Was the Protestant Reformation a Radical Revolution?

Was the Protestant Reformation a Radical Revolution?

Written by Glenn A. Moots |
Wednesday, November 17, 2021

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 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.

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