This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “The World the Reformation Made”, running in the Spring Term 2023 (April to June), and convened by Dr. Bradford Littlejohn.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
The Protestant Reformation was the most consequential event in shaping world history over the past 1,000 years.
That statement might be controversial to some, but it ought to be incontestable. Now, here’s a more controversial statement: the Protestant Reformation’s impact on world history was overwhelmingly an impact for the good. And, just to round it off, a third even more controversial claim: inasmuch as the modern world is a mess (which it undeniably is in many ways), these faults cannot be very well laid at the doorstep of the Reformation.
Now I know what you’re thinking, if you haven’t already stopped reading at such a gross and unbecoming display of Protestant partisanship: “Well yeah, of course that’s what you would say, as a Protestant.” In fact, though, the causality runs largely in the opposite direction: it’s in part because I believe these things that I am a Protestant. Above all, of course, I am Protestant because my conscience is captive to the Word of God and has enjoyed the exhilarating liberation of justification by faith. However, being the brainy nerdy over-thinking sort, I was one of those young, restless, and maybe-not-so-Reformed types fifteen years ago for whom questions of intellectual history exercised an inordinate influence on my identity.
Fifteen years ago, I might have been dunce enough to tell you that the most consequential event in the last thousand years was Duns Scotus’s invention of univocity (I dearly hope that I wouldn’t have said that, but I do recall enthusiastically reading people who really did seem to think that). And I very likely would’ve told you that the Reformation really made a mess of things. It tore the seamless garment of Christendom, it empowered the Leviathan state, it created the autonomous individual, it unleashed the evils of acquisitive capitalism—you get the picture. Try not to roll your eyes too much. That’s what all the cool kids thought back then, right? Quite certainly, at least, I would’ve told you that whatever good thing came into the world because of the Reformation, they were mixed with unquestionably rotten fruits like denominationalism or the idolatry of statism.
So, what happened?
Well, I was mugged by reality, as they like to say. I went back to the sources, and the sources bit back. I went to the University of Edinburgh in 2009 intending to write a dissertation about how the political theology of the Protestant Reformation had screwed up everything, and after a year and a half of kicking against the pricks, had an almost literal road-to-Damascus moment in which I realized that the political theology of the Reformation made sense of everything. The decade or so has been spent trying to go further up and further in, in order to understand and apply that revelation.
Of course, I don’t expect it to be so existential for everyone else. Nor, of course, is it that open and shut. I’m a historian, and so my favorite words are #ItsComplicated. Of course, the Reformation was messy. And of course, the world it ushered in, being full of sinners doing sinful things, soon looked rather different than the world the Reformers hoped for; in some ways it ended up better than their original project (‘Merica), in some ways worse (again, ‘Merica). Of course, many of the trends the Reformation advanced were already deeply at work in the medieval West—it was not some creatio ex nihilo—and of course intellectual genealogy is a business of tangled family trees indeed.
Still, my settled view, stripped of hand-wringing historian qualifications, is this:
- Most of the supposed radical innovations that Messed Up Everything that are ordinarily attributed to the Reformers (“rending the sacramental tapestry” and all that)—are chimerical (a word that doesn’t get nearly as much airtime these days as it deserves).
- Those things that genuinely were profound innovations on the part of the Reformers (the universal priesthood or Christian liberty, for instance) were truly good for the soul and good for the world.
- The modern-day perversions of those concepts (individualism and libertinism) are really truly perversions, not “the logical outworking of the original Reformation idea.” The Reformers saw those perversions, named them, and rejected them—while recognizing they would remain persistent threats.
Protestants need to understand this, so they can stop flagellating themselves and meekly asking Catholics to flagellate them too, and start enthusiastically embracing their heritage and using it again for the good of the world.
Catholics need to understand this, so they stop making stupid straw-man arguments and actually deal with Protestant theology and culture as a serious challenge. I long for the day when smart Protestants can again have arguments with smart Catholics about really difficult questions of doctrine and epistemology, instead of trading barbs based on what they read about Henry VIII on Wikipedia.
Modern unbelievers need to understand this, so they can reckon with the religious foundations of their own political order and intellectual assumptions.
We live in the world the Reformation made, for better or for worse. I, for one, am inclined to say “for better.” But the only way to know is to go back to the sources. I hope you’ll join me, next term, in my course “The Reformation and the Modern World.”
This “Core” course will be taught by Dr. Bradford Littlejohn at Davenant Hall, the educational arm of The Davenant Institute. It will run from April 10th through June 17th. The syllabus is available here. Register here.
Dr. Bradford Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh) is a scholar and writer in the fields of political theology, Christian ethics, and Reformation history. He is the author of several books, including The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2017).