pearly gates (or the other place).

It is worth noting the prevalence of a popular but mistaken belief that the Protestant Reformers, in contrast to the repressive Catholic Church, were the apostles of liberty.

The Reformation was many things but by no stretch of the imagination was it the result of a clamour for religious liberty or, indeed, for liberty more broadly construed.

In fact, it ushered in perhaps the most intolerant period in Christian history.

After Luther, Protestantism took its many forms: those like Luther and Calvin who still saw a united, universal Church, and the radicals “who professed every sort of extreme idea,” to include, “most dangerously, religious tolerance.”

As you will note from the opening quote from Luther, Augustine’s unfortunate interpretation of Romans 13 was influential; Luther, after all, began his religious life as an Augustinian. 

As Ellen Meiksins Wood puts it, ‘there hardly exists in the Western canon a more uncompromising case for strict obedience to secular authority; and this…belongs to the essence of Lutheran doctrine.’

Luther held this view despite holding a very negative opinion of secular rulers: “There is no good faith or honesty to be found amongst them.”  However, this hopeful sentiment couldn’t overcome Luther’s view that man’s sinful nature required a vertical relationship between ruler and ruled.

…he urged the princes on to the most brutal repression of any hint of resistance, rebellion or revolution.

While Luther demands strict obedience to secular authorities, he attacks the Church’s rights in temporal jurisdiction: no punishment of sins, no excommunication.  One of the key tools that kept in check the more egregious acts of rulers during medieval times was to no longer be utilized.

By removing all legal and jurisdictional functions from the Church, Lutherans effectively facilitated the transference of those functions to the state, thus enlarging and extending state power.

There was no institution that could pass judgment on a tyrant; the state was born.  Eventually, Luther’s position would evolve regarding resistance to the prince, but the damage had been done.

Calvin held to all of this and then some; it was the ruler’s responsibility to promote godly discipline on the populace. 

‘I approve a political order that makes it its business to prevent true religion…from being besmirched and violated with impunity by public and manifest sacrilege.’

It is, according to Calvin, God’s pleasure that man is governed in this way.


Eventually, the idea of private resistance to the prince would gain some traction, more by those who followed Luther and Calvin than in the two leaders themselves – driven by the fact that the secular leader was removing privileges previously granted to the Protestant communities.  Where the secular leaders were unsympathetic to Protestant views, private resistance was seen more favorably – and Biblical interpretation would therefore evolve according to this necessity. 

Further, in Calvinist communities of Scotland, for example, the idea of private resistance had traction almost from the beginning.  Hey, they are Protestants…to each his own!  But without the medieval Church and its recognized authority to sanction the prince, such resistance had little power or authority behind it.


Catholic lights would still shine during this time.  Casey offers Juan de Mariana and Étienne de la Boétie as examples.  The former is well-known as an apologist for tyrannicide – even in popular hands; the latter for his discourse questioning why man submits voluntarily to servitude.


  1. Socialism, communism, the surveillance state all developed from the belligerent nationalism of Protestantism, no doubt about it. And the effects are quite palpable to this day. The US and UK have devolved to nearly total panopiticon societies. Everyone is spied on, everyones emails and texts and phone calls are bugged. The public space is ceaselessly monitored and patrolled and regulated. At the appointed hour the 'public' is driven out of urban parks admonished of arrest for trespassing if they 'linger'. The vibe in Eastern Europe could not be more different. No surveillance, no phone taps, no armed and belligerent constabulary 'regulating' the public space. The Orthodox Christian churches are visited constantly and seem to be open at all hours. There is the total absence of the menacing armed government goons which have come to saturate metropolises like New York and London. I believe the explanation traces back to the Reformation where Christianity was reworked into a belligerently moralistic appendage of state power. By contrast, Orthodox Christianity retains its origins in the mystery, the wonder, the concern to experience the divine presence. Where Protestantism has to do with the domination and control of the individual, Orthodox Christianity is concerned to help the individual become susceptible to the peace and miracle of the divine.

  2. Interesting that you mentioned Orthodox Church. My Catholic pastor, in discussing the scandals in our church, said one positive from this should be that Rome and Constantinople should run back into each other’s arms.

  3. "Calvin held to all of this and then some; it was the ruler’s responsibility to promote godly discipline on the populace. " - BM

    Here's EvKL on Calvin in comparison with Luther:

    "Calvin's reforms had a far stricter character than Luther's and Geneva under Calvin and later under Besa and Farel actually became the first totalitarian state in Europe. Calvin's Soli Deo Gloria! certainly did not make for any "polycentrism."" - Leftism

    "Catholic lights would still shine during this time" - BM

    EvKL describes the Catholic world of the period in a peculiar way:

    "And while the Catholic world, continuing in the spirit of the Renaissance, the Baroque and the Rococo, remained individualistic and anarchical, revolutionary and torn between holy and unholy passions, the areas converted by the Reformation settled down to law and order and a strong community spirit. In these parts the community, the congregation, the group dominated religious life to a large extent. The monarchical-patriarchal idea was badly shaken in the Calvinist world where republican ideas were soon on the march. It is no accident that strongly egalitarian and communistic notions made themselves felt in England during the time of the Commonwealth (Levelers, Diggers) and, later on, in the northern part of the American Colonies. Puritanism, after all, is a half-religious, half secular kind of monasticism." - Leftism

    Individualistic and anarchical? Hmmm. He has a lot more to say on how leftism, and not just its Puritanical variant, is basically secularized monasticism. It's an interesting connection.

