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Was the Protestant Reformation a Radical Revolution?

If critics of Protestantism are to believed, Reformation Day is a day to lament: Patrick Deneen blames Protestantism for Enlightenment liberalism; Ralph Hancock charges Calvin with rationalism; Catholic intellectuals Hilaire Belloc and Brad Gregory blame the Reformation for destroying Western civilization. So serious and existential are these charges that going “home to Rome” is, for some converts, the ultimate act of resistance against modernity.

But was the Reformation revolutionary at all? If one rightly confines it to the Magisterial Reformation: No. Magisterial reformers are called “magisterial” because they partnered with civil authorities (or “magistrates”) to preserve the corpus christianum and social order in Protestant polities against radicals on one side and Catholic powers on the other. Magisterial Protestantism included the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions as well as some British nonconformists. Magisterial Protestants rejected the proliferation of radical sects and dissenters on both sides of the Atlantic and were, by liberal standards, quite severe with their opponents (e.g., Anabaptists or Quakers). According to Sidney Ahlstrom, three-quarters of eighteenth-century Americans were magisterial Protestants.

Progenitors of Individualism?

Even if magisterial Protestants opposed radicalism, didn’t they still seed it by asserting freedom of conscience? That would be true if Protestants had in fact freed the conscience in the way critics assert. Freeing the conscience was not directed at presumed “irrational religious and social norms” (as Deneen put it). Nor did Protestant theology necessitate a successive wave of freedoms, as David Corey has asserted.

Luther refers to the conscience over five hundred times, identifying it as the “coram deo”—that which puts us before the face of God—to distinguish it from the ethical and political rules of society. Luther never frees the conscience; he prioritizes its binding. The conscience of man is bound by ethical and moral rules of society as well as the Word of God—particularly Old Testament Law. Human bindings are conditional; the conscience is unconditionally freed only by the Gospel. Luther did not empower the individual to free his own conscience any more than Thomas Aquinas did. Luther opposed anyone who presumed the conscience to be autonomous and it is impossible to find a magisterial reformer who did not bind the conscience to the authority of scripture and church leaders. Ordered liberty of the conscience is not anarchistic spiritual individualism.

What we now call “Church-State Relations” (an ongoing debate in Christendom) entered a new phase during the Reformation, but “freedom of conscience” had little or no effect on the freedom of an individual. In fact, because a believer’s conscience is inwardly free (as Luther, Richard Hooker, and others argued) it is therefore untrammeled by outward impositions (e.g., conformity in vestments or liturgy) judged prudent by civil or ecclesiastical authorities for the unity of Church and Commonwealth. Nonconformists in England were counseled by continental reformers like Heinrich Bullinger to be prudent in their dissent. So-called “adiaphora” were not presumed to bind in the same way that the Word of God did, but they were imposed for the sake of unity and good order. John Locke’s defense of imposition of adiaphora or “things indifferent” in his unpublished Two Tracts (1660-62) is an inconvenient truth for any Whig history of toleration from Luther to Locke to Madison, for example.

If the Protestant Reformation led to what would eventually become religious liberty, then the path is indirect at best, and not landing there for at least a century or two. If anything, circumstance and pragmatism should get the credit. Arguments like those of Roger Williams were ridiculed, if not forgotten, for almost two centuries and Andrew Murphy makes a good case that principled arguments for toleration probably had little effect. More importantly, Williams, Anabaptists, Congregationalists, or Baptists desiring to separate believers, as wheat, from the tares of society (Matthew 13) were accused of secularizing the commonwealth and abandoning Christendom. Some were martyred. Most Protestants therefore fought against secularization and liberalization.

The Doctrine of Vocation vs. Egalitarianism

Protestants not only opposed an autonomous conscience, they opposed leveling the social institutions essential for civil society. Activities of daily life, freed from their implicit inferiority to holy orders like monasticism, were elevated almost to the level of worship. Daily life was directed by one’s vocations. Though Luther is most famously associated with the Protestant doctrine of vocation, its fullest presentation was in a remarkable work of 1626 by William Perkins, a Cambridge theologian of the Elizabethan settlement more popular at the time than Shakespeare or Richard Hooker. Perkins argued that every calling must be “fitted to the man, and every man be fitted to his calling.” And though Perkins argued that God is the author of each man’s separate calling through Creation and Providence, the application of that fact is neither individualistic nor egalitarian but instead deeply conservative. One learns one’s desires and gifts within a community, particularly the communities of family, the Church, and one’s neighbors. Our contribution to these communities invests our vocations with moral significance, not some modern individualistic and existential search for personal identity.  

Marriage was a particularly essential vocation for Protestants and became a cornerstone of civil society no longer demoted under the celibacy of holy orders. Protestants denied that marriage is a sacrament, but exalted its social status by making it a more universal and God-given school for sanctification. Spiritual and marital love became complementary, established by a covenantal association recognized not simply by the Church but also by families, the community, and the magistrate. Protestant consistories worked closely with magistrates to discourage infidelity, abuse, and fornication—often with mercy and wisdom.

Political and social rank and status were also sustained by the doctrine of vocation. In numerous commentaries and sermons, Calvin argues that anyone who would take away distinctions of rank or social dignity deny natural reason, introduce confusion, reduce humans to beasts, and society to mobs. Social rank is a gift from God, Calvin argues, reflecting our respective vocations. For example, commenting on 1 Corinthians, Calvin distinguishes the egalitarian (and heavenly) spiritual kingdom from “outward relationships of mankind,” including “civil order or honorary distinctions.” Preaching on the 11th chapter of the book, Calvin says, “This natural order did not come about by chance; rather God reveals His will by it and, means to test our obedience to see if we will submit to Him.” Furthermore, for all the justifiable attention paid to Reformed resistance theory, which will be addressed shortly, Luther, Calvin, and William Tyndale applied the Decalogue’s command to “Honor your Father and Mother’ to encourage civil obedience, thereby following the example of Bonaventure and Aquinas.

