The radicalism of the Reformation


The radicalism of the Reformation

The Reformation laid the ground for free inquiry, democracy and even modern liberalism.

Alec Ryrie

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Alec Ryrie, a professor of theology and religion at the University of Durham, is under no illusions about the various historical misdemeanours of Protestants. They have ‘insisted on God-given inequality’, he writes, ‘valorised state power, persecuted dissenters and placed the community above its members’. But there is also no doubting Protestantism’s progressive role, too. As is clear from the title of his powerful, panoramic book, Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World, much of what we, as moderns, value is inconceivable without the changes set in motion by the Reformation, and the zeal and faith of those who drove it onwards.

The spiked review decided to speak to Ryrie about what he calls the ‘three key ingredients’ that made the Reformation so world-shaking, and lent Protestantism its radical, transformative energy: free inquiry, democracy and apoliticism. Here is what Ryrie had to say:

On free inquiry

The emergence of free inquiry is almost a by-product of the Reformation. But it’s an inevitable by-product, because right there, at the heart of Martin Luther’s initial protest in 1517, is the refusal to allow any human authority to tell him what to believe. In Luther’s view, the individual Christian was to submit his conscience directly to the word of God, and to nothing or no one else.

Luther argues this because he thinks the meaning of scripture is self-evident, irrefutable and plain. Indeed, it becomes clear that lots of people think scripture’s meaning is plain – it’s just they can’t agree on what that plain meaning is. So from the start, the Reformation movement refuses to accept that any kind of human authority can impose truth on anybody else. And that means you are committed to the notion that everybody is free to contribute to public discourse in some way, and that no one is superior to anybody else.

It takes a while for Protestant societies to accept that they’ve committed themselves to the spirit of free inquiry – that people are free to argue and question, and that people are not to be shouted down. But inevitably, that’s the path they’ve set themselves on.

Luther was always aware to some extent of the consequences of the principles of Sola Fide, and Sola Scriptura. It soon became very clear to him that he’d opened up a space for religious freedom that was being used in ways of which he didn’t approve. Hence he spent a lot of his life trying to constrain and control that space. But it was also clear, as a matter of principle, that constraining and clamping down on this space was to be done by argument, not force. He insists – and he stretches this insistence, but never abandons it – that religious error, heresy, is not something to be punished by the state, the magistrate. Religious error was to be addressed through argument, not actual persecution. He does allow for what he classes as blasphemy to be dealt with by the state – though maintaining the distinction between blasphemy and heresy becomes difficult to sustain. But I think that the basic insight that Luther has, that you can’t ultimately compel belief, is one that resonates throughout his life.

It’s also important to note that neither Luther nor anybody else at this point sees this toleration of error as a form of pluralism, in the modern sense that we could happily accept that there are multiple ways of understanding truth. Luther is very clear that there is a single truth that God wishes to teach his people, and that some people, like himself, are right and lots of other people are wrong. He doesn’t envision free inquiry as entailing open-ended, interminable discursiveness; rather, he wants to lead people to the truth, and that that’s the only way in which this truth can be wholly and appropriately reached.

On the authority of the Bible

For Luther, indeed for most Protestants, the Bible is authoritative in a way that no human authority can be, precisely because it is not a human authority. It is the inspired word of God – inspired in the literal sense that it is breathed by God – so it has to be treated as the word of God.

But the immediate problem is that as soon as you assert that the Bible is the word of God, then the question comes back: well, how do you know that’s true? How do you know that this book has that kind of divine authority? And assorted Protestants put forward all sorts of historical and textual arguments for the Bible’s Godly authority, but almost all of those involved in these theological discussions admit that these arguments, as interesting as they are, can’t really nail the issue. So it comes down to a point that Luther makes, and that John Calvin makes more clearly still: that ultimately you know that the Bible is the word of God because the Holy Spirit convinces you that it is.

So it’s almost an existential choice, an internal realisation, that carries its own power within it. And, in the end, either you see it or you don’t. For Luther, as one theologian put it, reading the Bible isn’t like looking at a mathematical theorem you can prove; it is like looking at a great work of art. Its power simply grips you. And if you can’t see it, then that’s because you’re blind to it. It has that sort of authority in people’s lives, not as a textbook of theological statements.