    Leftism seems to have two basic forms. The liberal form sees humans as fundamentally good and this leads to the free spirit, libertine, whatever-feels-good mentality unleashing mass democracy, cultural anarchy, and the terrors of mob rule culminating in dictatorship. The conservative form sees humans as fundamentally bad and this leads to an ascetic repressive mentality with rigid cultural enforcement culminating in an absolute monarch (or a republic with heavy monarchical elements). It's Rousseau on the one hand and Calvin on the other. It's the Geneva curse. Of course Geneva would be the French speaking area of Switzerland!

    1. This piece from Taki's Mag is a good addendum to my comment above about the two forms of leftism: Godless Puritans (Calvin) and lascivious libertines (Rousseau).

      "The Ariana Grande and bishop affair exposes (as the actress said to the bishop) one of the most curious, and in my opinion very unattractive, aspects of our modern culture, namely its dialectic, or at least incessant pendulum swing, between the most lascivious licentiousness on the one hand, and the most vengeful censorious puritanism on the other... We are really very peculiar, a strange mixture of Petronius’ Rome and Calvin’s Geneva." - Theodore Dalrymple

  4. The Reformation was a theological necessity to rediscover the gospel and the place of the Bible in the life of the church. There were many false doctrines, repressions, and false leadership that the church needed to be freed from.

    The problem is that not all of theology was reformed, ecclesiology and eschatology among the areas left alone. It was this more or less Roman ecclesiology that the Reformers took with them. At times in history the Catholic church acted in defiance of secular power but many times they worked in concert. How do you think Charlemagne was able to "unite" Europe? It wasn't all due to the power of his will and personality. The Catholic church played a role in that too.

    Calvin and Luther took the old idea of church and state working together and applied it to more city and national organizations. That is why the French liberal sought to overthrow the Catholic church as well as the French aristocracy, they both were responsible for the power system in their nation. By the 1300s much of papal influence of secular kings was gone.

    I can see how the Reformers cozied up to local nobles for protection from Rome and then as a power to spread their views. I can also see how that turned into close cooperation with those nobles.

    Still there was so much at play it is hard for me to blame Protestants for the rise of tyranny. From reading this blog I can see how it is a factor but my reading of history including church history shows Catholic church as much less of a positive influence.

    1. RMB: "The Reformation was a theological necessity to rediscover the gospel and the place of the Bible in the life of the church."

      Forgive me for saying that this can only be said from hindsight. If the reformation had failed, it would probably have disappeared into history, never to be mentioned again.

      So the real question is: Why did it not fail? What was it in the population that caused the reformation to be a success?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Obviously we disagree. If you don't think the gospel needed to be disentangled from extraneous ideas that the Catholic church had added, then we will just continue to disagree.

      The Reformation was going to happen as sure as God preserves the gospel message on earth. If it wasn't Luther and Calvin it would have been someone else. Just as it didn't start with Wycliffe or Tyndale or Huss but their preaching reached the next generation and germinated.

    4. "If the reformation had failed, it would probably have disappeared into history, never to be mentioned again."

      There were other movements prior to Luther's that certainly did not have the same level of "success," yet we know of these and these have influenced the Church (or church).

      "If you don't think the gospel needed to be disentangled from extraneous ideas that the Catholic church had added..."

      I am not an expert in theology (nor do I want to walk down this path at this blog), however I have read enough to have an understanding that a) Luther was making an honest attempt to clean out these "extraneous ideas," and b) most Protestants today would cringe at what Luther was after.

    5. What Luther was after, meaning the peasant revolts and calling for capital punishment and such? I would agree.

    6. No, I mean several points of the 95 he made, a couple examples off of the top:

      1) When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

      7) God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.

      18) Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.

    7. I haven't read them all. I would say
      1) I agree. Repentance is a continuous practice.
      2) At this point in Luther's life, he was still seeking reform within the Catholic church. I think his view on this changed.
      3) I also don't know if he continued to believe in purgatory. That is never discussed after his break with the CC. I wouldn't agree with that one either.

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    9. Rhesa, my only point is that most Protestants today would cringe at the idea of "the entire life of believers to be one of repentance," being submissive to the priest (pastor), and purgatory.

      Anyway, I think I have said enough on this.