We know that thanks to the Reformation, Christianity changed irreversibly and thus also man’s religious and spiritual understanding of God.
Thanks to the Reformation, the Bible as God’s word gained its due authority as the only rule of Christian faith and practice of Christianity.
It was the Reformation that showed us that the way to man’s salvation was not through religious rituals, sacraments, or works, but only through the grace of God revealed in Christ Jesus.
God’s grace alone is the basis for a sinner’s justification, and that only through faith.
In reading the Bible, the Christian reformers discovered the hidden truth that it is not the Catholic church and its saints who mediate our salvation, but that Jesus Christ alone, being both God and man, is the only One who can reconcile us with God and thus save us.
Relationship with Jesus
Freedom and forgiveness is in Christ. For free. All I need is to come to Christ and entrust my life to Him. It is very personal, but this is Christianity. Thanks to the Reformation, we understand that Christianity is inherently a personal confession. Christianity based on the Bible must always be an individual, personal relationship with God. Since we are the subject of God’s grace, we have incredible value as individuals. The Reformation therefore also restored individual human dignity.
The Impact on the World
It is worth noting that the Reformation also had an equally significant impact in the political, socio-economic, and civilizational dimensions. If philosophers influence the world, it seems that it is all the more true of religious ideas and especially of the Reformation. In this sense we can say that the Reformation became the antithesis of the previous world order, leading to an irreversible change in the world. From this point on, we can observe the development of two distinct models of societies in the Western world—the Roman civilization model and the Protestant civilization model. Living in one of these societies, belonging to one or the other circle of civilization, it can be difficult to see on how many levels these social models differ in their assumptions. This is all the more difficult since both these models belong to the broader Euro-Atlantic civilization.
Transparency International has published the Corruption Perceptions Index 2021, which measures the level of perceived corruption in the public sector in 180 countries. Research conducted since 1995 has consistently shown the regularity that countries that were directly or indirectly influenced by the Reformation are the least susceptible to corruption. The same cannot be said of Catholic countries, which show greater susceptibility to corruption. A patient going to a doctor in Denmark or Switzerland is unlikely to think about giving the doctor a bribe, while in countries low on the Corruption Perceptions Index it is much more likely.
Human Dignity and Worth
One of the characteristics of Protestant religiosity is the social valuing of the individual and the primacy of the individual over the collective. This approach to the individual is something that distinguishes the West from all other civilizations and cultures. In the rest of the world, the collective is always more important than the individual. Whether we are talking about Russia (especially in the context of Russia’s bandit attack on Ukraine), China, or Muslim countries, where the value of a single human life is practically none.
The Social Thought of Calvinism
The driving force behind the Reformation’s efforts to change social relations was the Reformed theology, whose founder was John Calvin. It is John Calvin more than Martin Luther whom we recognize as the real father of modern civilization. This may sound paradoxical, but it is the Reformers, as men full of passion for God and the gospel, who became the founders of the modern world more than the atheistic philosophers of the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Reformed theology was written by people who were not free from their sinful nature. Therefore, one can find tendencies in Calvinism that are anti-liberal. As John Witte accurately notes, Calvinism became the leading force in the drafting of many important constitutional acts, which gradually expanded the Western system of human rights in the modern era.
Law, Democracy, Freedom
John Calvin transformed the church by combining three principles: the rule of law, democracy, and spiritual freedom.
The Rule of Law
Calvin drafted laws that defined the church’s teaching and rules of discipline, the rights and duties of officials and believers. These were intended to protect the church from interference from the outside as well as from within. In addition, the introduction of new laws was accompanied by public discussion.
Calvin ended the hierarchical church based on the feudal power of the clergy. Church officials were to be elected by the congregation, and delegates to church synods were appointed by their members.
Every believer should be free to join or leave a church, to practice his or her faith without compulsion, to assemble, or to act freely in matters of faith left to the judgment of the individual. This meant mutual respect for each other’s freedom.
Calvin’s brilliant integration of these three principles allowed the church to achieve a constant balance between law and liberty, structure and spirit, order and innovation, doctrine and the sphere of freedom in faith.
The adoption of these principles became possible in those countries influenced by the reformed theology. The theories and practice of the first Calvinist congregations would in fact become the foundation for liberal political ideas such as individualism, egalitarianism, and democratism, which together will form republicanism—seeing the state as a common good for all inhabitants. For example, in Switzerland, if you park your car at the wrong place, the helpful citizens, aware of the rules they have worked out and the institutions they have created, will call to the police to make you understand the common good of all inhabitants.
It is evident that society has also been irreversibly changed by the Reformation because man’s view of others and of himself has changed. The history of human rights did not begin in the minds of the secularized eighteenth-century philosophers of the Enlightenment. The foundations of human rights owe much to the bearded Calvinist thinkers. Human rights, grounded in and derived from the decalogue, were respected in early Protestantism before it became fashionable in the Age of Enlightenment and liberalism.
