Protestantism and Progress

Protestantism and Progress

by Theodore Plantinga



What would you say if someone called you a “post-Enlightenment” Christian?

Would you be upset? It happened to me once, but no insult was intended. A

colleague of mine declared that a whole group of us gathered in a room with

him were “post-Enlightenment” Christians.

Words that begin with “post-” are difficult to assess. It is sometimes said that

we live in a “post-Christian” era, and in a certain sense this is true. Yet this

does not mean that people today cannot be genuine Christians. The phrase

“post-Enlightenment,” however, has a slightly different meaning. It suggests

that the Enlightenment is a “fait accompli,” a set of historical changes that

cannot be reversed. Just as the Republicans did not try to undo Roosevelt’s New

Deal when they came to power in 1952, Christians seem to have given up

fighting the influence of the Enlightenment. An Enlightenment-oriented

conception of man and freedom simply seems to be presupposed in our social

and political discussions.

If we are “post-Enlightenment” Christians, it is because we have made our

peace with the Enlightenment. Perhaps one reason why many Christians in

North America and Europe feel such antipathy to the Afrikaner Calvinists in

South Africa is that the latter are not “post-Enlightenment” Christians. In a real

historical sense, the Afrikaners settled in their current homeland before the

Enlightenment and missed out on it. As a result they have trouble

understanding the preoccupation with freedom and equality among many North

American and European Calvinists who fit into the category of “post-

Enlightenment” Christians.


What do we mean by the “Enlightenment”? Some historians are suspicious of

such labels, but as a philosopher I would have a hard time getting along without

them. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who may well be the most important

philosopher of them all, also believed in labels. In an influential little essay

entitled “What Is Enlightenment?” he tells us that the motto of the

Enlightenment is “Have the courage to use your own intelligence!” This is

precisely what a great many people are apparently unwilling to do. Kant

observes: “Through laziness and cowardice a large part of mankind, even after

nature has freed them from alien guidance, remain immature. It is because of

laziness and cowardice that it is so easy for others to usurp the role of

guardians. It is so comfortable to be minor! If I have a book which provides

meaning for me, a pastor who has conscience for me, a doctor who will judge

my diet for me and so on, then I do not need to exert myself. I do not have any

need to think; if I can pay, others will take over the tedious job for me.”

Especially significant here is the new view of authority that emerges. The

individual is called to be his own authority, for all men possess reason and

intelligence. What we must do is to encourage people to think for themselves

instead of basing their decisions and beliefs on what others tell them. Anything

and everything can now be brought before the bar of reason for critical

examination. This is the spirit of Kant’s own philosophy, and it is also the spirit

of the Enlightenment as a whole.

No longer can the traditional authorities be viewed with a superstitious

reverence. Hans Kung observes that the Enlightenment “demythologized

authority.” On the modern understanding of authority, he writes, “… no truth is

accepted without being submitted to the judgment of reason, merely on the

authority of the Bible or tradition or the Church, but only after a critical


What is meant by such talk is not all that remote from daily experience. Should

a small child obey his mother’s command simply because she is his mother? Or

should he “have the courage to use his own intelligence”? A “post-

Enlightenment” child who was given a command would demand an explanation

— in short, the reason why. If his mother could convince him that what she

wanted him to do (or refrain from doing) was indeed sensible and wise, he

would comply.


We now tend to think along Enlightenment lines when we talk about progress

in history. Societies are “modern” if they have absorbed the Enlightenment

legacy of freedom, rationality and equality. A primitive society or a society in

need of “modernization” is simply one in which such ideals have not been

realized to any great extent.

If Protestants are to be proponents of progress, it appears that they must then

identify themselves with Enlightenment ideals. Not all Protestant thinkers have

done so, however. The Dutch Calvinist historian Guillaume Groen van

Prinsterer (1801-76) looked at the Enlightenment spirit, which culminated in

the chilling events of the French Revolution and its reign of terror, as an

unsettling force that was bringing disorder into society. He laid out his

conception of the religious spirit driving European history in his most

important book, entitled Ongeloof en revolutie (Unbelief and Revolution).