Magisterial Protestants did not confuse the postlapsarian polity with heaven. Regarding political life, Calvin writes, “Our Lord Jesus Christ did not come to abolish what belongs to the preservation of decency and peace.” Those who would argue otherwise, Calvin calls “flighty and scatterbrained dreamers.” If Calvin had a Twitter account, he would have been opposing woke-ism right up to the point when Jack Dorsey’s minions cancelled him.

Protestantism Against the Western Tradition?

But didn’t Protestants undermine education and the Western tradition with fundamentalism and biblicism? Again, this charge cannot be laid against the historical Protestantism, however much modern Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Cornelius Van Til and related niche theologies rejected natural law. Similarly, evangelical historians such as Mark Noll err to characterize Protestants as having a “bible fixation.” Scripture was learned and taught in the context of the Western classics and natural law.

It is impossible to find either biblicism or fundamentalism in the Protestant confessions, let alone anything that should inspire modern rationalism. Nor can one find such intellectual deformities in the pedagogy or curriculum of the Protestant universities. Notwithstanding Luther’s own theological opposition to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, this landmark work on virtue was so ubiquitous at Protestant universities that dozens of studies and commentaries on it were published by Protestant scholars. Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, called Aristotle the summum illum omnium Philosophorum principem, the highest prince of all philosophers. Philip Melanchthon’s preface to Cicero’s De Officiis joined dozens of similar works produced by Protestant scholars on the practice of virtue. It is therefore hard to take seriously the assertion of Brad Gregory that Protestants denied “the free, rational exercise of the virtues in pursuit of the good” for social discipline.

Sola Scriptura is not nuda Scriptura. To understand what Protestants believed about postlapsarian reason concerning social matters, all one has to do is read Calvin—Hancock’s supposed archenemy of reason. In Book 2, Chapter 2 of his Institutes, Calvin emphasizes that “reason is competent to govern man in temporal things, including political matters” Following a long tradition going back to at least Lombard, Calvin described Adam as having two sets of native capabilities. The first concerns “policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies” and all things relevant for this “present” earthly, civil life. The second includes heavenly and spiritual things. The Fall was far more damaging to knowledge of heavenly things than of earthly things. Calvin is, like Luther distinguishing between what is coram deo and what is corum mundo—before the face of man.

Protestants likewise cherished the social and intellectual roots of ordered liberty, and they opposed all efforts by radicals or revolutionaries to tear them up.

Protestantism’s Conservative Political Revolutions

Then surely it is with good reason that thinkers as diverse as Quentin Skinner, Michael Walzer, Francis Oakley, and John Witte all associate Protestantism with political revolution, including democratic revolution. Perhaps, but these revolutions were conservative in character because Protestant resistance theory was a variation on preexisting constitutionalism.

The first great Protestant statement on resistance, the Magdeburg Confession of 1550, appealed neither to abstract political ideas like “natural right,” nor to narrow biblicism, but to classical political doctrines of tyranny, self-defense, justice, and sovereignty. It was arguably a biblical gloss on Cicero and Tacitus. Even Richard Rumbold, whom Thomas Jefferson essentially plagiarized when asserting that men were born without saddles on their backs, was not a radical but a constitutionalist. Rumbold attacked the monarchy only because it did not conform to “our ancient laws.” Absolute monarchy, not monarchy, was “contrary to the law of God, the law of nations, and the law of reason.”

Calvin’s so-called doctrine of interposition is likewise constitutionalist in character, explicitly drawing on Greek, Roman, and medieval precedent. Giving “lesser magistrates” authority in cases of resistance or revolution denied violence to mobs and preserved St. Paul’s dictum that magistrates bore the sword. A wicked tyrant was no different than a wicked citizen, and punishment was reserved to the magistrates. Respecting the jurisdictions of all magistrates also preserved federalism (foedus), a concept derived from the Latin term for covenanting—an essential idea in Reformed theology.

Scholasticism, humanism, and common law likewise informed Reformed political theology in France, England, and Scotland. Samuel Rutherford drew on over 700 authors both sacred and secular in his Lex, Rex, for example, a far cry from “biblicism.” The Huguenot Vindiciae Contra Tyranos’s protest against tyranny carried forward Roman and canon law, joining it to Reformed covenantal political theology in such a way as to inspire Johannes Althusius’s even more impressive masterpiece of federalism, Politica.

As Harold Berman and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy ably demonstrated, though Western constitutionalism was articulated long before the Reformation, it was refined by the Reformation’s crucible of conflict. Consider, for example, that in the first year of Elizabeth’s reign, John Aylmer, later Bishop of London, conceded in a dispute with John Knox that England was not a “mere monarchy” but a mixed regime wherein the king could do nothing if parliament exercised their privileges. This was an astounding admission of constitutional limits. Would Aylmer (or similar apologists) have made such a concession if not to rebut critics like Knox?

Russell Kirk said of the American Revolution that it was “a revolution not made but prevented.” Christians may reasonably disagree about whether the Reformation prevented an ongoing theological revolution by Rome, but the Protestant ethos of “Ad Fontes” (“to the sources”) demonstrates their appreciation of the ancient faith. Protestants likewise cherished the social and intellectual roots of ordered liberty, and they opposed all efforts by radicals or revolutionaries to tear them up. If one considers their relevant writing on these subjects, there is little reasonable room for disagreement: The magisterial reformers were conservative.