The gift of grace is important here. Your salvation is absolutely a free gift from God. It is not prompted by anything that you do; it is God’s sheer gift to you. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is his gift to you, and one of the features of the gift of the Holy Spirit is that it reveals the authority of the Bible to you. So if you are a saved Christian, if you are one of those who has been given the gift of grace, you will also have been given to understand, to realise, the power of God’s word in the Bible. And certainly, for Luther, the Bible’s authority comes from its message. Luther says that it’s when you read the Bible that you find this astonishing message of grace, this unmerited gift, completely undeserved – a testament to the overwhelming generosity of God. It’s when you find that in the Bible that you realise what gives it its authority, because it preaches this gospel.

On democracy

It might sound counterintuitive to some to think of Protestantism as a fount of democracy. After all, at points it manifests a strongly authoritarian, socially controlling agenda, especially in the Calvinist communities: Geneva under John Calvin himself; post-Reformation Scotland, with John Knox; and Puritan New England. These were tightly controlled, disciplined societies, often associated with forms of tyranny. Yet it is precisely in Geneva, Scotland and Puritan New England that there arises this desire to impose popular control on governments of some kind or other.

In Scotland in the 1590s, for example, King James VI is confronted by Calvinist ministers who attempt to deny him his authority over the church. James accuses them of conspiring to set up a ‘democratic’ system of government, to which they respond that the king ought to be subject to exactly the same kind of law and discipline of the church as any other of its members. There is a similar set of struggles in Geneva, where the city’s aristocracy refuses to accept that the church’s law applies equally to the ruling orders as to everybody else. That’s a struggle that Calvin wins in the end.

Likewise in Puritan New England, a very authoritarian social structure becomes one of the seedbeds, not by accident, for one of the first recognisable democratic societies in the world. This was due, in the first instance, to the deep Protestant scepticism towards the authority of governments. The churches don’t want to take over government, but they staunchly oppose any infringement of the government on spiritual matters. Hence, they insist on maintaining their independence from government, and if government overreaches itself, as it very often does, then the congregation is going to push back, and insist on the right to a degree of popular sovereignty. And this can extend to the taking up of arms against a tyrannical government and overthrowing it. This is what happens during the English Civil War, which, more than anything else, is a war of religion against a perceived crypto-Catholic tyranny.

That impulse to unite against overweening government authority, and potentially to overthrow it in the name of a wider people, is there at the heart of the Reformation. On its own it is the kind of democratisation that could lead to a majoritarian authoritarianism – a movement that takes over, imposes an equal rule of law on its own terms, and establishes something approximating tyranny. But that’s not the way it plays out for any length of time in any Protestant society.

On the principle of spiritual equality

In some ways, the Protestant insistence on the spiritual equality of men is what underpins all these key ingredients – free inquiry, democracy and apoliticism – to Protestantism’s radicalism. In terms of free inquiry, for instance, it is the assertion of basic human spiritual equality that leads to either the refusal to accept or to at least limit the authority of kings over Christian people.

It’s a very simple principle, but it’s a very radical, far-reaching one. The explicit terms are the ‘the spiritual equality of men‘, but it’s also striking that Protestants from very early on are asserting the spiritual equality of women, too.

Religion and politics in the English Civil War

The English Civil War is a tremendously complex, messy event, informed, to a large extent, by secular politics. But it seems to me that the bloody, impassioned nature of the struggle is inconceivable without the religious element. That’s what gives a fairly routine set of political struggles their apocalyptic edge, so that it really seems that the survival of the kingdom, possibly even the world, is at stake. This is especially true for those on the parliamentarian side – that large, radical coalition that then proceeds to unravel. They regard what the king is doing as an existential threat to the religious freedom they’ve come to cherish, a threat to the truth of the gospel that they’re preaching. They’ve seen the king attempt to impose an unwelcome religious settlement on Scotland, which is the first actual fighting of the Civil War era. They’ve seen the massacres of Protestants in Ireland, which are much exaggerated by the popular press in London – but still, they are not made-up events. And they think that the same thing is going to happen to them, that the king is going to crush true religion. So simply as a matter of self-defence, they’ve got to take up arms to protect themselves.