Groen was certainly in favor of progress in history, but he did not believe

genuine progress would be achieved by adopting the ideals of the

Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The freedom offered in the name of

those ideals would turn out to be tyranny, he was convinced. Therefore, when

he established a Christian political movement in the Netherlands, he called it

the ” Anti-Revolutionary Party.” Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), his successor

as head of this group, was of the same conviction and argued that genuine

progress in history and genuine freedom can best be secured on the basis of a

Calvinistic conception of life.

It should be noted here that one can speak of the Enlightenment in a narrow

sense and a broad sense. In the narrow sense it is no more than a period within

European history — a period that had its day and then was gone. In the broader

sense the Enlightenment represents the crystallization of Humanistic social and

political ideals that had been building for a long, long time. In other words, it is

a major restatement of modern man’s secular alternative to Christianity as a

way of life. The Enlightenment in the broad sense was not overcome or

repudiated in such nineteenth-century thinkers as Hegel and Marx but was

carried along in a transformed version. Today we see Enlightenment ideals

shining through in the thinking of the neo-Marxists, such as Juergen Habermas

(born 1929). The contemporary preoccupation with liberation of every sort,

which manifests itself in part as opposition to discrimination (both real and

imagined), cannot be understood apart from the Enlightenment and its

characteristic emphases.


Protestantism likes to think of itself as having contributed substantially to the

progress that has been made in the modern world. But what, exactly, is its

contribution? The German theologian and historian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-

1923) reflected on this question in his thought-provoking book Protestantism

and Progress.

Protestants who love the Enlightenment and look to its ideals as the source and

guarantee of progress like to depict the Reformation as a step toward the

Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment we find a disdain for institutions and a

glorification of the individual. Now then, wasn’t Luther the one who got all of

this started? Didn’t Luther rebel against the establishment? Wasn’t he therefore

the first modern man? And isn’t Protestantism the ultimate root of the ideals of

freedom and equality in the modern world?

Troeltsch sees no support for such an interpretation of Protestantism. What we

call modernity does not begin with the Reformation: “… Protestantism cannot

be supposed to have directly paved the way for the modern world.” Because of

Protestantism, “… Europe had to experience two centuries more of the medieval

spirit.” Troeltsch informs us that “… it was only the great struggle for freedom

at the end of the seventeenth and in the eighteenth century which really brought

the Middle Ages to an end” (pp. 85, 86).

Who, then, was Martin Luther? Wasn’t he an early battler for liberation? Not

according to Troeltsch, for he argues: “Protestantism was at first concerned

only with the answer to the old question about assurance of salvation …” (p.

60). Protestantism has a great deal in common with Catholicism and the

outlook of the Middle Ages. In fact, it can almost be viewed as an extension of

the medieval outlook: “The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are no longer

the Middle Ages, but neither are they `Modern Times.’ They are the

`Confessional’ Age of European history …” (p. 89). “The point of primary

importance,” Troeltsch informs us, “is that, historically and theologically

regarded, Protestantism — especially at the outset in Luther’s reform of the

Church — was, in the first place, simply a modification of Catholicism, in

which the Catholic formulation of the problems was retained, while a different

answer was given to them” (p. 59).

What does Protestantism as described by Troeltsch have in common with

today’s Protestantism, which comes in so many forms and varieties? Not a great

deal. Troeltsch makes a distinction between early Protestantism, which is the

vision and outlook of Luther and Calvin, and modern Protestantism, which

absorbs much of the thinking of the modern world into itself. “The genuine

early Protestantism of Lutheranism and Calvinism is, as an organic whole, in

spite of its anti-Catholic doctrine of salvation, entirely a Church civilization like

that of the Middle Ages. It claims to regulate State and society, science and

education, law, commerce and industry, according to the supernatural

standpoint of revelation ….” Modern Protestantism, on the other hand has

recognized in principle “… the possibility of a plurality of different religious

convictions and religious societies existing alongside one another. It has

further, in principle, recognized alongside itself a completely untrammeled

secular life, which it no longer attempts to control, either directly or indirectly,

through the agency of the State” (pp. 44-6).

