THE REFORMATION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF WESTERN CULTURE:
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
Just before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, social conditions similar to those of our own times prevailed. Political, educational, economic, and ecclesiastical institutions were in a state of confusion, tension, and decay. Various efforts were made by political rulers and church authorities to make the “medieval system” work. Such efforts were unsuccessful and often only contributed to the growing unrest, confusion, and corruption in society.
The classical humanists sought the renovation of society in the realm of arts and letters. They rendered valuable service in that they made learning respectable in kings’ palaces. However, these men lacked the power and originality to meet the problems of the day. They were also past-oriented. They dreamed of the so-called “golden ages” of Greece and Rome. Quite often today’s textbooks present these Renaissance scholars as the originators of modern science. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of them could tell you what Plato and Aristotle said about the anatomy of the calf. But it never seemed to occur to these boys to cut the calf open and see how the critter was actually made! They lacked the doctrine of creation and the impetus to science which the basic doctrine provides. It is not my intention to depreciate the ability of these men. All I am saying is that their systems of thought lacked the inner dynamic to solve the immense problems which arose in late-medieval society.
Another segment of late-medieval society we might call the Libertines or Revolutionaries. They saw nothing worth preserving in medieval society. They feared neither man nor God and saw themselves as the final point of reference. Tear down! “Destroy!” was their cry. They really had no clear idea of how to rebuild the ruins which resulted from their destructive policies. Indeed, when they did gain control of a situation, they only made matters worse by misrule and cruelty, a fact documented superbly by Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium.
In the early sixteenth century, simultaneous with the aforementioned movements, another movement was quietly gathering force. This movement was what we have come to call the Protestant Reformation. In our ignorant age, people commonly believe the Reformation to be a product of the powerful personalities of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. These men did not originate the Reformation! They only emerged as leaders as the Reformation progressed. To get an accurate picture of the origins of Reformation, let us imagine ourselves perched above Western Europe with X-ray vision into any place we desire. As we look into the monasteries, universities, and various schools, we see men sitting quietly reading the Bible. The medieval church had never in theory renounced the supreme authority of the Scripture, but in practice it had covered it over with all sorts of tradition. But now in troubled times, and with the tremendous tool of the printing press, men were rediscovering the powerful and all-embracing message of the Bible. The Reformers saw that the solution to man’s problems rests not in scholarship, or in rebellion, or in preserving the “medieval system” or any other status quo. They saw in the Bible man created in the image of God. Man, the image-bearer of God, was created good; but he rebelled against his Creator. The fall of man is radical. Man is not just crippled because of sin. He is totally depraved in intellect, emotions, and ability to do anything pleasing in God’s sight. All deformations and corruptions in society come as a result of man’s radical depravity.
Luther’s experience was similar to that of so many others. When he began to teach and write his doctrine he brought into focus basic issues which many of like heart and mind were struggling to understand and solve. As Luther examined himself in the light of the Bible’s teaching, he saw that nothing he could do would remove from him the wrath and punishment of God. He gradually came under the conviction that if there was to be any hope for men, it must come from without. He rediscovered that it was God who sovereignly gives salvation through the once-for-all sacrifice of His Son on the cross. This great salvation, which God alone can give, both justifies and sanctifies men. In justification the Christian’s legal status before God is changed. His guilt is removed by the substitutionary atonement of Christ the Mediator. In sanctification he is renewed inwardly and is enabled to seek after and do the will of God. How do these benefits come to be the possession of a man? They are not received through the sacramental systems of the medieval church but by personal trust (faith) in Christ the Mediator.
The Reformers saw that the medieval church had interposed the sacramental system between men and Christ the Redeemer. Men are liberated from sin and all the hideous consequences of sin not by obedience to the Roman hierarchy and diligent use of the sacraments but by faith (abiding trust) in Christ and His complete atoning work. Luther and the other Reformers were not content to rest in the peace they had found with God. Once they had answered the question of how one becomes right with God, they immediately pressed on to see what they could do in gratitude to God for their salvation.