But one of the things that makes it easy for them to take up arms is that those at the more radical end of the Protestant spectrum have been nursing a set of resentments for decades. They want to push through a full, thoroughgoing reformation on the Genevan or Scottish model. And successive English kings and queens haven’t let them, insisting instead on maintaining this ‘but halfly reformed’ church, as one Protestant calls it. And so they’ve got unfinished business; they want finally to push through a Protestant reformation. And now they’re seeing a king that, far from pushing it through, is trying to reverse the gains of the Reformation, and so it becomes for them partly a matter of self-defence, but also an opportunity to fight for God’s glory, and their own freedom.

One of the reasons that the Civil War coalition unravels is that those who have more modest, self-defence aims and those who see this as an opportunity to fulfill the hopes they’ve been nurturing for generations fall apart. And even among those who share the radical ambition, they don’t all want the same radical changes. It’s at that point that the ambition to create this perfect, controlled Godly society really fragments, because a significant number of people want to go off in a range of different ways.

Ultimately, the idea of religious freedom, the idea that the state should not attempt to have any normative religion, but should simply permit everybody to go in the direction that God in their conscience leads them, is an idea that really becomes articulated as a principle for organising society for the first time during the English Revolution. Oliver Cromwell even sets up this extraordinary church structure in which you have Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists all working side by side. If you want a post in Cromwell’s church, you’re interviewed and tested as to your Godliness and your learning, but the one question that the interviewers are not allowed to ask is what denomination you are.

On the Two Kingdoms theory

One of the things that makes Luther’s Two Kingdoms theory so powerful, and so enduring is that you can enact it in a range of different ways. So, in the classic Lutheran and Calvinist states of the 16th and 17th centuries, the church has its own quite limited sphere. It gets to look after doctrine, preaching and maybe some aspects of its own self-government. But the state is sometimes an overweening protector. It has responsibility for looking after the church in all sorts of ways, and that responsibility can involve leaning on it quite heavily. It can look like a protection racket. So there’s certainly a sense that these Protestant churches badly need some sort of political support. They go to the state and the state happily takes this on and gains a whole series of privileges, and a lot of property, as part of the deal.

To begin with, this seems to work well. The Protestants get a lot out of the deal. But increasingly, from the mid-17th century on – and the English Revolution is one of the key points, but it’s not the only one – you get many Protestants beginning to say that this relationship is causing more trouble than it’s worth, and that rather than trying to do everything through an alliance with the state, with the magistrate, Protestants should cut the apron strings, and make their own way, whether that’s in the manner of the radical sectarians, the tolerationists of the English Revolution. Or it’s in the softer way pursued by the Pietists and, later, the Evangelicals of the 17th and 18th centuries, where they aren’t trying to abolish the established state churches; they’re just trying to bypass those structures, and operate their own networks, which don’t defy the state, but don’t pay a lot of attention to it, either.

On the Reformation, apoliticism and the birth of liberalism

One of the things I became convinced of writing this book, is that the Reformation’s apoliticism is a forgotten root of modern liberalism. Because what gives such a powerful twist to the theocracies beginning to be set up in some places is the insistence that the state does have power, it is legitimate, but that it’s ultimately unimportant, because what matters is the spiritual realm, the Kingdom of Christ. Before this kingdom, the state’s authority is limited. This is another way of reading the Two Kingdoms theory. The state has its realm, it can do what it likes within that realm, and it is an entity ordained by God. But there are certain things that it cannot legitimately do. There is a realm where it has no jurisdiction, and that realm is, fundamentally, the conscience.

Again, I think this goes right back to Luther and that initial act of defiance, where he insists that his conscience is captive to the word of God, that no human authority has power over it. I keep returning to this point, because I think Protestantism’s making of the modern world flows from this initial breakthrough. It means Protestantism reaches a point with Evangelicalism – and you this see surfacing in a lot of 19th-century American movements – where Protestants are not imposing a political challenge to the status quo, but nor are they paying much attention to the nature of political authority. They simply want to carve out their own sphere and insist on their own independence within it. And that does lead us to a counterintuitive notion that government is legitimate, that its authority is real, but that this authority is limited. There’s a point beyond which it can’t travel. And that peculiar combination of the insistence on human equality and popular sovereignty, and also on the limits of that sovereignty – that’s the elixir of modern liberalism. Protestantism manages to combine liberty and democracy – which are not elements that mix very well – and render these two elements stable.

Alec Ryrie is a professor of theology and religion at the University of Durham. He is the author, most recently, of Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World, published by William Collins. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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