THERE have been other great revolutions in human history, but none quite like this one. One monk’s private spiritual breakthrough does not usually spark a mass movement, break the power of religious establishments across half a continent, or unleash nearly 200 years of religious warfare.
Nor does it usually ripple out so that, 500 years after Martin Luther went public with his new convictions, something like a billion people around the world stand in the broad tradition he founded.
Luther’s Reformation has plainly shaped the world we all live in, regardless of whether we claim spiritual descent from him or not.
But it’s important to get the sequence straight. Although Luther’s revolution has influenced secular politics, economics, and society, it did so because it was and remains a religious revolution.
Luther’s breakthrough was, at heart, an experience: an encounter with God’s grace in Christ — unmediated, unconditional, and unqualified. With dazzling simplicity, he discovered that God loved, justified, and was sanctifying him, not because of anything he was or had done, but despite it all.
The 500-year history of Protestantism is essentially a history of that experience’s being passed down and rediscovered from age to age and place to place.
The theological understanding and the practical outworkings of that experience are often wildly different, but underlying it all is a direct encounter with grace, which does not depend on Church, sacrament, or priest. It depends only on the Word — and that may or may not mean the written Bible.
LIKE a deep-sea earthquake, the power of this spiritual breakthrough is often not visible on the surface. But it sends out ripples that can suddenly crest into tsunamis as they run into the ordinary stuff of human life. The story of how Luther reshaped the world is about how his inner revolution has swept over the landscape in ways that were entirely unpredictable, but have left it transformed.
Three waves in particular have given us the world we now have. The first is free inquiry. Protestants stumbled into this slowly and reluctantly, but Luther’s rejection of all human authority — his insistence that Christians had no chain of command to respect, but stood immediately before God — led inexorably in that direction. If, as Luther said, one’s conscience is captive to the Word of God, and recognises no other power, then any human attempt to police the boundaries of orthodoxy will fail.
Sometimes, this is taken to be at the root of modern individualism, and Luther, standing alone before all the world’s powers at the Diet of Worms, is certainly an icon of individual courage.
But all Christians believe that each soul must answer to God, and the Reformation forced individual religious choices on everyone. It was a Roman Catholic, Thomas More, whom Robert Bolt chose as his 16th-century hero of selfhood in A Man for All Seasons.
Protestantism has continued to value churches and communities even as it struggles to stop them splintering. The persistence of free inquiry is as much a practical as a principled matter. From the very beginning, Protestants have been divided among themselves, and have never had the unity necessary to impose orthodoxies on others for very long. Attempts to do so have usually only scattered radicals and dissidents across borders.
Protestantism is not a paradise of free speech. It is an open-ended, ill-disciplined argument, which has continuously generated new ideas and revived old ones. Protestants’ bare-knuckle style of public argument wore down print censorship, and Protestant universities and scholars led the way in the emergence of the new natural sciences in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It was only slowly and reluctantly that most Protestants became persuaded that religious difference and free speech ought to be accepted as matters of principle rather than merely tolerated as unavoidable necessities.
THE second, even more dangerous, wave is Protestantism’s tendency toward what King James I called a “democratic form of government”. He was horrified by the notion, as were most Protestants before the 19th century; but he had spotted something real. Since the beginning, Protestants have found themselves having to deal with governments that do not share their beliefs. They did not assert a right to choose their rulers, but a solemn duty to challenge them.
It was an obligation in which, as John Knox wrote in 1558, “all man is equal.” Luther insisted that such challenges must be purely spiritual, but that is a difficult line to draw. Like him, early Protestants who wanted only to have a godly king to obey found themselves forced, again and again, to stand up to rulers who persisted in defying God’s will.
In 1640s England, that sort of reluctant challenge led to a king’s execution. But Oliver Cromwell’s regime, like most other attempted Protestant utopias, quickly collapsed into mutual disagreement between co-equal Christians.
THE third wave unleashed by Luther’s breakthrough is not self-righteous theocracy but apoliticism. If Protestants have sometimes confronted or overthrown their rulers, their most constant political demand is to be left alone. Returning to Christianity’s pre-Constantinian roots, Luther insisted on a sharp division between this world’s powers, whose ephemeral quarrels are scarcely worth Christians’ attention, and the Kingdom of Christ, where no earthly king’s writ runs.
The results are paradoxical. From Luther’s own generation to authoritarian regimes in our own age, Protestants have often been obedient subjects to noxious rulers, taking no interest in politics so long as their own separate sphere is respected.
Yet, as Reformation-age zealots for religious unity and modern totalitarians alike have discovered, rulers who will not respect that sphere face unexpectedly stubborn opposition. In the process, Protestants have helped to give the modern world the strange, counter-intuitive notion of limited government: the principle that the first duty even of the most righteous rulers is to respect their subjects’ freedom to live their lives as they see fit.
SO, PROTESTANTISM has, quite unwittingly, given us the weird synthesis on which our world is built: liberty and democracy, the conviction both that we must be able to choose and depose our rulers, and that those rulers’ power over us should be limited.
Has it also, as Max Weber argued in 1905, given us “the spirit of capitalism”? Unfortunately, the evidence in Weber’s essay did not really add up, and there are too many examples of capitalism without Protestantism and of Protestantism without capitalism for this idea really to stick.
Perhaps it is merely that capitalism likes open societies and limited government. But if, again, we go back to the spiritual experience that has always been at Protestantism’s heart, we will find that Weber was on to something.
He pointed out that one odd feature that capitalism and Protestantism shared was “restless activity”. Even if not all Protestants have a secular work ethic, a certain yearning instability is a core characteristic of the Protestant life.
Settled peace and consensus does not come easily to Protestants. Standing naked before God, striving for the sanctification they have been promised, they are forever straining after new truths, searching out new sins, or striving to recover old virtues. They build churches because they have to, but they know that those churches are no sooner built than they begin to calcify into formalism and hypocrisy, and need to be challenged again.
But, if this self-perpetuating dynamo of dissatisfaction and yearning has given us the modern world, that is an almost accidental byproduct. Its purpose has been the same all along: as the Westminster Confession puts it, to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.
Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University. His book Protestants: The radicals who made the modern world is published by William Collins at £25 (£22.50).