The Heidelberg Catechism breathes the whole spirit of the Reformation in its tripartite division. The first part deals with man’s condition in his fallen state (guilt). The second part deals with how man is put right with God again (redemption). The last section is an exposition of the Ten Commandments and other parts of Scripture explaining how to live a holy life in thankfulness for God’s redeeming work. Under John Calvin, this complex of guilt-redemption-gratitude received the greatest elaboration. Wherever Calvin’s influence went in Europe and in the New World, we find men taking seriously their responsibility in society. It was the firm conviction of those early “Calvinists” that just as only in the Bible do we find how man is put right with God, similarly only in the Bible do we find how to live a life of gratitude to eradicate sin and the effects of sin in the social order. We find men eagerly studying the Bible to apply its principles to all of life.
We find men who at first did not seek to reform culture but sought a right relationship with God. But an amazing thing began to happen. As the great theological themes of the Reformation were preached and taught, we find in their wake a great flowering of the arts and sciences. The flowering of the arts and sciences in the path of the Reformation is a huge subject about which volumes have been written. Let me give a couple of examples here: Consider the great works of J. S. Bach and George R. Handel. These composers were self consciously influenced by Reformation doctrines. Their work would have been impossible without Luther and Calvin.
If we turn to examine the realm of natural science, we see especially the imprint of Calvin. Renewed interest in natural science is an integral part of the Calvinistic world and life view. This renewed interest in the natural sciences was to explode into the great discoveries of [people like] William Harvey and Sir Isaac Newton; [just] to name only two in the centuries following the Reformation.
Calvin and Luther broke with the classical humanists here. They ended slavish dependence on Aristotle and company. Instead, they took their starting point for science in the Bible, especially in the early chapters of Genesis. Man is created having dominion over the creation. He is to develop that creation, care for it, and search out its meaning as God’s representative on earth. This cultural mandate was to have far-reaching effects for the Reformers and their children. The cultural mandate opened up vast areas in every sphere of life for study, development, and consecration to the service of God. All such study and development requires labor.
Let us now zero in on some specific aspects of labor in the Protestant Reformers’ thought. How did they bring their understanding of the Bible to bear on the labor enterprise? I will take Calvin’s view as representative because he is better known than most others and he expressly states his views in his writings.
First of all, Calvin broke with the medieval secular-sacred distinction in vocation. Not only the churchmen, but everyone who labored in a legitimate vocation had a sacred calling before God. Each individual is seen as the recipient of gifts given him by God and is responsible for their development. Furthermore, work is seen as an act of worship towards God. In response to salvation the redeemed man seeks in gratitude to offer the work of his hands to God as an act of worship. Work, then, has eternal significance. What is done to God’s glory will endure in heaven. The new heavens and the new earth will be filled with the labors of men in this present age with all its strife and imperfections. Perhaps it is necessary to offset this Protestant doctrine of labor very sharply from any idealistic view of work. Men like Calvin knew that they were redeemed in Christ and that redemption extended also to their labor. But they also understood that, unto death, sin and its effects cling to the man who is renewed in Christ. (See Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 7.) For this very reason, we see them trying to apply the searchlight of the entire Scriptures to the science-labor enterprise. Tear out that which is false, replace it with that which is true and God honoring!
Calvin and his colleagues were especially careful to differentiate their stance from that of the Revolutionaries. They retained much in the medieval view of labor that was good. In particular, they sought to retain the personal bond between employer and employee. But they sought to enrich that bond and expand it in a distinctive Christian way. In such an attitude we see a very prominent expression of the doctrine of a continuing reformation. Calvin and Luther were very impatient not only with revolutionaries but also with those “conservatives” who thought they had “arrived” as far as Christian doctrine and life were concerned.
