The Cultural Influence of Luther | Gene Veith

We can say that Protestantism created modernity. It’s either a blessing or a curse, depending on who you might ask. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox critics blame Protestantism for the failures of modernity, including radical autonomous individualism, rabid secularism, ideological extremisms, and hedonism. Humanity would be more in tune with its Creator if Christianity had remained anchored to the authority and continuity of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, they say.

These Catholic and Orthodox arguments have some weight, but they are far from everything. By emphasizing mankind’s direct access to God and the Bible, emphasizing salvation by faith alone, and also elevating non-ecclesial vocations and married life, Protestantism has ennobled and liberated a great part of humanity. Modern literacy, modern science, modern markets and capitalism, constitutional democracy and human rights have all been advanced by the Reformation, and decisively. . . .

Luther’s insistence on man’s direct access to God through Christ dethroned the medieval church’s hold on inordinate spiritual and temporal power. Its emphasis on direct reading of the Bible by lay people in their own language facilitated mass literacy, so that the Bible could be read. His translation of the Bible into German, amid endless pamphleteers, helped launch modern publishing. His departure from the celibate priesthood, and the departure of his wife from the convent, in a happy marital union, elevated marriage and the family into pious domains no less than celibacy.

Its emphasis on scholarship and translation from original sources, accompanied by rational discernment outside of direct ecclesial control, contributed to a broadening of scientific analysis and discovery, with free inquiry. His affirmations of professions outside the church dignified work, commerce and finance, further enabling modern markets. Its emphasis on private conscience and rejection of unchallenged church authority undermined political and church authoritarianism. After the Reformation, there was a growing expectation that governance would no longer be the exclusive preserve of a privileged few, but would now be a project involving all of God’s creatures.

And yet, I wonder if Protestantism created modernity, for better or for worse. Certainly, Luther was returning to an older way of thinking when he took a stand on the Bible as the source and standard of Christian life. In the same way, the Renaissance sought a cultural renaissance by recovering the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The movement was backward in time, not forward. Both Luther and Erasmus considered the medieval scholasticism of their time as “modern” and sought to recover something ancient.

Tooley is certainly right about Luther’s emphasis on faith, education, family, and vocation. But when he extrapolates Luther’s translation from the original sources in the biblical languages ​​- a tenet of Renaissance scholarship – into the rise of science and technology, and when he credits Luther with the rise of capitalism, I am not convinced. Calvin is generally credited or blamed for the rise of commerce, finance, modern markets and, therefore, capitalism. Luther believed that countries should stick to their own resources and not trade for things they did not need, and he discouraged the pursuit of wealth. He may have been naive about it, but he wasn’t “modern.” There is a huge difference between Luther and Calvin, which other Protestants (as well as Catholics) seem oblivious to.

Tooley’s Reformation is more Enlightenment, more evangelical. The missing link is pietism, whose emphasis on human experience led naturally to an emphasis on the human spirit.

The Moravian pietists converted John Wesley, who gave us Methodism, which is the tradition of Tooley. And while some pietists clung to Luther’s theology, others went in other directions, opposing Lutheran orthodoxy in favor of a more individualistic and later “enlightened” faith. That is, they have become more “modern”.

But just as we don’t have to accept the increasingly better progressive paradigm of human society, we don’t have to accept Procrustes’ bed of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. These categories are far too broad to capture the nuances of history. Surely there was a huge difference between classical and medieval – are they both “pre-modern”? And what about the differences between ancient Greece and ancient Rome? And where is the romanticism? Is it “modern” like Enlightenment rationalism is modern?

Suffice it to say that the reformation of the Church around the Gospel of Christ and the Word of God, inaugurated by Luther, was more than necessary. And it did a lot of good, not only for European culture but for the world. And that in our broken culture today, we would do well to tap into that influence again.

Illustration: “Luther making music in his family circle” by Gustav Spangenberg (c. 1875), Museum der bildenden Künste, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons