What the Reformation has contributed to the modern world

Subandri Simbolon | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report

The Reformation led to more than a century of war between Protestants and Catholics in Europe, but it also brought about some results that significantly formed the modern world. Talking about this issue, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Martin Luther’s protest that historians often saw as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Prof. Hans-Peter Grosshans, professor of Protestant theology and philosophy of religion at the University of Münster in Germany, gave a lecture at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum, on November 8, 2017.

Professor Grosshans presented eight transformations that he argued are the Reformation’s significant legacies for the modern world. In naming them, he used the “preadaptive advances” approach, i.e. “ideas which contribute to the imagination of people in a society so that people can imagine new arrangements in society, culture, and politics, which open up the possibility that they can be realized.” The eight are:

First, the concept of religious freedom. Prominent German philosopher Georg FW Hegel argued that Protestant Christianity posited the idea of subjectivity (that each individual is subject of his/her life) and that faith is a form of inward experience of the divine without intermediaries to God. Coupled with a democratized access to the scripture by Bible translation in vernacular languages, these ideas laid foundation for the conception of religious freedom.

Second, plurality of faiths. The Reformation ended the religious homogeneity and made religious diversity to be a relevant reality in Europe. From then on, Christianity integrated many cultures and was expressed in various languages. The Reformation’s opposition toward the religious canon law of the Roman Catholic Church and the ecclesiastical authority of the Pope triggered the initiative to conceptualize a modern secular law. With the Reformation, a Europe of the nation states started to exist.

Third, the revolution of communication media. “Already before the Reformation in the 16th century, the printing of books with mobile letters had become possible through the work of Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany,” Grosshans said. The first ones who really and effectively used these printing machines were the reformers. This new innovative technology offers a new power to transfer information and to visualize new insights for people.

Fourth, expansion of public education. The Reformation led to the building of many new schools both for boys and girls. Grosshans showed a German figure in education, Philipp Melanchthon. He was a professor of classical languages at Wittenberg University and advised the German cities and the German Princess to establish new schools. By developing the curriculum of learning in these schools, he became the most important teacher of Germany. He gave many contributions especially to the installation of an effective and high standard school system in the Protestant regions of Germany.

Fifth, academic theology. In terms of theology school, a high standard theological education for the pastors became very important after the Reformation. High standard of theological education for the Church forms a protection of the society towards all uncultivated forms of religion which refused to reflect on themselves and refused discourse with others.

Sixth, work ethic and capitalism. Protestant Christianity was praised by many sociologists, such as Max Weber, for its emphasis on labor by putting forward a kind of work ethic. Even “they consider Protestantism to be the spiritual basis of capitalism,” Grosshans explained. With the work ethic concept Protestant Christianity reformed and substituted the ideal of monastic life (chastity, poverty and obedience). It substituted chastity with marriage and family; poverty with professional labor, diligence and property in civil society; and obedience with appreciation and acknowledgment of the laws based on freedom and justice. Max Weber argues that the Reformation had prepared the religious ground for modern capitalism. This is mainly connected to the Reformation, especially in Switzerland, and to John Calvin in Geneva and his followers.

Seventh, religion and politics. For Martin Luther, religion (Christianity) is different from the various other fields of society. The amplification is that a “religious politics” is not possible in a Lutheran point of view. Then, Luther proposed a doctrine to substitute “religious politics” with two kingdoms or two regiments. “For Luther,” Grosshans said, “God is exercising his dominion in the world in two ways:  first, in the secular dominion God reigns politically through the law with its obligations in order to secure justice, peace and freedom; second, in the spiritual dominion in the community of the believers through the Gospel, which is an invitation to the kingdom of heaven.”

Eight, music and art. Grosshans saw that the Reformation successfully revived songs in the Christian worship. “Martin Luther himself wrote many songs and composed the melodies,” Grosshans explained. Human voice is the main means of praising God in singing, accompanied by instruments, such as organ. Johann Sebastian Bach was a Protestant musician who developed both spiritual and secular music. The Lutheran Reformation used visual arts as the media of communicating its message to the people. But there was some pro-contra between Protestants in dealing with art. John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli showed their objection to use paintings and sculptures because it is prohibited by the second commandment, not to make images of the Divine.

During the Q&A session of the Forum, a participant asked about what the Protestant Reformation had brought to the interreligious relations between Christianity and other religions. Grosshans answered that the hostile dealing of Luther with Muslims and Jews has to be put in the context of that time when the Ottoman Empire came to Europe. Besides conflating Islam with the Turks, his criticism, as shown in his writings, was mainly putting Muslims and Jews in the same line as Catholic Rome as religions of law. We have to reflect on Luther’s writings in their context. He never wrote a systematic book as he was always under attack by his opponents; his writings were mostly in the form of occasional letters or treatises.

Another participant asked about the connection between environmental crisis, modernity and the Reformation. Grosshans answered that this is a question of understanding ourselves, and this is the challenge for all religions to bring together ethics in economics. “In the context of East Germany,” Grosshans said, “I saw as much lands destroyed by the capitalists as by the communists. I do not think that modernity has to be responsible for all problems. This is our responsibility now to reduce carbon emissions.”


Subandri Simbolon is a staff member of CRCS.


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