As we noted earlier, the results of these views, which we have so briefly outlined above, resulted in a real flowering of the arts and sciences. The French and Dutch Protestants, in spite of extreme circumstances and obstacles, were the dominant force on the Continent in the expansion of the frontiers of industry and science. The English Puritans and Presbyterians who founded America were easily the most industrious, learned, and energetic men of their age. The great scientists and inventors of the 1700s were almost all men of deepest Protestant conviction. This was no coincidence. Their scientific work was a direct outcome of their deepest religious convictions.1
Modern labor and science have become wrenched from their Christian foundations. The results have been a distortion and degradation of labor. I am not entering into any depth to show how this degradation has come about. However, a few comments of a general nature are in order. Much of the blame for the degradation of labor must be laid squarely at the feet of the Protestant churches. Doctrinal indifference and compromise over the last two hundred years has greatly weakened Christian influence in labor. The sad spectacle has been that not only those outside the church but also many professing Christians sought to live on the blessings of the Reformation without the foundation upon which those blessings rest. These nominal Protestants failed to see that meaningful work has its beginning, not in some abstract philosophy of work or even in work itself, but in a right relationship to God, who ordains and alone gives dignity to labor.
Another factor leading to the deformation of society since the Reformation has been in the combination of the older humanism with the revolutionary spirit. Perhaps the greatest catalyst of this humanistic revolutionary synthesis was the French Revolution. Since the time of the French Revolution we may easily discern the shape and content of modern humanism. This modern humanism, whether in the scientific, philosophical, or theological realm, sees man as the final point of reference. This man-centered world and life view flooded into the moral and intellectual vacuum left by the anemic Protestant churches. Thus we have a rather rapid development of modern humanism, which has come to dominate labor, art, and science. Modern humanists seek an interpretation of life entirely apart from the God of Scripture. Modern humanistic man is perfectly willing to accept all the fruits of the scientific-cultural enterprise so long as God is left out of the picture. Well, what has happened in the modern humanistic world, which allows God and His Word no place in the formation and development of art, science, and labor? You can read it in the papers and experience it yourself. It is a world of fear, hatred, greed, and distrust where everything noble, good, and beautiful is being systematically destroyed! Our world without God and redemption without Christ has turned into a [humanistic] nightmare.
Humanistic philosophers such as Marx, Darwin, Kant, and company, who have sought to put a theoretical foundation under their world without God, have not been able to set our hearts at ease. Indeed, their work has only added to the dissolution and cruelty in modern society. Oh yes, I know we still have some around who speak of the supremacy of reason and swear that man will solve it all. But those who have consistently, and inconsistently, too, followed Marx, Darwin, and company have ended in irrationalism, nihilism, and modern skeptical philosophy. Many modern existentialist thinkers are frankly admitting that modern humanism is bankrupt and has no exit from its bankruptcy and despair. “Fear, only fear alone, in the dark remains.”
We began this paper by saying that social conditions preceding the Protestant Reformation were similar to those confronting us today. Need I speak of revolutionaries or libertines? Many conservatives are also looking to a past golden age. Others are trying to patch up the humanistic system, trying to make it work. Neither approach can possibly succeed.
What is needed is Christian reconstruction. This involves the past, the present, and the future. The past provides the traditions and successes of those who have built in terms of God’s truth, either explicitly (e.g., the Reformers or early Church Fathers) or implicitly (modern scientists who have operated as if they believed in a doctrine of creation). There is historical unfolding, historical progress. The linear history position is exclusively a Christian and Western heritage, and we must not lose it. Our work in the present would suffer if we should turn our backs on the past. We are the heirs of those who have gone before. But our concern must be for the future. The future-oriented culture is the progressive culture. It is an upper-class culture. It and it alone offers men the promise that their present labors will have meaning for the future. They will leave something behind them. They will not be forgotten on earth. God is the Lord of creation and the Lord of time. His creative hand guarantees to each man meaning in history. It is this vision which made Western culture possible. Lose it, and we die culturally. The answer is not in some humanistic future, nor is it in some hypothetically autonomous past. The answer is the Word of God. It is on this foundation that we must build.
Article from Chalcedon.edu
The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Christian Economics; Vol. 2, Number 1, 1975.
- On this subject see R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, n.d.).