By Nathan Barton
The 31st of October, 2017, marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, when German monk Martin Luther nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints [Roman Catholic] Church in Wittenburg, where he was a professor of moral theology.
There are many people celebrating this anniversary of the largest effort (up to that time) to reform the Roman Catholic Church. That effort to reform failed, and resulted instead in the creation of many Protestant Churches, first in Western Europe and then around the world. (But the name “Reformation” stuck.) We know the major impact on the last five hundred years of world history made by the Reformation. We also know of the centuries of war which resulted. The Reformation impacted even the Roman Catholic Church itself, which ultimately launched the “Counter-Reformation” and made many changes in its practices and doctrine. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, and even Henry Tudor (the VIII) are praised as heroes of faith and even of liberty.
Some point to the Reformation as the herald and cause of the many religious movements since then, such as the “Great Awakenings” in the English-speaking world (including the so-called “Restoration Movement”) and the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the entire world. Some go so far as to claim that without the Reformation, there would be no faithful church in the world today, and that indeed both the christian religion and western civilization might have perished long ago. Still others will claim that the rise of modern liberty and even democracy are a direct result of the Protestant Reformation, and that without it, Europe would have remained a land of tyranny and feudalism, which would have spread over all of the New World.
Important as the Reformation was, however critical a turning point in history it was, it was also very much a disaster of the greatest magnitude. We cannot understate the importance of the event. But we must understand that it was not all to the good. Elsewhere, I have written about its religious impact. Here, let us look at its impact on liberty.
While we can honor the faith and courage of men such as Luther, we must recognize that their beliefs and actions were often, and in many ways even more opposed to, liberty than their Catholic opponents or the Orthodox in Eastern Europe who looked on while bearing the tyranny of Islamic rulers.
This was, I believe, due to their own misunderstanding and motives. Luther and the men like him had the wrong motives, badly misunderstood Scripture, and were willing to do ungodly actions to achieve their goals: ungodly actions to achieve goals that are opposed to liberty.
Briefly, their goal was to reform the Roman Catholic Church, but they failed. There is no question that the Roman Catholic Church was (and mostly still is) an enemy of human liberty.
By this time, the Catholic Church had been in existence for nearly a thousand years, and was itself the result of centuries of gradual but clear departure from the church of the First Century. The Catholic Church, like its major competitor (the Orthodox Church, in Eastern Europe), was the product of the later Roman Empire, including its despotism. (The Orthodox Church in the East was really no better but had less political opportunity.)
It was beyond reform, try though the Protestants might. They had the wrong goal. So they split from Rome and established (in their mistaken devotion – really, hubris) “reformed” churches: free from Roman control, and rejecting many of the strange doctrines invented over 1400+ years: purgatory, limbo, penance, the worship of Mary, and others.
But they were short-sighted, and failed to reject some of the most significant problems with Catholicism. Among those were the alliance between church and state, and the totalitarian tyranny which the Roman hierarchy exercised over both clergy and laity. As a result, the Protestant denominations which developed from the Reformation were as much enemies of liberty (in many, many ways) as 16th Century Roman Catholicism was.
As a result, the promise of the Reformation was wasted, in many ways. Rather than liberation from oppressive religion, it reinforced that tyranny. (By the way, it was (and is) a religion which did NOT follow the requirements and morals of the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), but rather a perverted form of it.)
To such a degree that they even persecuted and tyrannized those (even then, and now) who tried to follow the Way of life which Christ taught and lived.
When Luther and Calvin and Henry and others gave up on reforming the Catholic Church and instead split off and formed their OWN religions (not God’s faith), they did exactly what the Catholic bishops and inquisitors did: they persecuted those who tried to follow Christ according to His teaching and the dictates of their own conscience. So it was both Catholics AND Protestants that condemned them, tortured and imprisoned and killed them, as heretics and more.
It wasn’t just those people, of course: they persecuted and physically attacked, tortured, killed, and stole from everyone else: the heathens of the Western Hemisphere, the pagans of Asia and Africa, and more. They continued to persecute the Jews in their own midst, and to aggress with violence against the Muslims to the south and east of Europe.
Yes, in some ways, the spiritual descendants of the Reformers had more liberty, and this in turn promoted still more liberty by giving opportunities to learn and practice the ways of liberty.
For example, the settlement of North America, if that settlement had been done entirely by Roman Catholic people (and governments) instead of a mixture of Protestants and Catholics (and a tiny percentage of those of other religions), it would have been very different and probably even more bloody and more similar to the expansion of Russia into eastern Asia that actually happened.
There are those who claim that without Protestantism, there would have little likelihood of the rise of republican government and even less of the rise of “democracy” in the West. But those who say this fail to take into account that both George III and Parliament were Protestant, as was Prussia and later the German Empire. While republican and Jacobin France, and Ireland, were Catholic in culture and society.
Today, the mainstream Protestant denominations are closely allied with the state, even while the state is increasingly turning not just secular but atheistic. While not just in the Fifty States but in Europe and elsewhere, the Catholic Church is increasingly at odds with the State in at least some ways.
