Beyond the Reformation of Politics: Is the Legacy of the Protestant Reformation a Host of Churches That Seek to Defy Social Evils-Or Defeat Them?

By Ryrie, Alec | Modern Age, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Reformation of Politics: Is the Legacy of the Protestant Reformation a Host of Churches That Seek to Defy Social Evils-Or Defeat Them?


Ryrie, Alec, Modern Age


When we celebrate historical anniversaries, we are usually telling stories about ourselves more than about the past. This year is the quincentenary of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation: an epoch-making historical event that has always been much too important to be left to the historians. The centenary celebrations in 1617 were about bolstering Germany's Protestant identity in the face of imminent war. The quatercentenary celebrations in 1917 were a grim affair in which imperial Germany held up Luther as an icon of its struggle.

But 2017 is stranger than that. We can't avoid the Reformation's importance in shaping the modern world, but over the past hundred years the historically Protestant countries of North America and Europe have secularized pell-mell. How does a secular society celebrate a religious revolution? Chiefly by transposing "religion" into a secular key and asking what our secular world owes to it. And given what obsesses our secular world right now, that means politics.

In the mostly liberal world of academic history and theology, this means telling one or both of two conventional stories about the politics of the Protestant Reformation. Both of these stories are true, but they aren't the whole truth.

The first story is one of defiance and revolution. This is the story told in slightly different forms by traditional Whig celebrations of Protestantism, by a certain self-congratulatory vein of Protestant nationalism in the United States, and by Protestants strung out anywhere along the line of modern politics between the center-right and the radical left. It tells how some Protestants have defied tyrannical governments in the name of the kingdom of Christ, finding in their consciences the authority to resist princes and even to stand in prophetic judgement over them.

This story begins with Martin Luther standing on his conscience and the Word of God at the Diet of Worms in 1521, defying all the powers of Church and Empire rather than abandoning what he knew to be right. The following year Luther wrote a treatise titled Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, insisting rulers could not compel their subjects' consciences, nor could the kingdom of this world stray onto the territory of the kingdom of Christ. It was with these principles in mind that Lutheran cities and princes banded together to defy the Holy Roman Emperor, earning themselves the name "Protestants" in the process. In 1547 they went to war against their sovereign lord. In 1555 they compelled him to recognize their right to religious freedom. Soon Protestants in France were fighting a series of wars against tyrannical kings and arguing that they would be justified in killing an unjust ruler. Protestants in Holland overthrew their foreign king and set up a republic committed to at least a measure of religious tolerance. When Protestants in England won a bitter war against the misrule of King Charles I, they sealed their victory by putting him on trial and cutting off his head.

King Charles's father, King James VI of Scotland, had worried that some of his radical Protestant subjects were plotting a "Democratic form of government." That was an exaggeration, but the leader of Scotland's Reformation, John Knox, had defied a series of rulers with his insistence that "all man is equal" in the God-given duty to stand up to a tyrant. Knox's successor, Andrew Melville, told King James to his face that while he might be king of Scotland, what truly mattered was the kingdom of Christ, "whose subject King James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member!"

It is an easy matter to trace this radical tradition down to our own times. In the later seventeenth century John Locke denied that princes had authority over their subjects' souls, since souls are under God's jurisdiction alone. In the later eighteenth century, evangelical campaigners in Britain and America began to argue that slavery was incompatible with Christianity, and pursued dogged and ultimately successful campaigns to abolish it. …

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