The deep difference between early and modern Protestantism can be clearly

seen in how they relate to other movements and currents of thought. Troeltsch

writes: “… early Protestantism differentiates itself clearly from those historical

movements which were proceeding alongside of it — which modern

Protestantism has more or less completely taken up into itself, but which were

inwardly deeply distinguished from it and had an independent influence of their

own in history. Such are the humanistic, historical, philological, and

philosophical theology, the sectarian Anabaptist movement with its assertion of

the Church’s independence of the State, and the wholly individualistic,

subjectivistic Spiritualism. Early Protestantism distinguished itself from all

these sharply and with cruel violence; and it did so, not merely from shortsighted

bitterness or theological dogmatism, nor from opportunism or from the

narrow sympathies of a period of decline. In all its leaders, in a Luther, a

Zwingli, a Calvin, from the beginning, it was conscious of an inherent and

essential opposition to them” (pp. 48-9).

Troeltsch finally sums up the deep gulf between early and modern

Protestantism by means of a telling comment that shows us how much our

world has changed since the days of Luther and Calvin. He observes:

“Everywhere the idea of faith has triumphed over the content of faith …” (p.

199). For a great many Protestants today it doesn’t matter what it is that you

believe — as long as there is room for religion in your life.


By this point you may be wondering whether Troeltsch would classify you as

an early or a modern Protestant. Perhaps you don’t feel entirely at home in

either camp. I know I don’t, and therefore I do not mean to suggest that we

must simply choose the one or the other. What strikes me instead as significant

is how fully twentieth-century Protestantism as delineated by Troeltsch has

identified itself with the modern world and its vision of progress, freedom and

equality. Troeltsch, it appears, was familiar with the phenomenon of the “post-

Enlightenment” Christian.

The historian Crane Brinton has written: “The main theme of Western

intellectual and moral history since about 1700 has been the coexistence and

mutual interpenetration of two very different broad world views, the Christian

and that of the Enlightenment.” If this assessment is correct — and I believe it is

— a continuing choice faces us as Protestants. Are we to become “modern

Protestants” in Troeltsch’s sense, absorbing into our theology and institutions

ideas and patterns that Luther and Calvin would have regarded as alien? Or are

we to try to disentangle Christianity from the Humanistic outlook of the

Enlightenment? The latter, it seems to me.

But this is not to say that we must remain standing exactly where Luther and

Calvin stood. The Reformation they inaugurated must be carried further —

especially in such areas as philosophy and political theory. Luther and Calvin

did not solve the problem of the relation between church and state. There was

work left for later generations of Protestants — and there is still much work

awaiting our generation. Let’s see to it that we undertake this work in the spirit

of “early Protestantism,” that is, the spirit of the Reformation with its allegiance

to the Bible as the Word of God.


Now, I would not write all of this if I did not believe that we are in danger of

undertaking our work in a different spirit instead. Protestants are human beings,

and all human beings have a tendency to conform, to be like the others. A boy

in school wants to wear the same kind of clothes as the other boys. People

repeat the opinions they hear voiced around them — and thereby public opinion

swells. We all tend to say, “Me too!”

What I worry about in connection with twentieth-century Protestantism — or

Calvinism, to make it more specific — is that we are all to quick to say, “Me

too!” We are eager to be seen as favoring progress and justice and other such

worthy aims. As a result, we find ourselves enlisting in crusades and jumping

onto bandwagons. What is the concern of the hour? Some multinational

corporation that needs to be boycotted? Some right-wing regime that is holding

political prisoners? Some potential ecological disaster waiting for a small

accident to trigger it? Since we wouldn’t want anyone to conclude that we think

along sixteenth-century lines, we get right into the forefront of these battles.

After all, we’re in favor of progress! Me too!

Sometimes such an attitude even has the effect of trivializing and hiding the

gospel. Instead of calling an unbelieving world to repentance and conversion to

Jesus Christ, the source of true life, we tell a lost world that small is beautiful,

or that the native peoples of North America have been mistreated, or that many

executives in the business world are male chauvinists. We place ourselves on

the side of right-thinking men (and women) of good will. As Protestants we

want to be in the forefront of the struggle for progress.

When we take such an approach, we may win popularity and acceptance into

the “right” circles, but we are selling the gospel and the Reformed faith short.

Protestantism does indeed lead to progress in history — but not the “me too”

Protestantism that tags along behind secular Humanism with its short-sighted

analysis of the human predicament. Sure progress is possible only for those

who side with the King whose Kingdom is being established here on earth.

 Only that which is built in His name will abide. Calvin and Luther knew this.

 Hence we must build further on their foundation — and not on the foundation of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. *

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