Reformation: is it still relevant?

Charlotte Methuen on Early Protestantism's continuing influence on modern-day culture

October 23, 2008

What is the continuing impact of the Reformation on modern society? This was the question investigated by the historian Tristram Hunt in a BBC television series broadcast in autumn 2007, and this is the question addressed by William Naphy's book, published as an accompaniment to that series. Both Hunt (who contributed a foreword to Naphy's book) and Naphy are convinced that the Reformation, and in particular the emergence of Protestantism, has had a profound and enduring influence on Western culture and society. Naphy's book traces the origins and complexities of that influence from the 16th century until today.

As he points out - somewhat belatedly - in his conclusion, Naphy has written what "in some senses ... is not a history at all. Rather it is a consideration of those features that seem unique to Protestantism through the centuries and that, perhaps, explain the societies and cultures that have been largely, if not predominantly, influenced by Protestantism". Beginning with a discussion of the authority of the medieval church and the challenges it faced, and of developments in piety (devotio moderna) and in learning (humanism), Naphy proceeds to consider the Reformation as initiated by Martin Luther in Wittenberg and Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich. He highlights the radical impulses that emerged alongside the more measured approach taken by those who, like Luther and Zwingli, chose to work alongside magistrates and princes.

Almost all Reformers viewed the Bible as having the highest authority, but from the outset tensions emerged between different readings of scripture. Luther and Zwingli could not agree on the import of Christ's words "this is my body" at the institution of the Eucharist, while many radicals read scripture, together with Luther's writings on Christian freedom, as grounds to rebel against the very social structures that Luther believed God to have instituted and scripture to uphold. Naphy emphasises that Protestantism, in contrast to Catholicism after the Council of Trent, had no authority by which conflicting interpretations of scripture might be judged. In Naphy's view, this - Protestantism's most profound weakness and its greatest strength - has had profound implications for Western society.

The first phase of reform was followed by a second, of which John Calvin was the major proponent. Naphy considers developments in Geneva, in Calvin's native France, in the Netherlands, the British Isles and Central Europe. He touches also on Spain and Italy, where humanist ideas and the theology of justification by faith were neither unknown nor unpopular, but where the Protestant model of reform was resisted. Naphy highlights the wide range of responses to the gospel that are included under the umbrella term "Protestant", and the shift to individual responsibility to decide questions of interpretation and thus of truth, even within churches given confessional legitimacy by the State. The inherent instability of Europe as it emerged from the 16th century found violent expression in the Thirty Years War and in civil wars in England, Scotland and Ireland. Measures taken to control radical Protestantism in Europe led many to take avoidance action by crossing the Atlantic and setting up colonies structured according to their religious convictions. The confessional tensions of European Protestantism therefore had profound effects on the religious constitution of the American colonies.

Naphy shows the continuing interdependence of European and American Protestantism in the interactions between Methodism in Britain, Pietism in Germany, and the Great Awakenings or Revivals in North America, but also in the spread of deism and enlightenment confidence in reason. Similarly, there were transatlantic interactions in the campaign to abolish slavery and to improve working conditions. The civil rights movement in the US and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa were heirs of a passionate Protestant commitment to a just society - but those against whom they struggled were often Protestants too. As Naphy emphasises, Protestants quoting scripture as incontrovertible evidence for their own position were found on both sides of all these debates. The tensions between different strands of Protestantism that are exemplified in discussions about evolution and creationism are certainly not new.

This is a wide-ranging book with a strong and compelling thesis. It is marred by a disconcerting failure to attend to detail. Thus Zwingli's death is placed by implication in 1529, although the correct year of 1531 is given in the (very helpful) biographical glossary. The Peace of Augsburg appears to have legitimised "Catholicism or Protestantism", but turn the page and it becomes clear that "Protestantism" here should in fact mean Lutheranism. The number of such misleading passages makes it difficult to recommend this book wholeheartedly to the general reader for whom it is doubtless intended.

More fundamentally, Naphy appears to attribute the rise of reason, liberalism and individual human rights and conscience entirely to the influence of Protestantism. The French Revolution achieves one brief mention acknowledging that "the idea of natural rights played a key role in providing the ideological justification for the American and French revolutions", and that liberal ideas arose "in Catholic, absolutist France and Presbyterian Scotland". That latter observation alone suggests that the stark contrast that Naphy proposes between a Catholic "mechanism of authority" and a Protestant "recipe for chaos" is overdrawn. There is fascinating material here, and considerable depth of observation and analysis, but it is unfortunate that Naphy did not place his fascinating analysis of Protestantism against a more nuanced account of Catholicism.

The Protestant Revolution: From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr.

By William G. Naphy

BBC Books

304pp, £18.99 and £8.99 ISBN 9780563539209 and 9781846072871

Published 2 August 2007

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