We also forget history also: the English, Scots, and Irish nations were all strongly Catholic until the middle of the 1500s, and yet still the institutions of common law and growing liberty developed there – well before the effects of the Reformation began. And in the late 1400s, the devoutly Catholic Iberian Peninsula had far more personal liberty – even liberty of conscience – than the British Isles. The loss of freedom in the Spanish (and Portuguese) realms can be blamed as much on the fight against Protestantism itself (and the Counter-Reformation) as on the direct effects of remaining Catholic in faith
Despite claims to the contrary that the Protestant denominations were/are more in line with Christ’s teachings (the Golden Rule, peace and love), for 150 years religious wars tore Europe and its nations apart, and were exported to the New World and to Asia and Africa – by both Protestants and Catholics. Religious wars were fought with all sides being equally unchristian in their teaching, their practices, and their behaviors: the various Protestant churches were as intolerant of each other as they were of Catholicism. And the fighting continued right up to modern times and the late 20th Century in places like Northern Ireland. And may again flare up at any time in a dozen places: to say nothing of so-called internal Protestant fights (most people consider LDS Protestant, and their internal sometimes-violent struggles over polygamy continue).
The idea of celebrating an event that led to so much suffering and so many lost souls for half a millennium is not a pleasant one. Remember it? Yes. Celebrate? No. Thank God that DESPITE the Reformation, liberty has grown so much in the last five centuries.
Mama’s Note: The bottom line is the desire of so many people to control the lives and property of others. This is the base cause of all the wars and persecutions in history. It is accomplished by convincing the actual victims that their “god” (whether church or state) has authorized some to rule others.
“The Catholic Church, like its major competitor (the Orthodox Church, in Eastern Europe), was the product of the later Roman Empire, including its despotism. (The Orthodox Church in the East was really no better but had less political opportunity.)”
There was some substantial dialogue between the Eastern Church and the Lutherans. More on that here and here.
Thank you for the link. Interesting indeed, but makes no real difference to the fact that all of these people want most to control other people.
I know a number of Catholics and those who have left the Catholic faith who have told me that they did/do worship the “Mother of God” by praying to her and venerating her memory and statues of her. But the point here is that the Protestant reformers (for the most part) believed that the Roman Catholic Church promoted the worship of Mary and rejected that. I understand that Rome distinguishes between prayer to Mary and worshiping her, but that is a distinction that the Protestants find difficult to understand.
Indeed, Nathan. I have the same problem with the apparent worship of the bible by those who profess any organized religion. What someone wants to call that is none of my business, of course, but it has always puzzled me when these same people complain that Catholics worship their statues. A difference without a great deal of distinction in my view.
You and I agree on that: the Bible is a book, and not an object of worship. This is something that is possibly inherited from Judaism in the 1st Century, as far as revering the copy of the Torah and Tanakh in the synogogue. Doesn’t make it right, of course.
But as you point out, the key thing is NOT whether we agree with people’s religious practices or not, (unless they are of an aggressive nature), but that we understand them enough to not unnecessarily violate or disregard their beliefs.
Which is something I hope that CdnWM will accept: I didn’t write about the Roman doctrine regarding Mary to intentionally offend, but simply to state how I understood the Protestants (I am not one, myself) viewed it and others as a reason they tried to reform the RC Church. I think it is important to the cause of liberty that we clearly understand what and how things happened in the past so we can deal with things better now.
Understanding history (as much as we can actually ever know about it) is certainly important to liberty, but I think people are going to understand and believe as they choose, regardless. Persuasion and cooperation among folks who believe differently promotes liberty. It is the desire for control of others that is the root of all evil, far as I can see.
I still see that old lie rearing its ugly head… Catholics do not worship Mary.
As a former long time Catholic, I don’t know what in the world else you could call it. Worship what/whom/how you please, of course, but you can’t speak for anyone else.
IMHO there is one vital way the Reformation enhanced liberty.
Whenever someone suggests that the “Christian majority” in the U.S. should “return” it to being a “Christian nation” with a Congress that passes laws based on “Christian values,” I remind them that the U.S. does not have a Christian majority.
Yes, a majority of U.S. residents are Christian, but all the denominations are really a collection of Christian minorities. The first thing a “Christian government” would have to do is establish just which set of “Christian values” it was going to legislate with. That would set off an epic and unwinnable theological food-fight. Heck, a lot of mainstream denominations (including my United Methodists) couldn’t even agree internally on some very significant issues.
So the presence of all the Reformation denominations does prevent any one denomination from establishing itself as THE Christian denomination, either in the U.S. or worldwide.
Which in no way contradicts your thesis.
Very true, Larry! I hadn’t thought about the great variety in denominations being a protective thing, but it obviously is. Even the various flavors of Islam keep that from becoming a cohesive and dominant theocracy. They can’t agree on anything much either!
Larry, that is a neat point. Your UMC is far from the only denomination to have that problem, and the records of the Founding Fathers seem to indicate that it was “internal to ‘christianity’ disputes and discrimination” that was their major concern – not “christianity” versus AmerInd religions or Islam or Buddhism.
Although prior to the Reformation the Roman Catholic denomination was the dominant one in Western Europe and the British Isles, it was far from universal (despite its name), and was actually very much a minority in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and most of Africa and Asia.