The biblical formulas of rights spread and continued to be spread among all factions of the Reformation.
Catholic and Protestant Approaches to Human Rights
It is not hard to guess that the approach to human rights in Catholicism is different than in Protestantism. This can also be seen in the approach to political liberalism. Human rights are its component. Liberalism is derived from the ideas of the Calvinist Reformation. The different attitude of the Roman church towards human rights and liberal values is not dictated only by the natural historical opposition to the Reformation. It is, of course, about the very nature of Catholicism, which by definition rejects liberal ideas such as individualism, egalitarianism, and democratism because the Roman church is inherently collectivist, hierarchical, and undemocratic.
Separation of Church and State
Freedom of conscience, pluralism of beliefs, religious tolerance—these values are principles of the separation of church and state and are the fundamental political principles of political liberalism. This meant that the traditional Catholic teaching on the primacy of the church over the secular order was finally overthrown, at least in those countries that embraced the Reformation. Hence, the critical attitude of the Catholic church towards liberalism, described as the “civilization of death,” is not surprising.
The Image of the Beast
The papacy does not change. Wherever the Roman church has the upper hand and the constitution does not guarantee the separation of church and state, as in some Latin countries, there is also persecution of Christian minorities. In this context, it is extremely sad that in the United States, the Protestant religious right is striving to tear down the wall separating the sphere of religion from the state. Where there is no separation of church and state, there is always persecution of those who think differently. The book of Revelation calls the system the image of the beast (Revelation. 13:14, 15). By allusions to the medieval order of things, where power was at the service of the church, the clergy manipulated the majority, and minorities were oppressed.
Capitalist Economy = Protestant Economy?
What about the economy? Was this sphere of society also transformed by the ideas of the Reformation? The answer is a firm yes. Ideas are contagious and can spread very quickly, changing reality.
Coca-Cola is just a drink, but thanks to the idea of freedom it contains (due to marketing) it is much more than that. How did the Reformation influence the economic system in Europe and the United States? What ideas of the Reformation led to the birth of capitalism? The answer was given by a famous German sociologist Max Weber in his work entitled “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Weber does not claim that Protestantism created modern capitalism, but it was Protestantism that created the conditions for the transformation of economic relations in Europe. Protestantism gave birth to these new ideas:
- Free labor (as opposed to slavery)
- Saving and investing
- Activity and entrepreneurship
- Work as a vocation
Consequently, countries that were influenced by Protestantism rank today as the world’s richest and most developed.
The Evolution of the Spirit of Capitalism
Since Weber’s time, the spirit of capitalism has evolved and the ascetic ethic has been replaced by unbridled consumerism. However, the changes in capitalism are as natural as the fact that the church, according to Calvin’s desire, was to be a constantly reforming church, per the thesis: Ecclesia Reformata et Semper Reformanda. In the context of the transformation of the economy by Protestantism, one can see a measurable difference between the countries of Roman civilization and the countries of Protestant civilization—check the rankings of the richest countries in the world! Yes, capitalism has its flaws, especially when it is reduced to the mechanisms of an economic system without Protestant ethics or any ethics at all. Nevertheless, it is within capitalist economies with a balanced social policy where it’s possible for the standard of living to rise for all.
The Counter-Reformation and the Plans of the Papacy
It should come as no surprise that the Catholic church, with its program of the Counter-Reformation, seeks the removal of all that the world owes to the Reformation. This includes the social and economic system that emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Just as the Reformation is not over and is still ongoing, the Counter-Reformation is also ongoing.
During a speech in Asuncion, Paraguay, the pope called on world leaders to change the global economic order. Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, wrote: “There is an urgent need for a true world political authority—already spoken of by my predecessor, Blessed John XXIII—to govern the world economy. The integral development of nations and cooperation require the establishment of a higher-level international order based on the principle of subsidiarity to manage globalization.”
Gratitude and Hope
We owe much to the Protestant Reformation. And we owe it all to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The heritage of the Reformation is still alive in the minds and hearts of men and women, in their religious and social lives. As long as the ideas of the Reformation are alive in their bearers, we can be sure that the system foretold in Revelation will not arise.
1 www.transparency.org/cpi/2021, accessibility: 22.02.2012
2 T. Zieliński, http://protestantyzm.media.pl/1-2.php, accessibility: 23.06.2012
3 J. Witte, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, p. 3.
4 Ibidem, pp. 5–7.
5 Ibidem, p. 33.
6 P. Łyżwa, Ideologia, doktryny i ruch współczesnego liberalizmu, pp. 86, 87.
7 J. Dunkel, Apokalipsa, p. 104.
8 P. Pullella, D. Desantis, www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-latam-paraguay-idUSKCN0PL0Q420150712, accessibility: 22.02.2022
9 www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html, accessibility: 14.03.2022
Marcin Watras lives in Katowice, Poland. He is a Bible student, especially knowledgeable in the Protestant Reformation.